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All Izz Not Well

Since the media blitz and publicity has over-powered any dispassionate debate on the first episode of Aamir Khan's much publicized TV show Satyamev Jayate, we need to ensure that our critical faculties are not swept away by this euphoria.

All Izz Not Well
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The first episode of Aamir Khan’s much publicized TV show

Satyamev Jayate

telecast on May 6, 2012 dealt with “Female Foeticide”. The following is a reflection of the show’s line of reasoning. Since only one out of 13 episodes has been telecast, what follows should not be taken as a judgement on the series but a response to the first episode. For reasons that I will explain later, I will use the term Sex-Selective Abortions (hereafter SSA) instead of `Female Foeticide’.

Satyamev Jayate (hereafter, SJ) takes inspiration from the format of the Oprah Winfrey show. In this format the celebrity host is as important as the issues being discussed and the issues of “human interest” are narrated through a number of `affective’ tropes that include cathartic revelations, shocking testimonies, interviews with experts, cutaways of shocked or tearful studio audiences and a host who is both emotive and inspirational. The show’s attempt to mobilize affect is reflected in its many promos and tag-line that reads: “Dil Peh Lagegi, Tabhi Baat Banegi.” Shows with such formats usually end on a feel-good note where a “solution” to the problem is proffered.

In SJ, the “solution” is the “jaadu ki chhadi” (magic wand) which the host explains is the collective strength of “me” and “you”. The episode ends with Aamir Khan (hereafter, AK) promising to write a letter to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan on behalf of all of us demanding strict action against doctors who practice sex-selective tests and procedures.

Unlike most talk shows on TV, SJ has high production values. Despite a certain preachy sanctimoniousness reminiscent of his role in Taare Zameen par, AK is a respectful and competent host who helps to keep the conversations on track without being rude or abrupt. On the first episode, he speaks to three women who provide moving testimonies of how they were forced to undertake sex-determination tests and sex-selective abortions against their will. The testimonies show how sex-selection and son-preference is not a problem that plagues the rural backwaters as is commonly assumed but prevails within the educated middle class. AK punctuates the conversation with `useful’ information. For example, he rightly points out that the sex of the child is determined by the sperm of the father and not the egg of the mother. There was an important intervention made by a lawyer representing one of the three women who describes how the judge declared that there was nothing wrong in desiring a “kuldeepak” (the son who will carry forward the lineage) and upbraided the policeman who had dared to arrest the in-laws who had forced the woman to undergo forced SSA. The show included interviews with a reputed gynaecologist as well as two journalists who had carried out a sting operation on doctors in Rajasthan who were carrying out SSA’s.

On the surface, the show is “pro-women” but as the arguments unravel, it becomes increasingly evident that “all is not well’. Let me explain. In describing the “consequences” of a skewed, women-unfriendly sex-ratio, AK takes us (through Airtel “3G link”) to Kurukshetra, Haryana where in one village women have practically disappeared. AK speaks to a group of men who claim that they are unmarried because SSA’s using “ultrasound” had ensured that there were no women in the village. Earlier in the show AK had linked the declining sex-ratio to SSA and the Kurukshetra example was being produced as a perfect example. Even if we were to set aside our skepticism about this easy explanation, what follows’ is worse. Back in the studio, AK extrapolates from this example to expound on a simplistic and dangerously flawed prognosis according to which the shortage of women will result in “two crore men” remaining “unmarried” thereby creating a “shaadi ka bazaar” (marriage market) with buyers, sellers and “dalaals” where women will be bought and sold like commodities only to have unbelievable atrocities visited upon them.

This idea is seconded by a member of the studio audience who says that the marriage market had already begun and that women in the all-men village had to face harassment from the “kunwara fauj” (army of singletons). (Of course, by now you are wondering who these women are since we were just told that there were none!) The other suggestion being made seemed to be that if (heterosexual) men were not provided partners in heterosexual matrimony, they would explode in a libidinous frenzy and commit atrocities on women! (Thanks to SJ, on those rare occasions that they are brought to the courtroom, sex-offenders could now take refuge in the “singlehood-made-me-do-it’ argument and ask for their sentences to be mitigated.) Another question is to ask is whether equal numbers create gender equality and prevent violence against women. If yes, then how do we explain atrocities against women when the sex-ratio was better as recorded by say the 1961 census?

