The Lynching of Khushboo:

Challenging the Conservative Culture-Police

“They say that love blossoms between a man and a woman only once and remains unchangeable thereafter. According to them if love shifts from one person to another it is not love at all but lust and is to be branded as “whoring”. …Whatever be the consequences, I am of the opinion that the champions of ‘love’ are either ignorant of the reality of life and human nature or feign ignorance for some reason or another.”  “Whereas they (the Legislative Council) view it (contraception) as a matter of promoting the health of mother and child, safeguarding their family property from being squandered away by many hands and for the economic considerations of the nation as a whole, I view it as a key to liberate womenfolk from their slavery to man.” - E V Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar)

 “It is not that we Indians don’t have sex. It’s just that we don’t talk about it. We need many more Khushboos to talk about safe sex to the country’s youth. But you cannot propagate sex outside or prior to marriage…The ABC of AIDS prevention is A for Abstinence, B for being faithful and C for condom use.” – Anbumani Ramadoss, Union Health Minister and PMK leader

M elodramatic, flamboyant and cinematic public events are fairly common in Tamilnadu – but the recent controversy over Khushboo is bizarre even by Tamilnadu’s standards. Some time back, a popular actress of Tamil films, Khushboo, remarked in an interview that in her view, there was nothing wrong with premarital sex, but one should take necessary precautions against AIDS; she added that men ought not to insist on virgin brides. These casual and fairly commonplace remarks were construed as an assault on ‘Tamil culture’ and an affront to ‘Tamil womanhood’ by parties like Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK, a UPA partner led by S Ramadoss , whose son holds the Union Health portfolio) and the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) led by Tol Thirumanavalan. Khushboo as well as a fellow actress Suhasini Mani Ratnam, who spoke out in her defence, were attacked by mobs armed with chappals and brooms, despite tearful public apologies by the actress. A local court entertained upto 20 cases against the actresses. The Tamil film fraternity as well as the Chief Minister Jayalalitha chastised the actresses for failing to observe restraint in public speech. And even the left forces like the AIDWA restrained themselves to a statement against the assault on the “freedom of expression”, while the CPI(M)’s Tamilnadu State Secretary explained that his party did not support Khushboo’s views, but advocated “democratic” forms of protest instead.

Such moral policing in the name of protecting “culture” is not new – the Sangh Parivar and the BJP have a long history of mobilising mobs on such agendas, and we are also familiar with fatwas against Sania’s tennis dress. What makes the Tamilnadu events remarkable? Perhaps the irony that this public lynching of women in the name of protecting ‘Tamilness’ is being perpetrated by Dravidian/Dalit parties that vie with each other to be the torchbearers of the legacy of one of India’s boldest rationalists – E V Ramaswamy Naicker or ‘Periyar’ as he was better known.

Periyar’s writings and speeches took on every sacred cow of Hindu conservatism; they excoriate the notion of female chastity and the ideology of sexual hypocrisy and the double standards of public morality. Periyar’s stress was on democracy in love and relationships, rather than on monogamy or chastity. Contrast those views with Anbumani Ramadoss’ remark that one can ‘have sex’ as long as one doesn’t ‘talk about it’!

Khushboo committed the cardinal sin of ‘talking about’ premarital sex; the ‘guardians’ of ‘Tamil culture’ obviously have no problem with the unorthodox love lives of its venerated public figures, especially film stars and political figures, as long as they don’t ‘talk about it’! There is a long tradition of male musical or cultural figures in the state establishing a ‘second household’ (with a woman other than the legally wedded wife). For instance, that epitome of Tamil respectability, MS Subbulakshmi, was born of an accomplished singer of devadasi origin, and was in all probability fathered by a highly respected musical figure. In the film world, Rekha too was born in just such a ‘second household’. And those who straddle the worlds of cinema and politics have led the most unorthodox domestic lives : take the late MGR’s extramarital relationship with Jayalalitha, or the friendship between Jayalalitha with long-time companion Sasikala.

The tragedy is that in Periyar’s Tamilnadu, ‘Tamil culture’ is willing to accommodate some of Brahminism’s most violent and abhorrent practices. Jayalalitha’s histrionic drama of trying to ‘commit sati’, dressed in white on MGR’s funeral pyre was played out to an adoring gallery of AIADMK supporters. And the custodians of ‘Tamil culture’ never seem to wield their weapons against the female foeticide that is rampant in the State.

