Print Edition - 2014-09-25  |  ASIANEWSNETWORK

Policing Mathira, Deepika

Policing Mathira, Deepika

Sep 24, 2014-

In my limited experience discussing the origins and impact of sexism with my peers and students, there is nothing that comes up more often than questions of moral policing. Many of my male friends and students have a tendency to flip the question on its head in an attempt to deflect from its importance, it’s always, ‘but men face sexism too’.

Both of these statements are obviously true and both are equally ludicrous within the context they are uttered. To say that men are also victims of sexism is a tried and tested deflection technique, because it doesn’t address the question of proportions or percentages.

Two stories this month have raised very interesting parallels with regards to moral policing, one relates to Mathira’s pregnancy and the other to Deepika Padukone’s ‘cleavage’.

Both stories provide an interesting foray into the methods employed by the Indian and Pakistani media in targeting female celebrities differently from their male counterparts. And before someone points it out, of course, neither of these

stories takes into account the problems faced by ‘everyday women’ which is precisely why they are significant in the context of moral policing.

Celebrities have always been touted as ‘exceptions to the rule’ in any and every society when it comes to rules regarding social behaviour, attire and expectations. It is the attitude adopted towards these individuals that is a very strong indicator of where societal expectations lie and how they are being shaped, in other words ‘where society draws the line’.

The one thing that both the Indian and Pakistani media have clarified in the past month is that neither believes in keeping its nose out of where it doesn’t belong. Whether the question is of a woman’s pregnancy and the paternity of her child, or another’s body and how much she chooses to expose it.

Some would argue that celebrities, who benefit from the rabid celebrity culture that permeates Hollywood, Bollywood and to a lesser extent Lollywood, invite such scrutiny and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. However, that still misses the point of where individuality begins, even for a so-called ‘public person’.

With regards to Mathira’s supposed deviation from traditional and orthodox gender expectations, the Pakistani media’s reaction is less surprising, but no less reprehensible. Mathira is not the first Pakistani actress to attract criticism for her so-called controversial ‘personal choices’, most Pakistani actresses tend to use the little leverage they have in a very limiting film industry and culture by capitalising on ‘shock value’—whether this is with regards to their relationships, clothing or career choices.

Mathira’s pregnancy became a matter of public concern because the actress allegedly refused to announce her nuptials and did not play out her relationship in public enough. This allowed the bastions of moral monitoring to effectively gauge the exact date of her conception, its legalities and the technicalities of her marriage contract. She responded to the criticism, as most of us are wont to do these days, on Twitter:

Being an artist, you’re public property but why would people have issues with your married life? Pakistan deserves to be what it is today, thanks to the hypocrites, and judgmental people with such double standards. We will never have a naya Pakistan.

On to Deepika, the reaction to the superstar’s latest ‘cleavage controversy’ in India has been quite disappointing. The actress recently reacted to a headline ‘cleavage show’ published by the Times of India. Much has been made about Deepika’s public lashing out and the lacklustre response by TOI in turn. Padukone recently wrote:

The reason I write the above line is because we all know that in India we are so desperately trying to make a change in the way sections of our society think in order to move towards a happier world devoid of inequality, rape, fear and pain. I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play


The Times of India responded again, turning the statement on it’s head to blame Deepika for being part of a culture and industry, that apparently warranted less criticism for sexist treatment because it was rooted in its own perpetual sexist interpretations. The Times of India’s apologist response only compounds this problem.

When the public feels that ‘certain’ people deserve less respect, privacy or agency than others because the choices they make are not socially acceptable, then by extension that narrows the scope for everyone else.

When one targets their vitriol at celebrities and actors, he or she is essentially setting a bar on acceptability. The personal becomes public once again, and that domain then trickles down to everyone else.

The idea that a woman’s body is her own to do with as she pleases will never be a popular one, certainly not in Pakistan because the idea inherently clashes with our deeply flawed concept of ‘honour’—where all notions of religion, society and acceptability rest with women. It doesn’t matter how Pakistanis act, whether, we as a nation are corrupt, petty, violent or illiterate, just as long as we ‘look’ properly Islamic.

What is the barometer for gauging this look? Women.

The West, and their ‘evil, western ways’ are considered immoral essentially because of the freedom and mobility of women in the West. Nearly all questions of ‘Eastern values’ essentially boil down to questions of women’s agency, especially regarding their bodies, who controls them and how much. This is why, the example of Mathira and Deepika is significant. Not because the two cases are relatable or extend to everyone but precisely because they do not.

Such instances on both sides of the border just go on to show that when it comes to public policing of society’s morals—read women’s behaviour/clothing/choices/actions/visibility—there can be no exceptions.

- Maria Amir

The author is a journalist-turned-teacher. She has an MSt in Women’s Studies from Oxford University and currently teaches Media Writing, Writing and Communication and Gender at LUMS.

Published: 25-09-2014 09:39

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