By - Srijani Roy, Tanistha Bhagawati and Mouboni Dutta
The New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Picture Credit : People's World
“Human Rights are Women’s Rights, and Women’s Rights are Human Rights.”- Hilary Clinton.
From a global perspective, the lack of women leadership in politics is a serious issue. Patriarchy has imbibed in us a notion that women are less competent than men. Words like, “bitch, slut, she’s being too hysterical, she is hormonal” rain like cats and dogs in today’s political world. The media coverage of female and male politicians is also conducted in a strikingly different manner. While the media focuses on a female politician, her fashion sense is given more importance than the policies that she is putting forward. In contrast, male politicians are always praised for the policies they are putting forward. Such kind of media coverage, indirectly promotes the notion that men should wield power and women should take a backseat when it comes to politics. Sadly, whenever, a woman has dared to break the shackles of patriarchy and climbed up the political ladder she has been called names. We may have made great strides in 2020, with many women worldwide nurturing and joining politics , yet certain instances prove that we have a long way to go before women are accepted as leaders.
The language that we use is very important in today’s world. How we speak to others, the language we use to convey our intentions depict who we are. According to Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure's theory of structuralism, “Language can be viewed synchronically ( as it exists at any given time) and diachronically ( as it changed in the course of time).” Going by this definition, the terms “slut”, “bitch”, “witch” if viewed under the lens of diachronic structure, it can be seen that the meanings of these terms have not changed especially when we refer to women in power or women withholding political power. As per, French theorist, philosopher, Michel Foucault language and knowledge are closely linked to power. If we are to go by Foucault’s definition, the language one uses is directly proportional to the power one has in society. Male hegemonic control on politics has always been a barrier to women intending to pursue a career in politics. No matter how talented and meticulous a female politician is, it is somehow easy for her male counterparts to adorn her with derogatory names because of the entitlement that they have- their male privilege. Their male privilege ensures that they can call names to their female counterparts without the society thinking that it is wrong. Some recent incidents have made us ponder, that how women who wield political power are victims of the patriarchal framework too.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularly referred to as AOC, took the Capitol Hill by storm on Thursday 23rd July, when she spoke out against being verbally abused by Rep. Ted Yoho a day after rejecting an offer of contrition by the latter following the verbal altercation in the Capitol steps in the same week when he called Ocasio-Cortez’s views on poverty ‘disgusting’ and walked away whilst calling her a ‘fucking bitch’. The disparaging attitude of male politicians towards their female counterparts is no secret, especially in situations where their female counterparts have attempted to reject their patriarchal, conservative narratives. Following the outrage over his statement, Rep. Yoho issued a half-hearted apology of sorts where without directly taking up responsibility for his statement, he apologised if he had said something that could have hurt Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and that he was a father to daughters implying that his intention could not have been malicious. However, there is no denying that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was indeed viciously verbally abused by a man in power who flippantly used very strong sexist remarks and believed he could have escaped from any liability that came once he washed his hands clear of ever abusing the Congresswoman in the first place simply because he was a father to his daughters and impliedly was neither sexist nor wrong. Ocasio-Cortez, however, was not one to take insult sitting, making it clear that she would not allow a man such as Ted Yoho or any man in a position of power to abuse her under any circumstances. As a role model to her nieces and several young girls she owed it to them to confront her abuser publicly and to demand for an unequivocal apology. Unfortunately, the sexist recourse meted out to AOC is neither a first nor an isolated incident.
Women in American Politics: Harassed, Abused, Unabashed
Patriarchy is deep seated in all sectors across cultures, the American political system being no different. The inherent sense of power and privilege that male (especially white) politicians enjoy is overwhelmingly greater than that of the women because the system enables the man to enjoy umpteen power, unchecked. Women have historically been underrepresented in politics until recently however, they are yet to create that power niche for themselves as the men not because they are not as competent but because the male-dominated system continues to reward bad behaviour in men by largely ignoring or making excuses for their behaviour while women are systematically abused with little or no recourse.
AOC in her speech points out that the abuse meted out to her is not a single incident but is cultural, indicating the normalisation of verbal abuses that female politicians suffer from the men with little or no accountability. The Trump-led Republican Party, in particular, which is overwhelmingly male dominated minces no words while addressing women politicians in the most disparaging manner possible. Trump himself has boasted of physically assaulting women in a clip dated back in 2005 and was quoted asking AOC and 3 of her colleagues (members of the progressive squad Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib) all women of colour to ‘go back to where they came from’ in-spite of being born in the United States and holding American citizenships, exposing the xenophobic attitude combined with the misogyny.
In picture, members of the progressive squad Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar.
The history of abuses has a long legacy with senior politician Hilary Clinton having been referred to as a ‘bitch’ on countless occasions throughout her political career once even by a 10 year old in Trump’s election rally in 2016. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi is no stranger to misogyny and casual sexism and has received her fair share in her political career. A mother of 5 children, she recounted that in a debate, years ago, on women’s reproductive health GOP lawmakers commented that Pelosi “thinks she knows more about babies than the Pope”, a statement both ridiculous and undermining of Pelosi’s capacity as a politician and a woman to weigh in on an issue that has direct implications on women’s reproductive health.
