Smriti Irani strikes me as someone prone to the dramatic – one to make sweeping statements, to gesticulate with gusto, to know how to get maximum impact out of her words. That’s the persona she exudes. Whether in popular Hindi soaps or Indian politics – not too far apart in the levels of tumult they embody – or perhaps because of that exact journey from soap opera star to politician, that’s the sense I get from her.
Her recent Twitter battle with Bihar Education Minister Ashok Choudhary, which started with his tweet about the National Education Policy addressing ‘Dear @smritiirani ji’ and culminated with her objecting to the ‘dear’ and a Facebook post on feminism and women’s rights, reaffirmed my initial impression of her. Growing up in a staunchly anti-BJP household, I respond to anything BJP with disagreement or dismissal, and I almost allowed that to cloud my opinion of Smriti Irani’s latest. But then, I read her post. It talks of the common advice of ‘keep your head down and don’t respond to avoid inviting trouble’ that most Indian women would be familiar with, advice that she herself was often given. It goes on to list all that she has achieved, despite this advice, and ends with an entreaty to all women to keep holding their heads up and speaking their minds.
And I stopped to think about it for a minute.
On the one hand, I question the trigger to her statement. I went back to the tweets, baffled, trying to find a link between Ashok Choudhary’s words and her response, and I wondered – when did ‘dear’ become sexist? There’s often a fine line between a truly condescending statement and an innocent one that we read too much into, for whatever reason. And it’s easy for that line to blur when we belong to an under-represented and less empowered section of society, when we are accustomed to slights, jabs, and sexist remarks. A result of a minority status that we are hyperaware of, and especially in politics, is that we’re almost expecting and looking for slights, when they sometimes might not actually exist. And I’m not sure if this tweet was meant to be one.
An ugly consequence of reading too much into an interaction is that your audience then focuses on the overreaction rather than the stand itself. And then you lose your impact completely. Moments like these must be chosen carefully.
On the other hand, though, I appreciate her taking a stand on women’s rights and women’s equality, a topic that is discussed not nearly enough in our country, and addressed even less. I find very little cause to agree with Smriti Irani most of the time, but in this situation I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. I think it’s essential for women in power to make such statements, and to be seen and heard doing so. India has abysmal gender equality indicators, with one of the worst gender gaps in the world in terms of labour force participation, according to recent World Bank data. We have to continue to raise awareness on these issues, and in a country like ours, word seems to really only spread when endorsed by a celebrity.
Such statements are especially crucial in countering the impact of those made by other well-known women – such as Bollywood actresses who continue to remain shockingly ignorant about the meaning of the word feminism. These are women who spout statements along the lines of “I am not a feminist, but I believe in women’s equality and empowerment”, falling prey to the belief that feminism has a negative and extreme connotation, one that they do not want to associate with. And by doing so, undoing the impact of others who are fighting for it.
Coming back to Smriti Irani, I’m glad that she’s using her bold statements, her flair for the dramatic, her communication skills for good, unlike she did after Rohith Vemula, in a speech that was lauded for its delivery but did very little to actually defend government actions or even put forward factual points.
And while I question the legitimacy of what sparked off her reaction, I find myself agreeing with her for once. Hell, I find myself applauding her stand.