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This article is written by Sidra Khan, from Amity University, Noida. The article discusses the various powers vested to officers and government under the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986.


Women’s organizations have agitated over the last decade with regard to how their gender is being portrayed by the media. Women’s struggles with the portrayal of advertisements that encourage parents to save dowries for the child; the equation of a ‘good’ lady with a wife; a vegetable oil brand that equates to motherhood. It is true that the number of advertisements promoting dowry has decreased due to unrest among women’s organizations. But such campaigns have little impact on advertisements promoting sexist stereotypes and pornographic images which have increased if anything.

Keeping the Indian social structure as in mind, the law aims to regulate women’s portrayals in the different sections of Indian mass media today. In dealing with society as diverse from a cultural point of view, the feelings of the community must be given special attention and the State must also be protected. Morality remains a very subjective issue in India and reflects a wide range of culturally and historically-changing values and attitudes. 

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It is also too complicated since there is no proof of how many women beneath creamy and non-creamy layers of the economy are engaged in such indecent treatment, to establish and examine cause and consequences. Similarly, it is difficult to view the cause-and-effect relationship from a societal viewpoint, but it can be understood from the impacts illustrated in various media that this kind of disgraceful portrayal of women leads to a societal environment deterioration in the form of ever-greater crime and abuse against the individual. To put an end to this crime, the Central Government enacted the law- Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986 which prohibits the obscene and indecent representation of women and penalises them for committing such offences. 

History of the legislation

The introduction of the Rajya Sabha Bill against Women’s Indecent Representation in 1986 was in response to a women’s movement which called for a legislative action against the negative depiction of women in the country. The bill was introduced by Margaret Alva in the Rajya Sabha and became law in October 1987 by way of enactment. 

The legislation intended to regulate women’s and representation in mainstream media, especially in print. It was implemented to ensure that women’s representation in the media was not indecent through ads, magazines, publications, and illustrations.

Objective of the Act

The law on obscenity is codified in sections in this country-The Indian Penal Code Section 292, Section 293 and Section 294. Despite these provisions, in publications, especially in advertisements, there is a growing indecent representation of women or references to women, which has the effect to denigrate women but is also derogative of women. While there may be no specific intention, these advertisements, publications, etc. have a depraving or corrupting effect. A different legislation is, therefore, necessary to prevent the indeterminate representation of women effectively by means of advertisements, books, pamphlets etc.

Defining “indecency”

In Section 2(c) under the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986, the term “indecent representation” is defined as meaning “indecent representation of women” in any way to have the effect of being indignant or derogative of a woman, or of being corrupt or of being susceptible to public morality, or moralistic depravity. The word “indecent representation” is defined in the 1986 law, with emphasis on “depriving or corrupting” content, and this is confused with morality. In the 1970s and 1980s, women’s organizations protested the indecent portraiture of women primarily focused on nudity and sexually provocative or overtly typical portrayal of women and thus strengthened the belief that the expression of sexuality, in particular the expression of a woman, is an obscenity.

  • The action was made in connection with the portrayal of the nude image of the former player Boris Becker, and of his fiancée at Sportsworld, released by the corporation in May 1993, against the editor of Anandabazar Patrika, Aveek Sarkar, and the publisher at a court of law in Kolkata. In Individual Female Représentation Cases, a 46.50% decrease has been recorded, from 2,917 in 2005 to 1,562 in 2006, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
  • In April 2006, a Madurai court issued non-bailable warrants in photographs published by a Tamil newspaper against Reema Sen and Shilpa Shetty for posing in an obscene manner. The study claimed that, for the same reason, the two actresses had failed to comply with earlier summons, thus issuing the warrants. The petitioner submitted that in its issues of December 2005 and January 2006, the paper had published “very sexy blow-ups and medium blow-ups” and allegedly infringed the Obscene Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986, Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1956, and the Indian Penal Code Section 292. The plaintiff further demanded confiscation of the photographs under the terms of the Press and Registration of Book Act 1867.

Powers vested to officer and government under the Act

The Indecent Representation of Women Act punishes women’s indecent depiction, which implies a woman’s image in some way; her form or body and any aspect of the woman’s body, so as to cause immorality, degradation, or to deprave, abuse, or harm to public morality or moral standards. It states that no person shall publish or release any advertisements involving an obscene portrayal of women or agree to participate in the publication or show.

Section 5: power to enter and search

Section 5 of the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986 gives power to the officer to enter and search any premises within the region.

