Event ReportsPublished on May 07, 2013
Noted film personality and now Member of Parliament Javed Akhtar says that one of the reasons for violence against women in India is that we are living in an industrial society with a feudal mindset. He says concrete steps should be taken to effect a real change in the mindset of the people.
We are living in industrial society with feudal mindset, says Javed Akhtar

To ensure that women are treated as equals in Indian society, changing the national mindset is necessary, according to noted poet, screenplay writer and lyricist and now Member of Parliament, Mr. Javed Akhtar.

Speaking on "Violence against women" at Observer Research Foundation on May 7, 2013, Mr Akhtar said that societal perception of women has to change first, and then it would be reflected in films and advertisements which are like mirrors of the society.

Education is one tool that can be used to change societal attitudes. It is sometimes said that lack of education can cause men to turn to violence when confronted with an educated woman -- they cannot engage intellectually with her, so resort to baser tactics. This understanding deficit is made worse by the segregated education system. As a result, after leaving school many men and women may not have spoken to someone of the opposite sex (who isn’t related to them), much less be friends with them or understand them on any level, Mr Akhtar said.

Regardless of one’s background, education can only do so much, as gender stereotypes and everyday, so called ’casual’ sexism is reinforced by society; even well meaning advice and comments often have sexist undertones. This can be seen in the evolution of language, wherein words describing feminine attributes are often used as insults.

Mr Akhtar said that the stereotyping and subjugation of women often begins at home; some families barely acknowledge the birth of a girl but lavishly celebrate a baby boy, and put up with the girl only until she can be married off, to be someone else’s responsibility. If women had equal stakes in inheritance of property or business, they would be valued as part of a family’s continuing legacy. Instead, the woman enters another family, a world where her cooking will never be as good as her mother-in-law’s. A troubled family environment also has a serious impact on the boy growing up. He may become part of a cycle of violence. If he sees his mother being beaten by his father, he may well beat his wife -- she cannot be better than his mother, so why should she receive better treatment?

He said women in India have many roles -- some women who work are also expected to come home, feed the family and attend to household chores. Working women may also hand their salaries over to their husbands, and if they want to spend money must first get his permission. A woman’s sexuality is only acknowledged and celebrated when she becomes a mother. Motherhood can become a woman’s sole defining characteristic, which can have a detrimental effect on her self esteem. In this role, the woman as a mother is placed on a pedestal, trying to live up to an ideal.

Women are sometimes their own worst enemies in tackling these injustices, according to Mr Akhtar. It is not only the men of the country who need to change their attitudes. Women need to have the courage of their convictions and make their voices heard. They are the significant ’other half’ of the population, and must be represented as such in Parliament.

Speaking about the influence of cinema on society, Mr Akhtar said that real social issues were no longer depicted on screen. The modern protagonist is rich, lazy and often jetting off to foreign lands, far removed from the average Indian. Mr Akhtar suggested that this was because of the business side of the film industry. Richer, urban consumers who go to multiplexes to watch films pay more for their tickets, so they are increasingly the target audience. Consequently, real social issues are not freely explored on film as they used to be.

There are many troubling portrayals of women and romance in films today. Seduction scenes, in which the hero chases the heroine, glorify stalking. False liberation is expressed through drinking, smoking and promiscuous behaviour. ’Item’ songs have provocative lyrics crooned by scantily clad performers. This trend also continues in advertising, where sexist and elitist content is used to promote products. Men are also confronted with an image of masculinity that they will never be able to match. Mr Akhtar said the Indian man is made to feel inadequate in many ways by the heroes he admires on screen.

Mr Akhtar is of the opinion that society must take some of the blame for the success of such films. They would not be made if they were not profitable, and consumers are clearly making a choice with their wallets. He added that the negative aspects of cinema are overplayed, because it is easier to attack cinema for vices than it is to consider the underlying problems. The effect of films on the average Indian may also be overstated, as many small halls go out of business, and the larger ones may well be unaffordable. Other avenues like cable TV and the internet also have to be considered.

Mr Akhtar said fast track courts to deal with violent crimes against women would encourage reporting of crimes and provide speedy remedies. It is also important to train police officers -- male and female -- to sensitively deal with issues like domestic violence. More immediate solutions, like selling discounted pepper spray, will not have long term benefits. We live in an industrial society with a feudal mindset, and concrete steps need to be taken to effect real change.

(This report is prepared by Anahita Mathai, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.