What falls by the wayside in the paradigm that AK proposes is a central tenet of women’s equality: her right to choose. If we believe in equality then the women born in Kurukshetra should have the right to decide when, who and where they want to marry. They cannot be burdened with the task of having to marry men in their village in order to maintain the sex-ratio and thereby prevent violence against women even if this thesis were true. At the risk of detonating the libidinous ire of the `kunwara’ fauj, it may be said that the women in Kurukshetra – like women everywhere – should have the right to decide what they want to do with their life and body and this includes their right to reject both heterosexuality and matrimony if they so desire.

By locating the declining sex ratio within a paradigm of `female foeticide’ and `violence against women’, SJ replays a problematic logic; one that links declining sex ratio to violence against women and the elimination of women through `female foeticide’ using the key act of abortion.

In India, the women’s right to abortion emerged not from feminist struggles but as a by-product of family planning policies. Abortion has been legal in India under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act since 1971. Despite its default origins, it is an important right for women and all campaigns against SSA must ensure that a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy is never threatened. The Right to Abortion is vital for gender equality and there can be no doubt that women are safer when abortions are legal and their mental and physical well-being is not threatened by having to obtain unsafe and illegal abortions. While SSA gets a high degree of publicity what is less publicized is how difficult safe abortion still is for large numbers of women.

The makers of SJ might argue that women’s right to abortion and forced SSA are not the same thing. Certainly they are not and the three cases presented in Episode 1 of SJ demonstrate that. But unfortunately, not all cases of SSA fall into this category. There are innumerable instances where, for a number of complicated reasons, women are complicit in choosing SSA which then muddies the demarcation between oppressive villains (husband/in-laws) and oppressed victims (wives). The reasons why a woman will opt for SSA can range from her own son-preference to a desire to survive safely in a hostile household. How women should be discouraged from sex-selective practices without jeopardizing her right to take decisions about her life and body, have long agonized Feminists. An important lesson that Feminist Activism has taught us is that the inevitable fallout of empowering women to take their own decisions may well result in her choosing a path that many of us would regard as anti-feminist or regressive.

“Pro-choice” Feminists (as Abortion Rights Activists call themselves) have always privileged the personhood of the mother over that of the foetus which they argue is a `potential person’ and not an “actual person”. The “Pro-life” Lobby (as right-wing, anti-abortionists call themselves) does just the reverse. By using terms like the “unborn child” and the “death of the girl child”, they privilege the personhood of the child over that of the mother. Similarly, the term “female foeticide” carries connotations of both personhood and murder through its association with words like homicide, matricide and regicide.

Pro-choice Feminists caution that the personhood of women should not be defined only through their role as wives and mothers and have their identities subsumed by the idea of women-as-wombs. In his `Kurukshetra thesis’ and his excessively romanticized tribute to the mother at the start of the show, AK does precisely that. When he makes a dramatic statement like “Puri Bharatmata betiyon ke khoon se rang chuka hai’ (The whole of Mother India has been drenched in the blood of her daughters) he bestows personhood on the foetus. The rhetoric veers dangerously close to that of the Pro-Lifers. (The nationalist and gendered description of India as “Bharatmata” is no less problematic but that is a separate discussion.)

Finally, as feminists well know, SSA’s are not the problem but a symptom of a much larger malaise. The struggle to end violence and discrimination against women is a battle to be fought on many fronts. Given decades of inequality, gender socialization, oppressive practices, ritualised and institutionalised discrimination, the battle for equality is incredibly hard and not one to be resolved by any “jadu ki chhadi”. So while one could provide exemplary punishment to doctors to discourage sex-selective tests and forced SAA’s, it will barely make a dent on the larger problem. On the contrary, by assuming that all SSA’s are forced, we may end up curbing women’s access to safe abortions thereby endangering her life and her rights.

It would be premature to judge an entire series through only one episode. But since the media blitz and publicity has over-powered any dispassionate debate on SJ, we need to ensure that our critical faculties are not swept away by this euphoria. The tag-line for us as critical viewers should be: “dimaag se dekho, tabhi baat banegi.”


Shohini Ghosh is Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. This was first published on Kafila

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