Unfair speech
Use of intemperate language by politicians to demean women and treat them like punching bags reveals a feudal mindset. This attitude towards women cuts across party lines

Aruti nayar

Power, a word that signifies a lot. It can be used to shatter a glass ceiling that prevents women from reaching the top of their professions. Or it can be used to shatter their dignity by throwing verbal shards at them. No prizes for guessing how our politicians use it. How often have we savoured these: The clip of a cheerful woman executive breezing through a board meeting, exuding a chutzpah that signifies that she has arrived, media images of icons in industry and the service sector and assertions that the glass ceiling has been breached. How does one reconcile these images of liberation with the language used in public discourse by those in positions of power and responsibility? This language, often used to hit out at a political adversary, is often feudal and retrogressive.

United they stand

Whatever the political ideology, ‘leaders’from every party are capable of displaying verbal machismo. Calling a woman a “Rs 50-crore girlfriend” and that too in an election rally is indicative of the scant regard for the need to observe decorum in public, even if one were to forget the dignity of women. This tendency to take potshots at women does cut across party lines, what with a serving minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal even announcing, “An old victory, like a wife of many years, loses its charm over time”. The resultant wave of anger was dealt with by saying, “it was just a joke.” Yes, it was, the joke was on the dignity of women.

Recently Mulayam Singh Yadav too put his foot in his mouth to say that rural women could not enter politics because “they are unattractive”. Of course, one did not know whether to mock, cry or laugh when the television channels splashed clips of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi taking a dig at Union Minister Shashi Tharoor`s personal life, a day after the latter had made a comeback in the Union Cabinet after the shuffle. He said: “Wah kya girlfriend hai. Apne kabhi dekha hai 50 crore ka girlfriend?" (What a girlfriend! Have you ever seen a 50-crore girlfriend?) .The objective apparently was to hit out at a fellow politician. Sunanda Pushkar was incidental, just some more cannon fodder to hit out where it hurts the most.

As it happens each time a derogatory remark is made against women, everyone who featured on air or in print declared that campaigning had “touched an all-time low”. Let us rock our memories. Was there ever a time that the language of politics was gender-sensitive? When was it that women were spared the indignity of either being dragged into controversies or used as punching bags by ‘macho’ politicians to settle personal scores. After all the easiest way to hit out at a man is to attack the woman in his life. Not that things are better even when the question is to give women representation in Parliament.

During the heated debates on giving women 33 per cent reservation in Parliament, some politicians made scathing references to obviously modern urban women and expressed the fear that par kati mahilayen (or women with short hair) will occupy positions of power at the cost of women from underprivileged sections.

A civilisation is known by the way it treats its women and one wonders if we have evolved as a society if we go by the manner in which we treat women and the kind of language used for them in politics which is in the public sphere.

A serious issue

Not merely as a marker of progress but even as a social trend, the status of women is a serious issue. Razia Ismail Abbasi, Convenor, Women's Coalition Trust India Alliance for Child Rights, an NGO, is of the view that to focus on gender is not appropriate because it is essentially a human rights issue and not only a question of gender. There should be no discrimination on the basis of caste, class, ethnicity but we as a society are intolerant of anyone “who is not like us”. The fact remains that political interactions are by far too personalised in our country. Discourse should be about politics and policies and not personalised. Social attitudes are not a matter of public discourse in a half-hearted way.

The seriousness with which women’s issues have to be taken demands that people in public life exercise restraint on the words uttered. The need for a politician to be more responsible arises because what he says has a ripple-down effect. Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar, a lawyer and member of the National Commission for Women, agrees that there should be restraint on the part of a person who is holding a public office. She says, “What is spoken during an election rally affects mindsets and a code of conduct must be observed.” This will help to avoid being a motor mouth.

For Gurgaon-based publisher of inspirational books, Anu Anand, who was looking at Narendra Modi as the next potential prime ministerial candidate, it was disillusioning. She says, “To expect a person of his level to fire such a loose cannon, verbally assaulting a person through his wife does not show maturity. As a woman, I feel alienated by his comments.” Not only this, but just a couple of months back, while being interviewed by Wall Street Journal, Modi had trivialised a very serious health issue of malnutrition in Gujarat by blaming it on body-image issues among young women.

Why be passive?

