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Sharad Yadav sexist comment: Sad how male MPs didn't stand up for Smriti Irani

This blatant sexism on the day and the days after could not be muted. It floated out, buoyed by the laughter of the male MPs.

 |  Write Stuff  |  4-minute read |   19-03-2015
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Silvio Berlusconi was once quoted as saying that “Right-wing women were more beautiful and that the left has no taste, even when it comes to women” – a statement reminiscent of the one made by senior JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav in Parliament.

Yadav may identify with Berlusconi’s bewilderment at the response his comment elicited. After all, he is given to sexist comments as well.  But the revealing insight into the outrage that has been raging for the past few days has been the permissiveness that exists in our political system when it comes to women. To expect a retraction is a tall order. At best one can expect are reiterations of the arguments offered so far, defending “the context”.

Privacy

Wily political opponents were quick to distance themselves from the comment on the physical attributes of south Indian women, having had the benefit of a whole weekend to think it over. Others like DP Tripathi hoped to elevate the discourse by quoting Kalidas. It failed. The Congress, predictably, chose to highlight the invasion of privacy Rahul Gandhi had experienced because a cop decided to verify his personal details – like his shoe size and eye colour. No political party held press conferences or walked out of Parliament in solidarity with female members or the offended women of this country. On television debates, party spokespersons played a self-defeating game of “Your neta is more sexist than mine” with the offending comment lost in the decibel count of prime time outrage.

On the Monday that followed, Smriti Irani “appealed” (a misplaced use of the term in this instance) and asked Sharad Yadav to refrain from speaking in the way he had. The older politician immediately saw red, his brows furrowing deeper and responded with a quick personal attack. The "boys club" rose to his defence. Possibly muted by the outrage outside and the televised documentation of the proceedings, they provided a shield, but no covering fire. Anand Sharma rushed to Yadav’s side and tried to calm him down. Mayawati sat next to Sharad Yadav her arms crossed, her expression stolid. Yet again no one rose to lend their voice to Irani’s “appeal”, much like on the day of Yadav’s comment when Kanimozhi stood alone, finding no echo. Nothing had changed over the weekend.

But this blatant sexism on the day and the days after could not be muted. It floated out, buoyed by the laughter of the male MPs. The timing could not be worse. The world already had one distracted eye on the Indian Parliament. Just a few days ago, there had been an impassioned debate on Leslee Udwin’s controversial documentary. The aftermath, post-grand pronouncements, had led to counter productive blunderings, with India’s Parliament doing its best “an ostrich with its head in the sand” impersonation for the rest of the world. That same house, where sermons on national pride bounced off the walls, now reverberated with bawdy laughter over the shapeliness and skin tone of south Indian women.

Representation

So who really represents the women of this country? Suffrage came to Indian women and men at the same time, in the year 1950 (universal suffrage). Even in the oldest democracy in the world, the United States, women got their right to vote years after men did. Women were an integral part of the struggle for India’s independence. The right to vote was an extension of a well earned natural right – the right to participate in political life and India’s future. The General Election of 2014 was remarkable for one major reason amongst many others. The voter turnout percentage difference between men and women had shrunk to 67.09 per cent (men) vs 65.63 per cent (women). In 16 Indian states, more women voted than men did. Women may still be “shying away” from participating directly in political work (in the numbers that they should be) but they were exercising their franchise.

Stakeholders

In 2014, women emphasised that they were important stakeholders in the democratic traditions of this country. And yet to one’s utter disappointment the people who represent us in Parliament have so little understanding of the female experience. This isn’t about sentiment alone, but also about uncomfortable realities. When a senior political leader like Sharad Yadav trivialises stalking, during a serious discussion on a bill about women’s safety (2013), the conversation our MPs have in Parliament becomes frightening and not funny anymore.

A systematic misogyny in Parliament and on the streets has gravely impacted female political participation, emboldening MPs like Tapas Pal, to threaten rape as a tool for political revenge in speeches. In this “context” the trivialising of women in Parliament may seem a minor aberration. Just because too few women sit in Parliament doesn’t mean that the women of this country are mute spectators in the game of democracy. I am no psephologist or sociologist but I can assure you that the whispers of today will only get louder. Whilst the female presence still struggles in the corridors of the mainstream, the female voice is getting amplified. The women in politics also need to step out and outside of political lines to join the larger struggle. Women in this country are listening and watching. We fight this battle every day in buses and taxis, in offices and boardrooms, in homes and in public spaces. It’s time you joined the fight.

Writer

Advaita Kala Advaita Kala @advaitakala

The writer is a screenwriter and a columnist.

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