Dislike the new government? Attack the female minister

Misogyny permeates the political and cultural landscape in India, from the violence on the streets, to the ‘rape jokes’ in journalism offices, to the way in which female politicians are subject to sexist commentary on the guise of criticising the government.  As if having Modi as a PM isn't bad enough.

Priyanka Borpujari
7 June 2014

‘Why is it so easy to attack a woman, when there are so many imbecile male ministers out there?’

Over the last few days, this is the sentence that I have been copying and pasting as comments to several posts on Facebook. I have had to remove at least two men from my friends' list. All because, India's new government has chosen Smriti Irani – a female TV actor-turned-politician – as the minister for human resources development. Of the 45 ministers in the cabinet, just seven are women, while the Modi PR machine is chanting how this is the highest number of women in the ministry in Indian Parliament history.

But ever since Ms Irani's new appointment was announced, social networking sites have been abuzz with mockery. Indeed, she has had a somewhat tough youth. She worked the floors at a McDonald's outlet. She had the nation transfixed about a decade ago, when she portrayed the role of a daughter-in-law who swats her in-laws without trampling upon traditions, on a soap opera. She left the glamour world, and contested the elections for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the recent elections in India, she did not win in her constituency, but since her party's, and the industrialists' poster boy – Narendra Modi – has been elected the prime minister, she has been anointed as minister of a significant ministry.

That's when the misogyny began to flow: right from those who do not shy away from misogyny at every other instance, to those who call themselves activists. It was shocking, to say the least. And my single sentence – in capital letters, to show my disdain – was rebuked, and fiercely commented upon. One said that I was dragging the 'woman issue' unnecessarily. Another said that I sounded like a fundamentalist.

A lot of the men have said that they do not mean to attack her. They say that of course they are aware that our new Prime Minister was one who allowed a genocide in Gujarat in 2002, where he was the chief minister, and had every power to halt the pogrom. They say that it is an example of how someone without even a Bachelors degree can determine the quality of human resources of the country. They say that they are only pointing out to the bad times that lay ahead. Another storm picked up, with discrepancies about her educational qualification – whether she merely completed high school or completed a Bachelor's level degree. Like a good politician, she retorted, “Let my work speak for me.”

It is another matter altogether that she has already announced that ancient Hindu texts would be introduced to the education system, erasing any other perspective of history, thus typifying BJP's Hindu nationalistic stance. That's a crying song for another time.

But, it seems clear that for every problem, attacking a woman is the prefect introduction to a crash course on what's wrong with the country. I agree she might be incompetent, as I believe that some men in the ministry are. But why begin with attacking a woman? Why attack a woman first? Is there even a way to convince a man that his comments are offensive, that they reek of sexism, that it is an attack on my gender, which has to every single day fight for her dignity? When Ms Irani – and so many other women leaders, competent or not – are the first ones to be attacked in a corrupt patriarchal system, it reminds me of the stares I have to avoid on the bus even when my chest might be covered with a thick scarf.

It reminds me that I really cannot ask the guy "what are you staring at" on the day when I do decide to show one centimetre of my cleavage; it reminds me that women are shown the door at their workplace the moment they get pregnant; it reminds me how talking about sex makes the men in my office assume I am promiscuous, even as they spout out 'maadarchond bhenchond' (motherfucker, sisterfucker) as verbs. See, cuss words are verbs. So attacking a woman minister is the first step to attack a rotten political system. And yet, some of these same people would be carrying placards to punish rapists.

Rape jokes fill the air, even in journalism offices, which I supposed to the space to challenge the society. When senior politicians announce aloud that rape is a mistake committed by boys, one wonders how they might woo the female voters – who constituted 47.62 per cent of the voters in the recent elections. And women leaders in India have not fallen far behind in chaining women. Few years ago, the former chief minister of New Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, had responded to news of the murder of Delhi-based journalist Soumya Viswanathan by saying that women “should not be adventurous.”

Even as India tries hard, really hard to fight off the stamp of being backward - displacing the poor to erect high-rises and making mobile phones cheaper to buy than having access to toilets – and as women in urban cities are not far behind ordering the labels off Milan and Paris, and carving their own lives, the scourge of nuanced patriarchy in the least and misogyny at its worst continues to thrive. So numbers do not really matter, even when women manage a coveted seat. Jokes, sly comments will surely follow. There will be news reports on the sunscreen she might use, but never on the fact that India is obsessed with fair skin, thus proving its racist demeanour.  

The conversations last few days over social media has hurt me tremendously. I am very hurt, because these conversations have become so bitter. The comments were unexpected from men I respect, and it is shocking that I have a moment of "Et tu, Brute?" when I am confronted by their sexism. It is almost like the layers of a ripe pink onion being peeled away, only to expose a rotten core.

It starts with a post attacking Ms Irani in what they might consider a funny one, but my comment shows me that their misogyny, and comment after comment reveals how they will Just. Never. Get. It. They try later to convince me how they feel some male politicians are also at fault, and how they despise them. One had the heart to tell me, "Don't take it to heart." Another was an activist that has been screaming to the point of going hoarse about the plight of indigenous women being displaced from their lands (and how I have looked up to him previously!). But these series of comments just get bitter, bitter, till I want to puke out, and tell myself that maybe something is wrong with me. But hey, isn't that what women have always done – blame themselves?

I take it all to heart because it is personal. Nora Ephron said it right to the Wellesley graduating class of 1996 that we ought to never “underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged.” When men in India -- the ones who 'allow' their wives to wear short skirts and sip a mocktail -- condemn Ms Irani over beer or buttermilk, I do take it personally.  

As if having Modi as a PM isn't enough torment. I just heard that one educated man in Baroda, Gujarat -- his religion or caste doesn't matter – sat all day staring at his wall, with curtains pulled over, the day of the election results. He dwells not far from the site of the pogrom of 2002. The sanity of any discussion these days about Modi depends on until how long can we avoid talking about the bloodbath. But with these comments attacking a woman, in this supposed New Age 21st century where we have vagina whitening creams as the ultimate example of women's liberation, it makes me feel that the existence of my vagina and breasts will not allow my intelligence to shine. That my gender would always matter, when I am either honoured or rebuked. That it would still be a boy's club out there, and on Facebook, and on the street, and among activists.

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