If women are not treated with respect, they, too, do not demand it as a matter of right. Not only men but women too perceive themselves as extensions of men and second-class citizens who put men first. The myth of male superiority is not only flaunted by men but has also been internalised by women. A social activist of more than six decades, Manmohan Kaur feels women are passive recipients of welfare measures and not active agents who demand change. Politics belongs to the realm of public life and it is a turf where the male syntax of muscle power and machismo reigns. Women in politics have to contend with an unequal playing field. Somewhere the sex-specific stereotype is at work. Why should they too not counter it with assertiveness.

For Abhijit Roy, Associate Professor, Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, it is a larger issue and more than civility at stake. He is of the view that along with tropes of moral persuasion for civility and restraint, we should also start seriously engaging with such constructions and also, broadly, with the gendered nature of our political culture. In a society, where feudal and patriarchal mindsets are reflected in the use of intemperate language (and worse behaviour), asking for self-restraint is like asking for the impossible and the improbable. If that was possible, the need for debates like this would not have arisen in the first place. Why does an apex body such as the National Commission for Women push hard for a common minimum code of conduct as far as persons in the public sphere, especially those in positions of power and responsibility, are concerned?

The electronic media too cannot abdicate its responsibility. It should act with restraint and even if an offensive clip or statement has to be condemned, why should it be repeatedly shown, given so much of airspace and the issue further sensationalised?

Double high

What is it about politicians that makes them so insensitive to use of language? According to SL Sharma, retired professor sociology, for a politician it is often the case of being on a double high. It is a heady combination of cultural conditioning of patriarchy, coupled with the arrogance of political power. On its part, patriarchy has three attributes that define it: economic slavery, sexual slavery and the idea of modesty. A man believes that he possesses absolute power over a woman and modesty is an obligation for women but not a necessary attribute for a man. A man can sound brazen and get away with it and if it is a man in power, there are rarely any commas, leave alone full stops in his speech.
There is an urgent need to evolve a common minimum code of conduct that should be gender-sensitive and can be enforced for persons occupying positions of power and responsibility.

Why should we expect politicians, who as it is play to the gallery always, when judges who are supposed to deliver justice and be sensitive to all forms of discrimination advise a woman to “adjust to the domestic violence rather than divorce the abusive husband?” Sushmita, (name changed), a lawyer, gives the recent example of a judge at the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, who suggested that the abuse was justified by the husband’s ability to take care of his wife financially. He said, “Women suffer in all marriages. You are married with two children, and know what it means to suffer as a woman…Your husband is doing good business, he will take care of you.” He had also raised doubts over the ability of a women lawyer to fight divorce cases because she was unmarried. So if we cannot ensure gender-just behaviour by an individual whose position impacts so many judgments, expecting sanitised language from politicians is like expecting the moon. Whatever the arm of governance — legislature, executive, judiciary (even the media) there is the need to evolve a code. Language is merely the articulation and expression of the attitudes and biases that are inherent. There is an urgent need to evolve a common minimum code of conduct that should be gender-sensitive and can be enforced for persons occupying public positions of power and responsibility. 

Political rhetoric is becoming sexist

Political rhetoric is increasingly getting sexist. Narendra Modi’s deplorable comment on Sunanda Pushkar is not only a testimony to that but it is also symptomatic of ideas of mardangi and machismo that shape our popular beliefs in general. While the Hindu Right, invested in moralising identity politics, has had a long history of defining its stand in terms of good woman/ bad woman binary. We have enough evidence to believe that the tendency cuts across a wide range of political positions. Nationalism has always been a woman’s issue. The Congress and the BJP, both hegemonic in their ideas of citizenship and both nationalists in their very own but not entirely different ways, would therefore continue producing figures like Modi or Sriprakash Jaiswal. One does need to restrain oneself while making a statement, but merely pitching ideas of “civility” only would not be strong enough to critique statements such as those made by the likes of Modi. It’s important that we locate such an articulation very much within “politics” and propose an alternative political engagement. The popular charge of the issue of “corruption” in Indian politics since the mid-1980s has possibly something to do with the naturalisation of personal attack in politics. The ‘Hinduist swadeshi’ imagination of neo-liberal India, where women have a certain location, also seems to be greatly strained here by an apparently ‘western’ everyday to which women like Pushkar are popularly connected.

Abhijit Roy, Associate Professor, Jadavpur University, Calcutta