Does gender add to insecurities?


Appeared in the Comment section of TOI-Crest earlier this week

Hell hath no fury
Moniben Gupta
May 19, 2012

Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa – two tempestuous and enigmatic women chief ministers currently dominating Indian politics – share two significant markers: gender and power. Feeding into and strengthening each other, both these elements have contributed to constructing their cult personalities in bewildering and striking ways. A year ago, the two leaders swept to power in their respective states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, defeating powerful political adversaries. Mamata even achieved what had at the time appeared to be an unattainable feat: she defeated the potent 34-year-old Left Front government with a sweeping majority.

While the Trinamool Congress leader finally made the transition from being a volatile, feisty street-fighter to Kolkata’s Writer’s Building, the scenario for her Tamil Nadu counterpart was somewhat different. The AIADMK supremo was anointed chief minister for the third time in her long and fractious political career. But unlike Mamata, Jayalalithaa was no stranger to state power and the advantages of leveraging its controls.

With both the leaders now marking the first anniversaries of their recent ascendancy to power, it is a good time to take another look at their personality cults. At the heart of the debate around Mamata and Jayalalithaa are several important and unresolved questions hinging on gender, and the complex power relations inhabiting the domain of politics. Are women politicians expected to be less competitive and aggressive, and more nurturing and compassionate than men? Or is it just a question of power corrupting those who wield it? To properly understand leaders like the women in question here, we need to locate them in a framework moving beyond gender, and then decode the inherent logic of power and how women negotiate it: especially when they alone are in supreme control of their parties and governments.

The narratives of Mamata’s and Jayalalithaa’s political lives are far from similar. Despite the varying trajectories however, both have shared comparable experiences, stemming from the overwhelmingly male political worlds they have inhabited. Both have encountered a fair bit of humiliation – political, as well as personal and physical. But that’s also where their differences begin. Tamil Nadu’s actress-turned politician shared an intense relationship with another icon, M G Ramachandran. Besides being the better half of a popular onscreen pairing, Jayalalithaa was later MGR’s political protêgê. The unconventional alliance brought her heaps of abuse and slander from political detractors, patently shaping in that process her dictatorial style of transacting politics as a way of reinforcing her position of authority – when she finally got it.

Mamata, however, has maintained a scrupulously chaste image: a woman politician who, seemingly, hasn’t ever been involved in a romantic relationship;and even more significantly, hasn’t had a male patron hovering in the background to promote her political career. But this hasn’t spared her the cut of male chauvinism. For most of her political life, Mamata has had to put up with intemperate, sexist comments and ridicule from her opponents.

Instances of patriarchal politics impinging on both women are fairly numerous. Like the shocking outrage witnessed on the floor of the Tamil Nadu assembly on March 25, 1989: when M Karunanidhi, then chief minister, rose to present the budget, and opposition leader Jayalalithaa, raised a privilege issue. What subsequently unraveled on the assembly floor was testimony to the state’s crude and sexist political culture. It is recounted by many that DMK MLAs attacked Jayalalithaa with paperweights. One pulled her sari, another her hair. But such behaviour is not unique to Tamil Nadu. One could argue that all strong, independent political women have to face the brunt of it in one form or another in India. Before coming to power, Mamata too, encountered CPM sponsored violent physical assaults. Most prominent among them was the vicious attack at Kolkata’s Hazra junction in July 1990, which left the Trinamool leader hanging on to her life by a thread.

Getting the better of a political system run mostly by men groomed in the school of patriarchy is perhaps the strongest testimony to the fortitude of both these women. In the process of coming to power in such a polity, however, both women appear to have internalised some of the worst attributes of a masculine political culture. These women have clearly found it difficult to inhabit a male political world. Their constant struggle has even, evidently, contributed to their penchant for political vendetta and megalomania. Mamata and Jayalalithaa have fiercely attacked their opponents and cultivated strong personality cults conveying that they are the final word on matters political. Mamata’s outrage over a cartoon and her imprisonment of opponents, and Jayalalithaa’s infamous midnight raid on DMK leaders are examples of their intolerance.

Yet, gender is not the only prism through which we can explain such tendencies. Women are not intrinsically more compassionate because they are women. Power, especially when unchallenged, evokes similar responses from women and men alike. It nurtures megalomania, greed, authoritarianism, and corruption. Mamata and Jayalalithaa are two exemplary products of such a complex system. Gender adds to their insecurities; it is not a cause of it.

Two nuns, two Indias and the politics of identity


Swarna Rajagopalan, Through their bodies we strive, New Indian Express, November 3, 2008.

(Also available here.)

In October, two Catholic nuns from India made news.

