Framing women: Lessons from Jayaprada’s experience

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Indian Express Editorial, Framing Women, May 13, 2009

The race in Rampur has sunk to new lows as the Samajwadi Party’s candidate Jayaprada and her colleague Amar Singh accuse disgruntled party rival Azam Khan of circulating morphed semi-nude pictures of her, pictures that effectively reduce the former Rajya Sabha and current Lok Sabha MP to object-status, to be leered at and joked about.

 This kind of sexualised public shaming, to greater or lesser degree, is a woman’s lot in our politics. Of course, female politicians can also seek to benefit from such incidents — the idea of womanhood wronged appeals to masculine protectiveness and female solidarity. Many women in Indian politics have succeeded at what Jayaprada is now attempting; Jayalalithaa has long claimed that the DMK’s men physically assaulted her.  The few women leaders who escape this kind of debasement are those who ensconce themselves in other frames — as the dutiful daughter-in-law, the sexless mother, or the helpless widow. And it is not just in India that we are incapable of recognising women as free political agents; we have all seen how a viciously sexist undercurrent can colour the press and public reactions to Hillary Clinton, or Sarah Palin, or Segolene Royale.

The Talmud calls such speech an act that “slays three persons: the speaker, the spoken to, and the spoken of.”  Reacting to the incident, Amar Singh claims that Azam Khan’s actions are meant to help the Congress, and that it is a shame that a party led by a woman should resort to methods that diminish all strong women. Whether or not Jayaprada’s rival Begum Noor Bano is complicit in these acts, her campaign has piled in with similar attacks, calling Jayaprada a “naachne-gaane wali”. And it is a fact that in our politics, women rarely band together against such sexism — in fact they often wield institutional sexism as a weapon against each other.  Despite common experience of being sidelined every step of the ladder — from vile personal gossip, to being described as temperamental or ineffective, to being allocated peripheral ministries — there is no concerted action by women in public life to question such practices.

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