Posts Tagged woman

Birth, control, and the pill

The oral contraceptive pill: few women would deny its role in female emancipation because of the control it provides over reproductive choices. A post over at the Gender Across Borders blog (a recent find, and one of my favourite haunts of late) on contraceptive advertising in the US set me thinking.

Contraceptive ads in India have come a long way since the antiseptic, sanitized ads of Nirodh and Mala D—government products, freely available at all public health centres, and probably still the only affordable choice for the lower and middle strata of society. The ads centred on family and spacing children. Which is not surprising, given the audience they targeted—people who would probably not be comfortable with any public discussion of birth control. (Anyone from that pre-remote-controlled-TV generation will have plenty of fun memories of squirming parents and other elders, of forced loud conversations, deliberately and hastily started to drown out the ads … while children giggled.)

The 1990s saw a radical change in contraceptive advertising, at least as far as condoms were concerned. Kamasutra (and Pooja Bedi) started it all off and others followed—Moods, Kohinoor. The focus of these ads is unmistakably on the pleasure of sex. Instead of the “anti-pregnancy device” rhetoric that Nirodh projected, they play upon “attitudes toward sex” and promote the condom as “an intricate part of the pleasure of sex”.

Fine. But hold on to that bit about pleasure. Remember that condoms are male contraceptive devices.

What about the pill? Well, after Mala D, I remember seeing ads for several other brands of pills, mostly in women’s magazines such as Femina. And they emphasized the ‘hassle-free’ life pills promised. That is, their focus was on unwanted pregnancy: with control over pregnancy, women had greater freedom to do other things in life. I don’t recall any that spoke about the pill making sex a pleasurable act for the woman.

Today we have the emergency contraceptive pills—Unwanted 72 and the I-Pill. Ads for both these pills clearly target the modern, urban woman. One depicts a distraught young woman rushing, furtively, to an abortion clinic, and the other shows young women crying their hearts out because “they didn’t take precautions”. In both cases, the message is clear: use the pill if you want to avoid messy abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

There’s no denying the fact that the fear of pregnancy weighs heavier on a woman’s mind than on a man’s, since it’s an unequally shared burden, but is this a stereotype being promoted here? (Apparently there is already opposition in India to the way in which emergency contraception is being advertised: that it will encourage promiscuity,  that its message of a “tension-free” life is misleading, that it sends out wrong signals about abortion.)

Advertisements for the pill seem to promote it as a lifestyle drug. As the GAB post puts it: “as whimsical and enticing as any for clothes, shoes, or makeup,  showing pictures of young, smiling, healthy women,  and how much easier their lives are with the pill.”  There are even ads in the US depicting the supposed benefits of pills, such as cures for acne, PMS, etc.

The trouble is, as GAB asserts, “the pill is not a shoe, or mascara, and it is never a choice made in a vacuum.”

Also, ads for both condoms and the pill deliberately do not show the other side of the coin. While promoting the pleasure of sex, condom ads are silent about the risks of sexual behaviour. Similarly, oral contraceptive ads that speak of an easier life for women say nothing about their side-effects which all women who use pills know exist. But that’s the way ads function I guess.

What really bothers me is that the underlying rhetoric of contraceptive advertising  is gendered: pleasure for the man and protection for the woman.

Why? Why is contraception portrayed as a means of ensuring pleasure for the man, and as protection from the havoc of pregnancy for women?

Because pregnancy is the woman’s headache?

Because women have to think about sex in terms of procreation, not pleasure?


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Woman’s Day

A peaceful Sunday morning. Leisurely cooking, unlike the frenzied dabba-packing of weekdays. A friend of the kid is here and the two of them are studying for a Math test on unit conversions and ratio and proportion. Around 12 noon I stick my head in the study to say lunch is ready, and find them giggling helplessly. 

“What’s so funny, guys?” I ask.

My little one buries his face in his books. The other one tells me, “Aunty, he says one boy is equal to thousand girls.”
“Is it in one of the sums?” I inquire.
“No, he just made it up.”

I clutch at the doorknob for support as my knees threaten to give under me. Pure anguish. How, oh how, could my child-raising have gone so horribly, horribly wrong?

