This article was written by Mrs. Tehmina Arora, Secretary of the Christian Legal Association. Mrs. Tehmina is a member of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
"It's late in the evening she's wondering what clothes to wear.
She puts on her makeup and then she asks me "do I look alright"
And I say, "Yes, you look wonderful tonight."
In this Eric Clapton song one can almost picture the woman in this really great looking dress and her date with this starry-eyed look. The flip side of the whole song however is what if the guy had not approved of what the girl was wearing? What then would happen to the dreamy lovers?
And while it is natural to seek approval from the ones we love, as women we have long grown up being told what is and isn't appropriate. We are constantly being bombarded by standards of what is and is not permissible through the images that the media creates and that which are reflected in the society around us.
But this is not a complaint about prejudiced upbringings but rather to drive home the point that as women we are too often type cast by society in general and men in particular into these images which are far from who we really are or can be.
Some of these standards are essential as they create a certain amount of healthy pressure on individuals to behave in a certain manner. For example a young person, surrounded by a group of individuals who believe in caring for the environment, will also naturally be inclined to take a greater initiative in doing the same. Conversely this peer pressure has often been seen to cause individuals to act in a manner that is so against their own convictions.
The degree of conformity in many instances is directly related to the self-esteem of a person. Self-esteem can be defined, as the opinion one holds of his or her own self, consciously or unconsciously. This opinion is based on various factors such as other people's opinion of us, comparisons we make with others or standards as laid down by society.
Phrases like "Men don't make passes at women who wear glasses" or "Gentlemen prefer blonds" may not be very popular here in India but the idea they represent is definitely prevalent. Men endorse near perfect beauties as the ideal image for women when they talk about serials such as "Bay Watch" and "Xena".
No woman can compare and should be compared with these phoney images of women. However it is not only an outward image that is projected, there is also an attitude that is propagated along with it. Young girls are under tremendous pressure not only to look in a certain manner, in terms of their physical make up, and wear a certain type of clothing so that they are in the "IN crowd", but also to behave in a certain manner in order to stay in that elitist circle.
There are many other ways media is doing a harm to the dignity of women. Music videos are largely to be blamed for glamorising certain acts of violence against women. Women are depicted as playthings for men and as incomplete without a man in their lives. Promiscuity on the part of both men and women is not only condoned, it is endorsed. This image is demeaning to women as it reduces her to solely a sexual object.
It is an image that is constantly being flashed at us through the channels. It is the society's misconceived image of a successful woman, a woman who has a hoard of men around her, who has no qualms as regards the clothes she can wear. She is indeed the mistress of her own life.
It is however not only this extreme that is detrimental to the healthy image of young women but also that which is being promoted by serials like "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi". The image of the scheming Indian mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law has become common place. The Indian woman in such instance is reduced to a conniving narrow minded individual who has no meaningful contribution to make to society. This image is the other extreme and is equally detrimental.
Another harmful image is created by advertisements. The Fair and Lovely ads for example have long screamed that if we were not just that, we had no hope or future. Far from being able to be attractive to any man, even the prospects of a good job seemed highly doubtful. Dark is out and fair skin is in, always!
But there is a problem with that. There is nothing wrong or unattractive about fair skin but there is definitely something wrong with the implication that fair alone is lovely. Even in the lands of myth and fantasy it is the princess who is fair and beautiful. So ingrained is this concept of beauty that even a dark skinned woman would naturally envision light skinned damsels as heroines of these fairy tales.
In fact, according to the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) as reported in the Hindu dated September 19, AIDWA has made a representation before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as regards "certain television advertisements being demeaning to women and promoting son-preference.
The Fair and Lovely advertisement, in the AIDWA's opinion, is an affront to a woman's dignity as it "blatantly promotes son-preference; implies that a woman is incapable of being a breadwinner, thereby upholding the traditional sexist notion that only a man is capable of doing so; conveys that it is only looks and appearances and a woman's sexuality that can land her a job; and is discriminatory on the basis of the colour of the skin by equating beauty with fairness".
However it is uncertain to what extent action can be taken against such serials and advertisements, for no degree of severity of action would compensate for the brain washing that has taken place and besides no punitive action can be
taken against a mindset. actions or even in our outward appearance, we are taught that compliance to the standards is alone the answer. Our ability, to determine for ourselves what the best for us is, has been dulled.
In such an environment, it is difficult for individuals with low self-esteem to ignore the pressure to give in and conform. Bob Dylan wasn't far from the truth when he sang that you either serve God or the devil but you got to serve somebody. We stand on slippery ground and we have to serve somebody; either we conform to society image of us whether it is right or wrong or we conform to an image that we create for ourselves.
And although in order to fit into society one must conform to certain standards set by society, an individual's entire identity cannot be found in these standards. These standards need to be checked as against certain universal values such as justice, dignity, love and respect to see whether they are essential to the fabric of society. It is only these standards that need to be upheld and conformed to while others may well be ignored and even resisted.
This article is used with permission from the Evangelical Fellowship of India.