If the lawmakers of our country, those who seek to represent us, have a primitive mindset, how can we expect them to give security, welfare, and protection to the larger female population? Their irresponsible comments can be construed by some as license to commit sexual assaults with impunity.
Sexist slurs, body-shaming, and rancid prejudices define Indian politics. More often than not women parliamentarians and women in India are victims of anti-women insinuations if not downright calumny. The underlying thread of patronizing condescension and patriarchal norms runs deep, a reflection of the misogynistic culture that encourages sexist and derogatory remarks against women that have regrettably become the defining feature of the Indian political scene.
Two incidents corroborate the recurring misogyny in recent politics in India. The comments of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who said educated women have the power to have birth control by restraining their husbands during sexual intercourse, raised a predictable hue and cry. He was accused of perpetuating stereotypes and gender bias against women. Though he apologized later, the damage was already done.
Another incident that got critical attention was the unfair and disparaging treatment of Trinamool Congress MP Mohua Moitra, who was accused of compromising on "national security" and corruption by a parliamentary committee that conveniently chose to overlook communal remarks made inside the House chamber by a ruling party MP much before the Moitra's alleged indiscretion.
Not that her Louis Vuitton bags and unabashed lifestyle choices did not raise disapproving heads! It only demonstrates that women politicians are scrutinized more for their appearances and private lives rather than their policies.
Misogyny is considered to be a deep-rooted prejudice, hatred, and/or contempt of women. It involves a range of negative attributes, beliefs, and behaviors that are directed at women based on their gender. The philosopher and feminist scholar, Kate Manne in her widely acclaimed book, “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” explores the concept of “Himpathy”, the preferential treatment or disproportionate sympathy given to men in society. She also mentioned feminists are a natural target, as are women who are rejecting male-oriented service roles and trying to obtain positions of power, authority, etc. (Source: Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, OUP USA, 2017).
Even when women leaders overcome significant obstacles to enter electoral politics, they come face to face with misogynistic attitudes and character assassination. They are routinely demotivated by being told that they do not belong there and they should instead stick to the kitchen. Actually, the male ego gets satisfied to watch women within the predetermined framework created for them in Indian society with variegated roles as mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law. In case of some aberration in the ilk in the form of the rise of female politicians who are highly educated, intelligent, and can speak their minds without parroting lines taught to them as in the case of Mohua Moitra, the male politicians feel uncomfortable and try to hit back and put her in her place.
In the past, sexist rants ran amok across the power corridors. Who can forget how Mrs Indira Gandhi, the erstwhile Prime Minister of India, was called the ‘goongi gudiya’ or the dumb doll? Later on, her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi was labelled several times as an "Italian bahu" (daughter-in-law) - euphemism for outsider - after she entered politics. Disparaging comments against regional politicians Mayawati and Uma Bharti had casteist slurs. Apart from all these, during a heated debate on OBC reservation, Maharashtra’s BJP leader Chandrakant Patil told NCP MP Supriya Sule that if she does not understand politics she should "go home and cook". In July 2022, Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury called Indian President Draupadi Murmu ‘rashtrapatni’ (nation's spouse), a shocking remark which he lamely attributed to slip of tongue. Recently, the country's coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal, who belongs to the ruling BJP, also came under the scanner when he said wives lose charm over time. The alarming situation has been accentuated more so because female politicians keep quiet when abuses are hurled against their own gender. Even union minister Smriti Irani has been subjected to body shaming and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Congress leader and Sonia Gandhi's daughter, has been inflicted with abuses like "skirt wali bai" (skirt wearing woman).
Although the ruling party has projected itself as a champion of women with the parliamentary passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, with the caveat of delimitation and census attached to its implementation, it can well turn out to be a pyrrhic victory for women. The achievement of the ruling party is blown out of proportion on this and it will not serve much purpose if conditions given to make it effective fall flat.
Mindsets need to change
If the lawmakers of our country, those who seek to represent us, have a primitive mindset, how can we expect them to give security, welfare, and protection to the larger female population? Their irresponsible comments can be construed by some as license to commit sexual assaults with impunity. How can we stem such behaviour? This is possible if more women politicians stand up for each other by creating a network of affirmative action and decision-making. Anti-women statements or utterances need to be countered by women speaking up in voice. Most of the time gender inequality is perpetuated as male politicians exploit cultural, social and ideological differences.
An Amnesty Report says women politicians are victims of online trolling and abuse (Amnesty India, 2020). In cultural analysis, whether in films or popular culture, women are portrayed as damsels in distress or receivers of male benevolence. This story of women being projected as benefactors has to change. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1911) proposed the theory of Androcentrism. This explains how our culture is built to provide convenience to only one gender, the male, while completely disregarding the interests of the other, the female. This theory explains the misogyny in women’s cultural and literary representation. (Source: Gender and Popular Visual Culture in India---‘Benevolent Sexism and Disguised Discrimination, ed. by F, P. Barclay & K.A. Laskar, Routledge, 2024).
A discussion on political misogyny should start somewhere. Why not now?
(The author is an Assistant Professor, at the Department of Political Science, Jangipur College. Kalyani University, West Bengal. Views are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).