Union minister Smriti Irani addresses a press conference, in New Delhi. (PTI)
Union minister Smriti Irani addresses a press conference, in New Delhi. (PTI)

‘Women are not pleading, they are leading’: Smriti Irani

  • Smriti Irani says, "I’m the only female politician who’s also recognised by her former vocation. I recognise the bias in that."
By Vinod Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 08, 2021 12:53 AM IST

On the eve of the International Women’s Day, union minister for women and child development Smriti Irani spoke to Vinod Sharma on the challenges and opportunities the women have in the country, her role as a minister and the BJP’s battle axe against the Congress. Edited excerpts:

We’re talking on the eve of the International Women’s Day. What’s your objective take on the status of women in our society?

We’re at a point in our history where we’ve recognised that women not only have to be empowered but they, as citizens, must lead the change. For too long the empowerment narrative gave the impression that we were the weaker lot who needed additional support. More and more women now know that all they required was equal opportunity to compete, equal access to resources and an acknowledgement of their achievement. When the Prime Minister speaks of women-led development, it’s a tectonic shift in narrative terms. Women are not pleading, they’re leading.

Public outreach has to be there to sensitise the other gender. We’ve seen many incidents (of violence against women).

We’ve had an equal number of men who stood up for (gender) equality, who recognised the need to correct past wrongs. To paint all Indian men with one brush will be a disservice not only to the male gender but also to the female. Yes, there have been men who objectified women, who dissuaded them from reaching their full potential, who consistently broke the law, who ensured that women were kept away from resources and denied credit and respect. That said, there also have been men who stood shoulder to shoulder with their daughters, their wives.

Why haven’t the stringent penal provisions against rape and other forms of violence been a good enough deterrent?

Deterrence comes from firm application of the law; by ensuring that investigation is prompt. It comes with access to evidence-based justice, not justice which dis-balances (sic) the scale just because a decision has to be given in favour of a woman. Under the Nirbhaya fund, we’ve pronounced establishment of over 1,000 fast-track courts... For the first time, we took steps to ensure an anti-human trafficking unit in each district. The PM was insistent on having a one-stop crisis centre in every district. West Bengal made the exception of not coming on board. But we have 700 functional one-stop crisis centres that provide under one roof medico-legal and police help to women victims.

Laws come into play after the incidents. Isn’t prevention the key?

The national education policy which came to fruition after three decades has for the first time, a gender-inclusion fund. It fiscally empowers the states by ensuring that there’s money behind including gender not only up to grade VIII of education but also in enhancing the gender component in higher education. When we speak of societal change, we have to focus on empowerment through STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). When I began the conversation six years ago, about women in science, particularly STEM, the first steps I took (as education minister), with the PM’s blessings, was to get a woman to lead the IIT council.

That underscores the need for the promised (33%) quota for women in Parliament and state assemblies. Your party has now the legislative strength to make it happen.

I was in the Rajya Sabha when it passed the women’s reservation bill (in 2008). The UPA (then in power) was in disarray. There was absolutely no support the Congress party had on it. Our leadership said they’d support the bill’s passage – and we did. Apart from the fact that the BJP is steadfast in its commitment for passing the bill, what fascinates me – when I speak of pedigreed women – that there’s that nuance and bias even in politics. We have 1.3 million women in our panchayats. It seems we never consider them politically potent enough to be mentioned.

You didn’t comment on the likelihood of women’s reservation bill being passed.

Has the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi ever shied away from its pronouncements in the manifesto? Aren’t Article 370 and Ram Janmabhoomi evidence enough? My party is resolute in its support of the bill.

Yours has been a long journey to politics from issue-based television and the entertainment industry. Has that helped?

I’m the only female politician who’s also recognised by her former vocation. I recognise the bias in that. When you say, oh, she used to be an actor you indicate that she possibly isn’t very serious on issues of policy and administration.

It becomes that inflection point that helps to dismiss her capacities, her potential... It becomes interesting when you look at the fact that as education minister, I made the first ever national ranking framework. Is there any recognition accorded to me for it? I conducted the largest-ever consultation on education policy in our democracy. Would I get any kind of acceptance for that? On the PM’s direction, I created a network that had some of the best academicians from the world over, coming to India and teaching in government institutions. Under the PM’s leadership, we started a project called Imprint that brought together all research bodies...

There’s a story recounted in a book on the Amethi election you won. It says you turned away a local politician who used low-brow language for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a meeting with you. When does the woman in you take over from the politician?

The presumption is wrong if you think they’re in any way separate. I’ve never been afforded the same courtesy, be it Ms Vadra or her immediate friends circle or Mr (Rahul) Gandhi (and) his political positioning and support to men who sexually objectified me, mocked me or made explicit comments about me. I’ve not been afforded that compliment, that particular respect by the (Gandhi) siblings. That’s what makes me different from them.

So, the incident happened…

I will not comment because I’ve not read the book… I don’t understand why my politics has to be tugged to a star that’s drowning. My politics is much beyond the rambling siblings. I’ve spent a few years as an Opposition member as well. On the Pocso legislation, I spoke on behalf of the entire Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. In 2013, I was a prominent speaker on the sexual harassment at workplace bill… When Meira Kumar was Speaker, I represented the Asia-Pacific region on the Syrian crisis in the International Parliamentary Union.

I’m saying this today because if a woman does not come from a pedigreed position, she’d be denied recognition. There wasn’t a murmur when the world economic forum announced me as a young global leader in 2015. If some twiddling siblings were recognised with even a normal domestic award, there would’ve been much hoopla about it.

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