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In the eyes of the beholder

The amendments to the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act (IRWA), 1986, languishing with the government for the last three years, were finally cleared by the Cabinet last week. However, by and large, the much-awaited amendments have left women’s groups and activists cold. Most feel that they are too little, too late and that no matter how important the changes they will be of scant use without proper implementation.

The amendments, which will soon be tabled in Parliament, have extended the scope of the IRWA to include not just advertisements, print, electronic media or any other form of visual representation, but also the Internet, satellite communication, multimedia messaging and cable television.

Punishments for offences under the law have been made more stringent as well. Imprisonment of up to two years has been raised to three years and fines have been raised from Rs 2,000 to between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh. For second convictions, the penalty is now sizeable — imprisonment of up to seven years and fines between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 5 lakh.

This may sound impressive, but experts say that given the fact that there have been very few convictions under the IRWA so far the enhanced punishments may not amount to much. In fact, Geeta Ramaseshan, a Chennai-based women’s rights lawyer, is frankly sceptical. “IRWA has been a fairly ineffective legislation and basically an add-on to penal law,” she says. Agrees Dr N. Hamsa of Women Power Connect, a Delhi-based women’s organisation, “There are many laws for crimes against women. What we have to see is whether the mechanisms to implement them are effective.”

The National Commission of Women (NCW), the architect of the amendments, was prompted by the irrational and “indecent” portrayal of women in advertisements and on TV shows to revisit the IRWA, reveals former NCW chairman Girija Vyas.

“Why show a semi-clad woman in an ad for a chocolate or a banian? We sent notices to advertisers and television serials but we needed stronger laws to move against them,” she says.

So do we have a stronger IRWA now? That is debatable, say experts. They point out that some of the amendments merely duplicate provisions contained in existing laws. In fact, even the big ticket amendment — that of bringing obscene representation of women in cyberspace under the purview of the law — is not so significant as there are provisions under the Information Technology (IT) Act which are similar.

“IRWA is good in intent, but there is no point in having multiple laws for the same thing. For example, Sections 292, 293 and 294 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 67 of the IT Act make obscenity in any form a punishable offence,” says Pranesh Prakash, manager of the Bangalore-based NGO, Centre for Internet and Security.

Section 67 of the IT Act states, “Whoever publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the electronic form, any material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons…” will be considered culpable under the provisions of the law. Which, say experts, is not significantly different from what the IRWA now states.

Siddharth Narain of Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore, and an expert on obscenity laws believes that Section 67 of the IT Act is worded “widely” enough to cover indecent representation and obscenity on the Internet. “These amendments just cloud the distinction between existing laws and the IRWA relating to obscenity,” he says.

Others feel that the amendments ought to have made offences under the act non-bailable. As cyber law expert and Supreme Court advocate Pawan Duggal points out, “Though the amendments were made to sync the IRWA with the IT Act in terms of punishments, the offence is still bailable and hence will not act as a potent deterrent.”

In any case, many feel that regulating pornography or any form of indecent or degrading representation of women on the Internet is next to impossible. “While Indian broadcasters and newspapers can be regulated, there is no such thing as the Indian Internet,” says Prakash. “Take the case of the Indian site that showed the exploits of porn cartoon star Savita Bhabhi. When it was banned in India, the creators just launched the website from another country.”

However, Duggal feels that the IRWA amendments score over Section 67 of the IT Act in that it brings social media under its ambit. He gives the example of a woman executive mentioned in a social media website as a woman who wants to further her career prospects by “warming beds”.

“The woman faced a lot of harassment after this reference on a public social medium. Such cases can be probably taken up under the IRWA,” says Duggal.

The IRWA is also criticised for extending its ambit to television, which is already regulated by the Cable Television Networks Act and Rules, the ministry of information and broadcasting’s content code.

Siddharth quotes the rules under this code to emphasise that television channels are already forbidden from broadcasting “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 women or depict women as mere objects or symbols of sexual desires or behaviour.”

Of course, the basic problem with the law is that “obscenity” is a subjective concept and what is obscene to one may not be obscene to another. This leads women’s rights activists like Ramaseshan to stress that issues such as filming women without their permission or sending obscene messages to them violate their privacy. Hence they need to be strongly addressed with a law without bringing in the issue of obscenity. “Instead of getting into subjective and grey areas such as indecency and morality, one has to focus on the rights of women,” she says.

An effective IRWA could do that too. But whether it will manage to uphold the rights of women as it struggles to protect society’s idea of indecency is moot.