Can a kiss kill Indian culture?

Richard Gere publicly smooches a Bollywood star and protesters hit the streets.

Published May 21, 2007 7:35PM (EDT)

In case you missed this breaking news brief: Richard Gere fumblingly felt up Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty at a public AIDS awareness event in India last month. Besides being pretty gross (Gere gradually ups the PDA -- from a hand kiss to an awkward hug and repeated kisses on the cheek -- before kneeling to the ground with a royal flourish of the arm) it doesn't seem particularly outrageous. But the kiss immediately sent shockwaves throughout India, earned the pair arrest warrants and inspired a front-page headline that blared: "The Kiss of Death: Can a Kiss Kill a Civilization?"

As a result, Sunday's Washington Post took a look at the taboo of public displays of affection in India. Thankfully, the article doesn't take the typical, mouth-agape perspective on the peculiarities of a foreign culture and actually raises the concerns a prominent local activist has about the kissing taboo and the more important issues it distracts from. A public kiss -- on the cheek, remember -- riled up the country's conservatives, who took to the streets in protest, but Girija Vyas, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, asked, "Where's the outrage when a woman is raped by her brother-in-law or when thousands of daughters of India are killed every year for an unpaid dowry?" She continued: "Domestic violence, bride burning and sex-selective abortion ... are all still there in many Indian lives. We should be opening the sky for Indian women and for India, not wasting energy when someone kisses a woman versus rapes her. These extremists are dividing society."

It's more than just a kissing taboo -- any form of PDA can make a couple the target of harassment or even land them in the slammer. In Mumbai, "more than 100 necking couples have been rounded up at a seaside promenade in recent weeks, detained and charged with obscene behavior," reports the Post. By the article's account, the moral police "have been increasingly on the prowl" in an attempt to ward off Westernization: Stores selling Valentine's Day cards have been attacked, some states have banned sex-ed books from public schools, and an extremist mob recently revolted against a Mumbai TV station for airing a segment on "an interfaith couple who had eloped."

This puts smitten youngsters, many of whom live in small apartments with several family members, in a fix -- sometimes they'll go to great lengths to spend time with their sweethearts. Just last month, a teenage girl was gang-raped "when she went off to a desolate area under a bridge with her boyfriend, after they had been shooed from a public park by police in Mumbai."

Maybe the question to ask isn't whether a kiss, but a kissing taboo, can kill a civilization.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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