Choice and Female Empowerment – Why the Controversy?

Our writer shares her opinion on the recent Vogue Empower Campaign and why ‘choice’ has become such a dirty word.

Choice. It’s such a simple word, rolled so easily off the tongue and yet here we are. In 2015, debating about it. Championing it. Lamenting its loss on the lives of so many.

So why has choice become such a complicated word?

One person’s choice is another’s privilege. That much is as easy to see as the sun is yellow. In certain parts of the world, laying off food and detoxing for a week is a choice, whereas in other parts, it is an unfathomable concept, given the scarcity of resources.

When choice is linked with female empowerment, the issue becomes hazier. Should it? Don’t we still have a scenario where to one woman empowerment means the choice to build her career and relationships and step out in freedom the way she desires whereas to another it means simply the ability to cross the riverbank from her village to get water without being harassed?

Perhaps it is an urban vs. rural divide, but that would be a disingenuous way of approaching the subject. Now, how we apply the specifics of the debate to the confines of our respective societies is probably a better way of coming at it.

So in the midst of our increasingly muddled reactions to lexicon like freedom, choice, empowerment, in comes the latest Vogue India Empower Campaign, about, you guessed it – choice.

In it, we have the very talented, charming and smart Indian actor, Deepika Padukone espousing her concept, and endorsing the campaign’s concept of women’s choice. In the aftermath of the campaign, there has been a great deal of heated debate about its merits. Advocates on both ends have argued for and against the alleged temerity of the project. Writer Shoba De pitched in with her point of view, as she does and the video appeared to have crossed the divides when American actor, Ashton Kutcher even shared it.

So what’s all the hullaballoo about?

“My body, my mind, my choice”

The fact that this statement even needs restating, bears testament to how badly society in general still needs a dose of female empowerment. And yet, because of that very reason, the statement simply cannot be repeated enough. What a woman chooses to do with her body and mind is her choice. Whether she puts it in a three piece shalwar suit or tights and t-shirt is her choice. Whether she utilizes the capacity of her mind for medicine, architecture or raising children, is her choice. Whether she’s into sports, finance, is on a diet, not on a diet, should be no-one’s dictate but her own. It’s difficult to see anyone having a problem with this part of the campaign.

“My choice to marry or not to marry”

This seems to have ruffled a few feathers, of the male and female kind, but it’s easy to see why, given the patriarchal confines of certain societies. Marriage isn’t and shouldn’t be a mandated diktat. Two willing adults ought to enter it solely through their own choosing and no-one else’s. And if indeed, a person, and in this case, woman, decides marriage is not something she’s looking for at a particular time, or ever, then so be it. End of. The only discussion that ought to take place about this choice is in the woman’s own mind, not in the coffee houses and drawing rooms of idle minds and malicious whispers.

“To have sex before marriage, to have outside of marriage”

This is a somewhat trickier concept to digest, for a multitude of reasons, at the forefront of which is our ironic preoccupation with sex itself. We want to pretend such a thing doesn’t exist yet we seem to be constantly thinking about it in one way or the other. Putting religious implications aside for the sake of argument, sex before marriage for a woman really has evolved to a place where equality has become the mantra. If a man can do it, why can’t it? And perhaps, although a rather dangerously simplistic way to look at it, one can see where the mantra is coming from. However, shouldn’t female choice be focused on just that – her choice? And not a blind following of male gender tropes? Regardless, it’s about time we stop viewing a woman’s choice to engage in physical relationships as a taboo waiting to be judged and condemned, and instead see it for what it is, a choice by the woman herself to indulge her body and mind as she pleases. If there are those in society than cannot handle it, then should it be the woman’s problem?

However, what makes a society? Certain rules and norms. And when there are violations of those norms and rules by contrasting values encroached upon in the name of empowerment… Because that’s really the issue here isn’t it? Sex before marriage implies two consensual adults, free of any binding ties. While it may be frowned upon by many, ultimately, the two are affecting no one but themselves. But since when was marriage a concept with fluid boundaries?

Basically, since when did infidelity become OK?

If two people have decided an open marriage between them, then fair game. It comes back to choice in that case. But what if the woman is imposing her choice upon the man? What if he’s not alright with sex outside the marriage? Would the woman be OK with the man’s infidelity if he simply turned around and said, ‘my choice?’ Shouldn’t choice be a two way street then, many are asking?

“My choices are like my fingerprints, they make me unique”

But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise powerful campaign whose essential message of the importance of recognizing a woman’s choice shouldn’t be diminished by the directorial (ironically) choices such as the swishing hair, the bra straps or the mostly urban, privileged set of women chosen as the faces of the campaign. Sure, if one turns the volume off, the campaign looks a lot more like an Advert for shampoo or sportswear but that’s just it. Don’t turn the volume off. In fact, turn the visual off, if need be. But do listen. Whether you agree or disagree, again, it comes back to your choice. But you must recognize the validity of arguing the importance of a woman’s choice in determining her path in life. Especially in societies where choice is in fact a privilege and not a right.

The Vogue Empower series are a healthy endeavor. Perhaps they need to remember to come off less sanctimonious and more accessible. Maybe a campaign like this needed women from all different manners of society, class and boundaries. Maybe it’s not so tough to see why certain groups are side-eyeing the campaign, considering Vogue as a fashion source arguably often strips women of choice by presenting notions of beauty that must be achieved at all costs.

At the end of the day though, this is the same source that gave us the ‘It starts with the boys’ campaign – decidedly Vogue Empowers finest hour yet. So there’s hope yet, that this campaign will hit its stride. For now, it’s important enough to merely have a debate. That can only lead to change, hopefully at least some of it, of the positive kind.