2 min read.Updated: 18 Apr 2019, 12:36 AM ISTLivemint
Elections are meant to be contests of ideas, not identities, but sexist utterances by politicians in South India attract woefully little censure. This air of impunity shames our democracy
Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party has been barred from campaigning for three days by the Election Commission (EC) for making offensive remarks about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Jaya Prada. This is one of the few times that the poll panel has taken action against a politician for making misogynistic statements. The scrutiny of what is spoken along the election trail seems far more stringent in North India than in the South, where the language used is far from exemplary: Public utterances are usually misogynistic, patriarchal and suggestive in nature. In the south, politicians seem to recognize that derogatory words on caste and religion will not earn votes, but disparaging women somehow goes uncondemned. Women leaders are often dismissed as “actors" and “dancers", or referred to as somebody’s wife or mistress, no matter how independent they are. Old, irrelevant and morphed pictures are circulated. A candidate’s background in cinema or theatre is blatantly used to diminish her achievements.
Women politicians across the country have always faced gender discrimination. Veterans Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee braved it. The late Jayalalithaa was even attacked once in the Tamil Nadu assembly by legislators of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). On Tuesday, K. Sudhakaran, the Congress candidate from Kannur in Kerala, released a campaign ad saying: “It would be a mistake to send a woman to Parliament." His target: The sitting Kannur member of Parliament P.K. Sreemathi of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In Karnataka, Sumalatha Ambareesh, a popular actor and wife of former Congress Mandya MP M.H. Ambareesh, has faced sexist comments ever since she decided to contest from her late husband’s seat as an independent against the chief minister’s son Nikhil Kumaraswamy. The first comment came from H.D. Revanna of the Janata Dal (Secular), who said it wasn’t a month since her husband died, and she was talking of contesting instead of grieving. In Tamil Nadu, the lyrics of aadal-paadal, or the entertaining side-shows to a campaign, are typically replete with crude dialogues and innuendos. It’s not just politicians who belittle independent women in politics. DMK’s Chennai South candidate Sumathy “Thamizhachi" Thangapandian is dismissed by some voters as a “theatre artist who has learnt how to please an audience". The fact that she is a published poet, has a PhD and taught at a university for more than a decade gets brushed aside. Such comments reflect a patriarchal mindset that women should “know their place"—and it isn’t in the public arena.
Such open misogyny appears off the radar of politicians and political observers. An easy explanation is that the EC in faraway Delhi probably doesn’t understand insults delivered in Tamil, Malayalam or Kannada. Another is that women leaders themselves rarely complain, preferring to be judged for their achievements, rather than as victims of sexism, and they do often give back as good as they get. Yet, this ever-present misogyny could deter more women from entering politics in a country that has one of the lowest figures among democracies for female representatives. If appeals to religious sentiments can warp elections, which are meant to be contests of ideas and not identities, so can expressions of gender prejudice. The consolation is that complaints are indeed being made to the poll panel, which is beginning to take note. Maybe, in time, women leaders will be seen as equals and not as targets when they stand up to speak.