While Rahul Gandhi was downright sexist towards Nirmala Sitharaman, Modi in turn patronised her.
Poor Nirmala Sitharaman. She cannot just be India’s defence minister. She must forever be the mahila defence minister.
If Rahul Gandhi was downright sexist, Modi was being equally patronising towards Sitharaman.
On one hand, Rahul Gandhi is taunting Narendra Modi by saying “Chhappan inch ki chhati wala chowkidar bhaag gaya… Ek mahila se kehta hai, ‘Raksha ki jiye, main apni raksha nahin kar sakta’.” (The watchman with the 56-inch chest has fled… He issaying to a woman “Save me, I cannot protect myself”.) As Dhanya Rajendran of The News Minute tweeted “Hmmm, so? Women can’t defend?”
On the other hand, Modi is turning the insult to him into an insult towards “all the women in India” because “desh ki beti pehli baar raksha mantri hain”. (A daughter of the nation is the defence minister for the first time). Hmm, so? Should that be so mind-blowing in this day and age? Should that be counted as a giant leap forward for womankind for which women should be ever grateful?
Indians pride themselves on having a woman prime minister before most countries, including the so-called developed world, but Indian politicians have certainly never shaken off the casual sexism that treats women as lesser than men. Whether it’s our “daughters and sisters” that we must protect, devis we must put on a pedestal or bob-cut ladies we must slut-shame, we seem inherently incapable of treating women simply as peers.
The sexism just leaks out.
What’s fascinating is that we are aware of it. Politicians seem quite adept at spotting sexism in others, but have a convenient blind spot when it comes to themselves. So Sushma Swaraj, with all due respect, this latest mahila-spat is not a “new low” in Indian politics. It’s a very old low.
Narendra Modi has rallied to defend the honour of all Indian women as he bristled on behalf of Sitharaman. Yet just the other day our defender-in-chief was mocking “Yeh Congress ki kaunsi vidhwa thi, jiske khaatey mein rupaya jata tha?” (Who was the Congress widow in whose account this money would go?). This is the same Modi who once sneered at Sunanda Pushkar calling her the “50 crore ka girlfriend”. No apologies were forthcoming.
Bechara Indian politicians. They just cannot help it. Sexism is just in the DNA. Sometimes it’s blatant and deliberate. Remember Abhijit Mukherjee taunting the “painted and dented” women protesting rape? Or how Mulayam Singh Yadav once scoffed “Is (Mayawati) so beautiful that anyone would want to rape her?” No one could miss the misogyny there.
But alas, even when they think they are paying a compliment, our netas put their sexist foot in their mouth. There was Lalu Prasad Yadav promising that the roads in Bihar would be as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks. He probably still thinks he was complimenting the Dream Girl. And Narendra Modi went to the women’s wing of FICCI and talked to them about the “reverence” the word ‘ma’ evokes and why FICCI should study Lijjat papad and Jasuben pizza, womanly things as opposed to running banks or multinationals. In some ways, the out-and-out misogynist is easier to tackle than the sexist trying to be all woke.
What we never seem to get is that “reverence” and mockery are opposite sides of the same old coin. When Indira Gandhi first rose to power she was dismissed by the old boys club of the Congress as gungi gudiya or the dumb doll. When she became all-powerful Iron Lady she was admired as the ‘only man’ in her cabinet, a ‘compliment’ as sexist as gungi gudiya because, of course, a strong woman had to be like a man and men around a strong woman had to be emasculated. (Let’s not even get into transphobia here).
Also read: How do we really feel about women leaders?
The problem is that we still cannot shake off the notion that women’s rights flow not from them being human beings and citizens, but in being our mothers, daughters and sisters. So Nirmala Sitharaman is “desh ki beti” while a Manohar Parrikar or Arun Jaitley is never referred to as “desh ki beta”. Our debates on rape are all about the izzat of mothers and daughters and sisters, as if that familial connection is where all the honour resides. Have you no mothers and sisters at home, thunder our politicians to shame those they perceive as being misogynistic. Female politicians have to turn themselves into Didi, Behenji and Amma to be both powerful and likeable at the same time.
The late Jayalalithaa was once asked by Simi Garewal about chauvinism in films and politics. She said that while chauvinism was bad anywhere, in films women were an essential commodity. “You cannot do without them. In politics, you can do without them. They try very hard to do without them.” And then she added: “It’s not so easy to just wish me away.” As someone who was manhandled in the Tamil Nadu assembly, she obviously knew what she was talking about.
Now the National Commission of Women has issued a notice to Rahul Gandhi asking him to defend his “misogynistic, offensive, unethical” remarks as if the vidhwa comment by Narendra Modi was particularly affirming to the “dignity and honour of women in general”. Rahul Gandhi, trolled for his comments, has dug in his heels and told Modi to “Stop shaking, Be a man.” Real men apparently don’t shake. They just use women as a punching bag to score debating points with each other.
All it goes to show is that men might be from Mars and women from Venus, but sexism and misogyny are very much of this Earth and of Parliament in particular. Or as the great Mulayam Singh Yadav once said in a different context, “Boys will be boys”. Unfortunately so.
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