The case of the missing handbag
Margaret Thatcher and Hina Rabbani Khar may have made them famous; but Indian women politicians are not fans
You’ve got to hand it to Meryl Streep. After bringing the glacial fashion editor based on Anna Wintour to life in The Devil Wears Prada, she’s now appearing on our screens as the redoubtable Mrs Thatcher, the Iron Lady who is as far removed from Wintour’s Ice Queen as anyone could possibly be. And yet, such is Streep’s ability to morph herself into any life form that rave reviews have already starting pouring in for her portrayal of the former British Prime Minister.
What’s truly uncanny, though, is how much Meryl actually looks like Margaret in the film. There are the tweedy twin-sets, the blouses with a prim bow at the neck, the sturdy shoes, the impossibly bouffant hair. And then, of course, there’s the handbag.
Aha, the handbag. The accessory that was such a part of Thatcher’s look that it became the stuff of legend. Some speculated that the Prime Minister always carried a handbag in an effort to evoke a subliminal association with the Queen. Elizabeth II is never seen in public without a handbag dangling off her arm even though she famously carries no money (she has been known to refresh her lipstick at the dinner table though, so maybe the bag is for an emergency stash of make-up). And there seemed to be something to this theory as Thatcher started becoming more and more Queen-like as her reign wore on, even using the royal ‘we’ to refer to herself (as in “We have just become a grandmother”).
But, more pertinently, the handbag perennially hanging off her arm – ready to be wielded as an offensive weapon if the need ever arose – became something of a metaphor for Thatcher’s bullying style of politics. And those ministers and partymen who became victims of her iron-fist-in-an-iron-glove were described as having being ‘handbagged’, as in clouted about the head by her well-structured Asprey bag.
Such was the power of that image that even now, many decades after the event, we find it hard to picture Margaret Thatcher without her trademark handbag, swinging ominously by her side. It’s as much a part of her image as the poshed-up vowels, the helmet-like hair, and the slash of red lipstick. It signaled a certain purposefulness; it showed everyone that she meant business.
Yes, a handbag can say a lot simply by hanging off someone’s arm – and sometimes it says just as much by being conspicuously absent.
Look around you in our own political sphere. What do you see? I’ll tell you what you don’t: expensive handbags on the arms of our women politicians (with the exception of Mayawati, but more on her later).
Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful women politician in India by a long way, is never seen in public carrying a handbag. Sometimes when she attends AICC meetings or Congress plenary sessions, she carries a mannish briefcase bulging with papers and folders. But otherwise, her arms stay empty, swinging silently by her side, no matter where she is: speaking at an election rally, taking part in a political function, making an appearance at a wedding, or even attending Parliament.
Or take Jayalalitha, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. She is always impeccably turned out like the nicely brought up, convent school girl that she is. Perfectly groomed hair, flawless complexion, beautifully draped saris (sometimes with capes to match) – but no handbag. In Delhi, chief minister Sheila Dixit shows a similar disdain for arm candy of any sort. And then, there’s the fiery Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of Paschim Bongo, who also refuses to carry a handbag (which is just as well, because she is the most likely to use it to clobber some hapless soul senseless when in one of her famous fits of temper).
All these ladies have very differing styles of politicking. But the one thing that unites them is that the handbag is always missing. It’s almost as if they see it as an emblem of frivolity which would work against their being taken seriously in the public sphere.
Given this background, it’s perhaps easy to understand why we reacted with such outrage when the Pakistan foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, came to visit us with an enormous Birkin bringing up the rear. The bag took on a life of its own, occupying pride of place in every photo-op and effortlessly eclipsing poor old S.M. Krishna. And before you could say Hermes, a Birkin backlash was in full force. Khar’s judgement -- carrying an uber-expensive handbag on a state visit when she was representing a less-than-prosperous Pakistan – was called into question. And she herself came perilously close to being dismissed as a piece of fluff as a consequence, with her handbag doubling up as a badge of shame.
But strangely enough, the only Indian woman politician who makes a fetish of carrying a handbag has escaped that fate. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati is seldom seen without a designer bag hanging off her arm. In fact, one of her many statues had to be redone because the artist had omitted to graft a handbag on to her arm. But unlike Khar who had to deal with such derision because of her fondness for expensive leather goods, Mayawati has managed to sell her designer bags as a symbol of Dalit empowerment, a sign that she’s come a long way, baby.
Yes, as far as political messaging goes, it’s all in the bag – both when it’s hanging off someone’s arm or missing in action.