Nation of Beancounters

Farhan Aktar is surprisingly aware of trade-offs, unlike his critics

Posted in Gender by Navin Kumar on October 30, 2013

Farhan Akhtar makes a advertisement with the Delhi police, urging men to protect women, and urging women to call 100:

It did not sit well with some folk, such as Tanushree Bhasin:

… I found myself cringing every two seconds. All the points he raised, all arguments he made stank of thinly veiled sexism. So there he was talking about rape, violence, and inequality, without once questioning the underling patriarchal tone of the advertisement itself. “Yeh humaari zindagi mein kai kirdaar adaa karti hai — ma, behen, patni aur beti ban kar. In ki suraksha karna hamari zimmedaari hai,” he says. What this implies is that the narrative is still written by men, the story is still about men; women simply make appearances in their lives to serve them as mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. This age old argument says as clearly as possible that violence against women is not to be condemned because it is wrong to treat any individual that way; instead it is seen as man’s failure to protect his women — an embarrassment to any real man.

Interestingly, Farhan Akhtar is perfectly aware of the tone of his campaign:

Unfortunately, we live in a country entrenched in patriarchal norms. Now, if you were to see a woman being harassed on the streets, would you close your eyes because it might be condescending to her if you, as a man, were to try and help? In an ideal world, men wouldn’t have to be ‘the protectors’. The best we can do today is to change whatever enables violence against women.

Bhasin’s response is condescending dismissal: “A case of misguided feminism no doubt.”

Yet, Akhtar is, if not categorically right, certainly not categorically wrong. You have a problem: violence against women. One way to curb it is to create norms that induce men (who may lack the empathy or experience to understand what women are undergoing) to intervene. One way to do so is to create advertisements that tap into the existing “men should be protectors” rhetoric. The upside of this is potentially reduced casualties. The downside of this is that you end up re-enforcing existing gender norms, which hurt women in other ways. If you think that violence is a more serious weighty problem than other forms of discrimination, or that the advertisement has a large impact on male behavior and a negligible effect on gender norms (after all, it’s just one message among millions of “patriarchal” messages), then making that advertisement is the welfare-enhancing thing to do.

I’m not saying I buy this argument – I’m generally skeptical of the impact of advertisements on human behavior – but I do think it’s valid enough to deserve a serious response such as “The long term negative effects of this advertisement outweigh the short term positive gains.” Instead we get this drivel:

… the point is not to delineate gender lines again, and invent chivalrous men instilled with a protectionist spirit; what we need is quite the opposite — a complete negation of such lines drawn between men and women. … So long as gender sensitisation campaigns continue to speak in a language that is embedded in patriarchy, the very agenda of preventing violence against women will be continuously subverted.

Bhasin also cites two other examples of campaigns that try to improve the lives of women by tapping into existing gender norms: Akhtar’s own MARD campaign, and an ad from Apollo Hospital urging men to encourage their partners to get tested for breast cancer. All this really proves is that there is a trade-off between improving the lives of women within the existing system and dismantling the system. Whether to opt for the first or the second is not a trivial decision: if dismantling the system is difficult (it is) and if violence persists even in an atmosphere of relative equality (such as in Sweden, which has one of the highest rape rates in the world*) then one may sensibly conclude that women will be better off if one takes steps that – despite re-enforcing the system – make’s them better off within it.

This applies to many other debates as well. If one observes that divorced women suffer an enormous decline in their standard of living (because they can’t work, and don’t get adequate alimony) then one can either push to dismantle the homemaker/breadwinner division of labour (which is hard) or one can argue that the breadwinner owes the homemaker for services rendered, and therefore alimony should be adequate**. The latter option, because it’s based on existing cultural norms, is easier to push through. Downside: the campaign will have the effect of re-enforcing (at the margin) the cultural norms that caused the problem. Upside: it lessens the intensity of the problem.

One can have a serious discussion of long-term costs and short-term benefits, of how hard or easy it is to dismantle systems, or about whether such moves actually improve the welfare of women, even in short-term, but only with people are willing to think deeper than Bhasin and her ilk.

*Although I personally think this is the result of a high reporting rate, combined with a broad definition of what constitutes “rape.”

** A thank-you to Radhika Chitkara, a women’s issues activist/lawyer, for this example. She insists that I misunderstand it.


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