If one was to look at the recent stir caused by Dilip Ghosh against the backdrop of West Bengal’s ongoing assembly elections 2021, the West Bengal BJP wing president’s jibe on Mamata Banerjee not only shows the gross nature of Indian politics but also the fact that women, no matter how powerful, would be ultimately judged through their bodies.
Dilip Ghosh, against the backdrop of West Bengal electoral battle 2021, said that it is inappropriate for a saree-clad woman to show her legs and so she should wear bermuda, if she so wants to show her legs. Her bare skin was hurting the sentiment of the Bengali culture, according to him. The “Bengali asmita” – the Bengali culture and its honor, is carried on the shoulders of a Bengali “bhadramahila”. The Bengali bhadramahila is the epitome of endurance and good manners. But for Ghosh, Mamata Banerjee was not behaving as a bhadramahila. Rather she was “unsanskari” and not befitting Bengali culture. The comment shows the frustration of the whole political culture of India. Banerjee is known for never mincing her words and is now putting up a strong fight against the BJP in the ongoing West Bengal election campaigning. Ghosh’s comment states the fact that opinionated women in India are a threat to society and the only way to put them down is to slut shame them. In short, women are to be “controlled”.
Ghosh’s comment brings forth the notion of “honour” around women. The body becomes the collective property of the society. Here, the honour of a woman is the “collective honour” of the society. It subordinates a woman. V Spike Peterson and Laura Parisi in the book “Human Rights Fifty Years on: A Reappraisal”, edited by Tony Evans, argue that the culture is used as an ideological tool of oppression against women when used to legitimise the objectification of women. Peterson in her “Social Hierarchies as Systems of Power” sees social hierarchies like gender, race, etc. as interlocking systems of power.
Groups at the bottom of the social hierarchy not only face subordination but also comments such as the ones that our politicians make against women that naturalise domination. Men, at the highest rung of the social hierarchy, pose direct or indirect forms of oppression against women which further reproduces negative stereotypes.
His comment further implies that it is inappropriate for a society to look up to a woman who is immoral and does not know how to handle her body. It also indicates the patriarchal nature of the political culture of India specifically. The problem is not with one party per se but with the mindset of the society which assumes that it is okay to make such comments on a woman and that too with moral authority, without fearing any consequences.
And when such statements come from influential people, it not only makes the laws on women’s safety futile but also conveys a wrong message to society, giving moral authority to judge women. Impacts of such remarks by influential people trickle down and shape the mindset of the common people.
One such contemporary example is the law on “love jihad” where civilians in many cases acted as self appointed vigilantes, leading to increased policing of women’s bodies and their choices. This law targeted Muslim men on the pretext that they are luring and converting the Hindu women. It also proved harmful towards women significantly as state and civilians unitedly assumed the responsibility of protecting women, making decisions on their behalf and in the process, depriving them of any agency and the capacity to decide who their partners would be.
This acts creates a vicious circle which in turn creates an unjust society for girls, women and every other person who is marginalised. The right to equality and the equal treatment to every individual laid down by the constitution fails if this continues to take place because it judges people unequally where a man is judged by his talents and merits but a woman is judged by her clothes that she wears.
Mamata Banerjee is the founder of All India Trinamool Congress and is the first woman to hold the office of chief minister in West Bengal. She also served as the Minister of Railways twice, being the first woman to do so. She was also the first woman to hold portfolios in the ministries; of Coal, Human and Resource Development, Youth Affairs, Sports, Women and Child Development; in the cabinet of Indian government. Amongst her several developmental works, “Kanyashree project” is a targeted conditional cash transfer scheme aimed at promoting education among girls which also received UN award in 2017. Her “Sabooj Sathi” scheme, which aims to provide free bicycles to all students from classes 9 to 12 proved particularly helpful in reducing school dropouts. According to The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Sabooj Sathi was picked as the best scheme under the e-government category. Evidently, it is not about what a woman wears, because her work should be assessed and not her body.
However, comments like Ghosh’s make us realise why our laws are becoming more and more protectionist, making the state to act as a “big brother”, that tracks its sisters: their choice of clothes, time, lifestyle, etc. rather than making favorable and just safe spaces for women. This type of protectionist policies, when fail to “protect” its women, puts the onus to remain safe on the woman herself.
An example of this is Madhya Pradesh’s proposal for women’s so called safety. This requires any working woman to register herself in the local police station and she will be tracked for her safety. These types of policies not only are regressive in nature but come from the mindset that women need to be protected. These policies give space to “moral policing”, where a woman’s body and sexuality needs to be protected by the masculine state. Rather than making sure that the streets are well-lit, that women’s helplines are working properly, perpetrators of street harassment are held accountable, that women are made to feel safe and comfortable in reporting their problems, the proposed policies manifest the patriarchal mindset of the society where a woman needs to be surveilled.
In politics, when such comments are made, it is only because one knows the far reaching impact of patriarchy on women and thus it becomes a deliberate ploy to distract the course of politics.
Another such example comes from the recent comment made by the Uttarakhand chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat on women who said that women who wear ripped jeans and show their knees are uncultured and hence, unable to give proper value to their kids. Besides the fact that the entire burden for nurturing values in kids at home has been put on a woman here, it also showcases how our political representatives perceive women and their bodies. For them, a woman’s body supersedes her talents and merits. She is reduced to her body. For them, a woman’s body is without agency, anyone could make it their own with their comments and suggestions. It can be moulded and put to its real use and its usage would be decided by the society and its norms.
It is dangerous when the Indian political representatives make such comments because their words shape the mindset of the society in India. It works two ways. Firstly, society’s morality reflects through the words of these politicians and secondly, their comments further gives a solid shape to the mindset of the society. Therefore, we need to be alert and question the patriarchal mindset and privileges of our political representatives and society at large so as to create a just and equitable space for the marginalised.
Manisha Majumdar is a Ph.D student of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is working on namashudra politics in West Bengal. Her interest lies in feminism and Dalit politics. She likes to travel places and finds it important for a woman to travel solo. She can be found on Instagram.