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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sexism? Not quite

The Shashi Tharoor-Sunanda Pushkar controversy is about many things – sexism is not one of them

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. 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 crores 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 crores 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.


Dillip Mohanty said...

Dear Seemaji

Usually I skip the nancy-girl stuff you write in the Brunch. This time the topic was something of my interest. So I read on. Its a nice analysis you have made that how ex-minister ST is trying to play the sexism card to protect himself behind the pallus of SP. But this analysis make sense only if a person has set of fixed ideas completely oblivious of facts and context, sitting at one place, looking at one direction.

If you have read the Tehelka interview you would not have written this one. If you have written after reading her Tehelka interview that shows the basis of your prejudice rather than facts. Or to put it in a little more cynical way, are you also jealous of SP?, just because she happens to be the girlfriend of a handsome (lady-killer as some media say) man with an enviable post.

Lets forget our prejudices and get on with some facts.

1. Sweat-Equity is not something free. Nor it can be gifted. To get that you have to work for the company. The money comes only when the company starts to make profit.

2. 70 crores INR in 10 years, comes down to 583333.33 per month. (Only if the company makes profit). If you hire a marketing agency or a professional for your company you know how much you have to pay at the end of 10 years keeping the inflation in mind?

3. Do you have any idea how much the so called CEOs and COOs of different teams and IPL are paid. Do you know their names? Did they come to IPL or the franchises with some kind of reputation in the field?

4. So what's wrong with SP being appointed in the Kochi franchise and given a Sweat-Equity of 70 crores. And to judge her competence how qualified we are to do so (people who don't understand the difference between Sweat-Equity and a gift)?

5. Most important, why would ST do something like this so openly, if he had some vested interest?

At least we should give credit to ST, he was open with his relationship and his dealing. He did not disown SP in this crisis making her look like a bimbette. It shows his commitment and respect towards women and the relationship, for which every woman should be proud of ST.



Kpp1991 said...

I have some difference of opinion on a largely agreeable view point of yours. Firstly, sexism most certainly played some part in this 'all male' soap. Secondly, the Gulf at large and Dubai in particular is a place where dream merchants are realised with no particular significance to their background, educational qualification, nationality, religion etc. Many of the successful multi-millionaires in the Gulf region have not become prominent because of any of the normal quality you would want to associate with becoming a Millionaire! The Lulu Supermarket Chain's MD is a 8th Grader. The NMC Hospital Chain Chairman is a mere Graduate. The Technical Parts Oil & Gas Company's owner is again, a Graduate. The Owner of one of the largest Logistics Company, Micco, is a school drop out. The General Manager of Spark Establishment, one of the biggest HR companies in the Gulf is a 10th Grader. Examples are plenty more. Therefore, to assume that Sunanda being a mere Sales Manager in a company is not appropriate to her success is boorish. Thirdly, there are sons, daughters, step sons & daughters, in-laws etc. all working with IPL in commendable positions so much so that they have the protocol authority to email to Ministers, change domestic flight schedules disregarding the plight of confirmed passengers etc. Fourthly, is it implied that all these employees from high ranked backgrounds have the professional qualification and capabilities while denying and censuring Sunanda Pushkar of the same? And lastly, where does all the laughable denials from respectfully suspected MPs, Ministers etc. hold any value of nobleness?

Anubha Gujral said...

I hope Shashi Tharoor & Ms Sunanda read this & think what they are upto.

This is by far your best article, addressing a very sensitive & serious issue with such clarity & wisdom.