A few hours later  . . .

I am marking student assignments while the kid is sprawled on the floor, reading. 

Suddenly: “Ma, what’s abo- shin?”
My pen freezes in mid-air.
“Is it in the book?”
“No, I heard it somewhere.”
“What’s it mean?”
“Did you look it up?”
“Yes, but I didn’t understand.”
“OK.” (Can he hear my heart thumping?) Carefully sanitized explanation follows.
“Hmmm. Did you have an abo-shin?”
“I think you must have.”
“Why do you say that?” (Surely he must hear the tom-toms beating in my rib-cage?)
“See, everybody has a brother or a sister. So it’s not possible not to have a second child. So you must have abo-shin-ed.”
(The tom-toms are deafening.) “No, da. It is possible not to have a child if you don’t want one, without an abortion.”
“Oh. How?”
“Er… I’ll explain after dinner OK?”
“OK. It’s complicated, eh?”
“Y-yeah. Sort of.”

I walk into the bedroom, lock myself in and call up the spouse who’s traveling. “Can you take the first flight back home, please? I’d like to have a nervous breakdown.”

(Not to worry, people. Adequate talking it over with the kid followed both incidents. An attempt that left me wishing I’d done a Ph.D. on the language of children rather than the language of Amitav Ghosh.)

Facetiousness aside, a year before the 100th celebration of Women’s Day, it’s worth asking what we’ve achieved.

I’ve resisted the temptation to read the many inspiring voices in the blogosphere on Women’s Day. As someone who knows only too well the deep-rooted gender biases of academic and commercial publishing, I see the alternative space that blogs provide as oxygen for women. And yet this is primarily a space for the English-educated, internet-accessing elite.

Ground reality appears to tell a different story. In decision-making bodies women’s voices are still a minority the world over. According to the UN’s Inter-Parliamentary Union’s report (Source: The Hindu, March 7, 2009) women hold just over 18% of the seats in parliaments around the world. And since parliaments are popularly elected bodies, this can only mean that women still lack any real, equal power. Even in the world’s supposedly most advanced country (US) this figure is 17% for both houses of Congress, still less than the global average.

Whatever the evils of “reservations”, it is crucial for women to have a significant presence in administration and governance. Problems and crises very often have a woman’s face that gets ignored. Even the current global economic crisis has a gender bias. As Amelita Dejardin of the ILO points out in this article, “what is lacking in the debates surrounding the crisis is the realization that, especially in Asia, working women are affected more severely, and differently, from their male counterparts.”

Sadly, though, the few women who do get elected into the legislative bodies in India do not always conduct themselves creditably. The recent widely televized  (in Andhra) slugfest between women leaders (who will in all likelihood get elected to the state Assembly) of two political parties, trading charges over who was sleeping around to get party positions, just goes to show that women continue to undercut their own cause.

Education, in my view, holds the key.  And it is vital for women to play a key role in their own education. A fine example that deserves to be celebrated today is the book Shareer ki Jaankari (published jointly by Kali for Women and IDRC). A book written, conceptualized, and illustrated by 75 rural women from Rajasthan’s villages.  The fascinating thing about this book is, in the words of the publishers,:

. . . because it was about women’s bodies the village women had to find a way of depicting this. They drew pictures and then tested these in the village and everyone laughed, saying you never see a naked woman in a village, how could these pictures be realistic. But of course their problem was, how to show the female body in a book about the body without showing the naked body? So they went back to the drawing board and came up with an ingenious plan. They’d show a woman fully dressed, covered from head to toe, but then you would have a small flap you could lift up and you’d see the vagina, the breasts and so on! You’ll have to see the book to see what I mean, but it was a wonderful solution.

I have seen the book, thanks to a friend in Hyderabad, and the reason I think it is so effective is that rather than blindly ape Western models and standards it takes into account, is rooted in, the culture of its audience. 

You can read about this book here. (Thanks to Jabberwock for pointing to this online mention of the book in his blog a few months ago.)

So yeah, Happy Women’s Day. And thank you too, all the men in my life, out of my life, unconnected or distantly connected to my life. You help make me feel . . .  well . . .  a woman!


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