How should one respond to Congress member of Parliament (MP) Abhijit Mukherjee’s jaw-droppingly brain-dead remarks about the protests over the latest Delhi gang rape? In an interview to the Bengali channel ABP, Mukherjee, the son of President Pranab Mukherjee, revealed his true feelings about the women who have been showing up at India Gate in the Capital to raise their voices against the depraved attack on a 23-year-old woman and her friend on 16 December. The interview is in Bengali, but Banerjee lapsed into English to describe the female marchers as “highly dented and painted” women.
Men have also been protesting at India Gate in huge numbers, but they were the invisible majority as far as Mukherjee is concerned. Also, there is some confusion about his choice of words. Did Mukherjee actually mean “dainty”? Or “tainted”? Or did he mean to say “damaged” (i.e., Westernized, i.e., the kind of woman who holds placards at India Gate)? Since he has, in turn, apologized for his remarks, and also offered a convoluted explanation on the context in which they were made, we will never know.
Mukherjee is only the latest Indian politician to make sexist and chauvinist remarks about a woman’s true place in Indian society. At a time when anybody and everybody feels entitled to express an opinion about anything and everything under the sun, it appears easiest to target a woman’s virtue for immediate impact. Politicians and elected leaders, both male and female and from all shades of the political spectrum, have lectured to women so often that it’s almost fun to listen to them. Janata Dal (United) Party president Sharad Yadav notoriously used the phrase par-kati auraten (women with short hair) to describe the type of women who will benefit from reservations. Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who can always be relied upon to demonstrate a complex yoga position that involves his foot and mouth, told MP Jaya Bachchan, who was participating in a Parliamentary debate on violence in Assam: “This is a serious matter. This is not the subject of a film.” Bahujan Samaj Party MP Rajpali Saini felt that women should be kept as far away from mobile phones as Abhijit Mukherjee should be from a microphone. “Why do women need phones?” Saini rhetorically asked during a rally, adding that cellphones “distract them and is useless”.
One quick way to counter Mukherjee’s views is to show some enterprise. Here’s an appeal to T-shirt manufacturers to roll out tees that say “I am a highly dented and painted woman”. Please send me a sample when done (size L, cash on delivery).
We could also take inspiration from journalist Nisha Susan’s brilliant response to the morality drive launched around the time of Valentine’s Day in 2009 by the ultra-right wing group Sri Ram Sene. The group’s leader, Pramod Muthalik, had threatened to marry off couples found in each other’s company on Valentine’s Day (this after the Sene attacked women found drinking in pubs in Mangalore), so Susan and her comrades (including Blank Noise www.blog.blanknoise.org project founder Jasmine Patheja) launched the Pink Chaddi Campaign. They asked people to send pink-coloured underwear to the organization’s office to persuade them that love, rather than hatred, was the need of the hour. Perhaps we could send make-up items to Mukherjee—lipstick, rogue, foundation, eye-liner, whatever we can get our hands on.
Over 30 years ago, feminist groups in the US organized an event called Take Back the Night to protest rape and other forms of violence against women. Take Back the Night was first held in the US in 1976 and subsequently in several cities across the world, including Mumbai in 2006 and Bangalore in 2007. The idea behind the event is simple: women need to be able to move around as freely as men, which is why the streets need to be made safe for them. Perhaps now, more than ever before, it’s time for Delhi’s “highly dented and painted women” to put on the war paint, pick up the banners and placards, and walk across to Mukherjee’s official residence in Lutyens Delhi to say hello.