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What a 'sari' state of affairs!

sex-and-relationships Updated: Jul 25, 2009 21:16 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
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Why are women still belittled and patronised by those who really should know better? If you don’t live in Calcutta, you probably won’t have seen it, but last week The Telegraph published a graphic on its front page which would have done any British tabloid proud. It featured the top five administrators of the city including chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the police chief and various top-ranking bureaucrats, all of them draped in saris by the paper’s design wizards.

The headline to the story read: “Do It To Don’t Do It”. No, I didn’t understand what that meant either. I began reading the accompanying text to find out. Apparently, this was a reference to the state government’s inability to deal with a recent bandh. The editors at The Telegraph felt that the right way to characterise the ineptitude and inaction of these men was to portray them as women, or at the very least, in women’s clothes.

Lest you missed the point, the caption below the picture read: “We apologise to the women who may feel that the elegant sari has been wasted on our administrators.”

Well, an apology was certainly in order. But this was not the one that women were looking for. It’s not the waste of an elegant sari that the paper needed to say sorry for, but the gratuitous suggestion that anyone in a sari was a useless so-and-so, an incompetent git not up to doing the job that he/she had signed up for.

That’s what was truly offensive. It angered me as a woman and shamed me as someone who once worked for The Telegraph (full disclosure: I edited its weekend features section until 2004). Sure enough, I wasn’t alone. Various women’s organisations demonstrated outside the paper’s offices that day to register their protest.

In the next day’s edition, The Telegraph declared that the men had been depicted in saris to “illustrate the paralysis of government draped in humour” (seriously, who writes this stuff?) and exhorted those outraged by the graphic to have a sense of humour about it.

Well, if paralysis and inaction – not to mention incompetence – are best depicted by being draped in several yards of fabric, then why not be gender sensitive and stick all those ineffectual men in dhotis? Or would that be striking too close to home?

As for accusing its readers of a humour failure, I’m sorry but I refuse to raise a smile to the sort of casual sexism that is rapidly going beyond tabloidesque newspapers and becoming rampant all across the media and in society as a whole.

Not that this is a recent development. Even the original Strong Woman of India, Indira Gandhi was routinely referred to as “the only man in her Cabinet” by admiring male columnists who thought they were bestowing some rare encomium on her. But it both saddens and outrages me that nearly four decades on women are still being belittled by sexist comments and patronised by those who really should know better. Surely the days when phrases like “humne chudiyan nahin pahen rakhee hain” were used to suggest that women were the weaker sex should be behind us by now?

But no, patronising women seems to have become a norm with even the high-achievers among us being treated as eye candy, decorative adjuncts to men who are the main act. Spare a thought for Michelle Obama, a Princeton and Yale educated lawyer, who was the main bread-winner of her family while her husband built his political career. Did she deserve to be subjected to questions like: “So how are you and the kids planning to settle into the White House?” Or to have her wardrobe dissected in minute detail? Is that really all there is to the First Lady of America?

The saddest consequence of these constant put-downs is that women appear to have become so used to it that they play into these stereotypes, thus reinforcing them further. Michelle, for instance, took to calling herself Mom-in-Chief as she talked about her daughters’ schooling, their new puppy, her mother who was moving in to help with the transition. I guess she learnt from the example of Hillary Clinton, the careerist lawyer who had to back down and bake cookies to ingratiate herself with the voters as her husband ran for President.

I am not for a moment suggesting that baking cookies and raising a family are not worthwhile activities. Of course they are, but there is more to these women than their roles as wives and mothers. And when we ignore that, we reduce them to ciphers rather than the brilliant three-dimensional individuals they are.

Of course, there is another way of reducing women to stereotypes that has been perfected by the media. Just treat them as sex symbols, the stuff of male fantasies rather than flesh and blood women.

I’m sure by now Priety Zinta knows how that feels. Here is an intelligent, good-looking woman, with a shrewd business head on her shoulders, part-owner of an IPL cricket team. And how do the media portray her? As a sex-crazed vixen who is always jumping on her players, having affairs with everyone from Yuvraj Singh to Brett Lee.

The sad truth is even powerful, famous, high-achieving women find it difficult to command respect in our society – and increasingly, in the media. So what hope is there for the rest of us?