Elections once again – and it's press play on sexist slurs against women politicians

    The Hawk
    April7/ 2024
    Last Updated:

    Elections in India unveil a recurring pattern of sexism targeting women politicians across parties, with incidents involving high-profile figures stirring significant controversy and debate on gender parity in politics.

    Hema Malini, Mamata Banerjee and Kangana Ranaut

    New Delhi: Elections are open season for targeting women politicians — the familiar pan-party, pan-country sexist subtext is in play again for the Indian elections in 2024. BJP’s star candidates Hema Malini and Kangana Ranaut, and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee have been early targets.

    On Thursday, Congress leader Randeep Surjewala was in the dock for a derogatory remark against Malini that invited the fury of her party and its leaders and prompted the National Commission for Women to move the Election Commission against him.

    The comment at a rally in Haryana late last month stirred a massive political row with the BJP alleging the opposition party had touched a new low with its 'vile, sexist' comment and the Congress leader stating he had also said in the same video that Malini is respected a lot because she is married to 'Dharmendra ji and is our bahu'.

    Regardless of the apology, the BJP’s two-term MP from Mathura was at the centre of debate with the almost casual reference in the speech objectifying her status as a star, wife and as daughter-in-law and corralling her identity. Many years ago, Malini was the subject of another offensive analogy when RJD chief Lalu Yadav claimed he would make Bihar’s road as smooth as her cheeks.

    “And it's not only between rivals, even inside political parties all women politicians face sexism from their male colleagues. You can ask any woman politician and she will tell you the same,” women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari told PTI.

    Gender parity and pluralism, added Sushila Ramaswamy, political science professor at Delhi University’s Jesus and Mary College, which are essential to modern society are “still nascent and uneven in India”.

    "Women representation is far less than many other democracies. The few women that are there are from privileged and well connected families," she added.

    Before Surjewala, his party’s leaders Supriya Shrinate and H S Ahir found themselves in trouble over posts linking Ranaut and her constituency Mandi on their social media handles.

    Shrinate removed the offensive comment saying they were not posted by her. Besides, Congress’ Karnataka MLA Shamanur Shivashankarappa said about BJP’s Gayathri Siddeshwara that she was only 'fit to cook'. And BJP’s Dilip Ghosh issued an apology for a comment on Banerjee’s parentage.

    The Election Commission issued notice to Shrinate and Ghosh but the course, it seemed, was set for this election season just as it had in earlier ones.

    In what is an unfortunate refrain, towering figures in Indian politics, including Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Smriti Irani, Jaya Prada, and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, have all been targets of the sexist side of politics at one point or another.

    The recent incident involving the Queen actor was a haunting reminder of Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan’s crass comment about his former colleague and BJP leader Jaya Prada in 2019.

    At a campaign rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur in August 2019, Khan said, “I brought her (Jaya Prada) to Rampur. You are a witness that I did not allow anyone to touch her body. It took you 17 years to identify her real face but I got to know in 17 days that she wears khaki underwear.”

    Discussing misogyny in Indian politics, women rights activist Ranjana Kumari said it is a common mindset to "run a woman down by commenting on her body."

    She added that while women perpetrators in such cases tend to apologise eventually, men seldom do so.

    Similar incidents were witnessed during the 2019 general elections when political heavyweights targeted their female rivals with distasteful remarks that would be termed nothing but misogynistic in the contemporary political narrative.

    Then Union minister Ashwini Choubey advised former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi to stay behind her 'ghoonghat' (veil). And another BJP leader, Vinay Katiyar, reportedly asked whether Congress leader Sonia Gandhi would be able to give proof to Rahul Gandhi that his father was Rajiv Gandhi.

    Katiyar had also targeted Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, saying there were already 'much more beautiful star campaigners in politics'.

    The same year, actor-turned-politician Urmila Matondkar became a target of sexist remarks as BJP’s Gopal Shetty said that she had been given a ticket because of her looks.

    BSP supremo Mayawati has also been the target of remarks as vile as being called “worse than a prostitute” by BJP’s Dayashankar Singh in 2016, who alleged that the Dalit leader sold tickets in exchange for money.

    The comment by then BJP’s Uttar Pradesh vice president resulted in his party colleagues like Keshav Prasad Maurya and Arun Jaitley apologising to Mayawati in Parliament.

    In 2022, police registered a case against Congress leader Ajay Rai for a sexist remark against Union minister Smriti Irani.

    According to Ramaswamy, the rampant use of offensive language and treatment when it comes to women politicians stems from the “larger patriarchal order that creates an uneven field for women both in private and public spheres.”

    "This is due to lack of proper education, nurture and awareness which results in a perverted perception of male superiority which is not reflected in the real world. We have a liberal political structure but the corresponding development of a liberal society is an ongoing process and that will take time," Ramaswamy told PTI.

    This is not the first time BJP's Ghosh has targeted West Bengal chief minister and Banerjee.

    Banerjee, who had suffered a foot injury, was seen in a plaster while campaigning for the 2021 assembly polls in West Bengal.

    Addressing a poll rally in Purulia, Ghosh said, "We have never seen someone take off their plaster. What is this sorcery? She is wearing a saree with one of her legs exposed. I have never seen anyone drape a saree like that. Wear a bermuda instead so that everyone can take a clear look."

    While it is not rare for political rivals to make sexist and derogatory remarks, especially when the rival is a woman, Congress leader Digvijay Singh had joined ranks of such politicians by commenting on one of Congress’ own members.

    In 2013, Singh described Meenakshi Natarajan, then-MP from Mandsaur, as 'sau taka tunch maal' (100 per cent pure material or totally unblemished), which resulted in criticism from across party lines.

    The instances are many and frequent with several women politicians being subjected to sexist comments either from their colleagues, their rivals and voters, their achievements being reduced to their gender. The male gaze, as many would attest, is difficult to get away from.