Women in politics, irrespective of their political ideologies or affiliations, have for long been subjected to sexist scrutiny, trolling and humiliation by the patriarchal society. Throughout history, and across the world, women who have entered the political landscape have been typecast as “good” or “bad”, and in most cases, unlike their male counterparts, the labeling has nothing to do with their political work but rather their appearance, virtue, and honour.
Right after the Congress party named 26-year-old Archana Gautam as their candidate from Hastinapur for the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, a vile and derogatory campaign was started against her. The political debutante was subjected to the murky side of the world of politics as images of her in bikini started circulating on the internet. In fact, the first page results when one searches for Archana Gautam shows several news articles with the headlines “Who is Archana Gautam” with images of her wearing bikinis.
Archana Gautam had previously won Miss Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and Miss Bikini India in 2018. She is a woman who has rightfully owned her sexual agency and resolutely refused to back down despite incessant trolling. However, the ruling BJP and other groups like the Hindu Mahasabha have launched a string of distasteful attacks against the actor turned politician demeaning her, body-shaming her, and even objecting to her candidature claiming that her “career choice hurt the sentiments of citizens of the city”. People on social media dug out old photographs and videos of Archana Gautam to slut-shame her. Unfazed by this attack, Archana Gautam has stood her ground and said, “I’m not scared, I’ll march forward”, adding that she is equally proud of her work in the past as well her political aspirations for the future.
Throughout history, women’s attire, their personal life and their body, especially those who enter the public service have attracted controversies with everyone having an opinion on the same. While mainstream news media is almost always telecasting the opinions of politicians, the challenges that the women politicians face are hardly ever highlighted, or rather the nuance of it is almost never understood. On the contrary, the media joins the bandwagon of fuelling any and all sexist opinions and patriarchal beliefs that society holds dear. When Mia Khalifa and Rihanna, among others, took a stand against India’s BJP-led central government’s passing of the now repealed farm laws, many right-wing trolls took the liberty to slut-shame them in response. ‘
Archana Gautam’s candidature also saw a similarly vile coverage, with media exoticizing a woman who chooses to accept her sexual agency not willing to back down. From headlines like “Who is Bikini Girl Archana Gautam” to sexualising her identity and passing a moral judgment by using pictures from her modeling days, once again the fourth pillar of democracy showcased its missing morality.
There are several questions that arise from this. Can women with a sexual agency not be seen as someone who can take a stand in politics? And is a woman’s sexual agency detrimental to her decision to enter politics?
The misogyny, insults, stereotyping, and bracketing of women politicians in India has become so normalised that it often goes amiss. So much so, that in a majority of the cases, the covert and subtle references are even defended by those that make them. This points at not only the unequal playing field that exists in politics for women but also the deep-seated roots of patriarchal beliefs in society that disguises misogyny as respect for ‘sanskaar’ and culture.
The ruling BJP is using Archana Gautam’s candidature as a reason to vilify Congress. This attack is based on no political reason but the fact that a woman with sexual agency – a woman who would do bikini shoots – is considered a no-go in the eyes of the Hindutva masculine conservative narrative within which women are mostly relegated to child-bearing and rearing roles. The right-wing ruling party has for long projected the ideal woman to be a saree-clad ‘Hindu Naari’ and the fact that Gautam is unapologetic for her choices and puts her foot down as a woman with agency over her body and choice, goes against that very image. This right-wing resentment is also seen amply in their references to Sonia Gandhi as “a bar dancer”.
The patriarchal Indian society expects women politicians to be in sarees, or “Indian wear” and often also cover their heads as a ‘dress code’ in rallies, and they often receive flak if they act otherwise. It is a way of cultivating the image of a domesticated woman, that of an obedient daughter, dutiful wife, or protective sister, who will function within the ambit of the societal rules that the men have forged. Women in politics are hardly ever seen as independent women with an agency of their own.
It is true that we have come a long way from looking at bikinis just as sex symbols to accepting them as a symbol of sexual freedom and sexual liberation. Yet, when it comes to political spaces, a woman wearing clothes of her choice, accessing her sexual freedom is seen as a “misfit” and “unworthy”.
From Priyanka Gandhi Vadra being accused of wearing “jeans in Delhi and sindoor in gaon”, or TMC Lok Sabha MPs Nusrat Jahan and Mimi Chakraborty being constantly chided for their choice of attire, professional career as actors, and choices they make in their personal lives, to the blatant objectification that happens within the parliament and by noted parliamentarians like Shashi Tharoor and his selfie with ‘good looking colleagues’. All of this does nothing but disregard their contribution to the political field.
The men, on the other hand, despite their personal lives and professional backgrounds, do not face the same othering and aggression and are rather lauded wholeheartedly for working for the betterment of the society. This is because we have not learned to see women beyond the ambit of domestication and have not arrived at a definition for independent, liberated, and powerful women beyond the vocabulary provided by the male gaze.
Time and again there has been an attempt to ‘otherise’ the women from what are largely hypermasculine political spaces. Or the alternative has been to domesticate them so that they fit in the patriarchy’s narrative. It is always the image of a dutiful wife in Samajwadi Party’s Dimple ‘Bhabhi’ or the caring sister in Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Didi’, or the protective ‘Behenji’ in Mayawati and the ever-providing mother in Jayalalitha’s ‘Amma’, that the women politicians are ‘allowed’ to exist in. Their identity as individuals gets lost in these multitudes of transformations that they are made to undergo to just be heard.
Featured image source: Hindustan Times