First, news broke about the gang rape of a nun in Kandhamal on August 25, 2008. Her rape was part of the anti-Christian mob frenzy that followed the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati. She was dragged out of her hiding-place, raped and paraded naked in the market-place. She alleges that the police were watching and did nothing. Neither did others in the marketplace.

Second, Sister Alphonsa was canonized and India celebrated. Saint Alphonsa’s miracles were remembered and her followers and faithful interviewed, as we watched the Vatican ceremony live. Those who had never heard of Alphonsa before that day now know a great deal about her, her hometown, her miracle and her schoolfriends.

Within us, live two Indias.

The first India I know is that of my great-grandmother, walking down from her home to pray at “Alphonso kovil” in the neighbourhood, a ritual we continued on every visit to Chennai. The nun from Kerala, her contemporary, became a much-loved part of our family pantheon.

The second India, also somewhere within many of us, has responded to communal violence against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka in a shamefully muted way. It is petulant about the pride we felt collectively at Alphonsa’s canonization, pointing out that India has other women saints.

But this article is not about my family, communalism or ‘Indias,’ old and new. It is about the way in which women become the currency or the medium through which we transact or express identity politics. In October, what the Orissa nun and Saint Alphonsa had in common is that their lives and stories were drawn into political battles far removed from their own experiences.

Women, their bodies and their lives are too often gadgets deployed in political struggles over delineating what defines a national (or local) community and what relationship each part of society shall bear to this whole.

The symbols of the group are cast as women, whether as Mother India, Britannica, Thamizhthai or Rosie the Riveter, inspiring the group to act upon its self-definition. The symbol is given attributes—a nurturing temperament, the spirit of battle, divinity, chastity, sacrifice, discipline—that are then extrapolated onto women in the group. This works, first, to stereotype women in the group; they are uniformly nurturing, feisty, adventurous, chaste, and so on. Then it serves as a moral code for women, laying out do’s and don’ts for them of dress and behaviour. Expressing the group’s values, these become custom, ritual and norm, into which all the members of a group are socialized and to which they are expected to conform. Women, who live this code, become its first teachers; prisoners becoming jailers, one might say. Transgressions of this code are punishable by the group, physically, through shaming or ostracism. These codes also assure that when Mother India and Rosie the Riveter are done with their work of inspiring the troops, they can return to the private sphere to live and teach the group’s code.

Because women come to embody the group, its values and the continuity of the code that defines it, they are the most effective target for its opponents. Historical and contemporary case studies around the world show that subjugation is often expressed through sexual violence. The abduction, rape and enslavement of men and women is a common detail in accounts of most military encounters. The acquisition of concubines and wives from the enemy’s ranks is a symbol of military victory. This is what Helen of Troy ultimately stands for. The recognition of rape as a weapon of war is an acknowledgment that interpersonal acts of violence are not isolated from hostilities between groups.

‘Jauhar,’ ‘sati’ and ‘karo-kari’ all express the belief that the honour of the group (whether community, family or clan) lies in the bodies of women. Women must die rather than risk the loss of this honour which does not bind the group’s men in a similar way. (That this honour is in strange ways tied to property, inheritance and succession is the subject of another article.) Riots and mob violence pose particular threats for women and girls, because rape, especially rape by a gang, is both to act out and to express hostility and dominance. The war begins elsewhere, but is ultimately waged on and over female bodies.

Gender stereotypes, gender roles and behavioural codes have one unintended consequence. In times of conflict, they create an unexpected space for agency. Women are able to act as mothers, even when the demands of group honour restrict their movements in the name of protection. ‘Mothers’ have organized to search for missing children, to tend to the wounded, to organize supplies and to rally for peace. Where daughters, sisters and wives are confined to the so-called safe haven of the home, mothers cross its threshold into public action, time and again in Chile, in Kashmir, in Northern Ireland, in Sri Lanka and other conflict zones.

The two nuns, working in Kerala and Orissa, could have scarcely imagined that their lives would be a part of a political discussion that also evoked Mother India, Helen of Troy or the Chilean Mothers of the Disappeared. Patriarchy unrelentingly weaves them all into the politics of identity as symbols, as vectors and as battle-grounds and makes their lives currency in battles over conscience, culture and history.

Swarna Rajagopalan directs Prajnya Initiatives (

Palin and gender


This is an interesting article on what it means to have Palin as a candidate in this US presidential election, and it has a slightly different take from most articles focused on gender in this election.

Priyamvada Gopal, Single Issue Feminism,, September 19, 2008.

Again the URL is not always accessible so the article has been copied here.

