The perception of most Indian citizens towards female politician is one that views them as incapable of handling the pressures of politics. Gender stereotypes have followed female politicians throughout their journeys in becoming leaders and forced them to fight battles that their male counterparts didn’t even have to think about.
Here’s why female politicians in India not only fight elections but also patriarchy.
Trained to be a Social Scientist, Apurva Vurity has worked on development projects with UNICEF and UNDP in the past. Her focus has been on Gender and her past projects have been in the intersections of Education, Rural Development and Livelihood. Besides that, she has also worked as a Political Analyst in Indian Political Action Committee to understand and analyze the gap between Policy Implementation and Politics. Apurva has a Bachelors in Literature from Calcutta University and Masters in Women’s Studies from TISS.
Over the years, women’s representation in the parliament has remained low even though we expected it to rise considering we are socially evolving as a society. The representation has stayed at a stagnant 10% or so in the past decades and has only recently increased to 14.4% in 2019. While Women’s representation in the parliament is definitely a concern, it is also worrying that the existing female politicians in India already have it tough having to fight against gender stereotypes as well as abusive attacks. They are repeatedly trolled both online and offline and none of the trolling has anything to do with their performance as political leaders and everything to do with their gender.
Very recently, Amnesty International conducted a study to understand how online forums react to female politicians in India. The results from the study, as expected, indicated that female politicians had to face sexist, misogynistic and abusive reactions online much worse than what their male counterparts do. Women politicians who were Muslim or Dalit or Adivasi faced the most severe trolling. The study found that 13.8% of the total tweets that mentioned women were problematic or abusive. This amounted to 1 million tweets that mentioned these 95 women across a period of 3 months only around the 2019 General Elections of India. It is also seen that female politicians in India faced abuse more than their counterparts in the UK and USA.
If we delve deeper into the kind of trolling that currently exists, the results are even more disappointing. While male politicians have been trolled in the past for their performance or their inability to deliver on promises, women leaders have been trolled for their clothes. On the first day of their parliament session, two West Bengal MPs – Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jehan faced criticism by the Indian media and the citizens for wearing what is considered ‘western’ wear to the first parliament session. While the trolling was originally over social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, mainstream media channels either reported the incident from a neutral standpoint or defended the MPs. Nonetheless the topic of what the women wore to the Parliament was repeatedly discussed. In a similar case, Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra changed her display picture last year from a saree-clad one to one where she is wearing jeans and a shirt. This change resulted in her being trolled by the opposition as well as their supporters. Comments ranged from dissing her credentials as a politician to commenting on why she wears a saree in rallies when she wears jeans and a shirt in Delhi. Again, all mainstream channels picked up on this online trolling and this became an important piece of information that was shared across all media channels.
Another common form of trolling against women leaders is body shaming. While opposition parties hurling insults at each other is commonplace, sexist and misogynistic comments are reserved only for women in the political arena. A couple of years back Sharad Yadav, a popular politician from Bihar insulted the Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje by not only calling her fat derogatorily but also went on to question her political capabilities on the basis of her body. Another popular politician Akhilesh Yadav spoke insultingly about Mayawati – a respected politician from the same state as him. He referred to her body and indicated that she took too much space and even went so far as to insult her further by bringing up the fact that her party symbol is an elephant.
Although it is disappointing to see the unmistakable sexism in how we treat our female leaders, it is thought-provoking to try and analyse the subtler versions of the sexism that these women continue to fight against every day. In India, regular discourse always suggests that you look at any woman as you would look at your sister/mother. The patriarchal undertone indicates that women can otherwise not be respected or treated in a humane way unless men see them as relatives whom they would always treat better. We see similar phrases used all the time. When cases of harassment in public spaces occur, one of the most common retorts is to say “Don’t you have a mother or a sister at home?” which indicates that the only reason why women should be respected is because they are similar to a mother or a sister and not because they are humans who deserve to be treated respectfully irrespective of the role they are playing.
Keeping this context of patriarchal thinking in mind, it is interesting to note that all nicknames for some of the most popular female politicians range between these two roles of either a mother or a sister. Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal is affectionately called “Didi” which means Sister in Bengali while Mayawati – a beloved leader of the Dalit community is referred to as “Behenji” which also means Sister in the vernacular language of Uttar Pradesh. Jayalalithaa who served as the CM of Tamil Nadu 6 times is also referred to as “Amma” which translates to Mother in English. If we compare these female politicians to ones from the previous decades, we’ll still have a pattern. Indira Gandhi, the only female Prime Minister of India, was called “Mother India” predictably. Would it be fair to assume that these nicknames for the most popular leaders is a coincidence? Female Politicians have had to repeatedly desexualize themselves to ensure that their image is “pure” and “dignified” which is the only possible way that they would be effectively respected. While some other popular female politicians do not have nicknames, the ones that do always range within these two roles. Why is it that women can only be considered as leaders if they fit comfortably into the role of being a sister or a mother?
What can we do better?
After understanding the kind of biases that female politicians in India have to endure, it becomes all the more important for us to discuss how we can help these leaders do their job without being sexist or misogynistic. To start off with, introspecting about whether I would make the same comment and or ask the same question to a male politician is important. If no, then it is very likely that we are about to say something sexist. So we don’t. The other way to check oneself is to question whether the comment is relevant to the profession of the person. If one is commenting on her physical appearance, relationships, caste, religion etc. then it might be more sensible to refrain ourselves from doing so. Additionally when we consume news, it is important for us to be mindful of filtering the biases that we are fed and instead focusing on judging a female politician only on her mettle.
Last but not the least, it is relevant for us to realise that the few female politicians that exist in the system are the ones who are unknowingly encouraging so many other women to take up leadership roles in the country. In fact, a study conducted by J-PAL in West Bengal shows that having female leaders caused villagers’ to recognize that women could lead. Seeing female leaders more often went on to reduce the association of domestic work with women and allowed villagers’ to question the gender stereotypes they have always believed. Thus, it becomes all the more important for us to encourage women who are in leadership positions to ensure that we are collectively fighting against gender stereotypes surrounding leadership.