The morality meter: Pageants to porn

BlogHer Original Post

It is incredible how the onus of morality and tradition is always on the woman. What women do, what we wear, how we speak, how we have sex: entire cultures and religions seem to be precariously poised, almost exclusively, on our feminine shoulders. Ordinarily, this would be cause for celebration but for the mundane fact that it is others -- primarily men --- who tell us when we are overstepping our boundaries and how we are letting our cultures and traditions waste away, and so on and so forth.
From where I come -- a culture steeped in thousands of years of tradition --- this enormous burden, or responsibility, continues to weigh us down. Not that we are dying to shed them all; in fact, I would argue traditions and cultures are preserved because of the efforts of women. But we are judged all the time. If traditions fall by the wayside because of new lifestyles, we are, without fail, made to feel guilty about it. (remember the saree wars? It continues..."The Dying Art of the Sari"--Time).

Two recent pieces of news from the region on the extreme ends of the spectrum brought back that consciousness of the burden -- a beauty contest and a pornographic cartoon character.

The Beauties...

Beauty contests continue to be a bone of contention, even among women worldwide: Are the contestants just meat for roving eyes? But even if they are, who are we to stop other women from doing what they want?
For those who argue against such contests, the main thorn on their side I presume is the emphasis on the female body put on display for others to judge.
Now, what bothers us more: is it the display of the body or the judging? My hunch is that it is the judging that puts people off, although, for obvious reasons, the body gets the attention.
If that's true, where do we place the "Queen of Beautiful Morals", a 'beauty' contest organized in Saudi Arabia, focusing on "inner beauty, as defined by Islamic standards of Saudi Arabia"? The winner, an 18-year-old who wants to go into medicine, pipped 200 odd contestants in her abaya that covered her head to toe. According to this report in Dawn:

 

There was none of the swimsuit and evening gown competitions and heavy media coverage of beauty pageants elsewhere when the contest was decided in the eastern city of Safwa.

Instead, the winner and the two runner-up princesses had to undergo a three-month test of their dutifulness to their parents and family, and their service to society.

This included a battery of personal, cultural, social and psychological tests, Al-Watan reported.

And this is not a first. Not long ago, Miss World Punjaban  saw a similar contest that tested women of Punjabi origin on -- besides basic physical attributes and their knowledge of everything Punjabi --  "traditional household work" such as using the grinding stone. (Youtube link via India Uncut).

Are they any better or worse than the traditional swim-suit contests popular worldwide?

Why do women bother to participate? I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the contestants. They are in it for the money, and in some cases, the fame. The lady in the abaya at least walked away with lots of cash, diamond jewelry and a vacation. But I also suspect that some women feel stereotyped in their own ways of life and are looking to redefine their identities  -- 'I feel too restricted in my life so here's a chance for me to strut my stuff in a bikini and become famous along the way', OR, 'I am tired of beauty being all about the body so now let's do a morality contest and I will be the good girl'.  Simply put, a backlash against the current norm, whatever it is.

Why do organizers  -- or societies -- feel the need to judge women at such contests and celebrate the winners? Are we afraid of the traditional role of women as paragons of physical beauty or moral virtues giving way? Is a woman, who does not feel the need to judge herself by her physical beauty or traditional moralities, in some way, threatening? 

Or, are we simply making too much ado about nothing? It's just another contest, right? That's what is not clear to me. For instance, the woman using the grinding stone in the video is accomplishing nothing extraordinary other than proving that she knows what goes where in a grinding stone. It's not as if all the women are competing to establish who the best grinder is. Worse, grinding stones are pretty much absent in the modern kitchen. So, where's the skill?
And, as many bloggers pointed out, Miss Morals contest had an age limit of 25. What happens to Muslim women's morals after 25?

I'm wondering...just that I cannot shake off this feeling that something isn't sitting quite right. Meanwhile, here are what some bloggers are saying:

Sadaf Farooqi -- a computer scientist-turned-Islamic educationist writes in her post at MuslimMatters.org:

All I know is, that as a woman who felt distinctly uncomfortable amid stares and other renditions of amorous male attention, and who eventually felt the heady waves of absolute freedom and liberation by donning the Islamic hijab, any pageant that takes into account only a woman’s character, Islamic conduct, taqwa and knowledge and not her beauty; that does not cash in on the display of lines upon lines of young lovelies by garnering media attention and lucrative sponsor deals; and does not use the male vote to attach tags based on hip-and-bust measurements, is a welcome change from the norm, if nothing else; one that can show to the world what the true merit of a woman should be, for others, insha’Allah.

Of course, this post drew comments and questions about why Saudi Arabia needed a pageant at all and if such contests did not encourage simply saying what the judges wanted to hear and winning big prizes for doing so.

Melinda
writes at Muslimah Media Watch:

I recognize that the contest is meant to be a response to contests like “Miss World” and “Miss Universe,” but I can’t see any reason to not have an equivalent contest for men. It seems a related jump from judging women for their appearance to judging them for their morality (indeed, the two are often related in people’s minds). But a contest to judge men on their perceived morality? The fact that this option hasn’t been brought up in any of the commentary indicates a double standard: It’s appropriate to judge women (whether on appearance or morals), but it’s not even a possibility to judge men.