(1) Any gazetted officer approved by the State Government can, subject to such rules as may be prescribed, within the local limits of the region for which it is so authorised;

  1. He can enter and search, at any reasonable time, any place where he considers it necessary to believe that an offence under this Act has been committed or is being committed, with such assistance;
  2. He can  seize any advertisement or book, pamphlet, paper, slide, film, writing, drawing, painting, photograph, representation or figure that it believes to contravene any of the provisions of this Law;
  3. He has the power to examine, and seize any record, register, document or other material object found in any of the places referred to in Clause(a) if it has reason to believe that it can provide evidence of an offence punishable under this Act:

Given that no entry under this article is made without a warrant into a private dwelling-house:

Furthermore, sub-section of this states the power to seize may be exercised in respect of any document, article or item containing such advertisement, including the contents, if any, of such document, article or item, where the advertisement can not be separated by reason of its being embossed or otherwise from such document, article or item without affecting its integrity, use.

(2) The provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973 (2 of 1974), to the degree practicable, shall extend to any search or seizure under this Act in respect of any search or seizure carried out under the authority of a warrant issued under Section 94 of that Law.

(3) Where a person seizes something referred to in Clause (b) or Clause (c) of subsection ( 1), he shall inform the nearest Magistrate as soon as possible and take his instructions as to his custody thereof.

Section 6: penalties

Section 6 of The Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986 imposes a penalty on the offender. The terms and a fine extending to ten thousand rupees and the terms if a second or subsequent prosecution occurs, the penalty may not be less than six months but may extend to five years and may also extend, at least, to ten thousand rupees shall substitute for words or fine which may exceed two thousands rupees. The words in case of a second or later conviction to a sentence of no less than six months but which may extend up to five years and not less than fifty thousand rupees but may be extended to five lakh rupees shall, however, be replaced by the words. Their sentence shall not extend to five years.

Section 8: offences to be cognizable and bailable

Section 8 of the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986 states that despite all the provisions of the 1973 (2 of 1974) Criminal Procedure Code, an offence punishable in accordance with this Act is to be bailable. And any offence which is recognised under this Act will be punishable.

Section 9: protection of action taken in good faith

Section 9 of the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986 states that The Central Government, any government or other central government officer or any other State government official shall not be liable against any action, prosecution or other legal proceedings for anything done or intended in good faith in accordance with this Act.

Section 10: power to make rules

Section 10 of the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986 states that the Central Government can make the rules by notifying in the official gazette. In particular, these rules can cover all or any of the following issues without prejudice to the generality of the previous force, i.e.:

  1. how to seize advertisements or other objects and how to draw up and submit the seizure list to the person from whom any advertisements or other things were confiscated;
  2.  any other matter that may or may be required to be prescribed.

Any rule made pursuant to this Act shall be laid down before each House of Parliament as soon as possible after it has been made, while it is in session for a total period of thirty days, which may consist of one session or two or more successive sessions, and if both Houses agree to make any amendments before the end of the session immediately following the session or the successive sessions referred to above.

Need for a new law

Advertisement includes any note, publication, sticker, packaging or other documents in the Act and also includes any visible representation made through any light, sound, smoke or gas. The amendment introduced by the National Commission for Women seeks to amend the definition of advertisement to include any sign, circle, sticker, poster, wrapper or other documents as well as any visible representation rendered by any laser light, sound, smoke, gas, fibre, electronic optic or other media. It states that no individual shall produce, sell, employ, distribute, circulate or mail any book, pamphlet, document, slide, video, writing, drawing, painting, image, depiction or figure containing any indecent representation of women. The Commission has also recommended that the term Degrading be added alongside indecent.

In order to reform the existing structure, the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Bill 2012 seeks to emphasize the inclusion of women in the audiovisual and electronic communications media and to address the issue of female objectification. In addition to ensuring a media coverage in all its aspects of the regulatory structure implemented in law. The law also lays down a stringent compliance mechanism to behave in a dissuasive way in which any indecent behaviour which contradicts law is prohibited.

Two major changes introduced by the Bill are those on what advertisements will fall under the scope of the Bill if passed, and also what will lead to delivery to warrant the punitive provisions of the new regulatory framework under the amendment. The proposed regime was specified in such a way as to include print and digital media as well as electronic delivery modes for such content.


There is no question that the Act has established women’s indecent representation, but that description is not exhaustive. It’s left open to interpretation by the courts. It is a successful law for maintaining women ‘s integrity and upholding their reputation, but their success depends on their implementation. The powers conferred on any gazette officer under the act to search and seize indecent material resulted in extensive corruption. Moreover, the penal provisions are not strict in nature, the quantum of fine is way lesser as well as punishment for the repeated offenders. On the other hand, if Section 292 of the IPC is intended to limit and control obscenity and indecent representation of women, the expression of other general objects of concern must be removed from the derogations. Thus, there is a need for stringent provisions required to manage the indecent ads.


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