Javed Akhtar at JLF 2017 spoke about Bollywood history and women, but ended up mansplaining

The Ladies Finger

Jan,24 2017 13:35:23 IST

Ila Ananya

A few weeks ago, days after news of the mass molestation of women in Bangalore at Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve broke, I went for a walk organised by Hidden Pockets, a mapping project on sexuality and spaces. We were trying to map out pleasure points in the city near Christ University; places where women felt comfortable and safe, and thought they could have fun, even at night. There were many conversations — women talked about how much they liked walking down roads at night but wouldn’t because there were no streetlights, arguments about whether kissing should or should not be allowed in public places, and men who decided for women that CCTV cameras on roads would make them feel safer.

The arguments were mostly calm, but this was until a CCTV-camera-supporting man who said he partied at the Taj on New Year’s Eve, argued vehemently that the molestation in Bangalore happened because of men from “Shivajinagar and those kinds of areas”. That is, areas where lower-middle class (and Muslim, was the implication) families lived, and were much less posh than the upper-middle class streets of Indiranagar or Lavelle Road and the Taj he (presumably) partied at.

By this point, women in the group were furious and told him he knew nothing.

I was reminded of this pedestrian Jon Snow when I heard about Javed Akhtar holding forth on sexual violence at a session called ‘After the Angry Young Man, the Traditional Woman' (even we weren’t sure what this meant) at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday, 22 January. The session was supposed to be about the depiction of women and men in Bollywood — until Akhtar decided to go off in a completely tangential direction when he was asked a harmless, chotu question about Hollywood, Bollywood, and the pointless flak Pakistani actors have been getting in India.

In an average Indian city, by the time a boy becomes 20 or 21, he has not spoken to a girl who is not his sister for more than five minutes in his whole life. How would he know that she is a human being? How would he know that she has any other thing beside her body?” he asked the audience. In almost the same passionately angry breath he continued, “Men who come from towns to the city have no place to live. They are treated like animals. They see affluence and people doing well around him, and he gets angry about why he is so deprived. Then his anger comes out where it can come out [against women].”

A file photo of Javed Akhtar. AFP

A file photo of Javed Akhtar. AFP

Akhtar’s statements are amazingly self-assured. He is so confident about what he is saying — repeating again and again that there is “anger” and “venom” in men who have come to cities from towns and that segregation and economic divisions cause men to rape women. Either he has not looked at the news recently, or like the ‘venomous’ men he mentions he hasn’t spoken to any women lately. Or ever.

Certain, Akhtar has not taken the trouble to talk to women about sexual assault that they experience, before making grand statements about it himself. Or both. Whatever the scenario, he’s very conveniently, and almost obliviously, excused men of his own class of sexual violence, and gone on to say that all men from towns and villages engage in sexual violence prompted by lust and class war.

The one thing that Akhtar and the dude from the walk are right about in all of this is that sexual violence is indeed a class issue. The problem, however, is that they’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

Perhaps they haven’t heard about women who work as domestic help in houses being sexually harassed or raped. Towards the end of December last year, a woman who worked as a domestic worker in Mumbai was raped by four lawyers over six months (the woman installed cameras in her house and there’s a recording of one of the lawyers raping her at knife-point) — the lawyers reportedly told her that if she complained, they could get away with the assaults because they knew the law.

And speaking of men in that business called show, Shiney Ahuja was also convicted to seven years for raping the woman who worked as domestic help in his house.

In October last year, a letter from six women working in a spinning mill in Tamil Nadu that described sexual harassment they faced became public — “He forces himself on us, constantly hugging us and squeezing our breasts,” the women wrote about a male supervisor. The letter reminded us of the horrible case of a migrant garment factory worker who committed suicide in Bangalore in 2007 after being harassed by her male supervisors.

A few months later, another garment factory worker in Bangalore also committed suicide. And if we’re talking about cases where women have been raped by authorities in power, the news of the horrific sexual abuse of 16 women by the police in Chhattisgarh has recently come to light. In Bangalore, a sub-inspector was arrested a week ago for raping a woman who had a mental disability.

It is evident that sexual violence is indeed a class issue. As it is a caste issue, and a gender issue and a power issue.

Considering also, that Akhtar made no reference to any men of his own class as having perpetrated sexual violence, perhaps we should also remind him that historian and filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui was convicted for raping a woman in July 2016.  Actor Rekha’s biography (as in the case of Maria Schneider and Bernardo Bertolucci in Last Tango in Paris) also has a disturbing description of her never being told about a physically intimate scene she was supposed to be a part of.

While it was shot, “unit members were hooting and cheering,” she says. In offices that don’t have a functioning sexual harassment cell (if at all), people like RK Pachauri, formerly from TERI and chairman of the Nobel prize-winning IPCC, sexually harassed several women junior to him. Even though the mandated sexual harassment cell was present, due procedure was flouted at every turn. Because ‘culture’ doesn’t stop men from rape and neither does ‘scientific temper’.

Akhtar seems to think that if your place of birth indicates that you are from a major Indian metro then you don’t rape. Rape is location agnostic.

In another case, in November last year, a 52-year-old man molested a woman who worked as a bus conductor in Pune.  It’s even gravity-agnostic. Didn’t he read last week about Air India coming up with its so-genius idea of a reserving a row of seats for women? Because a man travelling by business class had decided he wanted to sit next to a woman in economy class, and groped her when she fell asleep.

Just before Akhtar launched into this sociological explanation, he was asked an odd question about whether feminism could be related to women’s empowerment. “Obviously,” he said, “it is like asking if we can relate Eskimos to igloos.” Perhaps Akhtar should have stuck to this brief randomness rather than the protracted randomness that followed.

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine

Published Date: Jan 24, 2017 13:35 PM | Updated Date: Jan 24, 2017 13:35 PM