On April 21, Arnab Goswami, the editor of Republic TV, launched into a tirade against Congress party president Sonia Gandhi over the Palghar lynching. He accused her of deliberately maintaining a “silence” on the matter because “she hails from Italy”.
It was not the accusation that became controversial itself, but the way he spoke of her. Throughout his brief but aggressive attack, he continued to blame her, calling her ‘Italy waali Sonia’ and finally spitting out her maiden name, ‘Antonia Maino’, as though it burned his tongue.
Soon after Goswami’s verbal attack came a nationwide Twitter attack on the Congress president. The next morning, ‘Bar Dancer’, insinuating that Gandhi was allegedly one before she met Rajiv Gandhi, and ‘RagaKMKB’, an abbreviation of a Hindi abuse, were trending on Twitter.
The entire incident has exposed the reality of two prevalent cultures in India: the influence of Arnab Goswami and other mediapersons like him on the Indian audience and the underlying misogyny in how women in public positions are criticised.
I would be simplifying this entire debate if I attribute its roots to Goswami alone. While he stands accused of maligning a woman on national television in order to sell a communal angle to his audience that was proved false within days, this is not just an Arnab Goswami issue – it is to do with how we view women in society in general.
More so, even as the numbers continue to rise when it comes to violence against women in India, there is no growing recognition that the violence is a by-product of the long standing structure of patriarchy.
When we talk about the participation of women in politics, we must recognise that there are already a whole host of obstacles and challenges women face. Attitudes towards women candidates are still largely characterised by deeply ingrained stereotypes and political opponents often use those stereotypes to question capabilities of a woman leader.
When she criticised the prime minister, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati was called out for ‘colouring her hair, getting facials’.
A BJP leader threatened to ‘chop off Mamta Banerjee’s nose’ when she supported the release of Padmaavat in West Bengal.
Samajwadi Party MP Azam Khan made deputy speaker Rama Devi feel visibly uncomfortable with his sexist remarks while she was officiating proceedings in the Lok Sabha. Another incident would have Khan announce that it took him only 17 days to identify that his opponent in the Lok Sabha election from Rampur constituency, Jaya Prada, “wears khaki underwear”.
When Mahua Moitra spoke in parliament, editor-in-chief of Zee News Sudhir Chaudhry was quick to allege that the speech was plagiarised from Martin Longman’s essay The Twelve Early Signs of Fascism. Longman himself eventually stepped up and came out in her support to silence trolls and their endless sexist remarks on social media.
Lakhs of smear pamphlets on AAP legislator Atishi appeared before the Lok Sabha elections – which Atishi blamed on now BJP MP Gautam Gambhi – proclaiming that the Delhi University topper, who is also a Rhodes Scholar and an educationist, was a “prostitute”, “beef eater” and a “very good example of a mixed breed”.
The list is endless.
Women have learnt that the men in power “want roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks“. They have learnt that once they join politics, their private and public spheres will merge into one because women in public spaces belong to everyone – which is why it is imperative to point out what Priyanka Gandhi wears in Delhi and what she wears in villages, how “Rahul fail hai toh, Priyanka bhi fail hogi (Rahul failed, so will Priyanka)”.
When political opponents want to get even with one another, it is the women in their lives who are targeted – sisters, wives and mothers.
What the media is teaching is that women must be sexualised if they are being criticised. Politics is teaching women that it doesn’t matter what they think, it doesn’t matter what their academic or political achievements are – they will still be women, and will always be exposed to the vilest comments.
It is because of men like Goswami that women don’t find political spaces safe. It is because of men like him that every woman who takes the risk to enter public spaces, hoping to make it more inclusive, ends up being made an example of.
If influential journalists like Arnab Goswami misrepresent women politicians and use a sexist vocabulary to describe them, it’s only natural that him, and others such as him, legitimise similar misogynistic perceptions and opinions.
As for the alleged attack on Goswami – if and when culprits are found, I hope they are punished appropriately as prescribed by law. However, I hope that he too is punished for attacking a woman on national TV instead of objectively criticising her.
Bringing about change
To combat harassment and the subsequent alienation of women in politics, a robust approach needs to be employed, starting from transforming views and ideas on the contributions of women in our society.
Solid accountability measures need to be taken, along with a commitment from politicians to not malign women sexually. We need to shed this mindset that we have coddled for far too long and wake and recognise that women are a driving force in society. It’s imperative that we have a healthy and diverse government, free from stereotypes and stigmas. To increase the participation of women in politics, our media must also represent leaders objectively, irrespective of gender. And if they don’t, they must be held accountable.
While the old adage that politics is dirty might be true, we have to assure women that it is their work that must be allowed to speak for them; that they will not be reduced to being mere bodies.
Simran Varma is pursuing her masters in Education from Ambedkar University.
Featured image credit: YouTube screengrab