Sunday, June 5, 2022

In case of Women's Safety, Life imitates Art

[First published in Women's Web

A young couple who were sitting on a bed, presumably kissing, pull apart when the door flings open and four friends walk into the room. “Shot mara lagta hai”, says one. “Haan maara”, replies the boy who is with the girl. “Ab hamari baari”, says the first, striding purposefully towards the girl. She stares in fear and horror till he reaches for a bottle of deodorant and sprays it on himself.

This advertisement has been telecast on prime-time television during cricket matches which are watched by millions of young people. One can argue, as many on and off social media have, that “nothing really happens”, but the intent is very clear. The word “shot” is clearly an innuendo for taking a shot at the girl, and the advertisement plays on ideas of gang rape. It plays on the deepest fears of women- while indulging in a consensual sexual activity, the last thing she wants is for her partners friends to barge in and take their turn with her.

On the same day when netizens took to twitter to protest against the advertisement, another terrifying incident from Hyderabad made headlines.

A 17 year old girl who was returning home from a party was gangraped by a group of teenagers who had either attended the same party, or who offered her a lift while she was waiting to get home. Though details of the crime have not been released, if CCTV footage is to be believed, the incident happened in daylight, and the victim was on familiar terms with at least one of the perpetrators. Clearly, she didn’t think she was in danger when she got into the car, or she would not have gone with them. Yet, not one, but multiple teenagers sexually assaulted her and the incident was so traumatic that she didn’t even realise it was rape till she spoke to trained social workers and counsellors a few days after the event.

There is a clear co-relation between the two incidents. Both involve teenagers- one female and five male. In both, there was some element of consent on the part of the girl, but the boys presumed that since she had consented to a bit, they had the right to do much more. The emotions portrayed by the girl in the advertisement would have been exactly the same as the girl experienced in the real life incident. The only difference is in the real life incident, the boys finished what was implied in the in advertisement.

The advertisement didn’t spring from a vacuum. It was conceptualised by someone in the creatives department of the advertising agency, approved by account management department and presented to the client. The client approved it. The script was written, the actors hired, the film shot and edited. Someone in the television network must have the seen the movie before airing it. Clearly a long chain of individuals, none of whom thought to call the advertisement out for the allusions that promote gang rape.

That the client, the advertising agency and the network knew exactly what they were implying is clear from the other advertisement for the same product. A young woman is pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket when four men come behind her, stand menacingly and say, “We are four and there is only one. So who will take the shot?”, before grabbing the bottle of deo and spraying it on themselves. A supermarket with it’s CCTV coverage should be a safe place for women, but there is palpable fear on the face of the woman- she is clearly terrified of what might happen to her when she steps out of the supermarket weighed down with shopping bags.

Both the advertisements certainly propagate the idea of gang rape. They play on the paralysing fear that grips women whenever they find themselves alone surrounded by men. In both advertisements, the remark of “taking a shot” is addressed to the woman, even if it eventually turns out that it is directed at a bottle of deo. The advertisements normalise making women feel unsafe and insecure, and they create an environment where men do not think it is wrong to “take a shot at a woman”.

In the real life case of the 17 year old who was gang raped, a section of people are indulging in victim blaming- why was she at the party, why was she alone, why did she get into a car with four boys, what was her relationship with them- but none of those questions are valid. Yes, she got into a car with four boys, but she could have been sexually assaulted in a cab also. Even if she was sharing a cab with another girl, one of them would have got off first, and the other would have been alone in the cab with a (male) driver. Even if she was in a relationship with one of the boys, that certainly does not give the other boys the right to sexually assault her. (Importantly, also, the age of consent for women is 18, which is a fact that many couples indulging in consensual sex ignore.)

That the gang rape happened in the manner in which it did is proof that the culture of rape has been normalised to an extent that men think it is their right to make suggestive remarks at women, and to sexually harass them. Consent is something that is unknown to popular media- countless movies, TV shows, music videos, and plays have driven home the message that ‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘no’, ‘No’ only means ‘try harder’

After receiving complaints from netizens, including many Bollywood personalities, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) took note and wrote, "Thank you for tagging us. The ad is in serious breach of the ASCI Code and is against public interest. We have taken immediate action and notified the advertiser to suspend the ad, pending investigation." Despite this, the advertisements are continuing to be aired.

While we know that the advertisements will eventually be taken down, the damage has already been done. One 17-year old has come forward and registered a case of gang-rape. How many more have suffered the same fate, but haven’t come forward we will never know. Until equally strong measures are taken to counter this narrative in unequivocal terms, women will continue living under the fear of sexual harassment or worse.


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