Where can one trace the ideological roots of the attack on Khushboo? Disapproval of and even vituperative attacks on open expressions of sexuality by women were often seen during the formative period of Indian modernity. In 1910, for instance, the devadasi courtesan scholar Bangalore Nagaratnamma decided to edit and reprint the erotic poem Radhika Santwanam, written by the 18 th century devadasi Telugu poet Muddupalani. She was met with a storm of outrage by nationalists. The social reformer and pioneer of women’s education, Veeresalingam, demanded that the British ban the book, which he said was ‘disgraceful and inappropriate’ for women to hear or write. Nagaratnamma spiritedly challenged the double standards behind such censorship:

“Does the question of propriety and embarrassment arise only in the case of women, and not of men? Is he [Veeresalingam] implying that it is acceptable for this author [Muddupalani] to write about conjugal pleasures in minute detail and without reservation because she was a courtesan, but it would not be so for respectable men? Then my question is: Are the ‘obscenities’ in this book [Radhikasantvanam] worse than the ‘obscenities’ in Vaijayantivilasam, a book which Pantulu Garu [Veeresalingam] personally reviewed and approved for publication? And what about the ‘obscenities’ in his own work, Rasikajana-manobhiranjanam?”

Clearly, for Veeresalingam, the education, skill and freedom of the courtesan women were abhorrent, and the chaste married woman could be the only dignified ideal for educated modern women. The progressive, anti-Brahminical Self Respect movement in Tamilnadu, for all the rationalist values of its pioneer Periyar, suffered from some of the same attitudes. That movement demanded the abolition of the devadasi system. It championed the question of ‘self-respect’ and dignity for the devadasi women of the non-Brahmin castes, and demanded an end to the institution that degraded and exploited them. But at the same time, it propagated marriage as the suitable solution for the devadasi women, and demanded a ban on dance performances by these women. Simultaneously, men from the same castes who played instruments like the nadaswaram were free to continue to play as a profession. Obviously, the movement shared the notion that public dance/music performance was equivalent to prostitution, and married respectability could be the only form of ‘self-respect’ for women. Many women performers like the renowned dancer Balasaraswati protested against the ban on dance, and demanded to know why it could not be possible for society to accord dignity to women, and ensure that they retain their right to earn a living from dance or music, without suffering the exploitation of prostitution.

The attack on Khushboo was not just on her freedom to express a flippant idea; the outrage was whipped up at the very idea that women might dare to have sex outside marriage, without guilt. What underlies the CPI(M)’s ambivalence towards challenging hypocritical sexual double standards head on, terming it an issue of freedom of expression rather than one of women’s sexual freedom? Khushboo’s was a casual remark; she was not seeking to prescribe or propagate any sweeping vision of society. But some, even on the Left, suffer from an anxiety about being seen as supportive of ‘decadent Western/capitalist values’. Let us interrogate this notion. Is Western capitalist society really comfortable with women’s sexual freedom? Would the attack on Khushboo be impossible in such a society? Look back at the turn of century: American writer Kate Chopin faced the 1899 equivalent of chappals and brooms when she wrote The Awakening, a novel about a married woman who has an affair. Contrast Chopin’s sad tale with that of the 18 th century German poet Goethe, whose writings celebrate his prolific love life, including an affair with a married woman, and one with a teenage girl when he himself was 74. Goethe was venerated as a literary giant and his works as masterpieces; Chopin was hounded into a premature grave within five years of writing her novel. A 100 years later, extra- or pre-marital sex may not cause similar outrage in USA , but the fundamental question of women’s control over their sexuality and reproduction continues to haunt the capitalist West. Take a look at the US today: the people on the strength of whom Bush wins elections, are those Catholic conservatives who lead mobs to bomb and torch abortion clinics and attack advocates of women’s right to abortion. Ramadoss’ mantra of ‘abstinence/being faithful’ as being better ways of battling AIDS than condom use, are echoed by these fanatic opponents of sexual freedoms of women and homosexuals! Interestingly, just as it was women who were mobilised to attack Khushboo, it is women (mostly strongly religious housewives) who form 80% of the mobs that attack the abortion clinics in the US .

The Left often points out, correctly, that thanks to the social and economic inequalities between men and women in capitalist society, women end up exploited by the sexual freedom offered by the same society. But should this mean that in a male-dominated society, the Left should never defend women’s right to assert and control their sexual and reproductive choices (be they within or without marriage) with dignity? Johanna Brenner, writing about the women’s movement in the US , suggests that the Left should not allow itself to be forced into a choice between the “protection and repressiveness” of traditional marriage, and the “freedom and danger of life lived outside them”. We can perhaps make some use of her suggestion, that the Left should “hold on to a vision of sexual liberation while criticising its degraded and manipulative versions in (capitalist) pornography, advertising, “swinging” lifestyles and so on”. And of course we must resist every attack on women like Khushboo, recognising that such attacks are part of the web of social practices like witch-hunting of dayans, sati,fatwas and honour killings, which are aimed at denying women autonomy over their own sexuality, reproduction, and their lives.

- Kavita Krishnan