Politicising Appearances: Why are Women in Politics Expected to Look a Certain Way
Tanistha Bhagawati - Visiting Research Assistant
Mouboni Dutta - Visiting Research Assistant
What crosses your mind when you imagine a female politician? If you are from India or Bangladesh it must be a saree clad woman with neatly-done hair, or if you belong to the United States or the UK it must be a lady adorned in a solid coloured blazer, paired with a pencil skirt. Women in politics have always been judged and identified based on their attire and appearance, keeping aside their experiences and political acumen. While these women have been able to challenge the prevalent public-private distinction and are struggling to claim a space in the male dominated political sphere, they are being constantly perceived through the gendered lenses of the society. Their participation in the electoral process might have been formalised but until the discourse of politics is alienated from its masculine nature, casual sexism, misogyny, and clothes-based judging, its figurative existence will not bring any equity. The gendered lens which so glaringly is focused on the woman’s body and how she presents it in the public space makes her attire and accessorization a far more significant issue than it should have been. Time and again women had to bear the brunt of crushing sexism in a field that is predominantly cishet male occupied.
(Former Prime Minister of India - Smt. Indira Gandhi)
In the context of India, there have been numerous instances where the worth of a female politician has been dragged down to the piece of a cloth that adorns her body over her sphere of work or policies. From the Indian National Congress we take the example of two women who have been phenomenal elements of the Indian Political discourse- Smt. Indira Gandhi and Smt. Sonia Gandhi. Former Prime Minister of India, Smt. Indira Gandhi has been the most celebrated and renowned female politician in India. Throughout her career, she has been seen draped in a traditional Saree (a traditional attire worn by Southeast Asian Women, primarily Indian) and minimal accessories. Her choice of attire could be attributed to a number of reasons, one of them being the importance for her to be gracefully adorned in simplistic traditional weaves to live up to the image of the ‘good Indian Woman’ who balances her culture with her work. Smt Gandhi has, to her credit, been able to shape her identity to beyond her attire and used it as an accessory to her already confident frame adding to her grace and immaculateness.
Sonia Gandhi, President of Indian National Congress
After Sonia Gandhi was inducted as a part of the Gandhi family from her marriage with the late Rajiv Gandhi, for the sake of entering the “Indian” politics she had to shed off her western clothes and supposedly her Italian origin and it was under the wings of Indira that she was groomed to adopt the lifestyle, language and appearance of a sanskari (traditional) Indian woman. She endured this ceaseless pressure to “look” Indian just to become acceptable in India’s politics. Despite Sonia Gandhi’s stewardship which ensured victory to INC for two consecutive terms from 2004 to 2014, she could never escape the comparison between Indira and her, which unfortunately is based only on appearances and nothing more.
MPs from West Bengal, Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan
There is also an inexplicable obsession with what women wear, even to Parliament. Right after the recent Lok Sabha elections, two MPs from West Bengal, Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan were criticised and publicly shamed on mainstream media and online platforms for wearing western clothes on their first day to the Parliament. The troll culture (insulting or insinuating someone over social media targeting personal or professional aspects) which has become prominent over the last few years owing to the expansiveness of the social media platform soon found these young women too. Trolls targeting these Tollywood (Bengali language) actresses on their social media handles questioned whether they have come for “movie promotions” or as “tourists”. A stark comparison has also been drawn between them and MP Locket Chatterjee who was a part of the same profession and yet adorned herself in a saree. The irony lies in the fact that on the very same day Gautam Gambhir stepped foot inside the Parliament wearing a casual tee shirt and jeans and nobody chose to bat their eyelids. This very incident reminds of the time when INC general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (Picture, Bellow) changed her Twitter display picture into one where she was wearing jeans and a blue shirt and it sparked a huge controversy.
