The prime minister’s recent invitation for parents to take selfies with their daughters as a social media campaign against female foeticide and infanticide has already taken a controversial turn. Two women, an actress and a social-political activist, who differed from the PM’s message, were most vulgarly and violently abused on social media by male enthusiasts of the campaign. What is noticeable is how these men, supposedly sensitive about women’s issues, took no time and suffered no qualms in offering their contradictions so publicly, and with such vehemence. For them, the PM alone appears sacrosanct, and women are worth all the loving attention only as long as they coo in docile satisfaction to the demands of national patriarchy.
In a sense, this flows from the spurious logic behind the selfie campaign: it is in no way outside the patriarchal discourse of the ‘daughter’ as an orthodox symbol of family, caste, religious and nationalist values. The daughter, like the mother, is not a person in her own right. She holds merely a derivative value, to be protected and respected only so long as she plays within patriarchal norms. If a woman is raped, for instance, it is her ‘honour’ that raises concern—not her violated freedom. The ‘daughter’ should be the happy recipient of male protection and pride. To reject that protection turns a daughter into a woman who is immediately unworthy of all rules of civility and morality. The barbed circle of this civility and morality is pretty small. It is the old Lakshmanrekha that finds masculine pride in the muscular encircling of the (communal and, by extension, nationalist) idea of woman’s honour.
Those who claim to hold the idea of ‘virtue’ in high regard complain that older forms of cultural and social values have been transgressed by ‘modern’ (meaning western) notions of life. But they’ll be blind about—and blithely resort to—equally modern things like dowry and technologies to ascertain the child’s gender in advance. This hypocrisy of values offers a surreptitious and often vocal means to reason that women who dare live outside male and communal notions of dignity are responsible for losing it. When a woman was raped in Delhi, even the woman chief minister, betraying a patriarchal conscience, blamed her for staying out late. Virtuous women cannot stray at night, without being responsible for any violence against them. The implied golden rule is, men can’t and won’t change—so women dare not, without inviting peril. Any debate on ‘virtue’ is thus a closed issue, unless a woman crosses the line and stirs up history. Any significant refinement in gender relations can only come from women, they alone have to push the boundaries of masculine reason.
So we come to the selfie as a social campaign tool. In a nutshell, a girl child is a ‘problem’ because her marriage will require a huge amount of dowry; on the other hand, a boy will bring that dowry home. This wonderful, accepted cultural exchange diminishes or enhances the child’s status, depending on gender. Can the fight against such a basic crime be made to depend on merely cajoling parents who believe in destroying the female foetus? Can the advertisement of happiness change the criminal-minded? It strains credulity, unless you are sold to the ludicrous idea that the same consumerist spirit that makes people buy attractive products will also make them stop killing female foetuses. You cannot imagine easily that people with a vicious sense of self-interest will turn ethical overnight just because of a selfie campaign. Women can raise legitimate questions on the viability of this campaign. If they don’t have the right to ask questions, what is the whole point of eulogising the daughter in a photograph? If a daughter doesn’t buy a male logic, does she become worthy of being called a ‘bitch’? The campaign is about saving the life and dignity of daughters, but it is the egotistical pride of fathers—and its moral crisis—that it showed up.
Besides the commodity-centric circulation inherent in this campaign, its ideological problem lies also in a related fact. In a selfie, the daughter does not have a voice, only a two-dimensional face. She’s reduced to an advertising tool proclaiming familial bliss, part of a representation that only allows her to smile within the borders of a familial text. She contradictorily remains within the same ‘virtuous’ society that thrives on dowry. How can women be forced to settle for this? How can you fight the crime without challenging the sick system that produces it? To save the lives of girls for simply turning them into fetish dolls of dead cultural values is no progress. To fight that, you need ideological boldness, not paternalistic love.
Gandhi wanted to change the Hindu heart on caste, but that heart is still happy being casteist. Ambedkar was more prescient—he knew you need to change laws and not hearts to ensure better rights. This selfie campaign can learn from it.
(The author is adjunct professor at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University, Delhi)