Sunday, November 27, 2011

De-iconising Anna

The Hoot, November 27, 2011

Media makes personalities. It also breaks them. These last two weeks have been an illustration of how this happens and the ‘personality’ is Anna Hazare. KALPANA SHARMA on the downward slide of the Anna phenomenon.
Posted/Updated Saturday, Nov 26 21:33:37, 2011

Media makes personalities. It also breaks them. These last two weeks have been an illustration of how this happens and the ‘personality’ is Anna Hazare. More than the print, it is 24-hour news television that is principally responsible today for the creation of public personalities who become larger than life. Take Anna Hazare. Until earlier this year, he was barely known even in his home state of Maharashtra although he had campaigned for many years against corruption and taken on some powerful politicians. Today he is known all over India. And that is because television decided to adopt him, making him into an icon. He fit right into the imagery needed to run the anti-corruption story. The key word, in fact, is “story”. When you have to tell a story, you need a hero. And Hazare was that hero.
A part of the iconography was to convert a social activist into a “Gandhian”. Anyone who has known Anna Hazare’s work, and some of the tactics he has used such as those to curb alcoholism in Ralegaon Siddhi, would know that there is nothing “Gandhian” about them. Indeed, I doubt if Hazare referred to himself as a Gandhian before the media decided to attach that epithet to his name. The “Gandhian” tactic he did use, well before the Lokpal campaign this year, was that of non-violent protests, including hunger fasts, to highlight corruption in Maharashtra. His attire, including the khadi topi, is what men in Maharashtra’s villages wear. It has nothing to do with being “Gandhian”.
From the beginning of this year, ever since the Lokpal Bill became prominent, the Gandhian epithet was fixed to Hazare. He did nothing to deny it, nor did his acolytes. Hence, in the minds of the millions who were treated to the non-stop television coverage of the protests in Ramlila Maidan, there was no separating Hazare and Gandhi. In case you were in doubt, there was a huge image of Gandhi on the stage, which was always in soft focus whenever the camera focused on Hazare.
And now, in the last two weeks, it would appear that some in the media are trying to remind people that Hazare is not quite the “Gandhian” they had projected him to be. In his exclusive interview to Srinivasan Jain on NDTV, Hazare went into great detail to explain why he felt justified in tying alcoholics to a pole and thrashing them. He saw nothing wrong with that. After all mothers also beat their children sometimes, he said. Jain appeared to be egging Hazare on to explain his clearly non-Gandhian tactic in more explicit terms. And Hazare enthusiastically obliged.
As a result, the interview became the centre of several talk shows where Hazare’s take was criticized but also energetically defended by the telegenic Shazia Ilmi who is part of “Team Anna”. Having worked as a TV anchor, she knows how to use the medium. She never loses her cool, nor does she let anyone get away with even a stray remark. She is combative but smiles all the time; a great ambassador for Team Anna. In the discussion on Hazare’s non-Gandhian tactics, Ilmi claimed that the men who had been thrashed were actually grateful to Anna! NDTV has yet to independently verify this statement and inform its viewers. But apart from Ilmi, others on the panel also understood the basis of Hazare’s opposition to alcoholism. Several people acknowledged that alcoholism was a real problem that poor women, in particular, had to deal with. However, no one endorsed the Hazare tactic for curbing alcoholism.
As if this was not enough, Hazare obliged the media by making an off-the-cuff comment when asked what he thought about Sharad Pawar being slapped by a man in the crowd who was incensed about corruption and rising prices. Why only one, asked Hazare. Predictably, this went viral on television, giving more grist to the mill of those searching for subjects for talk shows. People tweeted, commented, condemned before Hazare put out a written statement condemning violence. And the redoubtable Shazia Ilmi once again came to her mentor’s defence, pointing out that his remark was a casual one and that “the slap” was in fact indicative of the anger and frustration felt by ordinary people about the people in power. But by virtue of repetition, something television is particularly good at, the damage had been done. And even though Hazare probably reflected the general lack of sympathy for the political class, for those who had decided he was a wise elder, this remark did not play out too well. So the persona the media had built came down one more notch.
None of this will have any impact on the Hazare loyalists. But it could influence the fence-sitters, people who are still not quite sure what Hazare is all about and whether “Team Anna” has anything in common beyond its determined campaign to get the government to pass the Lokpal Bill.
However, the very fact that journalists felt they had to get Hazare’s opinion on “the slap” brings out another aspect of the creation and destruction of media-created personalities. Having first raised them to a pedestal, the media then decides that they are repositories of all wisdom. So whether they have an opinion, or know anything about the issue, these individuals are asked to state an opinion on everything under the sun. The “sound byte” builds and destroys individuals. No one advises them that perhaps they should say they have nothing to say instead of being lured into stating an opinion. 