Deepa Iyer on News You Can't Use:

Most beauty contests are designed to showcase women whom men find desirable, within the paradigms of local culture or fantasy. In that respect, there is little to choose between conventional pageants, the Miss World Punjaban or the Miss Moral Beauty one.

 
The Porn Star: Last week, India lost its first and only famous female porn star Savita Bhabhi: she was a cartoon character, a horny housewife and the toon series is all about her sexual escapades. The term bhabhi is an immediate giveaway that this character is married. Bhabhi in Hindi means sister-in-law (brother's wife). And since we are all brothers and sisters in India, your male friend's wife will also be addressed as bhabhi.
The government banned the cartoon and asked all internet service providers in the country to block the site. Protests followed with blog and Twitter "Save Savita" campaigns becoming the rage. 
The final blow, however, came when the maker of the series -- a British national of Indian origin who until then published under a pseudonym -- decided to end the campaign to save the site, claiming that revealing his real identity had led to a lot of personal family pressures. (Well, the site still seems accessible).

Of course, critics spared no chance to point at the hypocrisy of the decision: why ban one site and not the millions of other porn websites? There has be scathing criticism of the moral policing from activists journalists and citizens alike. Questioning moral policing -- now that's something I get. What took me by surprise is some of the commentary that actually upheld Savita Bhabhi's character as a symbol of the emancipated Indian woman. Here's a sample by journalist/film producer and self-proclaimed admirer of Indian women Pritish Nandy, in his blog in The Times of India:

Now you know why I love Savita Bhabhi. She’s Indian. She’s sexy and she wears a sari.

By banning her site, the I&B Ministry has demonstrated (yet again) how men want to control women all the time. What is Savita Bhabhi’s greatest appeal? That she is a typical Bharatiya nari who is brave enough to demonstrate that when it comes to sex she’s no pushover. I have known many women like her who pretend to succumb to the sexual politics that men incessantly play around them and yet manage to get their way by cleverly manipulating the XXL male ego. So even as they play coy and  subjugated, they are actually free women who live their lives on their own terms. I admire such women and worship on their altar.
[...]
Savita Bhabhi is a symbol of freedom, of empowerment, of the sexuality our women can wield if they are allowed to escape the sham world we Indian men trap them in because of our own fears of sexual inadequacy masquerading as machismo. That’s why so many rapes happen. We feel inadequate when it comes to having sex with an equal partner. So we want sex slaves as wives, maids, friends, work colleagues, even underage kids. Savita Bhabhi challenges this mindset.  The more virgin and demure she looks, the more powerful she is as a symbol of defiance against male chauvinism.

Now, this is seriously questionable. A cheating, manipulating sex-starved housewife as a symbol of feminine freedom? As one commenter questions -- if she is so emancipated, why cheat behind her husband's back? Get out of the marriage and have all the sex you want. I am quoting the comment verbatim and in full. It explains why this case is not as straightforward:

I admire your views of Savita Bhabhi as a liberated woman. But those 60 million fans who flock her site dont see that in her. They simply see a pornographic woman of their dreams, who they would like to keep in their fantasies. They would not want a Savita Bhabi as their wife or sister or friend. That is where lies the hypocracy.
I would love if all the women take their decisions with a liberal mind, but not just with physical intimacy on their mind. Savita Bhabhi did only that. If she was a liberated woman, she wouldnt be leading a dual life. Rather would have left her husband to lead the very life she wants.
It was the men who created Savita Bhabi, men who got pleasure in watching her shed clothes, men who banned her and men who see her as a liberating woman.
Maybe it is time to ask what a woman thinks on the issue. Please Men, give up making decisions for us. We have a mind of our own!!

There may be truth to claims that India has many Savita bhabhis. There are many philandering husbands out there for sure. But can a dual life like this actually be empowering? I am seriously conflicted.

I checked out a couple of Savita Bhabhi "stories" online after this controversy broke. Personally, I think it's more of a commentary on the complete lack of chemistry between the woman and her husband, who is conspicuous by his absence in her scheme of things. But that's not necessarily why she's going about having sex with all and sundry. She had done it before in school, too. With her math teacher. To get a passing grade. But I have to agree with her supporters that her character always seems to be in charge. She is not portrayed as a victim (maybe of her own desires) or a plaything. She seemed to be more focused on pleasing herself than the men. She always seemed to be aware of when she was crossing the so-called line of propriety, but she crossed it anyway.

Savita Bhabhi, besides being the Indian voyeur's delight, symbolized a lot of things to a lot of people. Or so they argue. I wondered, though, if using a hot housewife, a woman, to expose the near-perverse side of India's sex life makes for more hard-hitting copy than censuring the millions of men who think nothing of cheating on their spouses. Maybe it does --it is almost like a slap on the faces of the men who thought their women were at home being the coy, good Indian housewives, as they went about their lives unconcerned about their wives' sexual needs.

Pornography is illegal in India. But so are Indian films in Pakistan. So naturally, those who want it will get it. And with the Internet, it's near impossible to contain anything. But from our experiences here in the West, I am not sure pornography is desirous or even necessary for the cause of feminism and equality. So where does Savita Bhabhi fit in?

India's sexual mores need a huge overhaul and loads of discussions, especially between partners. But can Ms. Immorality Savita Bhabhi actually be the guiding star?

Eggstreamly Eggcentric on the Demise of Savita Bhabhi

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