Paritosh Joshi: Saluting Rosa Parks

08 Mar,2013

By Paritosh Joshi

 

The American Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s that spilled over into the ’60s and in many ways continues to resonate in the US and around the world had an unlikely heroine. Rosa Parks, an African American woman boarded a bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Buses had colour segregated seating but vacant seats were only available in the ‘Whites Only’ section. Rosa took a seat. A little later, the Whites section too got filled up. The driver asked Rosa to vacate her seat for a White passenger which she refused to do. In that moment of defiance, Rosa wrote her name in indelible ink into Civil Rights History.

 

As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day today, it is instructive to ask what Civil Rights Indian Women have been able to wrest from the stubbornly patriarchal social order.

 

The picture is still hideously ugly. While the indescribably brutal rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi late last year turned the spotlight on sexual violence, the incidence of such crimes in the Capital, and probably all across the country, has actually escalated since then. This should not come as a surprise. Gender violence has less to do with lust than with the fundamental power equations that define a society. A tipping point lies in the future, when a woman’s status in her home, family, community and society will no longer be subordinate to a man’s. The male gender, made insecure by this inevitability, will articulate its insecurity and impotence by ever more egregious violence.

 

Do the media play any role, (other than sensationalising such crime and milking it for salacious value), in the gender equation?

 

Have you read ‘Freakonomics’ by Steven Levitt, a UChicago economist and Stephen Dubner, a journalist at NYT? In the preface to the book, or its sequel, ‘SuperFreakonomics’ reference is made to an interesting study by academics from some Ivy League University about the impact of television on gender relations in North India. In essence, the study compared a whole range of women’s health and well-being variables between a village that had access to satellite television and a similar one that didn’t. The results shouldn’t surprise anyone. The television village handily won on everything from Infant Mortality, Sanitation, Infectious Disease incidence, Per Capita Income and even measures of women’s empowerment like their participation in gram panchayat work.

 

Wait a minute. Haven’t we spent years labelling television content, and in particular, entertainment programming, reactionary, regressive, strengthening gender stereotypes and social inequalities and so on? How come this paradoxical result? My sense? There is no paradox here.

 

Television began to make serious inroads into the average Indian home only after the arrival of cable TV on the cusp of the ’80s and ’90s. From the staid, some would say sclerotic, fare offered by Doordarshan over the previous three decades, the world of Cable & Satellite offered a welcome to a chaotic, colourful, boisterous world of news, information and entertainment that was free of sarkari fetters. Female characters started to move from decorative roles providing occasional aesthetic diversion to roles of meaty substance. To its credit, Doordarshan in those early days was no shrinking violet. To wit, Priya Tendulkar’s feisty Rajani in the eponymous serial and Kavita Choudhary’s defiant Kalyani in Udaan are still fresh in India’s memory. While these portrayals may have aspired to an ideal that still remains distant for most Indian women, a more interesting, even subversive change was to arrive a decade later.

 

Smriti Irani as Tulsi in “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” and Sakshi Tanvar as Parvati in “Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki” managed simultaneously to become role models for a majority and objects of revulsion and contempt for a minority that saw them as embodiments of everything that was wrong with gender relations in India. I submit, with the greatest humility, that neither the majority nor the minority really “got it”. The characters perched on the uneasy intersection of social orthodoxy and economic liberalism. The joint family appeared, prima facie, to be alive and kicking. Closer examination revealed irreconcilable contradictions and deep fissures that threatened to blow the lid off the superficial camaraderie and gloss. And at the heart of this maelstrom, barely keeping things in a semblance of order, were our female protagonists. Docile, even subservient in their deportment, they revealed themselves as the very pillars of their ‘Khandan’ or ‘Parivar’. Even as the leading male characters were all shown to have feet of clay and the shifty ethics reminiscent of the Mahabharata’s Yudhishthira as a losing gambler. In a feat of scripting sorcery, (All Hail, Ekta!), the meek didn’t merely inherit the kingdom of Heaven, they won and fostered it right here on Earth.

 

A generation of girls that was in junior school when KGGK and KSBKBT packed our living rooms has now graduated from college and entered the adult world. This is a generation that remembers the victories and discounts the obsequiousness. This is a generation that is unapologetically ambitious, singularly assertive and unabashed about its sexuality. A small town upbringing is no deterrent to her aspirations. She too cut her teeth on the same, new mythology that her metropolitan counterpart did. Today she uses Social Media to telling effect, building communities, establishing positions (that are occasionally battle lines) and expressing love, longing, exhilaration, frustration, loss, liberation with scant regard for political (or any other) correctness.

