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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Gender bender

Is every attack directed at a woman necessarily misogynistic?

So, what is misogyny? I only ask because someone who couldn't tell the difference between a dictionary and thesaurus tried to teach Sonam Kapoor the meaning of the word in a twitter exchange recently. And also because I suspect that most of us are a little bit hazy on the concept. We know it exists. We know it when we see it or feel it. But the boundaries between what is misogynistic and what is simply a gender-neutral insult seem to lie on constantly shifting sands, so it sometimes difficult to nail down what exactly is misogynistic and what is not.

First off, let's make one thing clear. Every attack on a woman is not misogynistic by default. For instance, if you pillory Indira Gandhi on the imposition of the Emergency and the human rights abuses that followed, you are not being misogynistic. You are criticising her in terms that would apply equally if she were a man. If, however, you laud her as 'the only man in her Cabinet' then you are effectively saying that a woman is only praiseworthy if she behaves and acts in a 'manly' manner, and that squarely hits the misogyny mark.

Let's take a more recent example from Indian politics. Smriti Irani, the union minister for human resources development, gets her fair share of criticism from the media. She is attacked for interfering in the running of independent institutions; she is blamed when certain worthies resign from important educational posts; she is accused of taking directions from the RSS when it comes to the running of her ministry. But whatever the merit of these charges, not one of them is inspired by misogyny. These are accusations that would be made even if Irani were a man.

Misogyny only rears its ugly head when sexist specimens like Sanjay Nirupam refer to her in disparaging terms in television discussions, sneering that “Kal tak toh tum paise key liye TV pey thumke laga rehi thi, aaj neta ban gayi…Pata hai tumhara character.” The sub-text is clear. Irani doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously because she was an actress who used to perform on television, a lightweight who is only good for lagaoing a few ‘thumkas’. How dare she presume that she can debate with serious politicians like Nirupam (huh?) on equal terms?

Women politicians have become so innured to this kind of sexual innuendo, of being objectified, that they probably don’t even take much notice of such things. After all, if you stopped and protested every misogynistic remark thrown at you, there would no time and energy left to deal with anything else. Not Irani though, she sued Nirupam for defamation; and more power to her.

But all women in the public eye have to deal with this stuff at one time or the other. Take, for instance, such female sports stars as Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal who have notched up as many victories as they have controversies. But it is hardly misogynistic to criticise Nehwal for being a bit of sore loser when she pointed out that she had been ignored for the Padma awards while wrestler Sushil Kumar got one (though you could make the case that Nehwal was a victim of the inherent misogyny of the sports establishment that values male sports stars over the female ones). If a male sporting hero had cribbed publicly about being overlooked, he would have faced much the same sort of reaction. But when you start slamming Sania Mirza for the hemlines of her skirts when she plays tennis then your attack is aimed directly at her gender identity. You don't need a dictionary (or even, dare I say, a thesaurus) to brand this as misogynistic.

Were the attacks on Aishwarya Rai when she didn't lose her baby weight fast enough an example of misogyny? Some of us in the media certainly thought so, arguing that no leading man would be targeted for weight gain in quite the same manner. Perhaps. But those who maintained that the rules for film stars – of both genders – were different, also had a point (see what I mean about shifting sands?). Aamir Khan has had to cope with jibes when he appeared looked a few kilos heavier recently. So did Hrithik Roshan, who quickly stepped away from the carbs and hit the gym, so that he could release before-and-after pix to prove that he was back in shape.

So then, what qualifies as a misogynistic attack? And what doesn’t?

Well, first, there are the no-brainers. If you insult a woman using sexual innuendo, imagery or abuse (‘slut’, ‘whore’, ‘bitch’ or the newly-minted ‘presstitute’) then that is straight out misogynistic. If you bring in her gender in any way while criticizing her work, that is misogynistic. If you objectify her, or reduce her to a sum of her body parts, that is misogynistic.

But you simply cannot extend the use of the term ‘misogynistic’ to attacks that while directed at a woman do not arise from the fact of her being a woman. Deriding Sonia Gandhi for her Italian birth is racist but not misogynistic. But comparing her to ‘Monica Lewinsky’, as the late Pramod Mahajan did during an election campaign, hits the misogyny mark dead centre. It is important that we learn to tell the difference.

If we are going to battle misogyny we first need to identify it. Then can we recognize it when it hits us square in the face. And only then can we fight back.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"If you objectify her, or reduce her to a sum of her body parts, that is misogynistic."

I agree with this meaning of misogynistic. However, there are many people who think that women deserve respect just because of their gender. They believe that a woman can scream at a man, make all sorts of highly insulting and abusive comments, do character assassination of a man and even physically assault him. In reply the man should tolerate everything. Doesn't this tell that they want women to be respected only because of women's body parts? After all the difference between a female sex and a male sex is the difference in body parts. So why should we not say that respecting women only because of their gender also causes misogyny?

One may argue that there are men too who take undue advantage of their gender. I fully agree. However, such men and, those who support them, are condemned and they deserve to be condemned. They are called sexist, misogynistic and patriarchal, and rightfully so. However, there exists sexism against men too, but that is not considered sexism. Instead that is justified in terms of "women's respect", "women empowerment", "our culture" etc.