Through the Third World Lense : Women in Power in India
The lack of participation of women in national politics is a stark example of the problematic functioning of the systematic male dominance in the public sphere and the unsaid public-private divide in terms of domain identification. In fact, in India, while the Constitution enshrines equal rights for men and women of India, the value system of a gendered citizenship keeps women away from taking up space in the formal politics of the country and those who assertively gains their position in the patriarchal structure, are meted out with harassments, verbal abuse and bullying. One of the glaring examples of such vindictive actions is the xenophobia practised against the renowned Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi. She had been ridiculed several times for her Italian roots throughout her political career. But what’s alarming is that very recently on live TV she was called out for being a “bar dancer” during her early life in Italy. The striking part is the concealed misogyny in the entire allegation. India still views pole dancing and sex work as disgraceful jobs instead of normal professions, while blatantly ignoring the constant objectification of women’s bodies and risks of abuse associated with these works which are still unregulated in India.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi Photo: PTI
This insensitivity towards women politicians is not only prevalent among Indian men but several women politicians themselves have cultivated the norms of patriarchy. While the National Commission for Women recorded a sharp escalation in domestic violence cases during the lockdown period, the Union minister of Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani, debunked such claims. She blamed NGOs and the opposition for spreading false news. While taking pride in her policies and the functioning of crisis centers, the right wing minister arrantly disregarded the trauma and anguish of hundreds of women in the country, suffering the wrath of their husbands and in-laws. This vehemently sheds light on the subaltern status of women within Indian families as well as the need for women in power to lend a hand and pull up women who are still confined to domestication. When she should have voiced the unheard, she indulged in mudslinging.
Party politics, allegations, counter-allegations- have long been raging within India’s electoral politics even at the cost of stripping off a woman’s dignity, countless times. Just last year, while campaigning for Lok Sabha polls, East Delhi candidate from Aam Aadmi Party, Atishi Marlena, faced with pamphlets circulating calumnious remarks about her. The words were as derogatory as to call her a “good example of mixed breed”, mentioned about her being “caught red handed while having sex…”, that she was working as a “GOONDA ELEMENT”, about her husband disowning her due to her involvement with Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and many such maligning comments.
Aam Aadmi Party's Atishi with Manish Sisodia during a press conference in Delhi (Photo: Yasir Iqbal)
This is the kind of abuse and harassment a woman endures to merely be a part of India’s politics. Such is the power relations in the country, that all it takes to devalue a woman’s worth is insulting her caste, class, sexuality and role in relation to her male counterpart. Ironically, of all the reasons she lost the election, the only reason which did not make it to the list was her political ineptitude. Apart from patriarchy, the other prevalent evil in India’s political structure is casteism. This intersectional oppression is the very reason this country has under- representation of Dalit women in the Parliament. Out of only 14% (78) women representing in the 17th Lok Sabha, few names like Chandrani Murmu from Odisha and Ramya Haridas from Kerala made it to the headlines. This politics of exclusion has time and again pushed the marginalised women further towards the periphery, reasserting the fact that they are not welcomed to mainstream politics, which is reserved only for the upper caste Hindus. Their stifled voices kept rising but without much influence.
Where does the problem lie?
The above mentioned incidents are examples taken from two different corners of the world. There are many more such incidents that we are not even aware of. Yet, the root cause of these incidents is the same-patriarchy. Patriarchy not only harms women but also men. According to writer, activist and educator, Paul Kivel men have been taught to abide by certain traditional rules. These rules are enforced through rewards, shaming, ridicule and bullying: the main purpose of these acts is to ensure that men abide by these rules and thus become “ a man.” Whenever, a man fails to abide by the prescribed rules, he is labeled as feminine and he needs to “ man up”. Women have also been taught to perceive themselves in a certain way- to be feminie, submissive and not be vocal about their rights. Whenever a woman fails to conform to the rules that the society has prescribed for her, she is perceived to be a threat. Desperate attempts, in the form of calling her names, abusing her, both mentally and physically are made to ensure that a woman remains confined within her “ so called boundaries”. Unfortunately, many women fail to stand up for themselves and for other women as well, despite knowing that they are in a position to help others. This is what patriarchy has done to both men and women. They have made people accept the status quo.
To conclude, there is no doubt that there is an important connection between our ability to recognize patriarchal ideology and the incidents that occur around us. We need to reset ourselves in order to be able to recognize when and how to raise our voices not just against the injustice meted out to any women but also for any issue that needs our attention.
The world is already a difficult place to live in . It becomes all the more difficult to live in , if one is born as a woman. Not only women who hold important positions in the political arena are targeted but women worldwide are targeted for something or the other. Violence against women has skyrocketed in recent years. It is not that women have suddenly become victims of patriarchy and oppression , they have always been victims of the system - the only difference now is that women and men also have learnt to differentiate between when to keep quiet and when to raise their voice. To quote, Shakespeare, “ The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” ( Julius Caesar) : the fault that we have in ourselves we need to rectify those and ensure that the future generations truly grow up in an equal world.
Associate, Gender Equality - C.R.R.S.S
Srijani Roy is currently pursuing her Masters in Sociology from Jadavpur University. She has graduated from the same university with a degree in sociology in 2019. She is an associate for the Gender Equality program at C.R.R.S.S. and also has a wide range of experiences in non-profit work with several organizations in different capacities.
Tanistha is a research intern at CRRSS under the mandate of Gender Equality. She is currently pursuing her Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Her areas of interest include political economy, international relations, and gender studies.
Mouboni is a research intern at CRRSS under the mandate of Rights and Partnership. 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.