Some feminists lament the glossy rise of Sarah Palin, others rush with sisterly ostentation to defend her from sexism even as they repudiate her politics. While plenty of typeface has been expended on analysing her obvious and myriad failings as a serious politician, what mainstream feminism and the US women’s movement have yet to do is to own her or, rather, to own up to her.

A certain brand of corporate feminism, one that has long dominated the public sphere in the western world, now finds itself trapped in the jaws of a self-proclaimed pitbull. For while the woman who has galvanised the American right and who champions its most retrograde values may be a feminist nightmare, she was also conjured up by the monochrome dreams of its most prominent strands. Sarah Palin, hockey mom and career woman, is the disastrous product of single-issue feminism.

There’s little pleasure to be had from saying this, and yet facing up to this unpleasant truth is essential if the debate on gender and politics is to ever move beyond the impasse in which it finds itself. Sarah Palin is less an anti-feminist disaster than a triumph of corporate feminism in the US and elsewhere. With its emphasis on power and privilege, this feminism, rather than questioning the world we live in, has insisted on participating fully in almost every one of its hierarchies. It has sought to sup at the table rather than change the menu and ensure that everyone is fed.

In its worldview, “women” are a generic category and the clear winners of an oppression sweepstake for which amends must be made to already privileged women at the expense of everything else. It’s a position exemplified by Gloria Steinem’s support for Hillary on the basis that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life today”. Gender has indeed been a greatly restrictive category and nowhere more so than within this brand of feminism. With its narrow emphasis on biological womanhood to the exclusion of other factors, this feminism has persistently refused to recognise the ways in which gender necessarily intersects with other forces like ethnicity, race, class and sexuality to produce a range of different positions from which women relate to the world.

As such, Sarah Palin is less a scourge than a lesson. She – and her rapidly growing support base – has finally laid bare the category “woman” as deployed by the media and prominent American feminists: all along it has actually meant “white woman”. (The same voices that so loudly defend Palin against sexism were not so voluble when Michelle Obama was subjected to far more vicious pillorying on the basis of her race and gender.) Palin’s rise has also made clear that, while it is perfectly acceptable on right and left to stress gender and gender equality, talking about race is still verboten.

Any discussion of race or racism must be suppressed, as it has been by Obama, for fear of being seen as “grievance”. Gender, however, can be trotted out as evidence of both restriction and accomplishment. As was evident during the Hillary-Obama contest, race and gender are also falsely defined as entirely separate in their operation. Do we really think that the now legendary 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling credited to Hillary will work in favour of all women, regardless of race and class? Is it cynical or realistic to think that it’s going to take a lot more work for both the white single “welfare mom” from Kansas and the married black grandmother from Virginia to break through it?

Palin’s paltry knowledge of the world beyond her own is no exception. It is a weakness she shares with the mainstream women’s movement in the US.While Anglo-American feminism has tended to see women in Asia and Latin America as requiring emancipation to its own exalted standards, even a basic awareness of women’s movements in other parts of the world would reveal that the most powerful kinds of women’s activism have never been about gender alone.

From landlessness, resources, reproductive rights and the environment to wages, war and imperialism, women’s movements in places such as Chile, Indonesia, Nigeria, India and Venezuela have had to develop a complex understanding of the issues (in the plural) at stake. When economic justice, peace, the environment, health and reproductive rights are all seen as equally integral to the wellbeing of women and their fellow human beings, there is no question of women defending a retrograde and dangerous politician merely because she also happens to be biologically female.

To be feminist is not simply to want to be a woman with power, but to be transformed by the most urgent issues of our time. Until that lesson is absorbed by women’s movements in the US and elsewhere, our backs will be bridges for the Palins of the world – even as their spiked heels grind contemptuously into our spines.

Peacekeeping and gender


Swarna Rajagopalan, Guardians stray from the straight path, New Indian Express, Chennai, August 25, 2008.

[The URL is not stable, so here is the text and correct citation.]

The exemplary record of India’s peacekeeping troops is in danger, and thus, one of its claims to good global citizenship.

An internal UN investigation has reported that some Indian peacekeepers in the Congo supported and perhaps even participated in a child prostitution racket near their base camp. Involving over a hundred officers, these charges follow earlier reports that Indian soldiers had been involved with gold and drug smugglers and that an Indian officer was publicly expressing support for one rebel group—charges that pale in comparison to the recent allegations.

The Indian army’s investigation has already begun, and experts underscore the fact that this is an aberration in India’s record. India has readily contributed troops to several of the stickiest UN peacekeeping operations since 1950 and is among the top three contributors to UN peacekeeping operations worldwide.

