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Beware the mannequin: Turning Mumbai’s men into sexual predators

Till recently, my daily commute included the Dadar flyover. Every morning, sitting in a taxi, I would see a plastic mould of a headless and limbless female torso, wearing a bra and a panty, dangling from the façade of one of the old buildings that stands at the edge of the flyover. I’ve done this route for years. That torso has been there too. It never struck me that being in a car driven by a man who also saw that torso placed me in grave danger. Because if corporator Ritu Tawade is to be believed, that torso could “affect the mindset of men” and make them commit “wrong acts”.

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A bra holster is displayed on a mannequin at an exhibit booth. Reuters

Out of concern for her fellow women, Tawade has suggested that mannequins wearing “two-piece clothes that barely cover the body” be banned from public display. It isn’t a total ban on dressing mannequins in lingerie. Inside a shop, they’re acceptable as marketing tools.

Outside, they could cause crimes against women. Tawade’s proposal is awaiting final clearance from BMC chief, Sitaram Kunte.

Tawade has wasted no time though. She has reportedly forced some shopkeepers in her ward in Ghatkopar to change their display. “One must think of the awkwardness a woman will feel standing in front of such a mannequin,” Tawade told Indian Express. She also believes seeing these scantily-clad mannequins are indecent and therefore are “likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals”. You’ve got to wonder how dumb she thinks Indian men are. Because if they’re confusing real women with the distinctly un-human mannequins, then they’re either idiots or suffering from serious psychological issues.

This is an oddly gender-specific problem because Tawade has said nothing about the effect of male mannequins that bare their chests wearing nothing but pants or swimming trunks or underwear. For instance, there’s that nude male mannequin that’s been perched on a balcony near Kemps Corner flyover for years. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and maybe I’m just not hormonal enough, but the sight of it has never led to a tsunami of lust in me. All men in the vicinity were as they usually are in my presence: safe from any advances.

Since Tawade has decided to direct her ire at women mannequins, it’s safe to say that the problem according to her and her supporters lies in the female form and in the male mind. The guilt of committing a sexual crime against a woman is only partly that of the harasser or rapist in this scenario. According to this logic, at the root of the problem is a silhouette decided by breasts and hips, because that’s all a real woman has in common with a mannequin. So it seems our shape is what causes crimes against women.

Gentlemen, if this seems logical to you, then be warned: you may look at anything with curves – strainers, light fixtures, chairs – and feel your sexuality roar. In case you were wondering, that is not a normal reaction for a man. (Or a woman, for that matter.)

The argument is that men have sex on the brain and therefore, the only solution is to remove all potential triggers from their horizon.

Unfortunately, this logic is equally flawed. Scientific studies of the human brain have revealed that there’s no truth in the popular belief that evolution has moulded men to see women as sexual objects and rise to the occasion regardless of whether that’s a fitting response to said occasion. As Kayt Sukel details in This Is Your Brain On Sex, not only are humans not slaves to hormones, even our primate cousins think before they pounce. Sukel writes, after watching a group of rhesus macaque monkeys:

“Sex is not the ultimate prize when it can get you thrown out of the group. Despite all those hormones running amok in my friend Casanova [a male monkey], he was able to keep his head and think about the consequences. Even a monkey has the power to overcome his hormones.”

It seems obvious that the rampant crimes against women take place because there’s no fear of social rejection or legal consequences, but Tawade and the corporators who support her would rather point fingers at mannequins.

I was on a television panel with Makarand Narwekar, an independent corporator from Colaba who supports Tawade’s proposal. At one point, he said that all of us finding fault with the decision to ban these mannequins were stuck in air-conditioned, mall-shaped bubbles. "What your panellists have till now spoken about, it looks like they're only concerned about what they see in malls and big stores," he said. "You go to railway stations, you go to the suburban interiors of Mumbai and you'll realise how important it is to ban these mannequins from being displayed where you have families walking, where you have girls...". He was cut off because the show had reached its time limit.

Narwekar tried to turn the debate into a class issue and the way he described it, the "interiors of Mumbai" that lie beyond "malls and big stores" are full of camouflaged sexual predators whom women in cocoons of privilege don't have to encounter.

Except in matters of gender and sexual harassment, class divide isn’t as sharp as it is in most other issues. Women, regardless of class, get objectified by those inclined to do so and not just because of semi-clad mannequins. He made a false assumption, not just about which parts of Mumbai I’m familiar with, but also about its men. The city I've worked and lived in for the past eight years -- and I've done my share of hanging from trains and going to the interiors -- hasn't been the lair of sexual predators that Narwekar described while justifying the proposal to ban.

Of course, that does not mean crimes don’t happen against women in Mumbai. And considering the rising incidence of those crimes, there are clearly enough sexual predators out there. But there’s no explanation for how the location of a mannequin could change the way they think.