Two years ago, Indian channels would frequently play a rather infuriating advertisement on TV. In the ad, a woman is seen putting a lunchbox in her son’s schoolbag while a man yells from the background, “Ritu, where are my black socks?” She climbs up the staircase looking like she could bite the head off her whining spouse, she thinks, “Black socks, white socks, how am I supposed to know where your socks are? You are 35 years old and still do not know where to look for your socks?” She then opens a drawer and hands her husband a pair of black socks without saying a word. The narrator of the ad claims, “When your system is not fine, then little things can make you angry and irritable. So eat Kellogg’s All Bran Wheat Flakes, which is high in fibre.” Fibre keeps one’s system clean so that people can be happy from within. By the end of the ad, Ritu has eaten her bowl of cornflakes and lovingly throws a pair of blue socks at her husband. The world reverts to perfection where wives happily look for their husband’s socks as the latter yell for it.
The ad is off the screen now, but its replacements are no better. Worse still, even as Indian ads have become somewhat progressive when it comes to gender roles in recent times, Nepali ads are busy imitating their old form. Messages of Nepali ads can be summarised as follows: go to the market looking for oil that prolongs the life of your husband. And if your family demands multiple dishes, get a rice cooker, a roti maker, a microwave oven and prepare rice, rotis and pizzas at the same time. Evolve into the modern-day devi, multitask in the kitchen as your husband fixes his tie (on his own, thankfully) and leaves for work. Any disregard for or questioning of these roles can, of course, be fixed by a bowl of cornflakes, nice smelling detergents, long-lasting soaps and kitchen appliances.
That such ads are the norm rather than an anomaly in Nepal should come as a surprise to us, but it does not. For what has changed in the life of an average Nepali woman as a result of long activism before and after 1990, including the decade-long Maoist war which boasted of high participation of women—both in combat and civilian roles, is largely the rhetoric of the women’s rights discourse. Writings by Maoist women, in the aftermath of the war, make it a point to mention that women are more than ‘machines that produce children’ and cannot be chained to their domestic roles at the cost of realising their full potential. The advertisements, on the contrary, show that societal perception is still to change. So, evoking the longevity of the husband while selling cooking oil in a society which is culturally trained to worship him once a year and the phallus for 365 days is, therefore, merely cashing in on the given.
Even so, the Maoist women have voiced their concerns against the subjugation and commodification of the female body. On the day the Miss Nepal beauty contest was held in April 2007, for instance, the Maoist activists protested against it in front of the pageant venue arguing that it commodified women and enslaved them to capitalism. [See protest photos by Joshua Kraemer in his website]They clashed with the police. A few days later, a former brigade commissar of the People’s Liberation Army published an article titled “Beauty Pageants, Lathi Charge and Future Nepal”. Dismissing the argument that such competition provided an opportunity for personal growth and career to the participants, Amrita Thapa Magar wrote, “What is the point of the opportunity created by unnaturally increasing the price of the products (by spending insane amounts on advertising) and adding pressure on livelihood of citizens?” The Maoists could have shutdown the Valley on the day of the event and resorted to violent ways, but they did not do so, she claimed. The Maoists’ aim was, she said, only to make the people aware about how such pageants were not in society’s best interest. It was ironical that the Nepal Television, directly controlled by the then Information and Communication Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, himself a top Maoist leader, continued with the old practice of broadcasting the event live. Much to the dismay of the Maoist women activists, he had to retract his earlier decision of not broadcasting the event succumbing to the pressure of the contest sponsor, which also happened to be one of the largest advertisers for the NTV. The sponsor had threatened to terminate its relationship with the channel.
A year later, the contest was rescheduled due to Maoists’ protest, but not cancelled. Thapa Magar wrote another article titled “Why Beauty Contests Should not be Held?” in which she reasoned against such spectacles under neat categories: cultural, economic, political, respect, female pride, human rights and psychological. Highlighting how women were not a homogenous category, she argued that Miss Nepal contests were only for a handful of women from the cities who had enough to eat and clothe. “Only a few women are considered beautiful—those who can afford to drink juice and can maintain their figures without having to work,” she wrote.
Maoist activists and supporters shout at police during a anti-Miss Nepal protest in Kathmandu, September 24, 2009.
CREDIT: REUTERS/DEEPA SHRESTHA
The Maoists’ routine of staging protests against the beauty content continued for a few years. But even before triggering the much-needed debate on the portrayal of women in the media or the implications of such beauty contests to society, the movement fizzled out. The Maoists apparently came to terms with reality. Instead of changing society, the party changed its ways and split. Thapa Magar is now with the breakaway faction, CPN-Maoist, that claims to be more revolutionary than its mother party, UCPN (Maoist).
Meanwhile, ratopati.com, a website run by UCPN (Maoist) sympathisers and promoted by the party ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, regularly covers and promotes beauty pageants. In mid-December, it reported on the Miss Nurse Competition whose stated objective was to make nurses more accountable to society and responsible towards their jobs. How that goal can be met by putting up pictures of contestants who are all decked up and are posing with flowers is unknown.
In a matter of less than ten years, the Maoists’ grand plan of liberating women from the clutches of capitalism has come full circle. Malvika Subba, the much-touted ‘beauty with brains’ and Miss Nepal 2002, is busy encouraging women to prepare different food items on TV. Beauty pageants, on the other hand, have penetrated much deeper into the Nepali society. A woman can now participate in beauty contests throughout her life, starting from her childhood to be being ‘crowned’ Miss one ethnic group or the other and all the way to Mrs Nepal.
As for the socks, Onsari Gharti Magar, a Maoist leader and deputy-speaker of the Constituent Assembly, was quoted by setopati.com as saying how women in cities were more regressive than their rural counterparts. “They still take off their husband’s socks!” she said.