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Sexism in public life: a reality nobody can ignore

Don’t sweat the small stuff, for it’s the big picture that really matters

brunch Updated: Feb 05, 2017 00:14 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
sexist,Vinay Katiyar,Priyanka Gandhi
Constantly objectified and commodified by male chauvinists, women are rarely seen and heard on our political scene(Getty Images)

When it comes to sexism and misogyny in politics – or indeed in public life – I can’t help but feel that we tend to miss the wood for the trees. We are so busy protesting and outraging against the slings and arrows of everyday political discourse that we completely miss the big-ticket discrimination right under our noses.

Take the recent brouhaha over Vinay Katiyar’s sexist comments about Priyanka Gandhi. Asked what he thought of Priyanka as a star campaigner in the UP Assembly election, Katiyar scoffed that there were much prettier stars campaigning for the BJP. To her credit, Priyanka retorted with good humour: “He’s right, they do!” But then she added for good measure: “If that’s all he sees in my colleagues, who are such strong, brave, beautiful women, who have battled through all sorts of hardships to get where they are, then he makes me laugh even more…”

Priyanka may have laughed it off, but the media were not amused. No sooner were Katiyar’s remarks reported than social media skirmishes began clogging everyone’s timelines as those attacking the BJP leader came up against the full fervour of the Bhakt Brigade. That evening’s prime-time news bulletins devoted hours to debating how awful these sexist remarks were and how Katiyar should be forced to apologise. (True to form, Katiyar refused to do so and even walked out of Nidhi Razdan’s show on NDTV when he ran out of excuses for his behaviour.) The next day’s newspapers headlined the Katiyar remarks, and Priyanka’s retort, asking other women politicians to weigh in on the issue.

All of it left me asking myself some tough questions. Did Vinay Katiyar’s comment offend me? Yes, it did. Should he have objectified both Priyanka and his own party’s women leaders in the way that he did? Of course not. Was it really that big a deal that every TV channel should lead on it? Well, I was not so sure about that one.

Sexist man makes a sexist remark. Should we allow that stray remark to dominate headlines? Or should we go with that old saying: “Dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is.”

Yes, sexism and misogyny are woven into the very fabric of our public life. And it behoves us to call them out whenever we can, as loud as we can, and as often as we can. But should we continually get distracted by the ‘dog bites man’ spectacle and talk of nothing else? Or should we look past these incidents to focus on stuff that really matters?

So, what does matter? Is it that women are constantly being objectified and commodified by male chauvinists? Or is it that women are so rarely seen and heard on our political scene (unless, or course, they are related to male politicians)? Is it that people are too focused on their looks? Or that they are, at the end of the day, virtually invisible?

Let’s take a quick look around. As of this writing, as Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls, of the 324 candidates that the SP has announced so far, only 24 are women (and one of them is Aparna Yadav, Mulayam’s daughter-in-law). The BJP has 36 women among the 304 candidates it has announced. The Congress has announced the names of 43 candidates, of which only two are women. And even the BSP, which has a woman leader in Mayawati, has only 18 women among its 401 candidates.

In Punjab, the number of female candidates in the fray is also abysmal. The Shiromani Akali Dal has five women among its 94 candidates. AAP, which is contesting 112 seats, has only nine women candidates. And of the Congress’ 117 candidates, only 11 are women.

The absence of women is, if anything, even more marked in Goa. Here, AAP is fielding five women, the Congress has three female candidates while the BJP has just one.

Now, here’s an issue that I would like to see debated on prime-time TV news shows. That is the headline that I would like to see in my newspaper. Where are the women? Why are they missing in action? Why do we see so few female faces on the campaign trail?

I really don’t care whether they are pretty or not. Or how Vinay Katiyar – or any other male politician, for that matter – rates their looks. These are minor irritants. Let’s not allow them to distract us from the things that really matter. Men commenting on women’s looks is small stuff; men depriving women of opportunities is what we should be outraged about.

And no, don’t go waving the red rag of the Women’s Reservation Bill at me. You know as well as I do that it will never get passed. But there is nothing preventing political parties from reserving a third of their seats for women off their own bat. So why don’t they put their candidate list where their mouths are, and show us the tickets?

I don’t think this will happen any time soon. But until it does, let’s outrage about it as loud and clear as we can.

From HT Brunch, February 5, 2017

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First Published: Feb 05, 2017 00:14 IST