Sunday, August 16, 2015
The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August16, 2015
Smriti Irani is not the most popular Minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet by a long shot. She has had more than her fair share of detractors. But irrespective of my opinion about whether she is fit for the job of Union Human Resource Development Minister, I believe she does not deserve to be the target of misogyny and sexist comments from male politicians.
The latest to join the club of several anti-women politicians from different political parties is Congress leader Gurudas Kamat. At a recent party meeting in Pali, Rajasthan, Kamat was filmed by television cameras saying (in Hindi): “If a chaiwala (tea seller) can become prime minister, then why not a ponchawali (cleaning woman) as education minister?” He was referring to Irani having worked in a fast food joint in Mumbai at one stage in her life. Although it is this remark that triggered some outrage, it is in fact some of the other remarks that Kamat made, mocking Irani about her journey into politics and using innuendo to suggest that there were other considerations that came into play, that were far worse. It is obvious that Kamat could say this and draw sniggers from his largely male audience because his target was a woman. Has such innuendo ever been used against a male politician in public?
Predictably, instead of ticking him off, his party chose to defend him. And as for Kamat, he resorted to that old trick that all politicians use when caught making inappropriate statements: “I have been misquoted”.
Thanks to the media, which records all such statements and recognises instantly the potential for a story, the clip of Kamat’s speech has been widely circulated. The “misquoted” excuse falls flat on its face under these circumstances. Kamat and his ilk should know that.
The Congress Party, headed as it is by a woman, should have castigated Kamat. Any political party that claims it stands for women’s human rights cannot allow its members to get away with such public statements. And that goes for all political parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (U) (remember Sharad Yadav)? And, of course, the newest kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party, which has its fair share of misogynists.
Remarks such as those made by Kamat produce a reaction for a while and are then forgotten. We have come to accept that male politicians of all hues make such comments because this is how they think. If that is a reality, should we just accept it? Is this preferable to a sham political correctness where the right things are said while in fact the attitude is very different?
Indian politicians are, of course, not an exception in this field. In the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections, even as the Republicans and Democrats are knocking each other out in the race for the nomination, we are getting to hear a fair share of intolerant talk from presidential hopefuls. In the recent much-watched debate of Republican candidates for the presidential nomination on Fox News, billionaire Donald Trump was asked how he could expect to run for president of the U.S. when he had been quoted calling women “dogs”, “disgusting animals”, “fat pigs” and “slobs”. Although Trump did not rise to the bait and launch into another bout of anti-woman talk during the debate, he tweeted immediately after the show calling the woman journalist who asked the question a “bimbo”.
Trump knows how to draw attention to himself. But more than his remarks, what was disturbing during the debate was to listen to the cheers from the audience when he declared that it was better to be forthright about his views than to be politically correct. America, he claimed, was losing out because of such political correctness. Given that there is a fairly good chance that one of the candidates for the U.S. presidency is going to be a woman, Hillary Clinton, this time, misogynistic talk is likely to be the flavour of the year.
And what about us in India? Is it worth our while to expose and oppose people like Kamat and others who think they can get away with such comments? I believe it is. For even if shaming these politicians through the media may not necessarily alter their views, opposition to any kind of sexist, racist, communal or casteist talk ensures that the word gets out that such attitudes are unacceptable.
On the other hand, if we laugh off the Kamats and others today (remember that women are constantly advised to have a sense of humour), we will open the floodgates for more such talk in the future. What hope then of changing the dominant attitude that prevails in our society which women confront everywhere — at home, in the office, on the street?