by Ravleen Kaur
I’ve always loved Indian music, especially Punjabi music. I remember dancing around in my purple lehnga in my New York apartment when I was five years old, listening to Surjit Bindrakhia, a popular Punjabi folk singer.
But amidst all of the Punjabi classics, I also listen to new, popular Punjabi artists. What I came to realize, however, is that disguised by the heavy dhol beats are misogynist lyrics featured in music videos that objectify women and portray them as sex objects.
In the wake of the Delhi gang-rape case in 2012, Yo Yo Honey Singh came under fire for his widely popular music videos and lyrics. Indian rapper and student in Delhi, Rene Sharanya Verma, hit back Singh for his misogynist lyrics in “Blue Eyes.”
Verma’s rap, instead, reinforced a more positive outlook on women:
“Every woman is flawless, and don’t let anybody like Honey Singh tell you otherwise.”
But this is not new to the Punjabi music industry–years ago Diljit Dosanjh dedicated an entire song to glorifying girls who weigh 47 kilograms with waists that measure 28 inches.
Although the misogynist lyrics and music videos in the Punjabi music industry may not directly cause stalking and sexual harassment, they contribute to rape culture among South Asians in many ways and enforce the idea that women’s bodies are sexual objects.
More recently, a security guard in Australia avoided going to jail by blaming Bollywood for stalking two women. The bodyguard is to blame for taking the lyrics of the songs too literally, but these popular songs are played on Hindi and Punjabi TV channels and featured in films watched by millions of people of all ages and backgrounds, so it’s no surprise that this type of behavior is being justified by the bodyguard and his defense team.
According to The Guardian: “His lawyer Greg Barns argued successfully that it was ‘quite normal behavior’ for Indian men to obsessively target women without obvious sign of their affections being returned. Male characters in colorful, romantic Bollywood movies are often seen determinedly pursuing their female counterparts until they finally acquiesce to a relationship, argued the defense team.”
In singer Jassi Gill’s latest hit, “Baapu Zimidar,” he says: “Daddy Ji de cash utte karin jaave aish, mera baapu zimidar kithon leke deve car?” (Translated from Punjabi to English: “His girlfriend lives off of her dad’s money and is demanding a car from him. His dad is only a landowner, how can he afford it?”)
These lyrics tell young listeners that the only thing girls want in life is money and material presents. But the truth is, girls in India want equality, freedom, a good husband and family life, not only cars and flats. Lyrics of this kind create a distrust towards women and promotes the attitude that women are greedy, inferior and selfish beings.
A-Kay’s song featuring Bling Singh “Brown Munda” says: “Ni goreya te phirre mardi, brown munda naa pasand tainu aave,” meaning “[this girl] loves white guys and doesn’t like brown guys.”
A-Kay goes on to sing that white guys will break up with his significant other after two weeks; according to him, only desi guys fulfill their relationship promises. This song praises desi guys for being faithful but shames girls for liking white guys, as if there is something wrong with that.
There is a double standard here–if desi guys can like white girls and use them in their music videos, why are desi girls criticized for liking white guys?
I was curious and wanted to know if other college-aged students felt the same way about recent Punjabi music, so I decided to ask my peers. The responses I received when asked what they think women want versus what Punjabi music says they want, was overwhelmingly critical of Punjabi singers.
One respondent said:
“I believe women want honesty, loyalty as well as someone who is emotionally secure and will treat them with the utmost love and respect. I do think Punjabi music depicts women as selfish and wanting men for money, sex, land, etc.”
Another peer said:
“[Women] are always sexual objects, talking about their appearance or their skin color, not about their relationships. And many times if they are talking about relationships, they portray women as gold diggers and shallow.”
However, the same peer did clarify that “not all songs are like that, some sing about sacha pyaar (true love) and khushi (happiness).”
A third respondent noted that older Punjabi music “used to speak of women… in mostly a loving manner.”
Everyone also seemed to agree that female singers’ lyrics is either neutral or positive towards men. They went on to say that negative lyrics and music videos do have the potential to increase harassment and assault towards women.
So, why is it more of a trend to disrespect women in popular songs even though we have come so far in women’s rights? This may seem trivial to some, but this type of music can have a long-lasting effect on its listeners. This unrealistic portrayal and generalization of women is unhealthy, and can reinforce a culture of demonizing and disrespecting women. It’s pathetic because many men either blame women or use Bollywood and popular music industries as an excuse for their behavior.
However, I do not say, don’t listen to this music. The songs are catchy and even I’m guilty of listening to them. Instead, I’m saying be wary of what you’re listening to, and be aware that these lyrics are misogynistic and send negative messages about desi women.
We live in the world where rape is normalized, and the last thing we need is pop culture glorifying men who insult women for their personal choices, objectify their bodies, or depict them negatively.
On this note, it’s best to give credit to Indian comedy troupe AIB and actor Irrfan Khan for their new, viral video that, believe it or not, stands against misogynist lyrics, “Every Bollywood Party Song.”
Ravleen Kaur is a student at The Ohio State University studying public affairs and public health. Her hobbies include drinking over-sweetened coffee and dancing to bhangra music in public spaces. She is planning to run away from her home state in the Deep South and eventually work in the public health field.