Mumbai Looks for Morals in Mannequins
Image Credit: Flickr (asianu)

Mumbai Looks for Morals in Mannequins


The historical monuments in Khajuraho in central India are unique in many ways. The monuments, which celebrate sexuality and eroticism, were built in the 10th century A.D. The unabashed depiction of human desire shows how relaxed people were about sexuality then. No wonder Khajuraho is one of India’s most popular tourist destinations.

Contrast this openness with the recent decision by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (aka the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, or simply the BMC) to ban skimpily clad mannequins in India's most populated metropolis on the grounds that near-naked mannequins encourage men to commit rape.

The corporation, predominantly under the control of the Hindu right party, Shiv Sena, voted to more fully clothe the plastic figures, citing the increased instances of rape in the city. The elected officials of the BMC argued that mannequins displaying two-piece outfits or lingerie are a corrupting influence at odds with the morals of society.

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The obvious background is the Delhi rape case, in which a 23-year-old woman was fatally gang-raped on a moving bus, to a national outcry. Crimes against women have increased 7.1 percent nationwide since 2010, according to reports citing statistics from the National Crime Record Bureau. After the Delhi incident, news related to violence against women has surged and led to the formulation of a new anti-rape law that calls for sentencing convicted rapists to life in prison or even death.

The move is surprising for Mumbai, the nerve center of Bollywood and known for its liberal outlook. These liberal attitudes are reflected in the hundreds of movies produced annually in the metropolis, from romances to crime stories and thrillers, depicting different facets of life.

Compared to the nation’s capital, women in Mumbai enjoy greater mobility. Indeed, it is normal for women to move around Mumbai at night without incident. Further, the city hosts hundreds of fashion shows every year in which women sashay down runways in lingerie.

Against this backdrop, the BMC’s decision to cover mannequins is baffling. Rather than reinforcing the city’s liberal tradition, the decision is an attempt to undermine women’s mobility and impose a value system that is more regressive than progressive.

Prahlad Kakkar, an advertising film director, said, “…with elections round the corner, they (the BMC) have suddenly implemented this to show us how concerned they are about the safety of women. It is a futile attempt by the BMC. If some people decide they want to live in the Stone Age, let them.”

Fashion choreographer Sheetal Sharma also posed a question: “If mannequins are going to be banned, are they also going to ban magazines and movies that depict mature themes?”

Such concerns are being expressed among all segments of society about Shiv Sena’s real intent in enforcing a ban on mannequins.

An ally of India’s main Opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shiv Sena is a regional outfit that has never been an exemplar of progressive thinking. It is known for harassing women who celebrate Valentine’s Day, vandalizing paintings by famous artists portraying Hindu deities, banning books and attacking academic institutions.

The party’s latest move to ban plastic dolls displaying lingerie is not a solution to the spike in crimes against women. What is needed is a more fundamental change in way society treats women at large. An intense churning is already taking place in society, fueled by increased education and enhanced mobility for women. The next necessary step is to intensify this debate and expedite the process of change.

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