By the time you read this, I am sure you will know all the details about the Sanjay Nirupam-Smriti Irani controversy. But even so, what Nirupam said about Irani during a TV show bears repeating. And not the sanitised English-language translation of what he said, but his actual words. During a debate on the Gujarat election results, Nirupam dismissed Irani as someone who “kal tak toh paise ke liye TV pe thumke lagati thi” (till yesterday, she used to dance on TV for money).
The subtext was clear. As was the image that Nirupam was trying to conjure up: that of a nautch girl who is paid to dance for the amusement of men. How could such a woman expect to be taken seriously in a discussion about electoral politics? She really should know her place.
But after the storm of condemnation that followed, there were many who asked just how seriously we should take this. After all, you can take the lout out of the Shiv Sena, but you can’t take the lout out of the man. And in a week when we are all grappling with the rage and sorrow evoked by the brutal gang rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus, did this throwaway comment merit so much attention? The short answer is: Yes, it does.
Why? Because the fact that a woman member of Parliament can be belittled, demeaned, and dismissed as a ‘thumke lagane wali’ on national television shows just how deep sexism runs in our society. And it proves that no matter how high you rise in the world, no matter what you achieve, and no matter what the subject of the debate, at the end of the day, if you are a woman you will never be safe from being attacked by sexual innuendo.
Misogyny is so commonplace in our world that we have become inured to it. It starts in the family where husbands treat their wives as their property, where brothers regard their sisters as second-class citizens, where daughters are seen as liabilities, and all women are treated as beasts of burden. It manifests itself in our public places, where no woman is safe. She is leered at as she walks the streets. She is groped in buses and trains. She is sexually harassed at work. And if she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is brutally gang-raped and left for dead.
But it all starts with the macho arrogance that Nirupam displayed so tellingly on television. And his contemptuously-curled lip as he spewed his vicious poison is an image that shows us just how terrible things are for women in our society. There may be a vast distance between the TV studio in which Sanjay Nirupam abused Smriti Irani and the Delhi bus in which the gang-rape survivor was so brutally assaulted. But both are the result of the same mindset: which regards women with derision and views them as sex objects. The same rage that is expressed in contemptuous comments on TV debates also lies behind the innumerable instances of sexual violence against women that are reported every day.
As women, we are used to being treated this way. We are routinely whistled at, jeered, groped, pawed, and worse, as we negotiate our daily lives. And we are routinely told to ignore all this, not to make an issue of it. Move on, is the message we get. Don’t sweat the small stuff. How does it matter if someone calls you ‘achha maal’ on the road or brushes against your breast as you board a bus? There are bigger problems in life. Yes, there are. But they all start from that one comment that we ignore; that one whistle that we pretend not to hear; that one hand groping our bottom as we walk along a crowded street.
It all starts with this belief that women are nothing more than bodies to be exploited and ends in the brutalisation of attitudes to women. And if we ignore those first stirrings of misogyny, the rage and violence escalates until it explodes in a vicious attack on a 23-year-old woman who boards a bus at 9.30pm. The men who raped her didn’t see her as a human being. She was just a receptacle for these bestial desires. A disposable thing who could be abused and then dumped on the side of the road.
Through my school and college years when I travelled by public transport I don’t remember a single day when I wasn’t sexually harassed in some way. (And this was in Calcutta, which is supposed to be safe for women.) Every time I challenged my harasser, there was one heart-stopping moment when I didn’t quite know how things would go: whether he would back away or escalate his attack. But it wasn’t bravery that propelled me, it was a visceral rage that anyone could dare to assume that he could violate my body and get away with it. It is the same visceral rage that every woman feels when she is confronted by sexism or sexual violence. And it is that visceral rage that both Sanjay Nirupam and the Delhi rapists inspire within us.
So, let’s shame a man who makes sexist comments. Let’s have summary punishment for all those who harass women, either by word or by deed. Put away a man who gropes a woman and the odds are that he won’t grow up to be a rapist.
If we want to make the world safe for women, zero tolerance is the only way to go.
From HT Brunch, December 30
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