Sania Mirza is probably fed up with people giving her advice. But I would like to commend her for being firm earlier this week. According to press reports, she walked out of a press conference in Kochi "in a huff" when faced with persistent questions about what she thought of the Kushboo controversy. Sania was in the city to endorse a line of jewellery. Instead, predictably, when the media met her, the questions had nothing to do with jewellery, or even with tennis at which she has excelled, but her views on an issue that has blown so out of proportion that the original context has been forgotten. For once, she made a sound decision to hold back her opinion on this or any other unrelated subject.

At a media event

We are willing to elevate women to the status of goddesses and worship them. But they must remain obedient and silent.
The reason she was asked this was because of her reported statements on November 16 at an event organised by Hindustan Times on the theme, "Role of the celebrity: Influencing public policy". During the discussion, Sania did not make any comments about pre-marital sex, according to Vir Sanghvi who was moderating the discussion. What she did speak on, in her usual forthright manner, was about the length of her skirt on the tennis court. On this she was quoted as saying, "As long as I am winning, people should not care whether my skirt is six inches long or six feet long." (The Hindustan Times, November 17, 2005).

After the event, she as well as Formula One champion Narain Karthikeyan were asked what they made of the "Kushboo controversy". A news agency reported Sania as saying, "I think there are two separate issues, AIDS and pre-marital sex. Whether it is before or after marriage, people should have safe sex. And about pre-marriage sex, you can't stop people and hence the best way is to play it safe." Karthikeyan was reported saying, "South India is a closed society. There was nothing wrong in what Kushboo said, but it spiralled into a big issue because of the media."

Karthikeyan is a Tamilian but there were no "spontaneous" demonstrations across Tamilnadu condemning his support for Kushboo who has been charged with defaming "the Tamil people". In fact, what Kushboo said was not very different from Sania's remarks. She was speaking in the context of the spread of HIV and advocating safe sex in all situations. It is precisely this kind of celebrity endorsement of safe sex that is used by AIDS activists to create awareness about the issue. Yet, it appears that women celebrities are not entitled to make a "safe" remark about sex.

Backtracking ... and paying heed

Sania's statement too, which by no stretch of the imagination can be termed as "endorsing" pre-marital sex, became a full fledged controversy with both Muslim clerics and Hindu fundamentalists in her hometown demanding an apology from her. Instead of standing by what she said, it is sad that Sania backtracked into her usual defence about being a good Muslim. Sania should remember that she has acquired celebrity status in this country because she is young and she plays great tennis. It has nothing to do with which religion she follows. That is her personal choice. Given her apparent confidence and maturity in face of the constant media onslaught, she should now feel sure enough to stand by her views without having to constantly reiterate that she is a good Muslim.

Narain Karthikeyan's message

Karthikeyan's remark about the media should also be heeded. At most public events these days, after the event the electronic media tends to hold a separate press conference. And regardless of what happens at the event, the sound bytes that are telecast are often those taken with the microphone thrust into the face of a celebrity. If the remark made is half way controversial, it is played repeatedly throughout the day until such time as anyone who wants to exploit it for whatever purpose gets a good look at it. And when those who do want to make capital out of such a remark decide to act, the media is ready and waiting to record every minute of even the minutest protest, something that would have been ignored in the past.

Thus, news channels get dramatic material to fill their airtime, and many peripheral organisations get instant publicity and that too nationwide. In the process, the context of any statement is completely forgotten and the "victim" of such media overkill is forced to become defensive, as in Sania's case.

Instead of appreciating the fact that these women are using their celebrity status to reach out with important messages, such as the one on safe sex, they are being pilloried.

 •  Hypocritical morality
 •  Good girls don't drink

There are two other aspects of this controversy that are not being addressed. It is no coincidence that in both these instances, it is women who have been targetted. Men could have said something along the same lines, but their remarks would have been overlooked. But women apparently should not speak about sex with this level of frankness. In Kushboo's case, the issue has political connotations and she has belatedly found some supporters. But the real question of silencing women is not being addressed.

The other issue that our hypocritical society will not touch is the question of women's sexuality, their right to choose and their right to express their choice. In the name of protecting "culture" or "tradition", women are constantly told what they can or cannot say, what they can or cannot do, what they can or cannot wear and ultimately what they can or cannot think. We are willing to elevate women to the status of goddesses and worship them. But they must remain obedient and silent.

Unintentionally, Kushboo has blown the lid off this hypocrisy. And by supporting her, Sania has responded the way any modern young woman would in this country. Instead of appreciating the fact that these women are using their celebrity status to reach out with important messages, such as the one on safe sex, they are being pilloried. What a statement this makes about a country that claims it is free, secular and guarantees women equal rights!