By Sabah Kochhar:
What began as a simple tweet by Bihar’s minister Ashok Choudhary on Twitter soon kicked-off a heated social media debate. Choudhary, whose tweet addressed Irani as “dear”, came in for fierce criticism from Irani, who retorted to his query by pointing out the sexism in the word “Dear”. Irani wrote back: “Since when did you start addressing women as ‘dear’, Ashokji?”, adding that she herself addressed others with the prefix ‘adaraniya’.
— Dr. Ashok Choudhary (@AshokChoudhaary) June 14, 2016
Of course, Twitter being Twitter, people were quick to point out Irani’s double standards, digging up old tweets of Irani addressing others such as journalist Bhupendra Chaubey with ‘dear’ and questioning the rhetoric of Irani’s argument.
While sexism is rampant in our discourse, a “Dear” used as a prefix isn’t anything new – it’s used the world over to indicate politeness in formal communication. But Irani didn’t stop there, as she went on to post an impassioned critique on her Facebook, which went viral soon.
The post, which has now garnered over 11K likes, and 1000s of shares, even got CNN News18 to debate “Is Smriti Irani the Strongest Feminist Politician of India Today?”, even as an audience of predominantly upper-caste Hindu men littered the comments section in Irani’s Facebook, all in praise for her “empowering” stance.
However, in her impassioned stance, Irani calls out the ‘trolls’ who are the reason women like her are subject to humiliation. There’s no denying that Irani has had her fair share of struggles there. But the reality of trolls is something her own party should account for, given the rampant harassment of women on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, any mention of the trolls, or ‘bhakts’ unleashing the full force of saffron fury by calling Barkha Dutt a “randi“, or Rana Ayyub an “ISIS sex slave” seems to have gone amiss. The constant vitriol that women journalists and intellectuals have faced for voicing even the slightest of dissent has sparked a huge debate on cyber harassment. Does Irani’s appeal to women’s empowerment include checking in on the BJP’s social media team, with rape threats coming from the same bhakts who praise her?
It’s time Irani realise that Indian women aren’t fighting for whether to be called “Dear” or “Aunty”, but whether they can access educational spaces safe for them, hostels open to them, and jobs where their labour is valued, especially when they are doubly targetted on religious and caste lines. Indeed, she is right about taking a stand and encouraging women to “keep their heads held high”, not look down. But that only happens if there’s an environment where it’s safe for women to speak without pushback, or even exist in the first place.
What’s more, in firing off her salvo, Irani gave a point-by-point checklist of ‘reforms’ bought by her government. A glimpse into the list reveals, among others:
“• First time ever, focused interventions to improve reading and writing levels- Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat- check
• First time ever, the UGC Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in HEIs to protect women employees and students- check
• First time ever, a portal dedicated to Indian languages- Bharatvani-check
• First time ever, collaborated effort to focus research on the development goal posts of the country- IMPRINT- check
• First time ever, SAARC Declaration on Education– check
• First time ever, Aryabhata’s bust installed at UNESCO headquarters to acknowledge India’s contribution in mathematics and astronomy-check
• First time ever, IIT fee waivers for economically weaker sections- check
• First time ever, collaborations with Standford, University of Pennsylvania and MIT to strengthen HEIs in India- check
• First time ever, focused effort to bring high-quality international faculty to teach in India through GIAN – check.
• First time ever, a credit framework to pursue formal education and vocational training- SAMVAY- check.”
Impressive as these reforms may sound, the reality is eerily dismal, as only 25% graduates are employable. Even for the ever-popular STEM fields, over 80% of engineering graduates in India are unemployable. And no amount of collaborations with MIT can change the institutional hurdles put in place for Dalits, SC/ST students and women in engineering institutions. The problem isn’t reservations; its’s in the implantation: it’s the lack of quality institutes in the very first place, and how these institutions later fail to ensure a supportive environment for some students once they do gain entry. Irani’s sheer lack of accountability over the suicide of Rohith Vemula is proof that reforms on paper are piecemeal because no amount of fee waivers and collaborations will replace an equally dire need for offices in our educational institutions that cater to the needs and mental health of minorities. Similarly, setting up a UGC commission to look into sexual harassment needs to be matched by policy sensitising every university student to rape culture, through a systemic change in what’s taught, and by whom.
There’s a reason American institutes of higher education are sought after, and it’s not just because of focus on developing research and academia. It’s also because every university has groups and societies such as a Black and Latino students’ unions, centres for Gender and Sexuality, and education programs on campus rape culture and the importance of consensual sex. Today, foreign corporates slowly realise the importance of diversity and affirmative action beyond a token woman or person of colour, but India remains far behind in both the workplace and educational space. For Irani’s ilk to even acknowledge the problem of anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit and anti-women sentiment seems like a distant reality, let alone setting in place spaces for these students to build community and grow.