SOVEREIGNTY OF CHOICE

By: Somasekhar Sundaresan

Freedom to choose finds resonance across cultures and religions, yet individuals are conditioned to feel proud about how they have given up choices that are otherwise available to them

The My Choice video with a voice-over from Deepika Padukone has deeply disturbed many. The crisp and powerful narrative of an individual’s sovereignty has left in its wake many a disturbed husband, father, brother, and of course, mother. 

Mothers have written about how they were filled with hope when their young daughters found the video selfish. A “male response” video has cropped up with a “moral of the story” caption about how men would never promote adultery. Claimants to being “feminists” have endorsed the video while women who disclaim feminism have been quick to disapprove of it. Others have hedged by saying feminism means something other than what the video contains. All these reactions point to one clear fact: the video could not have done better in provoking thought on very important concepts of jurisprudence. 

The allegation that the video promotes illegality is hollow. The words in the script that are accused of promoting “adultery” are: “To marry or not to marry, to have sex before marriage, to have sex outside of marriage, to not have sex: My Choice.” Surely, when an individual marries or chooses not to, she makes a choice. Sex before marriage is a matter of choice. Sex outside marriage may have consequences but it is an outcome of choice. Refraining from sex outside marriage is surely an outcome of choice too. Refusal to have sex inside marriage is likewise a matter of choice. Each of these choices could have consequences, but, nevertheless, they are choices one is entitled to make.

Therefore, the logical message from the video is obviously one of a woman’s sovereignty over herself — the right to make choices and deal with the consequences of choices made. “Sovereignty” essentially means the possession of absolute and supreme authority within a certain space. The government of a sovereign nation has a monopoly over the use of force within that nation. The right to use force over oneself has to reside only in oneself — a fact mostly forgotten in associations and societies comprising individuals. Indeed, one sovereign may sign away elements of absolute sovereignty in a contract with another sovereign, but the terms of signing away is clearly a matter of choice.

The term “choice” can be controversial in law and policy across societies. If legislation against marital rape is India’s bugbear, in the United States, it is the state policy towards abortion. That is a society where the very word “abortion” evokes such sharp reactions that support for the right to abort has to be couched as “pro-choice” to make it palatable. Just last week, on highly-contested facts that point to possibilities ranging from induced miscarriage to killing a prematurely born foetus, Purvi Patel, a Gujarati-American was convicted in Indiana with a potential jail term of 20 years. 

“Choice” simply means the right to choose from among options. It is known to mankind across cultures and religions as having spiritual sanction — for example, the Bible speaks of god ordaining consequences for choices but never compelling a choice. Hindu thought even presents a range of gods to choose from to suit one’s preferences and attitudes. Yet, societies have conditioned individuals to feel proud about how they have given up choices otherwise available to them, rather than make them conscious that inherent in giving up choice is itself a matter of choice.

In a nation that has developed the image of being the rape capital of the world, it is not harsh punishments in the law that would bring down the incidence of violating women’s rights. It is developing an appreciation of a woman’s sovereignty that would help mould masculine entitlement. The sense of entitlement over a woman is not problematic just from the perspective of masculine entitlement. Parents seek to force their choice on daughters. Brothers seek to force their choice on sisters. Even kids seek to force their choice on mothers. Little wonder then that a script that says “You are my choice. I am not your privilege… I am the Universe, infinite in every direction. This is my choice” can be so unsettling.

Tweets: @SomasekharS

(This article was published in the Mumbai Mirror, Pune Mirror, Ahmedabad Mirror and Bangalore Mirror on April 3, 2015)

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