The problem, of course, is that the media makes people larger than life and very soon, they too begin to believe that what they think counts. It is the rare individual who has the honesty to tell persistent media that they should go elsewhere for an opinion. So thanks to the media, we now have “opinion-makers” who include public relations men, best-selling authors, actors and even beauty queens who are asked their opinion on anything - from Kashmir to Telengana to the latest craze, “Kolaveri di”.

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Another battle won

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 27, 2011

Equal at last... Photo: V. Sudershan

The HinduEqual at last... Photo: V. Sudershan
The Supreme Court clears the way for women to become In-Flight Supervisors in Air India. Thanks to those women who believed in and fought for equality at the workplace.
This judgment passed virtually without comment. The media ignored it. Why should the rights of a relatively small group of women concern the rest of us? Yet the November 17 Supreme Court judgment, by Justices Altamas Kabir and Cyriac Joseph, upholding Air India's 2005 decision to remove the precondition that an In Flight Supervisor could only be a male, and that women cabin crew could also be appointed to that position, is significant.
The troubled airline has not been a shining example of gender equity. Yet, finally wisdom dawned and it did accept that there was no justification for a rule that held a particular job only for men when the men and women on flights had the same training and did virtually identical tasks.
Expected resistance
What is fascinating about this case is the manner in which the male cabin crew opposed the new rule and challenged it in court. In 2007, the Delhi High Court upheld Air India's right to make this change and held that it saw nothing wrong in the rule. That judgment is worth reading in its entirety as it spells out the history of the struggles of women cabin crew in Air India to assert their right to equal treatment. There have been innumerable court cases, on issues ranging from a different retirement age for male and female crew members to a rule at one point where women who became pregnant within four years of being appointed had to quit to one where women cabin crew were grounded if they exceeded a certain weight.
It is hard to fathom why a ‘national' airline should lag so behind the times on these issues. The women employed by Air India have had to turn to the courts on all these issues. These were not battles for additional powers. The women were simply asserting that they should have the same rights as other employees in a country where equality is guaranteed and where one is working for a ‘national' airline that ostensibly wishes to promote India's ‘national' image.
This last battle, to get the airline to remove the anomaly where a particular job was virtually kept as a ‘male only' designation for no reason at all, was in some ways the strangest. Senior women cabin crew members of Air India, some of whom trained other cabin crew members including men, had to contend with serving under the same men they had trained simply because, regardless of seniority or experience, they could never get the designation of In-Flight Supervisor. Even after private airlines came on the scene where there was no discrimination between male and female cabin crew, Air India persisted. And when it finally changed the rule, the male cabin crew objected, calling this positive change “discriminatory” and challenged it in Court.
In 2007, the Delhi High Court was quite clear in its ruling. It stated:
“The Court finds that IFS (In-Flight Supervisor) is no longer a post, much less a promotional post. It is a function that one among the cabin crew, on the basis of seniority, is asked to perform during the flight. This Court is unable to discern in any of the settlements any assurance or promise held out to the pre-1997 male cabin crew that a female colleague of theirs will never ever be asked to perform the function of an IFS. Nor do the judgments of the Supreme Court say so. The impugned order dated 27.12.2005 is not discriminatory to the male cabin crew. In fact, far from eliminating the possibility of the male cabin crew performing the function of IFS, it provides a chance to their female colleagues as well. In effect it removes the ‘ men only' tag on the function of IFS. We are asked by the pre-1997 male cabin crew to hold this to be unreasonable. We decline to do so. This Court finds nothing arbitrary, unreasonable or irrational in the pre-1997 male cabin crew being asked to serve on a flight which has their female colleague as an IFS. This then is the jist of the lengthy judgment that follows.” ( Rajendra%20Grover%20Vs.% 20Air%20India%20Ltd..pdf.) (LPA Nos. 122-125 of 2006, Date of Decision: October 8, 2007.)
Representatives of the male cabin crew had argued that they would not work under women, even if they were senior. The job had been promised only to men and they were determined to hang on to it. And women could not claim the right to equality in this matter because the job of a woman on flight and a man on flight were substantially different, they argued. Yet passengers on flights can observe for themselves that the men and women in the cabin crew do exactly the same things — welcome you, make announcements about safety regulations, serve you food and drink, clear up after you, help anyone needing help, remain alert in case there is an emergency and act if such an occasion should arise.
Catching up
All this is so obvious that it does not need repeating. Yet, none of this convinced the flight pursers employed by Air India who challenged the Delhi High Court judgment. The Supreme Court ruling, one hopes, has settled the matter and Air India will now be permitted to join the 21st century. And perhaps it will finally also decide to use gender-neutral terms to describe the men and women who are part of the cabin crew.
The court battles fought by women cabin crew of Air India are significant for other reasons. Many of the women who went to court could just have sat back and accepted conditions as they prevailed. After all, they had a secure job and a reasonable salary. But because some of them took the risk of even losing their jobs and challenged these discriminatory provisions, those who join the airline now will be much better placed than their seniors. The lesson these battles hold out is that discrimination does not disappear on its own and that managements are not struck by a sudden realisation that they should be fair to their employees. Positive change is more often than not the result of battles fought by those who believe strongly in equity and justice.
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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Are we not pretty anymore?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 13, 2011

