Why women politicians are judged by their looks and not competence
New Delhi: This time it is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Had it been the first time, perhaps it would have been surprising. But since elections are around the corner, and women are contesting, many such remarks are expected to be floating around. On Wednesday, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Vinay Katiyar stoked a controversy by saying his party had more “beautiful” star campaigners than Congress’s Priyanka. His exact words when a reporter asked him a question on whether Priyanka would make a huge difference to the campaign, were: “What difference will it make? We have more beautiful star campaigners... heroines, artistes... they are better.”
Priyanka laughed it off, saying: “If that’s all he saw in (her) colleagues who are each strong, brave and beautiful women who have battled through all sorts of hardships to get where they are, then he makes me laugh even more. Because he exposes the BJP’s mindset towards the better half of the population of India.”
Priyanka definitely would have seen it coming. As speculation increased over her entry into politics, discussions around her looks, dressing sense and “hotness” picked up. Among other reports on her, a 2012 Daily Mail piece, titled “The power dressing queen”, talked about her as the woman who introduced power dressing to the world of Indian politics, “sticking to her signature style—of teaming gorgeous cotton saris with longsleeve blouses”. The piece talks about all the saris she wore in Amethi and Rae Bareli—from the yellow checked one with a maroon blouse, to a blue sari with a purple border and matching blouse, with the “pallu falling over her arm”.
This sartorial burden somehow falls more heavily on women. Priyanka is not really an exception. The moment a woman contends for power, people start talking about her looks and her wardrobe, as if she is seeking approval of the electorate not on the basis of her competence but looks. Whether they come from contemporary male politicians or commentators, coarse and misogynistic remarks about women’s body and their appearance undermine their sense of legitimacy.
In the 2014 Delhi University Students’ Union elections, posters of an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) candidate urging students to vote for her were circulated across the city—on flyovers, subways, metro pillars and college campuses. What was surprising was that even though the posters had her name, the photograph was not hers. It was of an Indian model and VJ Nauheed Cyrusi. There was a lot of back and forth on who did the mischief, but the ABVP candidate ultimately won, defeating the National Students Union of India (NSUI) candidate. The assumption in such incidents, and the implication of comments like Katiyar’s is that the better a woman looks, the better she’ll fare in the race.
Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a March 2014 article in India.com talked about top five Indian female politicians who “direly” needed a fashion makeover. Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa, Uma Bharti and Rabri Devi were on the list. It cited examples of Hina Rabbani Khar and Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, calling them “chic and glamorous”.
Obviously, this obsession with beauty and looks of women politicians isn’t really specific to India. In her book, Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns, Erika Falk examined media coverage of every woman presidential candidate in American history, from Victoria Woodhull in 1872 to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Women candidates were subjected to four times the appearance-based coverage than male candidates were. And the trend didn’t budge across the 136-year sample: Journalists in 2004 described Carol Moseley Braun’s body more frequently than journalists in 1872 touched on Woodhull’s looks.
Debates on Kamala Harris’s hotness, Hillary Clinton’s “sleek new layered cut that looks modern and glamorous”, her “pantsuits” and how she is too serious, or needs to smile enough, are just a sign of how much more pressure women are under, when they seek to enter the public space.
According to a piece by Brown Political Review in 2014, on a Yorkshire television program in 1985, Margaret Thatcher was repeatedly asked whether it was a “bore” to have to be so conscious of her clothes. She brushed off the question, saying it had “become part of the job”. In fact, Thatcher’s black handbag became a symbol for her tough negotiation tactics because she routinely slammed it down for emphasis. It became known as “handbagging”.
The 2016 Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) global report, ‘Sexism, Harassment and Violence Against Women Parliamentarians’, shows how almost two-thirds of women parliamentarians surveyed said they had been repeatedly targeted by humiliating sexist remarks during their terms; 45%had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction.
From pulling out the ad of DCM towels featuring Maneka Gandhi to actor Gul Panag’s photoshopped picture in which she is scantily dressed with an Aam Aadmi Party cap on her head, it is clear that even though slander is not new to politics, when it is about a woman, it always becomes personal.
Remember BJP vice-president Smriti Irani’s aunty-national headline in a newspaper or comments by Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam against her during a live television debate in December 2012: “You used to charge money to dance on television. And now you’re an election analyst?”
Or even the comment by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray on actor-turned-politician Jaya Bachchan being a “Guddi buddhi zhali pan akal aali nahi (Guddi has grown old but has not attained wisdom).” Bachchan’s first screen role as an adult was in the film Guddi. All these comments objectifying women just detract from the real discussion about a candidate’s stance on important issues, her ethics, values and experience—all of which should matter when people choose a leader.
On the same day as Katiyar’s comments about Priyanka, in the US, Nebraska senator Bill Kintner resigned after he retweeted a comment that implied participants at a women’s march were too unattractive to be sexually assaulted. He resigned an hour before Nebraska lawmakers were scheduled to debate whether to expel him—“the first time the Legislature would have taken such an action in recent history”, according to a Washington Post piece on Thursday.
Here in India, Robert Vadra is struggling to make Katiyar apologize to Priyanka. Saying he is shocked at the misogynist and atrocious remarks by Katiyar, Priyanka’s husband Vadra asked the BJP leader to apologize to her. So far, Katiyar has declined to do so. With no Indian politician ever being punished for all the sexist remarks made in the past, Katiyar may be just following suit.