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Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1987 and the Need to Amend It

Context:

Cyber Violence against women is increasing and there is an urgent need to address the problem by amending the existing legislation against the indecent portrayal of women.

What is meant by indecent representation of women?

Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1987 defines indecent representation of women as “the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman; her form or body or any part thereof in such way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to, or denigrating women, or is likely to deprive, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals.”

Is the crime of indecently portraying women increasing?

  • There has been considerable decrease in cases when it comes to the print media.
  • However, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, online obscenity cases increased by 5 times between 2007 and 2011.
  • At present, online harassments of not only women but also marginalized genders and sexualities have become rampant. Misogynist trolls targeting women have become widespread on social media.

What is the history of Legislation against the indecent representation of women?

  • In 1986, a Bill against the indecent representation of women was introduced in the Rajya Sabha by Margaret Alva
  • The Bill was in response to the demand by the women’s movement for a legislative action against the derogatory depiction of women in India
  • The bill became law by way of enactment with effect from October 1987- The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act

What are the provisions of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1987?

  • The Act prohibits indecent representation of women through advertisements or in publications, writings, paintings, figures or in any other manner.
  • Any person who contravenes to the provisions of the Act is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years on first conviction and in the event of subsequent conviction; the imprisonment may extend to five years.

What are the major defects of the law?

  • Limited scope of applicability: The scope of applicability of the law is limited. It includes only the print media.
  • Definition Issues: The term “indecent representation” is defined in a vague manner. The definition of the term in laying emphasis on material which tends to “deprave or corrupt” had confused indecency with morality.
  • The ambiguity of the definition of “indecent representation” has led to varying understanding of the term. This has hindered the effective implementation of the law.

Why is there a need for new law?

  • Objectification of women has been increasing
  • A need had been felt to amend the existing law to broaden its scope and bring within its ambit all other forms of media and publication introduced with the technological revolution.
  • Changes were drawn up by the National Commission for Women in 2009
  • Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Bill, 2012 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in December 2012.
  • The bill is not yet passed.

What significant changes does the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Bill, 2012 propose?

Scope and applicability:

  • It will include print and digital media as well as electronic modes of distribution of such material
  • Exception to the publication and distribution of any such material: material which may be published in the interest of science, literature or art or for bona fide religious purpose or for sculptures in ancient monuments or temples.
  • Advertisements would fall within the scope of the Bill once enacted.

Definitional Changes:

  • “Indecent representation of women”: the depiction of the figure or form of a woman in such a way that it has the effect of being indecent or derogatory or is likely to deprave or affect public morality.
  • “Electronic form”: any information generated, sent or stored in media, magnetic and optical form (as defined in the Information Technology Act, 2000).
  • “Publish”: includes printing or distributing or broadcasting through audio visual media.

Punishment:

  • At least three years jail for first violation
  • Up to seven years for repeat offenders
  • Fines up to Rs. 1 lakh for first conviction; up to Rs 5 lakh if repeated.

Others:

There had been discussions on the question of bringing films and television programs within the ambit of the Act in order to ensure that there is no indecent portrayal of women in the same.

What are the merits of the Bill?

Countering the presence of non-consensual material over web

  • An important outcome is with the regard to the distribution of material on the Internet and the portrayal of women over the web.
  • There has been an increase in number of cases were women particularly have been subjected to sexually exploitative material and image based sexual abuse.
  • The proposed amendment is expected to counter the presence of such non-consensual material over web.

Stronger Effect

  • Since the punishments are much harsher, it is expected to have a stronger effect.

Where does the Bill fail?

  • The term “indecent representation” continues to be defined in a vague manner.
  • The definition of the term “indecent representation” has again confused indecency and morality.
  • A distinction has been drawn between obscenity as defined under the Indian Penal Code in Section 292 and indecency. However, the definition is way too vague thus leaving an opportunity for misuse of the terms.
  • During 1970s and 1980s, women group focused primarily on nudity and the depiction of women in a sexually suggestive or explicit manner. Thus, the idea of the expression of sexuality particularly that of a woman would amount to obscenity was reinforced.
  • However, in contemporary times there is a shift in focus to the liberty of women to express their sexuality and sexual desires, freedom from conformation to dress codes and to bodily autonomy.
  • It would be completely inappropriate to equate nudity with indecency.
  • Equating both might lead to moral policing of a woman’s body.

Way Ahead

  • A standard need to set to determine what exactly the legislations aims to penalize. Thus, a concrete definition of indecent representation of women is the need of the hour.
  • The cyber abuse against women is just a reflection of the society where women and marginalized communities are abused, harassed, and violated on a daily basis. A societal change by means of education and awareness is the utmost need to tackle the menace of indecent portrayal and objectification of women.
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