‘Item Numbers’ Are Only Worsening India’s Rape Culture

by Karishma Desai

One hundred and twenty-four miles away from the Taj Mahal, a monument showcasing the ultimate display of deference towards a woman, is New Delhi, the colloquially-dubbed “rape capital of the world.”

Cases of sexual assault in New Delhi have been making global headlines ever since the December 2012 gang-rape case in a private bus. The most recent case of sexual assault in Delhi that came into the limelight involved an Uber driver and passenger.

It comes as no surprise then, that 97% of women surveyed feel uncomfortable in New Delhi, but as Indian news sources reveal, the severity of sexual crimes against women all over India is much worse than previously realized. In 2013 alone, the Indian National Crime Records Bureau cited that “a woman is raped every 20 minutes.” Frightening statistics!

There are various factors preventing women in India from feeling safe. These range from infrastructure issues, such as the lack of household toilets to police corruption. When women must go outside to urinate, they are in an especially vulnerable position, especially late at night. When police callously watch sexual assaults and accept bribes, women can have no expectations of any kind of protection.

Individual factors aside, one common theme unites all rape cases —objectification. The role of sexualized media content on society’s sensibilities cannot be ignored.

There is a fine line between reality and fantasy; it is easy to cross this line in the imagination. Gary R. Brooks, Ph.D. has cited several observable symptoms of the detrimental effect of watching pornography, including voyeurism, objectification and trophyism. Brooks further extrapolated that among children, watching pornography bolsters the idea that “superior sexual satisfaction is attainable without having affection for one’s partner, thereby reinforcing the commoditization of sex and the objectification of humans.”

Another study published in the 2009 edition of Child Abuse Review remarked that “perhaps the most troubling impact of pornography on children and young people is its influence on sexual violence.”

In the video, male interviewees defend their behavior by comparing the women’s outfits to Rakhi Sawant’s wardrobe, despite the fact that the women they encountered were dressed to the contrary.

What this reveals is the false sense of entitlement that the Bollywood industry has irresponsibly promoted. For one, the term, “item girl,” is sexist and degrading. A woman is a human being, not an “item” to be objectified. “Item songs” in Indian cinema cannot be viewed as empowering, any way you view them. Whether a woman wears a burqa or a bikini, she deserves the right to own her body and the right to free expression.

Lyrics in the hit “item songs” are usually lewd and demeaning. In “Fevicol Se,” the female actress, Kareena Kapoor is metaphorically likened to a piece of tandoori chicken to be washed down with alcohol. Women are literally reduced into thighs and breasts by the lyrics, with the use of the tandoori chicken metaphor. The segmentation of the female body is a finding that was corroborated in one study written by

The segmentation of the female body is a finding that was corroborated in one study written by University of Nebraska psychologist, Sarah Gervais. Specifically, the study found that women’s bodies were more likely to be seen in various parts, while men’s bodies were more likely to be seen in a holistic view. In a Huffington Post article, Gervais stated media as “a probable prime subject.”

In the first video, society is telling women to dress a certain way and to avoid nightlife; to avoid attracting unwanted attention, but is this the solution? Bollywood is only enabling victim-blaming. Women are visually dissected into individual body parts for the goal of satiating carnal pleasures. Akin to carnivorous animals hunting down prey, this is an insidious representation of both men and women.

In addition to the vulgar lyrics, item numbers feature sexually-charged visuals, involving extreme close-ups of various body parts, and dozens of drooling men sexually harassing the main female actress. With each film trying to out-do its competition, most feature “item songs” and these films are broadcasted on cable to be watched in family settings. Children and young adults watch these songs and films, causing desensitization to the misogynistic depiction of women. While it may be argued that objectification occurs in other entertainment-driven industries as well, access to adult content of this level is often much more restricted in other countries.

Bollywood cinema could benefit from portraying the realistic role of sex in modern-day Indian romances. Sex is a natural part of life, and healthy, wholesome interaction between men and women could put out a positive message to viewers. Instead, by continuing to show actresses enjoying the harassment, Bollywood is promoting a problematic message which is at the heart of real cases of sexual assault.

Until meaningful storylines are prioritized over box office numbers, future Indian generations will continue to receive the wrong message. Until women are portrayed as equal partners, instead of sexual objects, India will not be able to tackle the rape issue. After all, the strength in a country is measured in the treatment of its women…as mothers, daughters, sisters, workers and housewives.

Karishma Desai Recently accepted into Boston University’s MS Journalism program, Karishma B. Desai freelances for the award-winning IndyWeek and was a former intern for UNC-TV (North Carolina’s PBS Affiliate). When she’s not writing articles at Starbucks, you can find her videotaping a new adventure for YouTube or interviewing inspirational people for a documentary. She is a city girl who is working towards her dreams of becoming a TV reporter focusing on health policy.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Moving on After Breaking up With Your Cat

“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.

Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.

[Read Related: Artivist Poem Essay-Studmavati]

Take what you want//Take everything

I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.

A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.

It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.

Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.

I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.

I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.

She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.

I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.

I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.

Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.

[Read Related: How Love Matures as you Grow]

By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›

The Pressures of Being the Perfect South Asian Woman

NAKED: The Honest Musings of 2 Brown Women was born in the autumn of 2018, when Mimi Mutesa and Selvi M. Bunce began sharing their poetry collections. It was scary, beautiful, and terrifying when they decided to trust each other with their most intimate thoughts. Not only did they feel relieved after doing so, but Selvi and Mimi also felt more seen as women of color. They embarked on their publication journey, so others may feel as seen as they did on that fateful autumn.

“Ingrown Hair” deals with the themes of societal and family pressures that are reflected throughout NAKED. Mimi and Selvi have always written for themselves. They see poetry as an outlet, and their poems exemplify their personal frustration and vulnerability. “Ingrown Hair” speaks to Selvi’s experience with the societal pressures of South Asian women, such as getting married, being a good wife, becoming a good mother, and leading a certain kind of life.

[Read Related: Exploring the Endless Possibilities of who I am In the Mirror]

Ingrown Hair

There is something strange beneath my skin
telling me to build a house,
make a home,
mother children.
I am not sure how to reconcile it.
My mother was strong
and a mother after all.
My philosophy has been to spend my time
on myself and the world.
I have always thought
I could simply address the thing under my skin
when it finally crawled out.
But when my family starts guessing
who will get married first, and my father
has been saving wedding money for years,
I begin to wonder
if I will have to pluck it out.

[Read Related: Reconstructing and Deconstructing our Ideals]

You can purchase your copy of NAKED on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Bookshop, and The Black Spring Press Group. Follow Selvi on Twitter and Instagram. Don’t forget to check out her project, Brown & Brazen.

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Selvi M. Bunce

Selvi M. Bunce (she/they) has written for academic and creative journals and spoken at diversity conferences and TEDx. Selvi currently … Read more ›

Reflection Comes From Within, not From Others

“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.

I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.

We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!

[Read Related: Uncovering the Brown Boy in Hiding Through Poetry]

Confessions to a Moonless Sky

Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.

If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.

But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.

[Read Related: ‘headspun’ — Bengali Muslim Boy’s Poetic Journey Through Himself]

By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›