By Rohini Banerjee:
Dayashankar Singh, the BJP’s Vice President in Uttar Pradesh, stirred up controversy on Wednesday (and was later sacked) after he used a derogatory term for ‘prostitute’ or ‘sex worker’ to refer to BSP chief Mayawati.
The comment was made when he went on a tirade accusing Mayawati of selling her party’s election tickets to the highest bidder, in which he compared these alleged actions to something a sex worker would do. His speech contained not just these horrifyingly sexist comments, but also included casteist barbs where he attacked Mayawati’s Dalit identity.
Disturbingly, this kind of hate-speech is nothing new in Indian politics and many (male) Indian politicians have used the ‘prostitute’ analogy again and again—and always in a derogatory sense.
“For the girls who are protesting in JNU, I only have one thing to say that prostitutes who sell their body are better than them because they at least don’t sell their country,” a Haryana-based politician had said a few months back, while talking about female protesters during the unrest at Jawaharlal Nehru University earlier this year. Not only was this a thoroughly offensive, insensitive, and misplaced comment, what was even more disturbing was how many people lauded him and agreed with him on comments sections. The word ‘prostitute’ has become such a common mode of insult in Indian politics that the word ‘presstitute’—a similarly derogatory (and sexist) term derived from ‘prostitute’—has become a commonly used slur against journalists. The word was first used by former Army Chief General V.K Singh, and is now common vocabulary for right-wing politicians and ‘bhakts’ alike.
The first and foremost reason why such an analogy is deeply offensive is because of the assumption that sex work is something derogatory, or something degrading. Sex work is as legitimate a form of labour as any other profession is, and the very fact that it’s a stigma stems from our society’s systematic policing of female bodies and sexuality. Hence, the very concept of slut-shaming—using the word ‘prostitute’ as an insult—is absurd.
Sadly, we live in a society where women who take charge of their own sexuality are seen as ‘deviants’, or an aberration (take Qandeel Baloch for example), and hence, are referred to as ‘prostitutes’, ‘sluts’ and so on. But what’s most disturbing is how the woman’s sexuality is targeted first and foremost, and how their entire identity is reduced to that. If it was a male politician in the same situation, his sex life would never be brought up—even when it’s relevant.
A Dalit woman like Mayawati being attacked with a slur like this has a whole different cultural connotation altogether. Extreme caste-based exploitation in India causes thousands of lower caste women to be forced into prostitution against their consent; which even leads to them being continuously sexually abused and being forced to live in less-than-human conditions. Hence, for Dalit women, who often face the dark side of sex work, and continuous patriarchal and caste-based violence, this slur takes on a whole different meaning.
So, when our political leaders use such language—the very leaders who are meant to represent the people and govern the state—their supporters and followers are also encouraged to do so (and get away with it), without even realising the implications of what they’re saying.
This has been going for a while now—whether it be former BJP leader Pramod Mahajan comparing Sonia Gandhi to Monica Lewinsky (who, ironically, also had to face a fair share of slurs directed at her sexuality) and insinuating that she’s adulterous, or Mulayam Singh Yadav’s horrific statements justifying rape—and no one has really ever held these politicians accountable for spewing such sexist tripe.
Politicians in our country get away with the most horrific kind of hateful and divisive language—whether it be a slur about prostitution, or casteist remarks, inciting Islamophobic violence, and so on and so forth. But how long can this go on? A political leader or representative should not just be dignified, but also informed and unbiased. But sadly, that isn’t the case in India. Whether things will really change, and politicians will become aware of the implications of perpetuating the kind of hate that they do, only time will tell. But till then, all we can do is try and call their prejudiced and regressive thinking out as much as is possible.
Featured image credit: Mayawati: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; Dayanand Shankar’s photo shared on Facebook.