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Sexism In Politics: A Major Deterrent For Women From Breaking The Glass Ceiling

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By Sanchita Srivastava:

So the on-going television commercials of Tupperware have filled you with a sense of pride regarding a rising number of women CEOs, entrepreneurs etc. in our country? Now while the level of hindrances that all such women face precisely because of their gender would form a separate story altogether, let us see how women have fared in the field of politics, which is largely regarded as a male domain. According to the latest Inter-Parliamentary Union report, women occupy only 11% of the 545 Lok Sabha seats in the Indian Parliament, while in the Rajya Sabha it is limited only to a dismal 10.7%. It seems that other than the case when a woman gains power by finding herself in charge of a powerful political family, most women politicians have found it difficult to rise within party hierarchies, and have managed to achieve clear leadership only when they have effectively broken out and set up parties on their own.

While one can easily attribute such dismal numbers to our age-old patriarchal values, you would be surprised to note that the situation is no better in the so-called ‘modern and developed’ nations. For in the same report, countries like Italy, Britain, France and the US are ranked 53rd, 62nd, 63rd and 72nd respectively, only slightly better than India.

Why this kolaveri di against women? The answer lies in the level of sexism a female candidate has to endure as against her male counterpart, the case in point being that of Ms Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister of Australia. The menu in a fundraiser organized by the Opposition read “Kentucky Fried Quail -Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box”, making a mockery of her body parts. This overt sexism often gets coupled with the inherent misogyny that is present in quite a few of Indian male politicians as well. Remember when Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam said to BJP MP Smriti Irani, “Aap toh TV pe thumke lagati thi, aaj chunavi vishleshak ban gayi” (“You were shaking your hips on TV, and now you have become a political analyst.”) These instances highlight a sorry state of affairs, because despite the tall claims of women empowerment and liberation, a significant proportion of men are, till date, unable to cope with the idea of a powerful woman and hence subject her to a treatment they would never dream of meting out to another man.

Sexism hurts. It not only reinforces the gendered stereotypes that feminists all over the globe have been fighting against but also takes away all the attention from the work that a woman did. When it comes to criticism, men are questioned solely, and I repeat, solely, on their leadership abilities, but women politicians are judged on everything but that. There is a heightened scrutiny of their appearance, they are made prey to sexist ‘compliments’, and worse still, gendered language is used to attack them. Moreover, several researches have revealed that even mild sexist language has an impact on voters’ likelihood to vote for a female candidate and on how favourable they feel toward a woman seeking office, hereby affecting the final outcome.

The need of the hour is to recognize and respond to sexist behaviour. Additionally, we need to encourage more and more women to join politics and act independently, not at the command of their father, husband or father-in-law – a common phenomenon in India. Only this would ensure that female prime ministers do not remain novel, that a normal gender balance is maintained in the cabinet, and that there is parity between female and male leaders of political parties.

And before you dismiss this article as yet another ‘feminist rant’ (where feminism is understood as nothing but male-bashing), here is what I have to say: it was Aristotle who believed that women aren’t rational enough to be given voting rights; while the latter has been earned, a dangerously large number of men (and women too) continue to believe that women do not have the necessary acumen to be successful in this field. I think it is time we changed that.

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  1. Raj

    Seriously, the best reason you could come up was “sexism” ? That too the harmless kindergarten-type name-calling sexism?
    Could it be because that in order to get married, women do NOT have to be rich and powerful , whereas men have to be? Also because society has brainwashed men into being aggressive and dominating (basically to build and defend the society) whereas they’ve made women caring and empathetic to raise kids?

    And sexism won’t stop just because someone wills it. And even laws can’t stop it. Best thing to do is to suck it up and ignore it. You don’t see strong politicians (I don’t support these politicians nor oppose them) like Indira Gandhi crying because Kissinger and Nixon called her a b*tch nor do you see Modi crying over being called “Maut ka Saudaagar” (which isn’t sexist but deeply offensive)

    And regarding Aristotle, how does he tie in with feminism? He does not speak in behalf of men or the even the society.
    I don’t think this is a misandric rant (I’ve seen far worse) but it doesn’t analyse the situation well.

    1. Sanchita Srivastava

      “Could it be because that in order to get married, women do NOT have to be rich and powerful , whereas men have to be?” Ever heard of ambitious women? Or do you think that even in this day and age, the sole objective of a woman is to get married and depend upon her husband to run the household? Moreover, you think that ‘sucking it up and ignoring it’ would be the best possible solution for sexism? I would have loved to see how easily would you ignore it had there been a list mocking the size of your reproductive organ on display, for the pleasure of hundreds of people.

      And regarding Aristotle, perhaps it has fallen upon me to make you aware of him being a political theorist, the first one to underline the importance of participation by the public in civic activities, where the word ‘public’ referred solely to men.

    2. Raj

      Ambitious woman or not, but largely in the game of coupling, the man is expected to be much more successful and wealthy . He is still expected to provide for the wife and kids, even if the wife is working. Stay at home Moms are popular but rarely stay at home Dads. The society simply doesn’t approve of a young man taking care of the house and kids letting the wife support them. Whether in arranged marriages or love marriages, chronically unemployed brides have no issues getting married but not the other way around.
      A rich and powerful man will have no issues dating or even marrying a sweet caring female nurse.
      But how often do you see a rich and powerful woman dating and marrying a sweet caring male nurse?

      And you are right, why should ambitious men and women get married? If they want to they should or they shouldn’t. I fully support you there.

      And regarding sexism I would suck it up! I do each and every day! Political commentators in the USA regularly make fun of powerful men and their genitals. They are also regularly referred to as if they were “rectal openings” 😀 They are regularly insulted in the harshest terms . And I made a reference to Modi too who was called such a heinous thing
      And in general there is a good deal of sexism against men (it is there against women too, no doubt! ) The society treats men in general like crap! Men are casually called rapists, casually sent to fight wars and do dangerous work, casually not given fair trials in gender-related cases. The most basic axiom of our modern law i.e. innocent until proven guilty is waived off if a woman complains against a man but not the other way around. Even in the bus when I get groped by other individuals(men and women) , I suck it up without shouting and slapping.

      And regarding Aristotle, I still don’t get it. Yes I know who he is and he was probably sexist, but what do I care? See, just because I am a man, I am not responsible for him nor do I follow him. Just like if I had a mustache, I would not be responsible for the genocides by Hitler and Stalin. You have to start seeing people as individuals with their own ideas and thoughts, not by their gender.

    3. Sanchita Srivastava

      “You have to start seeing people as individuals with their own ideas and thoughts, not by their gender” – This forms the very essence of the post. The ‘expectations’ that you talked about are precisely what we are trying to change here, for they more often than not, result in gendered stereotypes (applicable both for men and women). The whole idea that it is a woman who should look after her children and do household ‘errands’, is itself erroneous. And just because the society justifies dowry, doesn’t mean we, as educated humans accept it, right?

      And I don’t get it so as to how do you think that quietly ignoring sexism would suffice? Tell me one instance where you would have heard that a man got a job because of his looks? I believe none. While in case of a woman, her success is quite easily attributed to her physical attractiveness, nobody cares about her qualifications or hard work?! And how many times is a woman forced to accept sexism masked as a compliment? Hasn’t ‘keeping quiet’ for so many years has cost us enough already?! (Besides I wonder if the present demi-god status assigned to men is your definition of being treated as crap.) Nevertheless, men or women, the idea is not to ignore sexism.

      Regarding Aristotle, I guess you have misinterpreted the statement. I mentioned him because despite being a huge supporter for public participation in politics, he never thought of giving political rights to women, because they were’t rational enough. But now even women have the right to exercise our franchise, there are a number of people out there who continue to believe that women lack the rational thinking required in politics i.e. they still cannot think for themselves and make informed choices (another example of sexism).

    4. Raj

      “The whole idea that it is a woman who should look after her children and do household ‘errands’, is itself erroneous”. Absolutely true. And what I am adding to that statement is the other half which is often missed out : The whole idea that it is a MAN who should be the sole-bread winner and be made to do all the crappy dangerous jobs, is itself erroneous”

      I don’t understand how dowry is involved but I am against any form of coercion and threat. Frankly I am opposed to the anti-dowry laws since I am in principle against unnecessary rules and regulations and NOT because of I favor dowry.I want the Govt. out of the marriage business as a whole. Consenting adults should be allowed to freely associate in what manner they want, with any further. If dowry or it’s male counterpart Meher (practiced by Muslims where the groom pays money to the bride) is done voluntarily,that is their issue. If marriages are not solemnized because of disagreements, so be it. But if there is any use of violence or threats, the Govt. must severely punish the offending party.

      Regarding sexism, we are talking about views and opinions here. I am against censorship even if it is hate speech or sexist speech.As long as threats and coercion aren’t used, I don’t think we should censor them. Censure them? Sure! Or simply ignore them! I mean I too could start shouting against anything offensive that is said against me, my family, my works, my religion etc. But does being offended grant me extra powers to censor stuff I don’t like?
      Also also please read my comments on other recent gender-related articles on this site, i have gone in some depth there.

      And what demi-god status? Men have been forced to kill and get killed doing all kinds of crappy jobs. How come women don’t step up and get themselves killed or maimed defending and building the society……sorry I meant “seek glory in martyrdom”. Doesn’t the society systematically train boys to disconnect themselves from their emotional selves, to put themselves in harms way while building and defending the society? I’m not saying women have it easy. Just saying neither do men.

      Where a man got a job because of his looks? Male models I guess, who by the way are paid far lesser than female models who also get jobs for their looks. And what is wrong with good looks? It’s genetic in the same way raw intelligence is genetic. Yes both looks and intelligence require a great deal of cultivating and the winners win beauty pageants, body-building contests and Nobel Prizes. They are the best humanity has to offer and we should be proud of them

      Well first of all, the idea of universal franchise is very recent. Vast majority of men too never had the right to vote in the past. Slaves and blacks were not allowed to vote. Kings never held elections in India or abroad. So this isn’t just about women.
      And now that we do have the right to vote, I believe it should be a limited right, I shouldn’t have the right to vote on everything. Things like personal liberties should be untouchable even if everyone else votes against my personal liberties, it is invalid. Within this framework, it doesn’t matter what others think about your gender; they can’t do much about it. So I am completely opposed to Aristotle’s ideas since I believe in individualism not in sexism or groupism.
      And regarding why there is a low representation of women in politics? It could be due to many reasons. In many developed countries, many a times the voting population of women is more , yet they elect a largely male cabinet. Equal opportunities need not result in equal outcomes.
      My opinion on this issue is the way women and men perceive each other. A successful (i.e. rich and/or powerful and/or famous) man is far more sought after in the marriage market, whereas women of grace, beauty and empathy are more sought after. So a women doesn’t have to get elected to office or do any such thing to get married, since her suitors won’t really care about that. But yes, an ambitious woman can and should run for office if she feels so, in pretty much the same way an unambitious man would like to be a stay-at-home dad and just take care of the house. Obviously both of them will face issues in the marriage market, but that’s their decision

    5. Sanchita Srivastava

      I believe that for you ignoring sexism remains the solution to the problem. If only all the problems of the world could be solved by that means! Perhaps that is the reason so as to why you are so hesitant to ‘take offense’. If you do not approve of something or you feel uncomfortable by something, why not let the other person know that? And you tell me, who is responsible for preventing women from getting themselves killed or maimed defending and building the society? Or do you think that women themselves don’t want to do such ‘crappy jobs’, as you choose to put it?

      There is nothing wrong in looking good. But when all your qualifications, all your potential is kept aside and it is said that the job that a woman got is because of her being an ‘eye-candy’ (that too in fields where good looks are far from being a pre-requisite), well that hurts.

      And regarding the fact that slaves and blacks couldn’t vote, yes, a certain section of the male population was devoid of voting rights. But what about upper-class men? Why weren’t women belonging to that class given the right to vote?

      ” In many developed countries, many a times the voting population of women is more , yet they elect a largely male cabinet.” Agreed. But why is that? Could it be because there is an extremely small percentage of women candidates contesting the elections? The low representation of women has a lot to do with their gender, and as I mentioned, sexism as a tool is efficiently used by the rivals to impact the decision of the voters. Sexism ensures that not only their entry into politics but also their survival becomes difficult.

      “Equal opportunities need not result in equal outcomes.” True. But where are those equal opportunities?

      And that you still feel that the ambitions of a woman would get in the way of her getting married, is simply a reinforcement of the existing stereotypes. I rest my case there.

    6. Raj

      1) I dont think that freedom of expression can’t be waived off just because some people may be offended. I am against sexism when it is in the form of rules and laws. I am against women not being allowed in combat roles. But I am against privileges, whether legal or social or economic, given to certain individuals just because they happen to be 1 sex or another or even transgender.

      2) I say it is our sexist society and our sexist rules which are prevent women from doing crappy works. These rules should be removed. But no encouragement . But I have rarely heard women’s rights organizations in any country complain about the fact that they don’t get to get killed in combat nor do they ever stop men from doing these dangerous jobs. Example? Conscription for only MEN pretty much all wars before the 1970s and even today many developed countries have male-only conscription. This is blatant sexism

      3) It hurts the qualified woman no doubt but it also hurts the ones who aren’t hiring for her talents. They are paying an unqualified but good-looking money for a job that doesn’t require good-looks. Of course this isn’t the issues in public jobs since they are paid by tax-payers money, but in any private org, the company pays the cost.
      In this regard, I would also like to say that equal pay for equal work needs to be removed. This allows the woman who has been unjustly not hired at a certain company to work for someone else at a lower salary than her male counterparts, thus causing the sexist organization more economic loss.

      4) Why do you ask me why those upper class men did not give others the right to vote? Am I somehow responsible for them just because I am male? I do not defend them one bit .I would have opposed such nonsense if I was there and so would you. Once again, I am an individual who happens to be male. Being male is not an ideology that I have consciously subscribed to. So don’t blame me for the crap other individuals have done. I am not responsible for them

      5) One reason could be sexism although it is highly invalid in developed countries where they have far powerful law and order systems. I do not believe most women are so weak that they would leave the race because someone commented about their breasts.I have given you another reason which I think is more valid and applicable i.e. women don’t need to win elections in order to find a mate. Since most women are heterosexual and romance/companionship is of some priority for pretty much every human being, a woman need not do things that offer her no advantage when it comes to finding a mate.
      On the other hand, winning elections makes men “sexier” in terms of finding a female companion.
      I am not saying this is how it should be, I am merely saying this has how it has been till now.

      6) Yes equal opportunities are not found in many countries due to sexist social/legal/economic laws. But does having more one-sided rules and regulations make society more equal? I think not , in the same way caste-based reservations do not eradicate casteism but instead amplifies caste identity

      7) But it’s true for men too! Why do you take just 1 side? Even for an ambitious man, marriage is a burden. Marriage comes in their way too.
      By marriage , I meant romance and companionship. It could be a fling or a live-in. While ambitious women do give lower priority to it, nevertheless they do seek out partners.

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    This post is part of our Women’s Web ‘Pick of the Week’ this week.

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