Women through the Tamilian lens

18 Jul

I was asked to contribute to Options, the webzine of the Women and Media Collective, on the theme of language and gender, for their July 2013 issue. Here’s the result:Still from the song Jaffna, 2003: I was cycling down Palaly road wearing ‘shocking’ attire. Pants and a loose long top that came to mid-thigh! In the peninsula where women wore skirts/dresses or saris exclusively, wearing the so-called western and indecent attire of pants was just ‘asking’ for it. I had become inured to the negative, sarcastic comments within a few months of re-locating there, so took no notice of the various cat-calls and witticisms from the self-appointed upholders of feminine virtue – the jobless male youths hanging out at nooks and corners. On this particular day however, something brought a smile to my lips. They started singing a well-known movie song in order to taunt me: Senthamil nattu tamilachiye, Selai udukka thanyanguriye…. (Tamil woman from a pure Tamil land, yet you shirk to wear the sari). In spite of myself, I started grinning. And that surprised the boys into shared laughter too – they let me past without any more hassle. Which brings me to my current dilemma. Is it wrong on my part to like that song so much? Well, I know it is, but I can’t seem to help it. It is a catchy tune (composed by A.R Rahman, no less) and had the lyrics penned by one of Tamil Nadu’s foremost poets, Vairamuttu. Catchy beat, amusing lyrics – but a song that is downright derogatory to women. Yet I listened to it and appreciated it for years without ever even wondering if it was not wrong to be so derogatory of one sex in particular. Sure I love the sari, but it’s an inconvenient dress form to wear everyday and I don’t want to. Whenever my chauvinistic male cousin sniped at me for wearing pants, insinuating that I was a disgrace to my culture, I would snap at him, “First you wear the veshti and then come talk to me. You are wearing pants too.” Yet you don’t find any Tamil songs making fun of that. It’s only the women’s job to uphold culture apparently – and the men’s job to point it out if they err.  In the song, the actor Sathyaraj wears traditional clothing of veshti and shirt while the actress Sukanya sports western clothes. At least, they had enough sense to know that they couldn’t point fingers without wearing traditional clothes themselves first – but the Tamil masses who have accepted and continue to enjoy this song without question are not so finicky themselves. How responsible is it then, to let loose a song like this in a culture where women are always held up to higher standards of behaviour than men? Still from the song 2 The youths singing that song to taunt me were sporting pants, shirts, caps, shoes… all western attire, so just what gave them the right to taunt females who chose to wear pants? While overt criticism like my cousin’s never failed to rile me, this song by being so catchy and funny got past my guard. Yet how many impressionable youths would subscribe to the message insidiously relayed thereby? Comments underneath youtube videos of the song, relay the same dilemma on whether to like the song or not. Youtube it if you can, it is worth a watch. The most liked comment calls out to men’s hypocrisy on liking the song while wearing western clothes themselves. Another commenter (male) has left a comment about being torn between the catchy beat and insulting lyrics. It’s so creatively done though that I still can’t take offence at it. According to my sister, it’s too good a song to dislike and only ‘radical feminists without a sense of humour’ will dislike it. I don’t know about that but I really can’t bring myself to say I dislike the song, even though the message conveyed is out and out misogynistic. This paradox offers a lot of food for thought. Just because something is very creatively and eloquently done, why should it not be challenged? Songs of this type (and there are many in Tamil) are almost the equivalent of the Trojan horse among women. They have let it in themselves and are patting it on the head.

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