The sareed sisterhood

Poornima Joshi | Updated on May 11, 2014

Jai Ho: For Sushma Swaraj women power is about a celebration of patriarchal norms.   -  Mohd Arif

Jai Ho: For Smriti Irani women power is about a celebration of patriarchal norms.   -  PTI

Jai Ho: For Meenakshi Lekhi women power is about a celebration of patriarchal norms   -  Shanker Chakravarty

Jai Ho: For Nirmala Sitharaman women power is about a celebration of patriarchal norms   -  S_R_Raghunathan

The BJP women leaders herald the arrival of conservative feminism into the national political theatre

The high-brow feminism symbolised by the chic Brinda Karat or the handloomed sophistry in Sonia Gandhi’s Congress is surpassed in this election by a distinct brand of women who populate the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It is no longer easy to stereotype the karva chauth brigade once entirely personified by the feisty Sushma Swaraj. The sareed sisterhood has expanded and diversified recently. Although the bindi-sindoor-karva-chauth symbolism remains an integral part of the political armour, a new breed of professional leaders has emerged of late to impart a modern patina to the BJP’s Mahila Morcha.

BJP spokespersons Nirmala Sitharaman and Meenakshi Lekhi, national secretary Vani Tripathi and even the saas-bahu soap star Smriti Irani herald the arrival of conservative feminism into the national political theatre. Of course, their rallying call is not to be confused for a structural critique or movement against patriarchy or institutional inequities. The idea is to gift-wrap conservative disdain for women’s rights in a more contemporary, pseudo modern jargon.

Witness the clever dismissal of Narendra Modi’s freshly acknowledged wife Jashodaben’s life-long travails by the very articulate Nirmala Sitharaman: “… The lady does not feel aggrieved here.” To the women’s groups raising the issue of the denial of rights to Modi’s wife for years, she says: “Let’s ask questions to those women groups. Are they trying to justify child marriage?”

What she is really saying is that because they were married at an early age, Modi was justified in shunning his wife, refusing to acknowledge her existence for decades. That his gender allowed him to escape the social milieu that enforced a union without choice is not even a consideration in this argument. Political expediency prevents any reflection on why Jashodaben’s social consciousness does not permit even harbouring thoughts of abandoning her husband. The ‘women’s groups’ have been typically singled out for a healthy dose of contempt that has been the staple of right-wing rhetoric for long.

That Sitharaman is a product of the left-liberal Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus only camouflages this blatantly anti-woman argument in a respectably modern rhetoric. What can a man do when he is married against his will? Dump his wife, of course. And what must she do? Go on a barefoot pilgrimage as befitting her station in life as the abandoned wife of a great man. Naturally, this part of the argument remains unstated.

Of course, Sitharaman is impressive and reasonable in personal interactions. She parries questions on “our leaders’ private lives” and talks enthusiastically about the large number of modern/professional women in the BJP. “You are wrong in assuming that the BJP only promotes a certain type of women. Each of us have found our place and are encouraged by the party leadership,” she says.

Like 19th century suffragists who also wanted to protect the status of motherhood and were against abortion, the BJP’s women power is about an unabashed celebration of patriarchal norms, while it is also the first political party that enforced 33 per cent reservation for women at all levels in the organisation. It picked the reigning queen of regressive saas-bahu soaps, Smriti Irani, among arguably better qualified women, to be a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat. Irani has also been projected through a high-profile campaign in Amethi to create the impression of a contest against Rahul Gandhi. Smart and effective, Irani’s first claim to fame was to play the ideal daughter-in-law and then the matriarch in a family drama and it certainly will not be the last. So, while the likes of Sitharaman could fit the BJP’s vision of a modern-day suffragist, a Smriti Irani is essential to play the mother.

The sprightly Vani Tripathi spends her time creating a cultural niche for the BJP that has hitherto not gone beyond Ramlilas. Tutored by Ebrahim Alkazi, Tripathi prides herself on championing the causes of women and the youth. And she is candid enough to admit there are “systemic problems” in creating a modern idiom for women in her party.

“But why are we talking only about the BJP? Fine, you can brand us as a fuddy-duddy party but tell me, which political party in India has contributed creatively to a progressive feminist discourse? We are at least trying,” she says. What Tripathi does not want to talk about is the ideological necessity of projecting a woman always in relation to the man — mother/sister/wife.

The idea is to pander to the popular notions about women and their role. Additionally, hostility towards the ‘Harvard type’ intellectuals and feminists in the left/liberal circles and western influences consolidates an inverted aggression in the BJP. They claim a more native and presumably, a more superior understanding of India and the interests of Indian women.

The few times that it has been tested, significantly during the anti-rape movement in Delhi in 2012, when Sushma Swaraj described the rape victim as a zinda laash (living dead), the BJP’s vision was exposed for being inherently anti-women. Younger leaders didn’t contradict her, at least publicly. And just because they’ll probably hesitate in giving a clarion call for “shaving their heads” if Sonia Gandhi were to become PM, be warned not to presume that the BJP’s well-spoken bunch is a champion of women’s rights.

Published on May 09, 2014

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