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Sexism? Not quite

Sexism is real. It is dangerous. It is shameful. And it is alive and flourishing all around us. It starts even before birth, when families conspire to get rid of the girl child before she has begun to stir in her mother’s womb, writes Seema Goswami.

india Updated: Apr 24, 2010 16:46 IST
Seema Goswami

SpectatorSexism is real. It is dangerous. It is shameful. And it is alive and flourishing all around us. It starts even before birth, when families conspire to get rid of the girl child before she has begun to stir in her mother’s womb. It continues into childhood, when daughters don’t get fed as well as sons. It exists in our school and college system, where girls are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to sign up for higher education. Sexism is endemic in the professional world, where companies are leery of hiring women of child-bearing age for fear that they will take time off to have babies (and for every cold and cough the child has thereafter); where women routinely earn less than their male counterparts for doing the same job; where the glass ceiling ensures that the representation of women in boardrooms across the country is abysmal.

Yes, sexism exists in our far-from-perfect world. And it’s something that every right-thinking person, whatever their gender, must oppose. But if we are to fight this battle, it is also essential to understand the distinction between genuine sexism that poses a danger to the values of our liberal society and those issues that may involve a woman but are not sexist in nature.

An attack on a woman’s capability, integrity, honesty or decency does not necessarily become sexist just because a woman is the target of scrutiny. So long as the allegations are well-founded, based on facts that can bear close scrutiny, it doesn’t matter whether the target is a man or a woman. This is about accountability not sexism.

Take the recent brouhaha over former minister Shashi Tharoor and his girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar. Right from the moment Lalit Modi posted that now-infamous tweet about the ownership of the Kochi consortium, Tharoor fell back on what can only be described as the “sexism defence”. The media, he declaimed loftily, could not accept that an attractive woman could also be a professional in her own right. It was demeaning Sunanda to suggest that she was his proxy in this deal, as if she had no identity of her own. She had achieved far more than he ever could in the world of business, blah, blah, blah. Three days down the line, the lady herself jumped into the fray. Issuing a statement to announce that she had decided to return her sweat equity to the Kochi consortium, she said, “As a woman professional, I am shocked to find how easily parties with vested interests questioned my credentials mainly because I am a woman.”

Er, hang on a minute. Nobody was questioning Ms Pushkar’s credentials because she was a woman. We were questioning her credentials per se. How did someone who was a sales manager in a Dubai firm suddenly land a gig in which she stood to make Rs 70 crore in sweat equity without investing a penny of her own? Was she a marketing genius whom no one had ever heard of? What made her worth so much money? What did she bring to the table that no other communications wizard/PR person/event manager could?

The answers to these questions made it clear that it wasn’t her professional capabilities that had gotten Ms Pushkar this sweetheart – or should that be ‘sweat-heart’? – deal. It was her closeness to the minister for external affairs (no, I won’t crack the obvious joke) that made her such a desirable party – especially given that he was taking such a personal interest in the outcome of the Kochi franchise bid. It was the impropriety of a Union minister using his influence in a commercial deal in which his girlfriend – whom he intended to marry as soon as his second divorce came through – stood to benefit that was the issue here. If the sexes had been reversed, the issue would have remained the same.

Nobody is denying that Sunanda Pushkar is an attractive woman if your taste runs to blonde highlights and industrial-strength mascara. But her looks are not the issue here. Nor are her professional capabilities, such as they are. The issue here is that her boyfriend was a minister of the Union government who, by his own admission, had interceded (or ‘interlocuted’, or whatever he’s calling it these days) with the IPL on behalf of the Kochi consortium. As long as these facts remained the same, anyone in Ms Pushkar’s position would have come under scrutiny. It had nothing to do with her being a woman, or even a glamorous woman, for that matter.

And yet, both Tharoor and Pushkar are pushing the sexism defence down our throats with a certain desperation, even though as reasonably intelligent creatures they must know that this simply won’t wash. And both seem unmindful of the fact that in the process, they are thumbing their noses at the millions of women in India who have to live with sexism every day of their lives – without a pay-out of Rs 70 crore to sweeten the deal.

Sexism is a serious offence. And it is a serious charge to make. So, those who level it should not do so on frivolous grounds – because to do that is to mock every genuine victim of sexism; to make fun of their misfortune; to heap insult on an already grievous injury.

Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami