India’s Moral Police The Fatwa against Mini-Skirts

A new wave of prudishness is washing over India. It's striking the country's prosperous technology capitals and has led to fatwas and campaigns against India's most popular celebrities. And when Playboy hits the newsstands for the first time later this year, its hallmark Bunnies won't be exposing their birthday suits.

By Padma Rao in New Delhi, India

A police officer in Meerut in northern India pursues a young woman who has violated the city's moral code.

A police officer in Meerut in northern India pursues a young woman who has violated the city's moral code.

The walls of the country's temples are decked with acrobatic friezes of copulating couples. Erotic fables tell of the Hindu God of Love flirting outrageously with naked milkmaids bathing in a river. And next to its philosophical considerations about happiness in marriage, the Kama Sutra also offers useful tips for the entire palette of sexual delight. India's ancient history is studded with unabashed sex.

But what about a female tennis star who wears shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt? Or what happens when an actress so famous her fans dedicate temples to her begins to share her views on condoms and pre-marital sex? Smooching pairs in discotheques? Lovers holding hands on the beach?

By Krishna, no.

In recent months, political opportunists in India, acting in the name of "protecting the innocence of India's youth" and "Indian morality," have campaigned a crack-down against sexual liberation in the world's largest democracy. They have brought the work of parliaments to a halt, they have incited mobs and they have successfully pushed for changes to the laws. In a country that has traditionally been better known for the pleasures of the flesh, enforced virtue is fast spreading.

A fashion fatwa

When a South Indian movie star, a 35-year-old actress who goes only by the name Khushboo, dared to suggest in September that Indian men should abandon the "outdated thinking that a woman must be a virgin at the time of her marriage" and urged the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in a country where it has become an epidemic, conservative political and community groups immediately went into overdrive. They staged rowdy demonstrations, pelted the vociferous AIDS prevention campaigner with tomatoes, rotten eggs and filthy abuse and filed more than 24 defamation and public interest suits. After her initial arrest, authorities released Khushboo on $100 bail and ordered the actress to keep her mouth shut.

Even the chief minister in Khushboo's home state of Tamil Nadu got into the act, accusing the actress of having committed a "violation of Indian culture." Nor did she get any support from India's health minister, medical doctor Anbumani Ramadoss, who said: "It is not that we Indians don't have sex. It's just that we don't talk about it."

India's teenage tennis star, 19-year-old Sania Mirza, likes to pair her skirts with saucy t-shirts with slogans like "I'm cute, no shit," and during the past year, she has risen to become the country's most popular youth icon. As Mirza notched up success after success on international courts -- she went from 987 to 34 in the ATP ratings in just 4 years –- an obscure Islamist group in Mirza’s southern hometown of Hyderabad issued a fatwa against her. The Muslim teenager’s clothes on court, it claimed, were "un-Islamic" and it ordered her to cover up.

Tennis player Sania Mirza has offended moral watchdogs with her provocative clothing.

Tennis player Sania Mirza has offended moral watchdogs with her provocative clothing.

"As long as I am winning, people shouldn't care whether my skirt is six inches or 6 foot long," retorted fast-talking Mirza.  “How I dress is a very personal thing.” But when Mirza stepped in to offer her support for the safe sex message given by beleaguered actress Khushboo, it suddenly became too much for the country's prudish Hindu majority and furious mobs in southern India went on the rampage again. Effigies of both women were burned, Khushboo went underground and Sania was forced to take bodyguards. Under intense pressure, both women made public apologies.

For the most part, however, India's newfound modesty is hypocritical. India’s booming cities are awash in soft pornography. Bollywood, India’s film industry, specializes in exquisite strip teases, sleaze and double entendre. Fashion television routinely airs hours of nudity, and Russian blue movies abound on late channels and in video stores. Men’s magazine Maxim has entered India’s giant market. Playboy is to follow, but Hugh Heffner's editors have recognized the current zeitgeist in India and the bashful Bunnies will be semi-clad -- not very, but just enough to keep from breaking the taboo of nudes.

Is success fueling the new wave of puritanism?

The most troubling aspect of these recent incidents is that they have taken place in the very information technology capitals of India that have been wooing overseas investors and vying against each other to present themselves as the most tolerant and cosmopolitan. Hyderabad is India's second-largest IT hub and it is home to Microsoft's largest foreign center outside of Redmond.

Some believe the new wave of prudishness is a consequence of the country's rapid economic changes. “It is India’s conservative but booming middle class who most fear the loss of the traditional Indian family whenever women assert their sexuality,” says India’s leading social scientist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Sudhir Kakkar. “Through their frank views on sex, Khushboo and Sania crossed that rubicon.”

In Khusbhoo’s hometown -- IT-aspirant Chennai, which is home to some of India’s finest educational institutions -- a tabloid recently published pictures of a couple kissing in a five-star hotel in the southern city, which used to be known as Madras. The hotel lost its business license and the couple was threatened with imprisonment.

The city's police, who are officially referred to as "guardians of Chennai's morals," reportedly then used security cameras installed along the city's most popular marina to surreptitiously snap pictures and later blackmail young lovers cuddling on the beach. In the northern city of Meerut late last year, policewomen hunted down canoodling couples in a city park. Images of the officers slapping and scolding the cowering women -- some there with their husbands -- were repeatedly broadcast on television. The officers were later suspended and an embarrassed city council apologized.

Of course, some Indians in high places feel that the whole brouhaha over the crackdown is much ado about nothing. “There are some things we cannot copy from the West,” said Krishna Tirath, a member of India's parliament who is named after the greatest Casanova of Hindu mythology herself. “As our society does not approve of pre-marital sex, it must be done undercover.”

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