There’s more to women than being betis and biwis | columns | Hindustan Times
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There’s more to women than being betis and biwis

Why does the phrase ‘despite being a woman’ precede a compliment which suggests that an individual has somehow made it to the exclusive male club for just that occasion?

columns Updated: Sep 30, 2017 18:06 IST
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York. (PTI)

It was meant as a compliment but to me it smacked of patriarchal condescension. I am referring to the spirited defence of India in the UN by two women diplomats against a belligerent Pakistan on the issue of human rights violations in Kashmir. Television reports described them as India’s betis, as if that was their primary moniker. I did not see such familial verbiage when our male diplomats acquit themselves well on the world stage, no talk of them being India’s betas. I am sure many of them would take strong objection to such a description but the women are meant to accept this as a mark of achievement that the nation accepts them into its family fold.

But then this is nothing that should occasion surprise. This is seen in very many aspects of our life. We see politicians so often talk of how they will make the streets safe for our daughters. We see some of the rape accused talking about how they could not conceive of harming the victim as she is like a daughter to them, presumably other women are easy prey.

A misplaced sense of patriarchy drives people like the vice-chancellor of Banaras Hindu University to enforce rules for women which don’t apply to men. They are like our daughters, the implication being that they have no ability to look after themselves or think for themselves, so the patriarchal figure will take care of them, whether they like it or not.

While dynasty in democracy is not anything to be proud of, there was much shock and horror at the thought that the women’s reservation bill could bring in daughters and wives of powerful politicians. How different are they from the uncles and sons of the same people who seem to consider it an entitlement to inherit the ‘legacy’ of their male relatives?

I am not saying that this is something that afflicts only Indian men. I recall many condemnations of Donald Trump when he assumed office about his execrable conduct with women. The bulk of the statements went along the lines of `speaking as a father of two daughters, I feel this conduct is inappropriate’ as though only this status confers on the man the right to speak up for women. That daughters like theirs should not be subject to the advances of a Trump like figure but such a noble yardstick may not apply to other women.

In India of course, the whole notion of wife, daughter and sister is tied up with family honour, read the man’s honour. In a rape case for example, it is the man’s honour which is affected more than that of the victim who is a mere extension of him. The right wing excels in this sort of hypocrisy. We see many of them including RSS luminaries speaking of how women are treated as devis in India, our vice president informing us that Durga is our defence minister and Laxmi our finance minister in a rare break from his customary alliteration.

There is the same condescension when after successful launches of missiles or rockets we are treated to pictures of women scientists cheering as though the very fact that they are this smart should occasion such surprise and paternal gratitude. The phrase `despite being a woman’ often precedes a compliment which suggests that the particular individual has somehow made it to the exclusive male club for just that occasion.

The first thing we need to do is to stop trying to talk down to women, to treat them no differently by bracketing them as daughters and wives. The diplomats who held up India’s end are professionals doing their job well, no one has any right to appropriate them as daughters and laud their achievement as though it was something unusual coming from women. When Sheila Dikshit was chosen for her ill-fated run as the chief ministerial candidate in UP, it was her status as the daughter-in-law of a powerful politician that was the Congress’s calling card, not her stellar performance as a three-time chief minister.

And finally, we were all told that elevating Nirmala Sitharaman to defence minister was a great leap forward for gender rights. Is it possible that the motivation was that she was the best candidate for the job? But then that would upset the patriarchal applecart which takes pride in giving her that job despite her being a woman.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com