Women Politicians Are Much More Than Their Bodies

A remark made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi about President Droupadi Murmu amidst Lok Sabha campaigns has reignited the debate of sexism women have to face in public life.

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President Droupadi Murmu signing a book of condolence for Queen Elizabeth II at Lancaster House on Sep 18, 2022 in London. Photo: WPA Pool/Getty Images

“Now I understand, after seeing the statement of Shehzada (Rahul Gandhi)’s uncle, guide and philosopher (Sam Pitroda) who lives in the US. He had said South Indians are black-skinned and look like Africans. It was the reason why the Congress had considered her (President Droupadi Murmu) an African because of her skin colour and opposed her.” 

This remark made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi amidst campaigning for Lok Sabha elections about President Droupadi Murmu has reignited the debate of sexism women have to face in public life.

Congress and other opposition parties reacted strongly by questioning and condemning the attempts to drag a woman’s, that too of the head of state, skin colour into the electoral debate. Veteran Congress leader P Chidambaram while reacting to PM’s remarks called it ‘blatantly racist’.

This is not the first time that a woman in politics has been subjected to such remarks. Women politicians have faced many instances where they were reduced to their looks or clothes, or their personal and intimate lives were put on display for public amusement. Women across parties have been subjected to such behaviour and politicians across parties have iterated problematic words or thoughts.

Recently, All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) former MP, Mahua Moitra was accused of receiving gifts and money from an industrialist in exchange for asking questions in the Parliament. She was also accused of sharing her login credentials with the industrialist’s staff members. The allegations were serious and she was held guilty by the privilege committee. However, Moitra along with all members of the committee who belonged to opposition parties had staged a walk-out from the proceedings claiming that personal questions were being asked by the chairperson, who was a BJP MP.

Even before this inquiry had started, the whole case had turned into a media circus with details and photos of Moitra’s personal life being made the subject of public scrutiny. In the last few years, Moitra has emerged as a strong voice of the party in Parliament and her speeches, questioning the Union government on various issues, were shared widely on social media.

In the past, too, many male politicians without giving it a second thought uttered various things which are considered sexist and misogynist. For instance, PM Modi in 2018 during a rally used the term ‘Congress ki widhwa’ (Congress’ widow) allegedly which was directed towards the party’s senior leader Sonia Gandhi. In another instance, in 2012, he had also called Congress leader Shashi Tharoor’s then friend, later spouse, ‘50 crore ki girlfriend’ (girlfriend worth Rs 50 crore).

In 2022, UP Congress leader Ajay Rai used similar words against Amethi MP and BJP leader Smriti Irani. He said she only comes to the constituency and shows ‘latka-jhatka’ (dance moves, referring to her acting career before entering politics). Last month, Congress leader Rajdeep Surjewala also made sexist remarks using Hema Malini’s name. The list goes on and on and on.

These are but a few examples; there are many more and possibly much worse. The moment a woman crosses the boundaries of the patriarchal roles designated to her by society, she becomes an open target for insult and ridicule. The concept of gender-based inequality is so deeply ingrained in society that these insults are more often than not brushed aside as a slip of the tongue or ‘cruel reality’.

For women, it’s not easy to make it in public spaces including the political arena. Women in politics, in particular, as part of the decision-making process are perhaps seen as a threat to the status quo. In the 17th Lok Sabha, only 74 members were women out of a possible 543. This is after more than 70 years of independence and with women constituting almost half of the country's population.

The record of women participation in India has not been great for the largest democracy in the world. In 2023, PRS Legislative Research, a non-profit organization, analysed the numbers and patterns comparing women and men members of parliament and state assemblies. According to their research, the participation of women in 17th Lok Sabha stood at merely 15 per cent; it was 5 per cent in the first Lok Sabha. Rajya Sabha had only 13 per cent women MPs. The paper also found that no state assembly had women participation above 20 per cent.

Although the parliament held a special session last year to clear the long-awaited women’s reservation bill, but with caveats attached to its implementation. Many, termed the passage of the bill, so close to the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, as a mere poll plank.