Grihalakshmi, a Malayalam magazine, carried the image of a breastfeeding woman, sparking debate in India. Photo: Courtesy Twitter

The cover of a Malayalam magazine, Grihalakshmi, quite widely circulated in the Indian state of Kerala, recently portrayed a breastfeeding woman. She was partially clothed, was clearly married, and gazed directly at the viewer. A man objected to the publication of the image, and the 1986 Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act was reportedly invoked against both the publisher and the model.

Indian law does not mandate that all explicit imagery be considered indecent or otherwise illegal. Nonetheless, images of women’s breasts have repeatedly been assailed, especially when they are posted on social media. It doesn’t always matter that such publications may have no sexual purpose, that they may be posted for purposes as laudable as raising awareness of breast cancer, or that they may be posted by women themselves.

Experience has shown that content arbiters acting for social-media companies do not necessarily deal in nuance, and that they may pay scant heed to the autonomy and free-speech rights of women who post images of themselves.

Although they are bound by content laws, their decisions about content legitimacy tend to be made within the framework of contract law (manifested through the Terms of Use of social-media platforms). This grants them virtually unlimited power to decide whether to take down specific images and to suspend those who post them, regardless of the legality of the images. And, in effect, it means that white supremacists may find it easier to thrive online than breastfeeding mothers.

Content law is reasonably nuanced. It does not employ a “sledgehammer approach” and takes the circumstances surrounding the publication of explicit imagery into consideration.

“Indecent representation of women” is defined as “the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman, her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to, or denigrating, women, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals” in Section 2(c) of India’s 1986 Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act.

Section 3 of the act prohibits advertisements containing indecent representations of women, and Section 4 prohibits the publication or postage of indecent representations of women. There are exceptions in the law, however, that allow explicit imagery for religious, scientific, and artistic purposes, among others.

A close reading of the law indicates that its primary concern is not the protection of the women who feature in indecent imagery themselves but the fear of “public morality or morals” being corrupted or injured by the publication of indecent imagery. Therefore, it may be possible to argue that women who consent to being featured in allegedly indecent imagery could conceivably have violated the law.

But here too is a slippery slope. Despite its ostensible aim, the statute contains no mechanism to factor in choice inhibition or to determine if consent was truly voluntary. And so it is also possible to argue against holding a woman, whose agency may well have been limited or compromised, accountable for supposedly corrupting public morality at large.

There being the distinct possibility that the image of a woman breastfeeding would be legal does not also mean that it would be unproblematic. The structure of the image on the magazine cover in question, for example, appears to conform to old, patriarchal tropes in art. The woman in it, decked with the artifacts of marriage, looks directly out of the frame at the invisible viewer.

Being unquestionably married places her firmly within the realm of “good” women. It informs the viewer how to treat her and it helps legitimize the publication of her image. She is, after all, doing what patriarchal gender roles have determined is her duty, and not being subversive.

Although she gazes out seemingly unashamed and unhesitatingly, the image speaks not so much of her autonomy independent of the viewer but of her relationship with the viewer, even if it is only to assert that she will do what she has to do. There may be a degree of liberation in making such a statement, but it is not a statement that is unconscious of the viewer.

Throughout history, explicit images of women have often been included in settings seemingly dissociated from the sexual. Mythological scenes featuring nude women once proliferated in what we now think of as classical art. These images were largely paid for by men, and it is difficult to argue that men, either as invisible viewers or participants, were not the focus of attention.

If an explicit image of a woman is to be truly progressive or liberated, it is men from whom it must be liberated. This is possible: India itself issued a postage stamp in the early 1980s that featured a woman, oblivious to all else, focusing on the child she was breastfeeding. That said, simply because an image may be flawed in its conceptualization, it does not necessarily follow that it would be illegal. The primary aim of the law, after all, is not to mandate that women’s images are independent of men and the male gaze.

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Nandita Saikia

Nandita Saikia is a New Delhi-based lawyer.

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