Never mind that some of the most powerful chief ministers of the country are women. Never mind that the head of the main opposition party and for years the power behind its throne is a woman. Never mind that parliament was stalled because of a furore over a cabinet minister who happens to be a woman. And that the Speaker, also a woman, came down hard on the Opposition and threatened disciplinary action while in the Rajya Sabha another woman led the charge against the Narendra Modi government on the Lalit Modi affair.Never mind all that.
Boys will be boys. And they still cannot think of women as anything but the “weaker sex”. When Mulayam Singh Yadav, the patriarch of the Samajwadi Party, was asked whether his party was going to insist on Sushma Swaraj’s resignation, he told journalists “Why are you all hounding one woman? You know what my party thinks about women. It is sau khoon maaf. (100 murders pardoned).”
Swaraj has a long and distinguished career in politics, from being the youngest chief minister ever in the country to Leader of Opposition in the 15th Lok Sabha and currently India’s Minister of External Affairs. Now she’s fighting a battle for her political survival with the Congress gunning for her. But Sushma Swaraj is no babe in the woods. She is a seasoned politician. She does not need Mulayam Singh Yadav to step up as her knight in antiquated rusty armour.
Mulayam Singh Yadav must be thinking he’s doing a great service to the cause of women everywhere by his generosity. But god help us all, especially women, from such support. This kind of patronizing uncle-ji sexism imprisons women in the ‘weaker sex’ box far more effectively than overt misogyny.
It’s easier to raise an outcry about female foeticide and gaping gender ratios. Or rail against a khap panchayat’s diktat to bar women from using cellphones or wearing jeans. Or take on a politician who tries to make a woman’s rape her fault.
Mulayam Singh Yadav himself got into hot water with his infamous boys will be boys comment while opposing death penalty for rape. Now he must be befuddled wondering why his genial “support” for the “little lady” is also not deemed good enough. It seems a big step forward from Sharad Yadav waxing eloquent about the nostalgia of stalking in Parliament while discussing the Rape bill or telling Smriti Irani “I know what you are” as he discussed the charms of “saanvli” (dusky) women.
Let’s try again. It’s not about weaker sex. Or fairer sex. It’s about equal rights and equal treatment. Sushma Swaraj is a cabinet minister in trouble. That she happens to be a woman is entirely besides the point. She will stay or fall on the basis of her record, not on the basis of her chromosomes. She should neither be targeted for being a woman, nor protected for being a woman. She has not made her gender an issue. She has not claimed she’s being singled out as a woman neither does she deserve a pass for being a woman.
But it hard for our politicians to get out of this mindset where a woman is either to be to protected as grihalakshmi or vilified as vamp. Every conversation around rape and violence eventually ends up in passionate pleas about needing to protect our wives and daughters and mothers. As if women’s rights to safety are predicated on their familial relationships not their simple intrinsic worth as human beings. In a country with many savvy and powerful women politicians, a survey by DailyBouncer found that out of 4,120 MLAs in the country, only 360 were women. And out of 568 ministers in state governments only 39 were women. And we can safely assume that a big chunk of those women were in charge of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare – the political equivalent of the old “home science” course.
The worst humiliation some of our men can wish upon another is to wear bangles. When the Indian cricket team was thrashed by the West Indies in 1966-67, skipper Chandu Borde remembered how fans gave them nicely gift-wrapped boxes. They opened them thinking they were sweets but they were bangles instead. That story is told not as a comment on sexism but as a cute anecdote about the Indian passion for cricket.
More recently When Giriraj Singh was under attack for his comments about Sonia Gandhi and race, Laloo Prasad Yadav rose gallantly to her defence and said “”He should be made to wear bangles, vermilion, bindi, and his face should be blackened as he has crossed the limit of indecency.” And thereby blithely crossed the limit of sexism without even realizing it.
It is sexism so deep rooted that women clearly are not immune from this either. Just this week Mamata Banerjee, a formidable leader who has risen to the top on her own steam and not as anyone’s daughter/sister/widow, addressed a rally of lakhs in Kolkata. It was her battle cry to launch Trinamool’s 2016 election campaign. Amidst all her rousing rhetoric Mamata also slipped in this jab at her opposition.
“I challenge them (opposition parties). If they can fight us let them fight. Else apply lipstick and take rest.” Slow clap.
In Mamata’s world ladies with lipstick take rest. In Congress MP Abhijit Mukherjee’s world “painted and dented” ladies agitate on the streets about rape. Both confuse make-up with what women are made of. As for the beleaguered Sushma Swaraj, she cannot be too picky about where she gets her support from these days. But that last thing she needs right now is to be Mulayam Singh Yadav’s damsel in distress. She deserves better than that.