There’s a term called the ‘casting-couch’ – in simpler words, I will give you a good opportunity for success, but you have to sleep with me in exchange. The term may have emerged from the film industry but the casting-couch is omnipresent in the patriarchal society we inhabit. Married or unmarried, young or old, it has become normalised, almost commonplace, that the male employers will try and take advantage of a young job applicant.
Sri Reddy, a rising young Telugu actress, has launched a naked protest against leading directors and producers of the Telugu film industry about her experiences with this casting-couch. In response, Shivaji Raja, the president of the Movie Artists Association, threatened the strictest action against any other artist thinking of working with Sri. It is fairly obvious that under such circumstances no producer or director is going to be willing to work with her. Sri’s landlord too has handed her an eviction notice. She had wished to fight against discrimination only to be further discriminated against. Her stripping in public had most angered the same people who had stripped her in private. She has dared to speak out against rich and influential men; there’s no way they are going to let her be in peace!
Naked protests are nothing new. Of course, such a protest presumes certain physical and psychological risks since it is possible for anyone to retaliate with hatred or physically hurt the protestor at will. But nakedness is also strength. Even without any weapons it can make one feel powerful. Nakedness itself is a weapon. In the 80s Bangladesh, Noor Hossain, a poor auto-driver had taken off his shirt and painted in white ‘Let Democracy Be Free’ across his back and ‘Down with autocracy’ across his chest to march against the despotic Ershad government. The police had shot Noor Hossain through his chest and he had crumbled to the ground – a death that had shocked Bangladesh into silence. Noor Hossain was a symbol of the movement against tyranny in Bangladesh, a symbol of freedom. Many poems, songs, play were composed in his name. So many young lives have often been lost to police bullets while marching for freedom. But since martyrs of the Language Movement of 1952 no other death had devastated Bangladesh more than his.
A naked protest is not nudity, it is the act of taking off one’s clothes in public. It is the act of becoming utterly and completely vulnerable – a vulnerability that makes the protest against the oppressors much stronger. It also serves to bring into stark contrast the differences between the vulnerable and their persecutors. In such cases since it becomes immediately obvious who the oppressors are and who are the oppressed, a naked protest against discrimination is far more symbolic than most other forms of dissent. You have everything while I have nothing; you are powerful while I am not; you are huge while I am small – this is what a naked protest stands for. Is there anything more extraordinary than the sight of a bare chest pressed against the barrel of a loaded cannon? Don’t we remember that young Chinese man from 1989 standing in front of an advancing tank? When the tanks were reentering Tiananmen Square after having crushed to death nearly 10000 students the night before, all of whom had been protesting to save democracy, a lone unarmed youth had stopped the advancing machine of death with his own body. At that moment hadn’t the body been stronger than the tank? Of course it had. People across the world had expressed solidarity with that lone body back then. Then again in 1969 John Lennon of the iconic group The Beatles had stripped with his wife Yoko Ono in their hotel room in protest against the Vietnam War. He had called for peace instead of war, naming their protest Bed-Ins for Peace. He had asked people to make love, not war.
A naked protest attracts the attention of the people and the media. It sparks sympathy because the one who strips naked does so to stand by the dispossessed. Take the instances of rape committed by the army in Manipur for example. Driven to desperation by the sexual violence and the extra-judicial killings, a group of elderly Manipuri women had stripped down to nothing in 2004 and marched to the Kangla Fort division of the Assam Rifles with a banner that read ‘Indian Army, Come Rape Us’. Before this no other protest movement against rape had managed to strike a more lethal blow to the collective conscience in such a manner.
There have been naked protests the world over against various discriminatory practices. Last year nearly a hundred women in Argentina stripped in front of the court in Plaza de Mayo to protest against the various injustices and acts of violence being committed upon women, against the number of women being killed on a daily basis. Naked women lay down on the footpaths, many bodies intertwined together. Instead of causing sexual arousal such a scene could only make one tighten one’s jaws against the injustices being committed against women. At least that is what should happen. The same thing had happened in Argentina a couple of years ago too when women had stripped in front of the parliament to protest against the treatment of women as sex objects.
Women fighting for animal rights on behalf of PETA too have resorted to naked protests against the fashion industry and use of animal fur. They have put on animal masks and stripped to lie down on the roads amidst chants of ‘It’s better to go naked than wear fur’. FEMEN, a Ukrainian radical feminist activist group, has been holding naked protests across the world to campaign against oppression of women. Their protests are directed against religion, patriarchy, despotism, corruption and rape and torture of women. The women of FEMEN write their protest slogans on their own bare backs and bodies and turn up at various places to stage protests, to shock and disconcert people. The other day when Bill Cosby was being taken to court the entourage faced the women of FEMEN with slogans written on their bodies – ‘Women’s Lives Matter’. The Bill Cosbys of the world have always treated women as merely sex objects and FEMEN’s primary focus is to fight this sort of misogyny.
When women take off their tops during such protest all eyes are usually drawn to their breasts. Since they had breasts the police was quite prompt is dragging/carrying the activists of FEMEN away. However the police never displace the protesting men. Breasts are the most natural thing in the world and yet they are treated as the most unnatural. Breasts are utterly normal but when bared they are immediately treated as the most abnormal. Women protest against weapons and power using the gifts given to them by nature. Naked protests are less about the nakedness and much more about a revolutionary spirit. A woman’s nudity makes a man uncomfortable because men have always treated women’s bodies as their personal property and seeing this body bared in public makes them uneasy. The fact that women are the true custodians of their own bodies, the fact that they have a right to do whatever they want with their own bodies, there are not many who are willing to come to terms with this. Whether people are willing to accept it or not nudity is a sign of resistance.
Sri Reddy had been protesting against the casting-couch for quite some time. The protest only gained ground when she chose to strip. What she had wanted to say, no one had had time to hear it before. It was only after she decided to take off her clothes that people stopped to listen. Perhaps the only way to combat injustices being committed against one’s body is by using the body itself. The police were prompt in rushing Sri away from the site of her naked vigil while the powerful and the influential paid scant heed to her protest. Perhaps because patriarchy is so strong there that Sri Reddy’s act of rebellion did not manage to make any dents on its perpetuity. Perhaps if other women like Sri had protested they could have catapulted some visible change. Like how thousands had taken to the streets in Delhi to protest against the Nirbhaya rape.
Sri Reddy has confessed to have been a victim to the casting-couch. She has mentioned names of famous producers and directors who have used her for sexual favours and who wanted to sleep with her in exchange of giving her a break. Just like this, in Bollywood and other film industries, if masks begin to come off the faces of all the rapists pretending to be divine and holy in order to earn the adoration of people and who sexually exploit young girls in secret, then perhaps some good can be done for the betterment of society.
Despite having requisite qualifications many women fall prey to sexual exploitation by their male overlords who cannot see beyond women as sex objects. Most people assume that artists and writers are much more progressive and open-minded than other people, that they believe in the equality of the sexes much more than other men. However they too can be rapists just like other uneducated, insensitive and inhuman men. They too can take advantage of a woman’s helplessness and exploit her for sexual gains.
In Hollywood the masks are gradually coming off the faces of serial sexual abusers – Harvey Weinstein, Bryan Singer, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Spacey. Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, Dhallywood – in the numerous Woods that are there in the world, it won’t be enough if the sexual predators are only publicly exposed. Just as how the ground has been snatched away from under the feet of such men in Hollywood the same should happen to all others of their ilk. Men who continue to occupy positions of power and influence despite exploiting, harassing, insulting and torturing women just because they are women cannot be allowed to continue any longer. Let their reputations be swept away into oblivion by a tidal wave of comeuppance.