By Vasudha Katju
The December 16th gang rape in New Delhi has shocked and angered many people, and led to a massive public discussion on the incidence of rape in India. Attention has also turned to the numerous other forms of violence that women face every day– whether it be street harassment, sexual harassment at the workplace, sexual abuse at home, or others. What is being questioned is a culture of misogyny that makes sexual violence possible.
One such example that has come under the public scanner is that of Honey Singh, a popular rap artist performing in a mix of Punjabi and English. His song ‘Brown Rang’ was the most watched Youtube video in India in 2012. Singh was scheduled to perform at the Bristol Hotel, Gurgaon, as part of the hotel’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. A day before the performance, three petitions were circulated, addressing the management of the Bristol and calling for the cancellation of the programme. One petition cited the “pornographic lyrics” and “woman hating (sic) sentiments” of the song ‘Choot’; the other quoted the same song and said that Singh’s songs reflected “a deep misogynist and violent mindset” and were “extremely sexist and derogatory to women”. The third declared that the lyrics of the song were too offensive to be quoted. Together, the petitions garnered over 3000 signatures. On the night of the 31st, the hotel went ahead with its New Year’s Eve event, but Singh did not perform. Singh has since denied any connection with the song ‘Choot’.
It has been said by some commentators on the internet that the song ‘Choot’ is only meant to be entertainment, after all, and that no one listening to it would be inspired to go out and rape someone on the strength of its lyrics alone. This seems in some way to miss the point. The song talks about a man’s desire to have violent, brutal sex with a girl – with his sword-like penis, until her underwear is soaked with blood. Many men have had you, it says, in expensive rooms and cars, but no one like me. And after you, I’ll have your friends. Most disturbingly, though the man says that he knows that the girl wants to have sex, at no point do the lyrics indicate that she wants to have sex with him. These lyrics do not seem to be entertaining or sexy as much as vicious.
The video to the song ‘Yaar Bathere,’ a song by Alfaaz that features Singh, shows the two singers walk up to a house, accompanied by six or eight other men. A group of girls stand on an upper-floor balcony, while smoke billows from a burning jeep overturned in front of the house. As the song begins, Singh climbs onto the jeep and starts smashing it with a baseball bat. The song is about a boy who feels betrayed by a woman he loves, and he sings of her having had many lovers. The underlying aggression and violence in this video is unmistakable. In ‘Brown Rang’, mentioned above, Singh tells a girl that her brown skin has captivated him, and that he doesn’t like white women anymore. While trying to seduce her, he asks her to become his whore. In songs such as these, Singh seems to be drawing upon common tropes regarding interpersonal relationships – the gold-digger, the whore, the slut – in ways which exculpate the men in those relationships.
It has been pointed out that Singh is not unique in violent, hyper-sexualised, or objectified portrayals of women, as it is a feature of much of our popular culture. Singh has said that he is being used as “an excuse”, i.e. as a scapegoat. Others, who do not seem to be especially sympathetic to the singer, have asked why item numbers which objectify women are not censured. Another writer echoes this sentiment, but goes on to say that the problem lies with those who consume such music and popular culture, not with those who produce it.
It is important to understand that we live in a culture which both produces and consumes misogyny. Honey Singh does not have a monopoly over misogyny – nor, for that matter, does anyone else. The massive reaction to this incident of sexual violence, and others that are being revealed every day, have not only brought the misogyny and sexism of our culture into plain view, but have given us an opportunity to tackle those aspects of it that make such violence possible. Clearly, it is time to look a little more closely at the choices we make, even those made in the name of entertainment.
Vasudha Katju is a research scholar at CSSS, Jawaharlal Nehru University