From Droupadi Murmu To Mayawati And Kamala Harris, Women In Politics Face Scrutiny Over Their Personal Lives

Outlook takes a look at times when women in leadership positions, in India and abroad, have faced derogatory and misogynistic comments throughout their careers.

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Former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati Photo: Getty Images

Women in positions of leadership have frequently found themselves subjected to scrutiny and criticism that extends beyond their professional capabilities. Comments about their physical appearance, personal lives, and political qualifications have often overshadowed their accomplishments.

In a recent incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi alleged that the Congress party discriminated against President Droupadi Murmu in the previous presidential election due to her skin colour. In response, the Congress party asserted that their opposition was a political decision, unrelated to skin colour. Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram criticised Modi's allegations, labelling them as “blatantly racist”.

Here are some instances from the past when women in leadership positions, both in India and abroad, have faced derogatory and misogynistic comments throughout their careers.

Mayawati - The Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) supremo and four-time Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, has repeatedly faced derogatory remarks about her appearance and Dalit identity throughout her political career. A significant controversy arose in 2021 when a 2012 clip from a talk show featuring actor Randeep Hooda resurfaced and started doing rounds on social media. In the clip, Hooda was seen narrating a 'dirty joke' that involved Mayawati, implying that she was sexually unattractive to the extent that no man would want to engage in sexual activities with her. The audience could be heard laughing and howling, and even the talk show host joined in the laughter. When the video went viral, social media erupted in criticism of the actor and 'ArrestRandeepHooda' started trending on Twitter.

Mahua Moitra - The young firebrand TMC MP, who has openly criticised the ruling BJP in the past, has had her personal life dragged through the mud on multiple occasions. Whether it's the way she dresses or the brand of handbags she carries, she has been the centre of unwarranted attention. In October last year, some of her personal photos were circulated online. In one, she can be seen dressed in a white blouse, while in another, she is in a green dress, holding a cigar in one photo and a glass of wine in another.

She accused the 'BJP's troll sena' of circulating these photos and expressed amusement at the situation. “Bengal’s women live a life. Not a lie,” she said in a post on X. “I like the green dress better on me than the white blouse,' she added, making light of the situation."

Smriti Irani - Union minister Smriti Irani, a former actress, has had her personal life brought into the limelight way too many times. She’s fielded sexist and derogatory remarks about her appearance, her weight, her understanding of politics and her qualifications. In 2021, a leading publication published an article on Irani with the headline “aunty national”, a play on the words anti-national, which was later criticised for being misogynistic and in bad taste. 

Kamala Harris - Current vice president of the US, Kamala Harris has been the target of racist comments ever since she entered politics. President Trump has repeatedly attacked her, mispronouncing her name and falsely claiming she's ineligible for the presidency due to her race even though Harris meets all constitutional requirements. In 2020, during a public speech, President Donald Trump had Harris saying Harris as the first female president would be an "insult to our country", referring to her dark skin colour. She has also been at the centre of sexist stereotypes suggesting she advanced her career through relationships. 

Sanna Marin - In 2022, leaked videos showing Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin partying with friends went viral on social media. The videos showed her dancing enthusiastically and there was a mention of “cocaine” in the background. Following the leak, MP Mikko Kärnä urged Marin to take a drug test, which she denied needing, emphasising her transparency. Marin expressed disappointment over the leaked private videos. The incident drew mixed reactions online, with some criticising Marin's behaviour as the Finnish PM and others saying she had a right to enjoy her personal life and deserved privacy.

Jacinda Ardern - The former New Zealand Prime Minister who became known worldwide for her handling of the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre, resigned from her post last year saying she “no longer had enough in the tank”.During her tenure, Ardern faced misogynistic trolls, with many questioning her capability when she became PM at 37, one of the youngest world leaders at the time. Her ability to continue leading the country was also doubted when she became pregnant in 2018.

Additionally, her personal life, including her relationship with her partner Clarke Gayford, has often been dragged into political discourse. Recently, rumours about Gayford being involved in criminal activities circulated, but they were later refuted.