Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 29, 2015

Thank you, Sharad Yadav…

Many women in India are really mad and irritated with Sharad Yadav. The Rajya Sabha MP, who belongs to the Janata Dal (United), thinks nothing of drawing comparisons between Indian women, their skin colour and shape and provisions of the Insurance Bill. Others might find it difficult to make the connect. But not Yadav. Nor some of his fellow male compatriots who were caught on camera laughing at his remarks.

Yet those of us who ‘know’ Sharad Yadav should not really be surprised at what he said. How can we forget his performance as a member of the ‘Yadav Troika’, that band of brothers who have fought determinedly and spiritedly against increasing the representation of women in Parliament? This is the same Sharad Yadav who, in the debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill, attacked Indian women with short hair, charging them with conspiring to increase women’s representation in Parliament.

Since then, there are probably more women in India who have short hair although this has not been the chief reason that the law that Sharad Yadav detests, also known as the 108 Constitutional Amendment Bill 2008, did pass in the Rajya Sabha. Again, we were not surprised to learn that certain members who objected to the Bill had to be physically evicted from the House.

Given his recent verbal history, we should not be alarmed at Yadav’s comments about women’s skin colour. He is being entirely consistent at a time when consistency is not a quality found in many Indian politicians. In fact, perhaps we should thank him. For without meaning to, Yadav has reminded us of something we forget: the fair-skin obsession among Indians. He has also nudged us to remember that the Women’s Reservation Bill still awaits a vote in the Lok Sabha.

Let’s take up the latter first. Much has been debated about the pluses and minuses of this Bill. Without going into that, we should remember that the party now in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported the Bill. There are memorable photographs of women Members of Parliament including Sushma Swaraj of the BJP in the company of Sonia Gandhi of the Congress Party and Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) celebrating the passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. Cutting across party lines, women politicians came together in support of the Bill.
Unfortunately, we do not see such solidarity among the women on other issues. Brinda Karat, in a recent comment on Sharad Yadav’s behaviour in the Rajya Sabha, lamented the absence of solidarity among the few women who were in the House the day Yadav held forth. She recounted how difficult it had been in the past, when such anti-women remarks were made, to get the attention of the chair. Surely, if one third of the House consisted of women, men like Yadav would not escape unscathed. That’s another reason to have more women elected.

In any case, the BJP government seems to have forgotten about this particular Bill. In its hurry to push through seven Bills, it has been afflicted by amnesia as far as the Women’s Reservation Bill is concerned. So perhaps Sharad Yadav’s soliloquy in the House will stir the memory of the party honchos that here is one more law that needs to be passed quite urgently.

And the other aspect of skin colour? We need not be reminded of that. Just turn on the television. There are plenty of reminders in the advertisements you see. If you want success, as a woman or a man, you must be fair and good-looking. No less than Shah Rukh Khan tells you this. Or read the matrimonial columns of newspapers. ‘Beautiful, fair, slim’, three words that are repeated. Or go to dating and marriage websites. The story never changes. The shape of the woman and the colour of her skin are essential qualities for ‘a suitable match’. Unfair, many women would say, but Indian society continues to plum for ‘fair’ over all else.

As a result, since they were first introduced in 1975, ‘fairness’ creams and skin-lightening agents have grown into an incredible Rs.3,000 crore business in India, expanding at the rate of 18 per cent a year. Their appeal has caught the interest of men since the introduction in 2005 of special men’s fairness creams.

Despite studies that reveal the harm these creams can do, their sales continue to climb. A 2014 study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) revealed that skin-lightening lotions contained harmful chemicals such as mercury. Far from lightening the colour of your skin, they can harm it and also cause other adverse reactions. The CSE tested 32 skin-lightening creams and found that 44 per cent had mercury content despite mercury being banned for use in cosmetics under the Drugs and Cosmetics Acts and Rules.

So thank you, Sharad Yadav for reminding us of a forgotten bill and a cosmetic that we ought to forget.

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