A real test for the brains...
APA real test for the brains...
“Why is India on a losing streak?  Aren't we pretty anymore?” was the plaintive cry of the very presentable anchor of an English language news channel during a news discussion last week. She was not referring to cricket, quite obviously. Her concern was about the drought of Miss World and Miss Universe crowns for Indian women since 2000.  Does this mean Indian women are not the most beautiful in the world, she asked.
The question is clearly inane and does not even merit a serious discussion. And it is entirely possible that it was taken up for discussion on a low news day, when nothing much was happening in the country. But it was reminder of how the beauty business was bought and sold through these pageants in the 1990s with wall-to-wall coverage in the media, particularly by the media house promoting them, and how they have now become so routine as to merit hardly a mention. Even if such pageants, where women are paraded around in a variety of costumes and then asked some questions that are ostensibly supposed to judge their intelligence, seem an anomaly in the 21st Century, few women's groups would work up a head of steam to demonstrate against them as they did in the past.
One reason is possibly the fact that over time, beauty contests have lost the attention of the media. Major channels in the West do not telecast them, only cable channels do. And in Britain, for instance, you can only view them live on the Internet. Even in India, the media interest has waned as Indian women stopped winning. So why draw attention to them when the interest in them is so low?
Lure of the market
Did Indian women win continuously for several years because suddenly a crop of especially beautiful women had appeared? Or was it because the beauty business had discovered that there was a most lucrative market waiting to be exploited in India? From the figures of the growth of the cosmetics industry in India, it is more than evident that the beauty contests achieved their main purpose of pushing and establishing the beauty business in India. Today cosmetics are one of the fastest growing segments of consumer products with annual sales of beauty products exceeding Rs 35,660 crores. The sector is expected to continue growing at the rate of 17 per cent per year.
Cosmetics companies are now targeting smaller towns and even villages. My own experience during visits to several small towns in north India in 2009 for a series of articles on their governance problems illustrated the extent of the penetration of the cosmetics business. In Narnaul, Haryana, for instance, a small town with a population of under one lakh, I discovered there were more than 25 beauty parlours. One of the women corporators to the Narnaul nagarpalika was a beautician who owned her own parlour! Even college girls came for a variety of beauty treatments, she informed me. Similarly, in slums in Mumbai, the change is evident not only in the number of Internet cafes that have grown but also the tiny beauty parlours tucked away in the side streets.
Is there anything wrong with wanting to look beautiful? Even feminist will not deny the right of any woman to dress as she pleases, even if it means caking her face with makeup or wearing alluring clothes. Surely that is her individual right.
The objection is to the commodification of women's looks, where you have an entire industry projecting particular looks and size and luring women into believing that they can succeed only if they can somehow fit that norm. That is what leads to lack of self-esteem in those who were not born beautiful on the outside, wasted resources on quick fixes by many to change how they look, and harmful interventions by way of surgery and killer diets that often permanently damage the health of millions of young women.
It is the direct and indirect promotion of physical beauty as the dominant norm of a person's being that feminists have opposed and continue to do so. If you really believe that men and women are equal and should have the same rights, can you really justify a contest where women have to show off their physical attributes through a swimsuit round to qualify as a finalist? For the organisers to claim that they also consider brains and personality is hypocritical when the entry point is purely physical attributes and nothing else.
Perpetuating myths
Kat Banyard, author of The Equality Illusion and founder of the group UK Feminista, was one of those who demonstrated outside the Miss World contest in London recently. She is quoted in a report in The Guardian as explaining why she did: “We're here because Miss World has absolutely no place in a world that treats women and men equally. It perpetuates the beauty myth…The more a girls sees herself as an object, the more ashamed and disgusted she will feel about her own body. And that has massive implications for everything from being too ashamed to go to physical education lessons to developing an eating disorder.”
In India the interest has waned not just because the cosmetics industry has established itself and is growing, as is evident from the data, but because young women aiming to parachute into Bollywood now have other ways of being noticed. As a fashion designer on the television discussion pointed out, the “hunger for Bollywood” is now assuaged by getting a break through several other routes — modeling, anchoring on television, or simply trying your luck. The new crop of young women in Bollywood has made its way through other routes. The last Bollywood actor “discovered” through a beauty pageant was Priyanka Chopra.
The clutch of demonstrators outside the Miss World final in London was a reminder that there are still people who object to these contests even if some consider their objections as out of tune with the times. But just as the beauty pageants can claim the right to choice of the participants to win recognition on the basis of looks, so can those who oppose shows that judge a woman “by the sum of her parts”, as one demonstrator put it, assert the right to voice their opposition. If, after listening to the different arguments for and against these beauty pageants, young women still decide that their destiny is linked to winning such contests, can anyone object? What do young Indian women think?
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