GERTRUDE LAMARE ON #SHILLONG #CHRISTIAN HANDWRINGING
Nothing has captured Shillong public opinion in the past two days as much as the Man Force flavoured condom advertisement displayed next to an idol of Jesus Christ near the Shillong Cathedral. The large red and luscious board visually overtowers the white statue of the person who most people identify as their “savior”, and predictably, this resulted in heavy condemnation from the Christian community in the city. Apparently, an ad board of a product promoting safe sex pollutes their idea of purity of the Church. According to reports, some factions have even approached the Laitumkhrah Dorbar Shnong ( Laitumkhrah being the locality on whose ground this ad stands majestically) and filed complaints against the fact that permission was given to erect the image in that particular location.
Many things could be garnered from this hilarious but socially important situation- a situation which again pushes into public consciousness, a debate and reflection about the idea and practice of sex in a place quite dominated by conservative and church doctrine. The offense that people take here is primarily rooted in an outwardly negative attitude towards sex, let alone contraception. A condom ad sparks an imagination of safe sex, sex performed for pleasure and not progeny, something which the Catholic Church in Meghalaya completely rejects. The recent mildly progressive position that Pope Francis has taken towards contraception has certainly not permeated the thick walls of the Church’s consciousness. Earlier this year, Pope Francis speaks about birth-control in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes and says, “Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. … The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.” Further, he also says that abstinence should be encouraged but that other contraceptive methods are not forbidden.
But resistance towards safe sex is not merely a Catholic phenomenon in Meghalaya; it is much to do with the conservative and patriarchal ethics that lay deep under the facade of Shillong middle-class progressiveness. As a woman who had grown up in this context, it was very difficult to narrativize sex positivity even at a personal level, let alone a public. Take for instance my experience in the adventure of condom-buying- most pharmacies and shops I would go to simply deny the existence of condoms in their chambers. As an educator in colleges, the moment I’d try to push for sex education which doesn’t stop at abstinence, the moral brigade of the institutions would immediately censor me. The primary concern here is that sex happens, and it’s happening far and wide, inside and outside marriage, hetero and beyond, amongst young and old, amongst middle and working class communities- it’s everywhere. Meghalaya has a huge percentage of teenage and unwanted pregnancies, and potentially, a growing presence of STDs and yet State initiatives and social mechanisms to address this are still terribly wanting.
The Man Force advertisement is a radical intervention in the all-too-comfortable landscape of Shillong public life. It is something which directly challenges the authority of the Church, in terms of space and concept; it is that which has unintentionally shaken the respectable high-handedness of a patriarchal Christian culture whose foundation sits in irresponsible naivety. Man Force, for all my problems with the violent and patriarchal denotation of the title, has triggered a subversive and practical debate and pulled out sex and sexuality from the closed doors of oppressive bedrooms, all for the purpose of promoting a healthy and safe sex culture in a place which take these things for granted.