As the poll trumpets blew after assembly elections in the five states of Goa, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Manipur, sexist politicians came out of their hiding holes. I was rattled by an insensitive comment by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Vinay Katiyar who said that Priyanka Gandhi was not as beautiful as she was projected to be and that there were prettier women leaders in BJP like Smriti Irani who could pull crowds and give better speeches.
This was not the first time that an Indian politician had passed sexist regressive remarks about a woman politician. I cannot help but wonder: How long it will be before a woman politician is given importance and her potential as a politician not measured by her looks?
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati has also been a popular target from politicians. Once, BJP spokesperson Shaina NC made a jibe on her, saying that she didn’t know if the BSP leader was a “he” or “she” – attacking Mayawati’s gender identity based on outdated and regressive stereotypes of what constitutes “womanliness”, which Mayawati might not conform to. Mayawati doesn’t wear saris or salwar kameez in feminine colours and the way she wears her hair has made her a victim of comments like these that question her appearance.
On another occasion BJP leader Dayashankar Singh said that Mayawati is worse than a prostitute who gives a seat to the person who pays the highest amount for it. His comments toward the Dalit woman leader were not only sexist but also casteist. A metaphor comparing a woman to a sex worker is every sexist’s glorifying moment of machismo – disrespecting not only the woman in question but also the dignity of sex workers. Patriarchy feeds on the notion that a sex worker is the lowliest among the low in the society. Patriarchy is the school of thought that restricts a woman’s sexual agency, and in this case it has been difficult for leaders like Dayashankar Singh to come to terms with the fact that sex work is like any other profession and there is nothing condemnable about it.
The same man lashed out at Mayawati again a few months later where he likened her to a dog and called her a coward. He said that “Mayawati is like a dog that chases speeding cars on roads, but steps back as and when the vehicle stops.” He later took back his statement, saying that he meant that “she called us dogs.”
For sexist leaders like Dayashankar Singh such misogynistic comments feed their patriarchal ego that cannot see a woman leader like Mayawati leading from the front. Another woman politician who has been at the receiving end of vilifying utterances is the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamta Banerjee. Her voice of dissent against demonetisation was thrashed by BJP leader and RSS pracharak Dilip Ghosh who said that she could have been dragged by her hair since their police force was present at the site of protest, but they chose not to do it.
In the past she has been compared to the Kalighater Mynah, a trivial talkative bird and to the sex workers of Sonagachi by 7 time MP Anil Basu wondering which rich client was funding her campaign. Disparaging comments on her single status are used to shun her prowess as a politician and question her morality.
Jayalalithaa, who passed away on December 5th 2016, was also an easy prey for misogynistic comments where in her initial days she was called a temptress by the people who were jealous of her association with MGR. She decided not to attend the funeral of her political mentor for being labelled a prostitute by MGR’s nephew. A squabble between AIADMK and DMK party workers in 1989, saw objects and shoes thrown at Jayalalitha with a DMK member trying to molest her by pulling off her sari. She took a vow to never step into the Assembly hall until it becomes safe for women. She avenged the dishonour she was subjected to by winning with a thundering majority and returning to the assembly as the Chief Minister.
BJP’s Giriraj Singh questioned Sonia Gandhi’s abilities as a politician and reduced her success in politics to her skin colour. He said that if Rajiv Gandhi had married a Nigerian, perhaps the Congress party would have never accepted her as their president. The comments drew a lot of flak and he was made to tender an apology to her in the Lok Sabha.
In another incident, former Union minister Sushil Kumar Shinde reprimanded Jaya Bachchan, a former actress, who was mediating a Rajya Sabha discussion on Assam violence saying that it was a serious matter and not the script of a film. While the past lives of male politicians are rarely interrogated, actresses-turned-politicans are constantly derided for their apparent inability to handle “serious” matters like politics – the most notable example being BJP’s Smriti Irani, who was a popular soap opera star in her past.
After the last cabinet reshuffle, when Smriti Irani was moved from Human Resource Development to Textiles, Janata Dal (United) MP Anwar Ali allegedly made a crass remark on her which said that “Good that she has been elected as the Textiles minister; it will help her cover her body.” Since Smriti Irani was a TV star and a model, the JDU leader thought that deriding comments on her clothes will further his cause of body shaming a woman politician.
Most women politicians are judged by how they look, which is not an issue that men face. Their perceived attractiveness replaces their skills as a politician; rarely have women politicians in India received genuine applause for her work. Her unmarried status is often seen as a character deficit and if she is married, then conversations revolve around how she can juggle household affairs with work.
Women politicians like Jayalalitha, Mayawati and Mamata Bannerjee have adopted titles like Amma, Behenji, and Didi – all family-oriented titles in order to desexualise their images, gain political legitimacy and garner respect. Such monikers have added a perceived softness to their personalities and garnered acceptability in an “all boys club”.
Derogatory sexist comments that target the clothing or marital status of woman politicians show the misogyny that infects Indian politics. The Election Commission must take note of it and ensure that women politicians are not made scapegoats of vile sexist remarks and belittled for their gender which is not something that they should be ashamed of. While debates between male politicians centre around development or political issues, women politicians almost always have to bear comments about their body or their looks as constitutive of “political discourse”.
Sadly the Election Commission of India doesn’t have a rule to book sexism against women politicians. While some politicians have been reprimanded for their tasteless remarks, most of these comments are brushed under the carpet as “harmless jokes”, or are treated as normal.
I wonder how long it will take until Indian women politicians are not made soft targets for their looks or their gender and are appreciated, honoured and criticized in their capacity as political leaders, much like any male politician. How long will we need to tread the rocky paths of sexism until male politicians stop taking digs aimed at a woman politician’s lack of “femininity”? Shouldn’t woman politicians like Mayawati who made it on their own in a repressively patriarchal male dominated field like politics get recognition for their untiring work?