Change in Smriti Irani's portfolio from Union HRD ministry to textiles during the recent Cabinet reshuffle has been accompanied by a heated debate in public space. Wild conjectures, intense speculation and a tsunami of informed and misinformed opinion have surfaced over whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi handed his cabinet colleague a demotion, promotion or a lateral push.
To a certain extent, the interest and discussion around Smriti Irani is understandable. The minister has always been an articulate, if controversial, feisty figure not averse to taking criticisms head on — be it during a news conference or a debate in Parliament. Her background as an actor, before she joined politics, has added colour to the conversation around her.
There could be, and must be, debates about her role as a former HRD minister. Irani's critics have always held that she was too much of a lightweight — both in terms of educational qualification and political experience — to handle such a sensitive portfolio. Her confrontational nature and penchant for courting controversies have also been widely condemned.
Relieved of her duties just when she was on the verge of announcing a major initiative in a new national education policy, it is reasonable to assess whether the minister failed to carry out the responsibilities that she was entrusted with or got too entangled in the myriad controversies that dogged her tenure.
All these discussions, I reiterate, are fair and warranted.
But disconcertingly, a lot of the attacks have tended to focus on her identity as a woman and even on her physical appearance. Much of the criticism and some terrible attempts at humour targeting her are in reality thinly disguised or in some cases, blatant sexism; a rather crude try at character assassination by zeroing in on her femininity, not her abilities a politician and an education minister.
If one needed a reminder that sexism isn't an exclusively male phenomenon but part of a larger cultural discourse in which women also participate, one needs to only look at some of the comments on social media that have Irani as the target.
— Sagarika Ghose (@sagarikaghose) July 5, 2016
This blouse has been made mandatory for all women to wear, by decree of our new textile minister Smriti Irani. pic.twitter.com/qffihnqj77
— Brown Sahiba (@Rajyasree) July 5, 2016
@Rajyasree of XXXXXL size?
— Ishan Keshri (@IshanKeshri) July 5, 2016
To recall, the FabIndia controversy that the first tweet refers to, broke out last year when four employees of the fashion boutique's outlet in Candolim, Goa, were arrested for allegedly setting up a CCTV camera which overlooked the store's changing room.
The Union HRD minister had lodged a complaint with the Goa Police after spotting a camera pointing towards the trial room. According to a report in Indian Express, local BJP MLA Michael Lobo, who was called to the spot by Irani, claimed the camera was installed four months ago and had recorded several people, including the minister, trying on clothes inside the changing room.
It is always better not to take casual digs at issues of such seriousness, almost as if Irani has forfeited her dignity as a woman the moment she started a career in politics.
Being at the end of sexist or misogynist jokes is nothing new for Irani, however. No sooner was she sworn in, photographs of her in swimsuit did titillating rounds in the media, a blatant message that no matter the success a woman achieves in career based on her abilities, she will remain forever trapped in her feminine identity. And if this can happen to a minister in Union cabinet, one can only imagine the plight of women who do not enjoy even a fraction of Irani's power or influence.
It is easy to blame men, sometimes even reflexively so, for falling victim to misogyny as a cultural construct which then colours their attitude towards women. But what explains the phenomenon when women themselves reveal their subliminal layering of misogyny?
Smriti Irani started her career as salesgirl at Mc Donald's. She is bk to sales of kapda. She wl start wth Modi printed saris
— Bhairavi Goswami (@bhairavigoswami) July 5, 2016
— The Masakadzas (@Nesenag) July 6, 2016
The last tweet may also be construed as an attempt at body shaming of women which has emerged as another worrying cultural construct. In popular culture and media, women's physical appearance is always in focus. They are panned for either being fat, skinny, tall, short, flat-chested, busty, too plain, too sexy and in India especially, whether she is fair or dark-skinned. Body shaming is another way of telling the woman that looks aren't just a part of who you are, it is who you are.
The commentator, who should have known better for being an informed individual and a woman herself, disregards the fact that jokes like these allow people to believe that sexist behaviour falls within the bounds of social acceptability.
Irani, being the feisty, confident preson that she is will shake it off but there are many women who constantly face such abuse suffer from an acute loss of self confidence and depression.
A research project led by a Western Carolina University (WCU) psychology professor indicated that sexist humour can lead to toleration of hostile feelings and discrimination against women.
“Sexist humor is not simply benign amusement. It can affect men’s perceptions of their immediate social surroundings and allow them to feel comfortable with behavioral expressions of sexism without the fear of disapproval of their peers,” said Thomas E. Ford, a new faculty member in the psychology department at WCU. “Specifically, we propose that sexist humor acts as a ‘releaser’ of prejudice.”
All of these, little by little, contribute to the dominant perception about women who are successful in their careers — that they can only make it in this male dominated world by mis/abusing their femininity.
— Tehseen Poonawalla (@tehseenp) July 6, 2016
— Indrani Mishra, (@indraniiyc) May 29, 2015
The last tweet mentioned here is by Congress leader Indrani Mishra. Her Twitter bio says she is the National General Secretary at Indian Youth Congress and an INC candidate from Asansol Loksabha 2014. One would think people in position of power should act more responsibly.