(Published in The Kolkata Telegraph, September 2005)
Once upon a time, there was a young man who decided to do something special for the woman he loved. That night, he stood outside her window and serenaded her with a violin concerto. He played so well, she and her family came out and applauded. The next night, he was back to serenade her on the flute. She and her family were warm in their praise. The third night, he arrived with a saxophone and began to play. Her family came out, shouting abuses; they thrashed him, she threw her engagement ring in his face.
“Why’d you do that?” he asked from the pavement. “Young man,” said her father, “shame on you. We don’t believe in premarital sax for women.”
We’d like to dedicate this shaggy-dog story to Khushboo, the actress who’s been in the news this week for casting aspersions on the moral character of Tamil—and by extension, Indian—womanhood.
Khushboo told a magazine that society had to free itself from the “outdated thinking that a woman has to be a virgin at the time of her marriage”. She suggested, too, that Tamil women “should know to protect themselves from pregnancy and AIDS if they chose to have sex before marriage. Educated men these days do not expect their spouses to be virgins at the time of marriage”. A few days later, harassed by groups protesting the slur she had cast on Tamil womanhood, picketed and facing a firestorm of righteous indignation, Khushboo withdrew her comments and made an apology.
Khushboo’s comments were refreshing, in an industry where all starlets feel obliged to explain that they only “expose” when “the role demands it”. She didn’t feel the need to suggest, as her blinkered critics did, that premarital sex was against Indian culture; instead she accepted the prevailing reality, which is that men and women can have guilt-free relationships without the benefit of a mangalsutra.
I particularly liked her emphasis on protection and sexual health: the unembarrassed and empowering acceptance that if you’re going to have sex, you need to be responsible about it. And she paid a definite compliment to today’s men when she pointed out that male attitudes to virginity might have changed. I like the idea of a man who is unthreatened by the fact that his future wife might actually have experienced a genuine relationship before she met him.
The guardians of Tamil Nadu’s culture might want to consider some other statistics: like many Indian states, TN lags behind in several areas. The rate of female infanticide has gone up sharply in TN over the last five years. While boys and girls join school in high numbers, the percentage of girls who drop out is uncomfortably high. And, oh yes, the abortion rate in TN’s cities suggest strongly that whether they’re against or for that mythical beast known as “Indian culture”, women aren’t exactly against premarital sex.
Khushboo’s views could have led to a more open discussion about sexuality, about the growing ease between men and women, about responsibilities in adult sexual relationships, about the new Indian man who’s comfortable with independent women, and so different from his repressed, repressive stereotype. Instead, she’s the target of a bunch of hysterical prudes who’re desperate to pretend that women are still legless angels. Now that’s the ultimate shaggy dog story.
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