The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Preity Zinta’s outspokenness symbolizes the Indian woman’s growing desire to criticize a system that benefits only men

If refreshing is the adjective used most in describing the actress, Preity Zinta, upon her appearance on the Mumbai film scene, it can be applied to her in real life with equal justice. She is the only witness in the case against the film financier, Mr Bharat Shah, the producer, Mr Nasim Rizvi, and two others to have stuck more or less to her statement to the police in the hearing in the special court in Mumbai. Thirteen other witnesses, including some of the biggest names in the industry, all male, have turned “hostile”. This all-male cast, led spectacularly by such heroes as Shah Rukh Khan, Rakesh Roshan and Salman Khan, has distinguished itself by frantic verbal acrobatics in court in order to deny all earlier statements that point towards their compliance in extortions and underhand financial deals concerning one of the most wanted mafia dons in the country.

Preity Zinta has rung in a refreshing change in this murky sequence, but to call her only refreshing in this context is to trivialize the magnitude of her decision to speak up in court. She has taken on the dangerous network of crime that largely underwrites film financing. The ongoing case under the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act is seeking to expose the nexus between the film world and the underworld, so it is not as if the actress does not know the possibly serious consequences of her revelations for herself. In a society that has systematically devalued the woman’s position and muffled her voice through generations, such incidents seem to provide evidence of changes that are now quietly taking place.

For one, a much larger number of women are no longer silent, nor are they willing to be muffled so easily. This change is both statistical and qualitative, although the number of women who still cannot find their voice is still too enormous for complacency. What is more significant is what they are speaking up about. One reason for the growing awareness about crimes against women is the women’s decision to speak up under the most difficult circumstances. This is a very important achievement of the Indian women’s movement. It is not just the educated or privileged women who are vocal, rural women are evolving homegrown methods to collectively stop their men from indulging in socially and economically destructive habits such as drinking. Even the most conservative societies are having to face pressure from their women at last, to change shamelessly gender-biased marital laws in the personal code, for example. It is believed by some that the apparent rise of incidents of violence against women represents a backlash against women’s growing empowerment in the home and outside. Evidence of this empowerment is to be found in the changes that have been made or are being considered in property and criminal laws, in the sensitization, although yet imperfect, of the media, the courts and, though even less adequately, of institutions such as the police. That women themselves are the authors and causes of these changes is indication enough that they comprise one of the most effective critical forces working towards positive changes in Indian society.

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