With the poll bugle sounding off in West Bengal assembly elections, it’s no surprise that political parties have pulled out all stops to aim for seats of power. But what we’ll be dissecting in this article is a tale as old as time: Sexism and politics. Campaigns are murky, and while that’s not something we should be accepting, we somehow see our surroundings lapping up growing misogyny, sexism, and (I really can’t find a better word for this dear reader) – creepiness when it comes to the treatment of women in politics.
PM Narendra Modi vs West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been a rivalry to go down in history, and this campaign season has been no different. The PM’s inappropriate calls of “Didi…O…didi” in Howrah on April 6 while addressing a rally of thousands, making the crowds go wild, was the top of the arsenal in the long line of offences mounted by the ruling party against India’s only currently serving female chief minister. Each attack on her character, body, choices brought to light various ways in which patriarchy rears its ugly head in our everyday lives.
Babul Supriyo and the trope of ‘paraya dhan’
Union Minister and BJP Leader Babul Supriyo is hardly the poster boy for political correctness yet his attack on Mamata Banerjee in these elections was a scary one. It’s 2021, and apparently to call a woman ‘someone else’s property’ is still a thing. Supriyo’s choice of offensive this time was a meme shared from his Twitter account which made fun of Trinamool’s election slogan ‘Bengal wants its daughter’. The meme showed an image of Amit Shah with a quote saying ‘A daughter is someone else’s wealth, and we will send her off this time’. Following backlash, Supriyo deleted the tweet, but his response to the entire situation was “I have two daughters so I don’t have to learn the definition of misogyny from any other ‘political’ party.”
While the use of the word ‘daughter’ by TMC may have been done to portray a relationship of love or service to the state of Bengal, this meme reduces the identity of a daughter (and by extension of that, women) to mere property. Shunning the idea of a woman making a mark for herself politically or financially, the message is clear ‘it doesn’t matter what you achieve, you’re someone else’s problem at the end of the day’. If this is what women with a lifelong political career have to go through, what really is the hope for mere mortals like me?
Didi, when you lose, it’s back to the kitchen! – At least that’s what Kailash Vijayvargiya thinks
Women belong in the kitchen, and just in case we forget, we have BJP’s National General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya to remind us! Sharing a picture of Mamata Banerjee cooking food, he tweeted, “Didi (Mamata Banerjee) has started doing the work that she would eventually do after five months.” So what one of our leading politicians is trying to tell us is if a woman loses there is only one safe haven that she can return to and that happens to be the kitchen.
I’m not going to argue this point further, but I’ll leave you with a question that is the soul of my feminist frustration – would you make the same assumption about a cis-man?
Bermuda shorts or an appropriate saree – Dilip Ghosh’s lesson on proper sartorial choices
It’s an easy trick. When all else fails, you can always aim your attack on a woman by bringing into question her ‘honour’. Addressing an election rally in Purulia, West Bengal, Dilip Ghosh had said, “she is wearing a saree with one leg covered but kept another open for viewing. Haven’t seen anyone draping a saree in such a way. If she has to display her leg for viewing, she can very well wear Bermuda shorts. That will help to have a better view.” The ‘revealing leg’ that Ghosh is talking about here, is Banerjee’s fractured leg that has been bandaged.
Also read: Assam Elections 2021: Number Of Women Candidates Continue To Be Dismal
To some degree one can argue that this also takes forward the notion of propriety. The fact that Dilip Ghosh continued to defend his statement goes on to show that at the end of the day, a woman’s body is first the society’s and then her own. The attack on the Bengal CM took place in public, yet the judgement for all to see is that even in pain and injury, one must never deviate from the standards of ‘honour’ that have been set for us in this patriarchal society. And if you deviate from this, you’re an inappropriate woman, unfit to be deemed worthy of respect, and much less to hold positions of power.
And this is not Ghosh’s only offensive against women this campaign season. In a controversial statement he appealed to attendees of an event organised by Hindu Jagran Manch saying that the Constitution of India permits the usage of weapons to protect religious faiths, and therefore “To protect the dignity of our mothers and sisters, the Hindu youths need to be united. If need be, they should take up weapons.” It is ironical that it is the same voice that justifies violence to protect women, that also furthers years and years of victim blaming – because its a comment on the clothes today, that may turn into an assault apology tomorrow.
Elections come, and elections go – but misogyny stays
It’s not only about the campaign season, and speeches from podiums either, this sexism is a ‘part of the deal’ for female politicians in our country, and it has made its way across party lines and political ideologies. As per a report by Amnesty International, on an average India’s female politicians received 113 problematic or abusive tweets per day during the 2019 general elections, which include threats.
I have mentioned over and over again in this article that Mamata Banerjee was at the receiving end of this sexism despite being a Chief Minister. That’s not to say that if the average woman on the street was being attacked like this, the problem would somehow be ‘okay’ but more to point out that there is a trend in Indian politics to attack a rival not for being a rival, but for being a woman. An easy route to discredit any woman in power is to reduce her identity to just being a woman, hold her up to the impossible (and unneeded) standards of patriarchy and deem her a failure if she does not match up. It’s not so much then about her failures in her role as it is her failure to be the ‘ideal woman’
I started by saying this is a tale as old as time, and I’ll end by saying the same thing. Tactics don’t change but hopefully voter mindsets will. With women forming a large chunk of the electorate this West Bengal election, is sexism as effective as politicians think it is? I suppose we’ll find out on May 2.