One woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Anti-rape protests swept the country in recent months, calling for strict and immediate action from the authorities after a 23-year-old medical student was brutally gang-raped in a moving bus in the capital December 2012.
As of March 2013, 24,000 cases of sexual violence were pending before state high courts and the Supreme Court of India.
In a move designed to prevent the growing number of sex offences in Mumbai, the city that records the second highest number of rapes in the country, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has supported a proposal to ban the display of bikini-clad mannequins in front of shops. The proposal still is not law and is currently waiting on approval from the head of the civic body.
The country’s richest civic body, which boasts 227 councillors from across political parties, has unanimously supported the plan put forth by a BJP councillor to ban mannequins with “indecent display” in public areas.
If approved, the proposal developed by councillor Ritu Tawade will legally empower civic officials to force shopkeepers to remove mannequins that are “underdressed”.
“Lingerie mannequins promote rapes. Skimpily clad mannequins can pollute young minds,” Tawade told the NDTV news channel. “After the Delhi rape case, I felt something had to be done.”
She strongly feels that mannequins, especially those wearing “the two-piece clothes (bikinis)”, impact the incidences of crimes against women in the state.
The Indian commercial capital witnessed an average of 183 rape cases annually between 2002 and 2012. Last year alone, the city saw at least 221 incidents of rape, with 39 percent – or 117 – of the victims being under 18. Forty-one percent of the total 584 rape cases across nine police jurisdictions in the state were filed in Mumbai.
Tawade, 39, has already forced several shops in her ward to remove the indecent mannequins by citing provisions from the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act of 1986.
Those who are provoked can be provoked by anything and everything, all they need is a reason.
The Act prohibits “indecent representation of women” through advertisements or in publications, writings, paintings, figures or in any other manner that can be “derogatory to, or denigrating women” in order to protect “public morality”.
One wonders if Mumbai, home to the Bollywood film industry, is taking the lead in the retrograde step of moral policing, as the proposal has sparked criticism on Twitter. Former journalist and politician Pritish Nandy wrote: “I have never been aroused by a mannequin. Maybe our BMC corporators [city officials] are.”
Not all shoppers agree with Tawade’s argument, as customers know what a particular shop is selling by looking at the mannequins.
Mannequinns are on display in many countries and have been photographic subjects for artists like Eugene Atget, leading critics to argue that mannequinns don’t cause sexual abuse.
“If sellers have to sell their products, they have to display [them]… whether it is a car, or a toothbrush or whatever,” advertising guru Alyque Padamsee told Al Jazeera. “If a shop has to sell lingerie, they need to be displayed.”
Kanchan Maslekar, a shopper in Mumbai, told Al Jazeera that the mannequin ban doesn’t address the problem of sexual harrassment. “Those who are provoked can be provoked by anything and everything, all they need is a reason,” she said.
Will it affect business?
Sunil Prabhu, a city councilor from the Shiv Sena party, backs Tawade’s proposal.
“We want shopkeepers to not display half-clad mannequins on streets and footpaths and embarrass women,” Prabhu told Al Jazeera.
Some college students also support the proposed ban. “Sometimes we feel embarrassed walking on the streets,” Smriti D, a student in Mumbai, said. “Bikini-clad mannequins are kept even on footpaths and men stare at them with lusty eyes.”
Lingerie and undergarments is a industry worth Rs 12,000-crore ($21.2bn) annually. While there are over 20,000 shops in the city that sell all types of clothing – including undergarments – more than 500 shops exclusively sell lingerie and see daily sales of about Rs 5-crore ($887,000).
Some shopkeepers believe the proposal might not affect their business and plan to abide by authorities’ decisions, but others do not. Critics point fingers at newspaper and magazine advertisements where models are spotted in bikinis.
“Our display is only on mannequins whereas advertisements are through live models and fashion shows. Why are only shops punished?,” asked Viren Shah, president of the Federation of Retail Traders Welfare Association (FRTWA).
“Elected representatives, instead of moral policing and putting restrictions on our display on mannequins, should spend time on educating people on sex crimes and the improving mental state of those who pass filthy remarks on women,” Shah told Al Jazeera.
If the civic body’s chief executive, Sitaram Kunte, approves the proposal supporters say he will be acknowledging Tawade’s “fight to save women’s integrity”.