Sexist attacks seem to be par for the course if you are a woman standing for election
You must have read the news reports last week. The Election Commission has decreed that all women candidates standing for election will get an extra PSO (Personal Security Officer) to escort them on the campaign trail. This PSO will be female to ensure that close proximity protection is not a problem.
The order came soon after the travails of film star, Nagma, the Congress candidate in Meerut, had become fodder for news headlines across the country. First, a Congress politician was filmed pulling her towards him and appearing to kiss her (or whisper into her ear, depending on which version you believe). Then, she was groped as she made her way through a public meeting; to her credit, Nagma planted a stinging slap on the face of the offender.
Not that Nagma is the only one to suffer such indignities as she campaigns for the Lok Sabha elections. Other women candidates have had similar problems, more so if they are glamorous and high profile. Across the political divide, Hema Malini, the former Dream Girl of Hindi movies and currently BJP candidate from Mathura, has refused pointblank to leave the safety of her car as she tours her constituency for fear of those wandering hands in the crowds.
But while an additional female PSO may well make campaigning a little more secure for these women (though I have my doubts about that) what on earth can protect them from the blatant sexism that they face from political opponents, the media, and the public at large?
Sexist attacks on female politicians are nothing new. (Indira Gandhi, for instance, was routinely referred to as the ‘only man’ in her Cabinet by men who didn’t seem to understand just how offensive this description was.) But they seem to have increased in intensity as female candidates get younger, more attractive, even sexy, and less easy to typecast in the traditional avatar of the woman politician: the ma, behan, beti, bahu mould of yore.
Take the case of Gul Panag, the AAP candidate from Chandigarh. The moment her name was announced as a Lok Sabha hopeful, media outlets vied with one another to post ‘revealing’ pictures of her – quite oblivious to the fact that all this achieved was to ‘reveal’ their own misogynistic, sexist mindset. On Twitter, trolls took to posting morphed pictures of her, wearing lingerie and an AAP cap, to portray her as a mindless bimbo. Even that noted non-feminist Madhu Kishwar tweeted disparagingly, “Gul Panag is cute but not politically astute!” A few days later, critiquing Panag’s performance on a TV show, Kishwar snorted that it did less harm “teaching women to be Barbie dolls”. To her credit, Panag didn’t let any of this throw her off her stride, eschewing the conservative salwar kameez look to campaign in jeans and on a mobike.
Rakhi Sawant faced the same sort of sexism when she announced that she would stand as the candidate of her own political party, the Rashtriya Aam Party (RAP). The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate in her constituency of Mumbai north west, Mayank Gandhi, sneered, “Rakhi Sawant ko maja maarne wali janta vote degi.” (No, it doesn’t sound much better in English, either.) The irrepressible Sawant wasn’t taking this lying down. She filed a complaint against Gandhi at the Oshiwara police station for using ‘filthy language’ against her and a non-cognisable offence was registered against the AAP candidate.
Proving that sexism is an equal opportunity offender that doesn’t discriminate between parties, AAP women candidates faced similar sexist attacks as well. Shazia Ilmi of AAP, who is standing against General V.K. Singh in Ghaziabad, for instance, is routinely dismissed as a ‘pretty face’, the implication being, of course, that there is nothing of any substance behind that lovely façade. Because we all know that attractive equals dumb, right? The good General himself dismissed her as ‘childish and immature’ though it must be said in Shazia’s defence that no matter how childish she may be, at least she knows how old she is. Which is more than you can say about our former Army chief.
Sadly, when it comes to making sexist remarks, women politicians can be both targets and aggressors. But even so, Maneka Gandhi probably hit a new low when she attacked Sonia Gandhi at a public rally. Drawing attention to how affluent her estranged sister-in-law had now become, Maneka wondered how this was possible given that she had not brought a single paisa as dowry when she got married (“Dahej mein toh ek paisa bhi nahi layi thi”). Small wonder then, that women are often considered to be the biggest enemies of other women.
So, what is the best way to cope with such blatant, even casual, sexism? I guess, in this context, winning the election may well be the best revenge.