Time and again women politicians in India have been vilified and scrutinised for the clothes they have been wearing. The imposition of a dress code on women implies the structural power relation that breeds within the family or private sphere and gets projected in the political space as well. Female politicians are expected to extend their gender roles as saree-clad wives or sisters in salwars even in the public domain to legitimise their positions. Whereas men for whom the model of politics is different from that of women enjoy their male privileges without being maligned for the clothes they wear. The image of an independent woman segregated from her gender ties and functioning as an individual is probably a threat to India’s patriarchal minds.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden
The unsaid compulsions of traditional attire for female legislatures maybe one that is more common in the Asian continent particularly in Southeast Asia, however it is very rare or even unheard of that a female legislature in other geographical locations have been ‘spared the rod’ when it comes to her attire or how she presents herself in the public space. The media is a part of the larger problematic culture of promoting unrealistic beauty standards, particularly for women and female legislators who are treated no differently. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden who has been working relentlessly since the commencement of her term combating natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and the Covid-19 pandemic with efficiency and empathy had become a target of one such media blunder where she was asked by ‘The AM Show’ host Ryan Bridge why she was dyeing her hair. Ms. Arden was left flustered at such a question reprimanding the host in a joking manner but remaining visibly uncomfortable. The question asked was not only inappropriate on the part of a media representative to ask on a public forum to a figure as important as the Prime Minister of a country but an infringement on her private will to choose to present herself as she wants,thereby, bringing to light how media scrutiny on their appearance is a dreaded reality for so many female politicians. The electronic media specifically social media has become a common ground for people known as ‘keyboard warriors’ to be shielded by the anonymity that social media grants them and viciously attack female legislators on issues that are hardly of any consequence. British Politician Tracy Brabin, a member of the parliament and the opposition Labour Party had vociferously argued against Downing Street’s attempt to exclude certain journalists. However it was disheartening to note that the off-shoulder dress that she had adorned in the Parliament received far more attention than her speech, with more people commenting on how her attire was inappropriate for the parliament. Tracy Brabin hit back at her trolls with a powerful Tweet where she wrote that she was neither a ‘slag’, ‘tart’, ‘slapper’ (British Slangs equivalent to a whore) and that people should not be so ‘emotional’ over an outfit.
The systematic bullying by older mostly male (but not devoid from some female criticism either) of female politicians particularly the younger generation of women who are far more outspoken and do not fear their prejudiced and misogynistic seniors has become an integral part of today’s politics. If we are to take the example of the United States of America, the oldest democracy and the flagbearer of liberty and just administration, it may not have been as benign in its treatment towards its women parliamentarians as one would expect of the most powerful and one of the most progressive nations in the World. It should not come as a surprise that the United States political platform is dominated by white cishet males. The World’s oldest democracy is yet to see a female President. In 2017, there was great hue and cry over Rep. Martha McSally’s attire consisted of a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes in the Chamber which was deemed as ‘inappropriate’ and a violation of an alleged dress code. Rep. McSally was far from being apologetic over the senseless claims, and rather stood proudly in what she had declared was her ‘professional outfit’. While it may seem like there is nothing that women do that will rub someone off the wrong way, they are creating a niche for themselves, especially younger politicians of colour popularly referred to as the ‘proggressive freshmen’ like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib who have while carving a space for themselves have come under attack a number of times for issues such as their ethnicities, attire, and even their expression of contempt.
Rep. McSally/ Credit: CSPAN
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar overcame the 181 year old ban on religious headwear and became the first woman in the Congress to adorn the hijab. Omar maintains that it is ‘her choice’ -a simple yet powerful statement by a woman who has battled and will continue to have to battle grave sexism and racism in her attempt to only be herself. As far as the expression of contempt by younger female politicians is concerned, the most recent and powerful example comes to mind being sometime back in July 2020 when Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez was referred to as a ‘bitch’ by Congressman Ted Yoho when she expressed some legitimate views on poverty, captured on the stairs of the Capitol Hill by a handful of reporters. Ocasio-Cortez was quick to tear Rep.Yoho down for his sexist remark and what had followed as a non-committal apology on his end, a behaviour she would not tolerate as a role model to young girls. The sexist discourse expands on the xenophobia when a figure as important as the President of the United States asks them to ‘go back to where they came from’ in spite of the fact that they were citizens of the United States. Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet in late September this year expressed how she was criticised and heckled by Republicans for getting her hair done for $250 on the occasion of her birthday, probably implying that as a politician she must maintain austerity, but the same people remain quiet when President Donald Trump allegedly spends close to $70,000 on getting his hair fixed immediately bringing to us the blatant differential treatment of a woman and a man even when the former’s action hardly justified ruffling the feathers of any Legislator. However, Ocasio-Cortez continues to fulfil her purpose of being a responsible and aware politician while shaping her style as one that matches her fierce personality, amassing a robust collection of rented designer blazers worth the status of a powerful woman.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar
This cultural devaluation of women and labelling them unworthy of their position only based on their appearance is an instrument in the hands of patriarchy. This is another tool to confine women within domesticity and prevent them from claiming their space in the political sphere. While some women politicians have adopted the norms of the societal demands and used it to their advantage, others have raged a battle to uproot those norms. These trailblazers have accepted the challenge to snatch away their rights over their own body and autonomy to make their own decisions. They walk shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts and are fighting back hard to destroy the politics of clothes.
Mouboni works as the Visiting Assistant for the Gender Equality mandate at CRRSS. She is also pursuing her bachelor’s degree from the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Her arena of interests includes labour studies and gender relations, allowing her to undertake research works in the respective fields. She also possesses substantial experience through her association with various NGOs.
Tanistha is a student at Jadavpur University pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the Department of International Relations. Her area of interest included gender studies and political economy. In the past she has been associated with the Jadavpur University Women’s Conclave. She is currently a Visiting Assistant for the Gender mandate at CRRSS.