 

And like it or not, that much reviled television has everything to do with who she is and how she got here.

 

To this youthful, exuberant, unstoppable woman, India’s contemporary embodiment of the defiant, rebellious Rosa Parks, my warmest greetings on International Women’s Day.

 

Paritosh Joshi has been a marketer, a mediaperson and a key officebearer on industry bodies. He is developing an independent media advisory practice. His column, Media Matrix, appears on MxMIndia, usually on Thursdays

 

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6 responses to “Paritosh Joshi: Saluting Rosa Parks”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I understand why the last two paragraphs evoke so much vituperation (that woman’s name is a red rag even to me, believe it or not) but does that mean that the basic premise is wrong or merely that I should have been more careful in choosing examples?

  2. Sonali says:

    I completely and utterly disagree. The only thing that Ekta Kapoor and her ilk did was make women lazy and superficial. Why bother with education and demand for more when women who did nothing were going on to, as you said, inherit the kingdom of heaven? If anything, Ekta Kapoor and her protagonists have turned women into a joke, and a pathetic one, at that.

    As a girl who comes from a family where I was taught that girls are ‘paraya dha’ and ‘lakshmi of someone else’s angan’, I can tell you that the Kapoor bitch has done everything in her power to make my life miserable. Parvati and Tulsi weren’t those women (someone sitting in some gaon that we’re never going to visit), they were women from affluent families sitting in the heart of Mumbai and Delhi. And they were making it acceptable for my father to tell me that an Ivy-league man would eventually come home and marital bliss with a woman who could press his grandmother’s feet and cook for a family of fifty. So I might as well not bother with applying to the same colleges. She played on insecurities and she did it well. But that’s all she did. I watched these women’s stories play out with horror, bordering on revulsion.

    You describe me and girls from my generation perfectly, we’re unafraid and (mostly) say it like it is. But believe me when I say that none of us found inspiration in any of these so-called small screen heroines. If anything, they slowed down my progress. Today I lead a dual life. One at home and one outside it, because I know that thanks to the years of insistent drumming in of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘right’, there’s little hope of my two lives being reconciled in this lifetime. So I walk the tightrope and play the schizophrenic. If that’s reason to be thankful, then I’m thankful for Parvati and Tulsi.

  3. Richa's Raag says:

    I think it is not so much about appealing, inspiring or empowering women of a certain life stage, city/town, background or edu qualification, as it is about a mindset.
    The mindset that cuts across cities, economic situations, qualifications… and the mindset is of repression, lack of freedom & confidence.

    And it is relative. For a girl like me whose mother worked,
    education was a priority, who was a given a two-wheeler before the brother – I don’t relate to the women in these serials – I find them unreal, apathetic and sometime
    (ah well, most of the times) moronic.

    But for a girl who doesn’t get to do any those things, doesn’t really have a say in her own life – she needs inspiration, she is not getting it from her surroundings, she can be inspired. And sometimes that inspiration might not be for her, it could be for her family, her daughters. The degree can vary – she could study further (diya aur baati hum) she could say no
    to getting married at an early age (balika badhu); run for public office (afsaar biitiya) .

    And all that with heavy make-up & jewelery and married to two to three men …(just kidding)

    But I think it has made an impact – just that the degree might
    vary.

    Ps: don’t ask how I know all these serials’ story line 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    Kopal, Do you not agree with any part of the thesis or specifically with the Balaji/Ekta reference? Don’t you accept the possibility that television may have had a role to play in shaping attitudes of and hopefully to women in the last twenty years?

    • Kopal says:

      I agree with the premise that it has. Just not into the strong, confident, assertive woman you have outlined the product of that influence to be. It would more be the Roadies follower rather than a maven of any kind.

  5. Kopal says:

    With all due respect sir, I would vehemently disagree with the post.
    Firstly, even though there seems to a be correlation between rural growth and television, it still does not imply a direct correlation between Ekta Kapoor created bilge and female empowerment.

    Secondly, you call the women in those serials “Docile, even subservient in their deportment…” and still assume that they are the women who led to a generation wide revolution.

    I, as a small town girl, who came to the big city and followed the exact pattern that you have outlined, including being extremely vocal on social media can attest to the fact that if anything television (especially of the K variety) was a deterrent to growth.

    All that these shows outlined was that being married is the pinnacle of a woman’s existence and family (mostly her husband’s family) must come above everything else. Also, the generation you are talking about, most girls from rural/semi-rural areas still do not have access to quality education., These “shows” are their only learning. And that is more of a cause for concern than celebration. I wish this much credit could have been given to books (but unfortunately, television is more readily available than the written word in our country).

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