Minority Report | Psychological politics


Minority Report | Psychological politics

Last Sunday, I read an article in The Times of India by Sagarika Ghose, the former deputy editor of news channel CNN-IBN. In the article titled, The Bahu-Behenji trap: why everyone loves to hate Smriti Irani, Ghose, now a consulting editor with The Times of India, argued how “women politicians and women in public life in general are caricatured in the way men hardly ever are. Most women politicians bear family honorifics like “amma”, “didi” and “behenji”. Their “abnormality” is always to the fore; they are cast either as virago, dominatrix, shrew or loony.”

I side with Ghose’s argument also because of the nuances behind what she described in her article as “in politics, the de-womanized woman is the norm”. Ghose’s article, and a book I am currently reading by psychologist Rashna Imhasly-Gandhy titled, The Emerging Feminine (the only thing common between the two is that the dilemma of the Indian feminine are at the core of the text), helped me construct my thoughts around the question that’s been flitting in and out of my mind. It is this: what do people think—especially those who are not Indian and live in other countries—about the “Indian woman”?

While the loud ringing of the word “rape” in global headlines about India has become problematically associated with our gender, our country, our politics, our police, our system, it can’t be a definitive word that rustles up the image of the Indian woman. What then is the psychographic and visual that crosses the minds of those who may not be very familiar with this country’s politics and realities but are up to date with what makes news?

The visual is easy. Constructed through the identity of dress, manner and body language, it has conservative overtones. In first impressions of identity politics, an Indian woman is a traditional looking person, almost always sari-clad.

If she is a politician, she is venom-spewing, too, hands folded or arms raised to wave at crowds—both real and imaginary. The operative word still is the sari. We may choose between West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s cotton-sari avatar or the elegant handloom-sari personality of Sonia Gandhi, the sindoor-and-sari combo of human resources development minister Smriti Irani or that of minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj or even the hiding-a-hundred-secrets sari-cape look of J. Jayalalithaa, the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

If the sari is one common factor among all of them, they are also all “strong” women in their own ways.

On the other end of this spectrum is the Hindi cinema heroine, who fades into recall faster and has a clearer visual structure when you utter the loaded words “Indian woman”. She is a mix of slinky dressing, glamour, dance savvy, a curvaceous body type, embodies inherent goodness, has sacrificial instincts even when she is not wearing them like armour. With more female oriented scripts that reflect the independence of mind, emotion and purpose among women, the word “strong” can easily be added to the film heroine’s descriptor now.

The safe deduction here is that the adjective “strong” is a believable attribute of a majority of Indian women. Over the years, while reporting and writing on women’s issues and gender, including some work stints abroad in the US and France, the word “strong” shone in my notes repeatedly when I asked co-workers from other cultures to describe their idea of the Indian woman.

Strength, as we know and the world knows, isn’t always an indicator of benevolence, usefulness, effectiveness or welfare or positivity. It could well have a shade of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati’s combative politics, Mamata Banerjee’s stubbornness or the alleged high-handedness of Jayalalithaa. But even in the shades of diversity brought together by blazing professionals like Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Sania Mirza, Mary Kom, Vidya Balan, Leela Seth, Sushma Swaraj, Kiran Bedi, Medha Patkar, Flavia Agnes, to name some, there is something evidently resilient and steely about Indian women. As it is in the victims of rape, more of whom are now standing up to send their rapists to prison.

Indian women were historically seen as strong—warrior queens like the Rani of Jhansi or Razia Sultan—but what’s curious is how the adjective has stayed as well as evolved to embody a dozen different dimensions.

These may be scattered thoughts at the moment, but they help me better understand why the sindoor-mangalsutra-sari combo doesn’t dilute our essential psychographic. Even if that stereotype is associated with “amma”, “behenji” and “didi”, there is a robustness around it that makes me think of the Indian woman with more curiosity and respect.

Frankly, I had never understood why the victim of the horrific gang-rape of 16 December 2012 became colloquially labelled Nirbhaya (fearless). My thoughts are beginning to form a little more clearly on that now.