Media's Coverage Of Women Politicians And An Underlying Bias

Even if a woman reaches the highest position in a government, as in Droupadi Murmu’s case – that of a President – she is still often judged for her appearance, instead of competence.

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Photo: An indian woman giving an interview to the media

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These headlines dominated newspapers and online websites on May 8.

President Droupadi Murmu is the first tribal woman who was chosen by the BJP Central leadership as the presidential candidate in presidential elections in 2022. The saffron party has often boasted of appointing the first women tribal president. Even during the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, political parties on either end of ideologies have been trying to one-up the other. However, the aforementioned remarks, made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing an election rally in Warangal in Telangana on May 8, solely relied on the President’s skin colour to attack the opposition parties.

Even if a woman reaches the highest position in a government, as in Murmu’s case – that of a President – she is still often judged for her appearance, instead of competence. Such an emphasis on women’s physical traits and personal life choices is often perpetuated into the public discourse by the media as well. 

How media covers female politicians

A study conducted by Paromita Pain, a journalism professor at University of Nevada, in 2021, revealed how women journalists are sent to profile women politicians and are asked to focus more on how the politician managed her private and public life. The journalists’ original reports, focusing on policy and plans for state development, were criticised as lacking 'a womanly touch’, the study said.

Although the Parliament of India last year – in a historic step towards women empowerment – passed the Women’s Reservation Bill or Nari Shakti Vandan Abhiniyam, paving the way for reservation of one-third of legislative seats for women, when it comes to reporting on female politicians, several media organisations still refer to a woman as someone’s mother or wife or daughter. 

For example, amidst the ongoing elections, Hindustan Times published a story on women politicians who have been fielded as candidates by different political parties in Goa. The headline was: Goa's women politicians: Wives, daughters and also-rans

In another example, Economic Times published a story on actress-turned-politician and BJP candidate from Mathura Hema Malini, who was photographed posing with farmers while harvesting wheat crop on her campaign trail. The headline of this story: 'Dream girl' Hema Malini becomes 'Mother India' as she harvests wheat ahead of Lok Sabha polls’ – reduces the candidate to the traditional role of a mother, and a character in the popular film Mother India who is not afraid to sacrifice – just because she was in a wheat field.

Amnesty International recently conducted a study to understand how online forums react to female politicians in India. The results from the study showed female politicians face sexist, misogynistic and abusive reactions online much worse than their male counterparts do. While male politicians have been trolled in the past for their inability to deliver on promises, women leaders have been trolled for their clothes or looks. These online trolling narratives are then picked up by the mainstream media as ‘news’, the study says.

Although not a politician, Hema Malini’s daughter, Esha Deol, accompanied the former during her campaign trail in Mathura last month. While some media organisations decided to cover the news in this way: Lok Sabha Polls 2024: Hema Malini's Daughters Isha, Ahana Visit Mathura To Campaign For Her; others decided to refer to her appearance and say: Esha Deol, who was trolled for getting plastic surgery, campaigns for mother Hema Malini in Mathura. What could have been a straightforward story about a mother and her daughters campaigning for elections, was instead turned into how Esha Deol was trolled for getting plastic surgery and yet was ‘unaffected’ by those speculations and chose to campaign for her mother. 

Another infamous incident where women MPs were criticised by the media for their ‘lifestyle’ is that of Mahua Moitra, a Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP. At a time when she was facing a serious corruption charge in an alleged ‘cash for query scam’, social media as well as several legacy media platforms trolled and labelled her for having a drink and smoking a cigar at a private dinner party. Her personal life was brought into the open and her lifestyle decisions questioned – even though her alleged role in the case hasn’t been proven yet. When she appeared before the parliamentary ethics committee in the alleged cash-for-query case, NDTV carried this headline: Mahua Moitra, Facing Bribery Allegations, Brought 3 Handbags To Hearing. 

Senior women politicians not spared

Even before Moitra became the latest target of a patriarchal society, prominent female political figures like the late Jayalalitha, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party supremo and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh became national news – not for their politics or policies but for their ‘lavish’ jewellery or ‘extravagant birthday celebrations’ or even ‘cutting hair.’

Sonia Gandhi, the longest-serving President of the Congress party, has also been at the receiving end of sexist attacks regarding her Italian origins. In April 2020, Arnab Goswami, the editor of Republic TV, accused her of deliberately maintaining a “silence” on the Palghar lynching matter because “she hails from Italy”. He kept calling her ‘Italy waali Sonia’. 

Women have been the focus of political parties throughout assembly and general elections. They are turning it out in large numbers to not just vote but also contest elections. A 2018 United Nations working paper noted that women-led constituencies were likely to prosper as women candidates were relatively less criminal or corrupt, and less likely to pursue political opportunism than men in politics. Women legislators are also perceived as more democratic, people-oriented and inclined towards a collectivist approach as opposed to their male counterparts. Further, women-led states often scored higher in developmental metrics like roads, healthcare and education. 

But in several media narratives, they are reduced to just their looks and only hold value if they are someone's mother or wife.