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Tamil Nadu furore over moral policing

The continuing furore over actor Kushboo’s comments on pre-marital sex has opened a Pandora’s box in Tamil Nadu, raising fears as to whether moral policing by self-styled cultural guardians has come to stay in this “traditional-yet-modern” state.

Three different instances of moral policing, involving academicians, politicians and the police, hit the headlines recently and stirred a hornet’s nest in the state.

It all began when Anna University, a premier institution for technical education, stipulated a dress code for its students, particularly girls, prohibiting them from wearing tight clothes, jeans, skirts and T-shirts. The university went on to ban cellphones in all campuses and in hostels.

The fatwa evoked strong condemnation from students, who described it as “perverted and old-fashioned.”

Explaining his stand, the Anna University Vice-Chancellor, Prof D Viswanathan told the media the decision had been taken in the interest of girls as the dress code would protect them from sexual harassment.

This raised the hackles of women activists.

“It is a sheer case of making the victim herself an accused,” All-India Democratic Women’s Association Tamil Nadu unit general-secretary, Ms Vasuki told UNI.

The VC’s remark implied that women’s attire was responsible for their being sexually harassed, she said. “It is not only a question of moral policing but also that of sexist moral policing.”

The VC’s diktat was not well-received even among his staff with one female professor saying the university should focus on matters like improving infrastructure rather than “trivial issues.”

When it came to the Kushboo issue, however, people were not so vociferous in their support for her. Women activists and organisations were guarded in their reaction.

Though accepting that the actor had the right to air her views, they said the issue of “pre-marital sex” could not be commented upon as it had several social ramifications.

“In the name of freedom of expression, one cannot advocate issues like pre-marital sex. One cannot judge it right or wrong in public as it is a private decision between two individuals,” said an activist.

Kushboo, who ruled the Tamil Film industry in the 90s with her perfect mix of glamour and acting prowess, found herself in the eye of a storm after she gave an interview to the Tamil edition of India Today, which conducted a survey titled ‘sex and the single woman’, that there was “nothing wrong with pre-marital sex as long as the girl protects herself from pregnancy and venereal diseases.”

“Our society must free itself from expectations that brides should all be virgins,” she went on to add.

Reiterating her stand in an interview to a Tamil daily, she asked “How many people in Tamil Nadu have not had sex before marriage?”

Her comments prompted an outcry. Volunteers of the Tamil Protection Movement, carrying broomsticks and slippers, staged vociferous demonstrations, demanding an open apology from the actress for “casting a slur on the image of Tamil women”.

The TPM president and Dalit Panthers of India general-secretary, Mr Thol Tirumavalavan even advocated displaying ‘beware of Kushboo” boards at every household.

Defamation suits were slapped against Kushboo in various parts of the state, where once fans built a temple for her and worshipped her as a goddess.

Realising the seriousness of the situation, Kushboo flew to Chennai with her family, cancelling her pleasure trip to Singapore. A native of Maharashtra, she is married to a Tamil director and settled in the city with two daughters.

In tears, she tendered an unconditional apology to the people, saying she would never dream of sullying the image of Tamil women.

“Even in films, I never undertook roles, which lowered the image of women. I have the greatest regard for Tamils, especially Tamil women,” she said.

However, the protests refused to die down with cases being filed against her almost every day, even as the South Indian Film Artistes Association distanced itself from the controversy, stating the actress had expressed her personal views.

Even before the dust settled, Chennai police arrested two employees of a star hotel and withdrew the bar licence and the hotel licence after two Tamil newspapers published photographs of girls partying in the hotel.

The charges against the hotel management included violating licence norms and permitting “obscene acts.”

A senior police officer even said the girls in the photographs would be traced and action taken against them.

The hotel management maintained on its part that the photographers had trespassed into the hotel and taken pictures.

“We cannot invade the privacy of a customer. We cannot tell a husband or wife that they should not hold hands or kiss. And the same goes for girls and their boyfriends,” it said.

The hotel moved the Madras High Court against the police action, following which a direction was given saying the hotel could admit new guests. However, the hotel bar should remain closed till further orders by the Chennai city commissioner of police, the court said.

Former chairperson of the state commission for women and rights activist Dr Vasanthi Devi expressed her concern about the “influence of unbridled consumerism on a society in flux, particularly youth.”

“But that will not in any way justify moral policing,” she added.

The role played by the media has also come in for sharp focus, with activists accusing it of arrogating to itself the authority to preach what is right and what is wrong for society.

In the star hotel incident, a Tamil paper questioned the “morality of the elite city girls”, a couple of whom were shown locked in the arms of their partners in the party.

Another leading Tamil daily followed suit, publishing the same pictures, raising more “moralistic” queries.

Questioning the necessity and purpose of sex-related surveys conducted by magazines, Ms Vasuki said the media was treating sex as a saleable commodity.

“Rather than focusing on issues related to sexuality with a profit motive, the media could highlight livelihood issues to serve society better.”

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