We always knew women were capable, strong, responsible, caring. But must they for all time to come also be the only ones to carry the burden of upholding societal "values", whatever these are? Why is it that whenever there is any talk of "values", it is women's behaviour, their dress, their attitude that comes into question? How come that when there are more men than women in India, and their numbers will continue to grow as the trend to eliminate girls before birth also keeps pace, they are not asked to think about their attitudes, their behaviour?

The incident in Chennai

The provocation for these thoughts, naturally, is the incident in Chennai where photographs of men and women consuming alcohol and a few couples dancing and kissing at a private party, behind closed doors, in a posh hotel, were printed in newspapers. This blatant intrusion into the privacy of individuals was completely overlooked as the police, Chennai's very "moral" police, got into action and cancelled the hotel's license. For those of us who do not live in Chennai, the incident seemed incredulous. Could this be happening in a democracy? In a country not ruled by the Taliban or its equivalent? Where under the Constitution men and women are equal? Where kissing in private or in public is not a crime? Where drinking alcohol in private or in public is not a crime, with the exception of a few States that have a specific policy?

What is even more extraordinary is that the ire of the morality folk was directed entirely at women. Men can drink, apparently, but women should not. By the same measure, are we to presume that men can kiss but women should not? It sounds absurd but the entire episode has been so completely farcical that one can hardly believe that it took place at all.

Advertisement for a shoe brand

It is also notable that there has been hardly any protest from women about this attack on them by the police and by political parties. Why are the women in Tamil Nadu silent? Do they accept that men must police their morals?

There are "moral" questions about society that we should be asking, and not about whether an elite group is "misbehaving" behind closed doors.

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The issue highlights a deeper division between women's groups that has a history. It keeps surfacing every now and then, usually centring on issues of women's bodies, women's sexuality and women's right to choose. In the 1980s, for instance, there was considerable difference on the portrayal of women in the media. While some women, usually belonging to the more conservative right wing parties, attacked hoardings and advertisements that displayed women's bodies to sell products and argued that such depictions were against "Indian values", other women's groups were more concerned about stereotyping and negative images of women that the media perpetuated.

One instance of the former was the advertisement for a shoe brand that depicted two well-known models appearing to wear nothing else apart from the shoes they were selling. Charges of obscenity were levelled against the models and the makers of the advertisement by some groups in Mumbai. But over and above this, some women were particularly incensed that the female model, a Maharashtrian, should be seen in such a pose with a Maharashtrian man to whom she was engaged to be married. Maharashtrian "values" were offended, we were told, an echo of the Tamil values currently being offended in Chennai. A case was filed against the two models and, after all these years, it is still pending in court. It was not clear what was considered obscene — the fact that the couple appeared nude, or that they were Maharashtrians who had posed for such an advertisement.

The dance bars

A similar debate has sprung up around the dancing bars issue in Mumbai. Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil justified the ban on these bars saying that scores of women had petitioned him to do so because these bars were corrupting their men. So in order to preserve the "values" of their menfolk, bars in which women danced to please these men were closed down. And thousands of women, as well as some men, were put out of work. Whether this has contributed to raising the "moral standards" of the men who frequented these bars is a moot question. But once again the debate has raised many questions.

In licensed dance bars, women performed for men who expressed their satisfaction by throwing money at them. This is not the best way for a woman to earn money. But neither is prostitution. Yet, there is no demand to outlaw prostitution. Nor is there a demand that there should be prohibition throughout India. Yet, the combination of alcohol and women flaunting their bodies and earning money has been banned. So why are dance bars considered a corrupting influence if both prostitution and alcohol are not banned?

The women who dance in the bars would perform the identical "item" numbers that you see in most Hindi films. Bollywood has used the "item" number ploy to attract men to the theatre. There is never any connection between the suggestive dance number and the story of the film. Yet, there has been no demand that all such "item" numbers be banned. Many more people watch films than visit dance bars. Hence, why the double standard?

Societal values and morality should apply to everyone, men and women. And they must extend beyond the way people dress or behave to a whole gamut of other issues and attitudes. Is it "moral" that our society continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their caste or community? Is it "moral" that children die every day in India from starvation while we boast of our economic growth rate?Is it "moral" that medical technology is used to eliminate girls even before they are born?

These are some of the questions we should ask, not whether a small elite group in our society is "misbehaving" behind closed doors.