India boasts some powerful female politicians but women in the world’s largest democracy are often subjected to taunts, insults and sexist remarks both on the streets and by powerful male politicians.
A wave of protests aimed at ending crimes against women have swept the country in the past fortnight, but demonstrations have not stopped some of India’s male politicians from continuing to make tasteless remarks.
Abhijit Mukherjee, the president’s son and a Member of the Indian Parliament, dismissed the current anti-rape protesters in the capital Delhi calling them “dented and painted women” who frequented discos, implying that the protests smacked of tokenism.
On Christmas day, a senior West Bengal state Communist leader, Anisur Rahman, shocked many with his indecent comments against the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The Chief Minister had made a public announcement that the West Bengal government would offer compensation to women who are victims of crimes like rape and trafficking.
At a public rally in a village, Rahman ridiculed the chief minister for her government’s decision. He demanded to know, “What is your fee? If you are raped, what will be your fee?”
Communist Party leaders offered apologies and the leader was also asked to offer an apology for his shameful conduct.
Even before the furore over Rahman’s remarks had subsided, a fresh uproar was triggered after a member of parliament from West Bengal, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, dismissed on Friday the infamous rape case in Park Street in Kolkata as a “misunderstanding between a lady and her client and not a rape”.
The Chief Minister, like Dastidar too had called the rape a greater “conspiracy to besmirch her government”.
Rape is still trivialised in India by leaders and common people alike and appalling remarks against well-heeled and educated women are also common.
Time and again Indian leaders have been guilty of making misogynist remarks of a sexual nature to silence women leaders across states and political parties.
When women took to the streets to protest following co-ordinated attacks in Mumbai in 2008, Muqtar Abbas Naqvi, a politician from the opposition BJP, said: “Some women wearing lipstick and powder have taken to the streets in Mumbai and are abusing politicians and spreading dissatisfaction… This is what terrorists are doing in Kashmir.”
“There are only around 11 percent women in Parliament lower than the global average of 20 percent, still far from the 30 percent target set at Beijing.“
– Rebeca Grynspan, UN Under-Secretary General
Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam had dismissed rival political party BJP MP and former TV actress Smriti Irani during a TV debate, saying: “You were swivelling your hips on TV and now you have turned into a political analyst.”
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi made personal remarks on Congress leader and federal minister Shashi Tharoor’s wife calling her a “50-crore girlfriend” as she was reported to be planning to buy a cricket team.
Uttar Pradesh former Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav once told a political rally in a small village that: “Only women from the affluent classes can get ahead in life, but remember you rural women will never get a chance because you are not that attractive.”
Sriprakash Jaiswal, union coal minister, speaking after India’s win over Pakistan in the T20 cricket championship, said: “As time passes, the joy of the victory fades, just like a wife becomes old and loses her charm.”
Sharad Yadav, leader of the JDU party, said he opposed an affirmative action bill, because it would only benefit the rich or “women with short hair”.
In Tamil Nadu, the Chief Minister Jayalalitha was manhandled and had her hair pulled by male MPs in the legislative assembly.
No country for women
On the surface, India has women holding prominent posts in public office that makes it seem that the empowerment of women has come to stay, if only for a privileged few.
Rebeca Grynspan, UN Under-Secretary General, on a recent visit to Delhi said: “There are over one million elected women representatives in local self-governments thanks to mandatory quotas ranging from 33 to 50 percent. Yet there are only around 11 percent women in Parliament lower than the global average of 20 percent, still far from the 30 percent target set at Beijing.”
“Male politicians and common men on the street alike have regressive attitudes towards women. Unless we protest, India’s women will continue to suffer“
– Sunaina Biswas, law student
The current Lok Sabha, or House of Commons of the Indian Parliament, has the highest number of women MPs. Women constitute 11 percent of the house.
Madhya Pradesh has the highest percentage of women MPs with 21 percent, followed by Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, which both have 15 percent of seats held by women. The ruling Congress Party is led by Sonia Gandhi, widow of the late former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
Despite the increasing numbers of female MPs over the years, the number continues to be less in comparison to other countries, including Sweden, Argentina, the UK and the US.
The Women’s Reservation Bill which seeks to bring affirmative action for increasing number of women to one-third of the seats in Parliament and state legislative assemblies is pending.
“Male politicians and common men on the street alike have regressive attitudes towards women,” says Sunaina Biswas, a Hyderabad-based sociology student. “Unless we protest, India’s women will continue to suffer.”