Thousands of Indian soldiers have served as observers, combat troops, medical missions, election observers, mine experts and engineers in operations that have claimed several Indian lives. In Somalia, Indian and Pakistani peacekeeping troops worked together to offer humanitarian assistance to local communities. In Liberia, a contingent of female paramilitary troops provides security to the President in addition to participating in field operations. With its store of experience, India now offers peacekeeping training.

In the UN peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Pakistan have the largest contingents in the mission. Set up in 1999 to implement the Lusaka Accord which ended the civil war in Congo, the mission is currently engaged with the disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement and reintegration of combatants as well as the transition to democracy. India has contributed both military and police personnel to this mission.

One crude and callous response to allegations of physical abuse by soldiers and one that does no credit to any serious army is that such incidents are inevitable given the stresses and strains of military operations, especially when soldiers are stationed far away from their families. To be fair, this dismissal is rarely offered as serious analysis or justification—but one does hear it.

More thoughtfully, it is suggested that lust and aggression are products of the same bio-chemical process and therefore, keeping the balance between self-control and the aggression that army work requires is hard. But the Indian army takes great pride in its socialization of its soldiers and in the various efforts it makes to minimize the possibility of such incidents. One learns that they offer counseling, yoga, sports and service activities to occupy soldiers in these circumstances. So what happened in the Congo? The Indian people also need to express concern over the reasons and results uncovered by the army investigation.

Sexual abuse and exploitation are intrinsically offensive. Where the accused carry arms, and carry them with the sanction of a state, however, these actions occur in the context of a very unequal relationship. UN peacekeeping troops, like colonial troops in another era and occupying troops in other contexts, are outsiders invested not just with weapons but also with the sanction of the international community. They are there as outsiders to impose or oversee the imposition of an order that is tenuous and likely, contentious. Peacekeepers are better-fed and better-stocked with essentials, to say nothing of better-paid, than most people in the communities that surround. The ability to barter food and supplies for sex may make them even more powerful in this context than the possession of arms.

Such huge differences make even the possibility of consensual relationships between adults debatable. What chance does a small girl or boy, a frightened adolescent have to resist rape or trafficking? It is this that places sexual abuse by military personnel, in war, in counter-insurgency or peacekeeping operations, beyond the pale and right on the same continuum as incest and child sexual abuse within the home, street and workplace sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence.

Responsible militaries (or police) in a democracy need to investigate and punish offenders in a transparent fashion, a requirement minimally met by a press release. Responsible parliamentarians, male or female, need to raise this issue disregarding the ‘morale’ bogey. Responsible citizens, male or female, need to keep vigil even when a story slips off newspaper pages. For good soldiers, parliamentarians and citizens alike, good morale rests in doing what is right and not stuffing dirty laundry under the bed.

As such charges crop up against the military and paramilitary, at home and abroad, and investigations fade into the shadows of tomorrow’s headlines, what are Indian women to make of soldiers that also fight in their name?

When this Pandora’s box opens, it will release all kinds of uncomfortable questions within both family and polity. Because Indian soldiers everywhere fight in the name of all Indians, Indian women will need to ask whether these actions speak for them: child sexual exploitation, trafficking, smuggling. They must ask whether Indian soldiers regard Indian women, girls and boys to be as usable and dispensable as they apparently did those in the Congo—and acknowledge that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are both unpalatable answers. They must doubt the foundations of their own family life for if male soldiers cannot be true to their training and orders, their other loyalties may also be weak. And if Indian women fail to vigilantly follow the investigation and its findings, they must reflect on their own culpability in making such behavior possible.

Gender and disasters


Swarna Rajagopalan, Kosi’s distressed daughters, New Indian Express, Chennai, September 17, 2008.

On August 18, the Kosi river broke through its embankments to flood most of Bihar and change course. The disaster has taken several lives, displaced over a million people and laid waste to hundreds of villages, not counting those who will die of waterborne infectious diseases in its wake.

So far, women have been mentioned in news reports in the context of childbirth and pregnancy. Some pregnant women have been abandoned by their husbands, but many others have given birth, naming their children after the Kosi.

There have also been reports of sexual harassment of female flood victims, describing government concern relating to the same. Many of the consequences of disasters cut across gender lines.

Death, disease, displacement, bereavement and the overnight loss of livelihood and homes are consequences that happen to men and women. The way in which these consequences are experienced is, however, different.

Studies have shown that women form a disproportionate number of those who die during disasters. The reasons reflect the limitations placed on them by virtue of their gender. After the tsunami, for instance, it was found that many girls and women drowned because, in spite of living in coastal areas, they had not learnt how to swim.

A dramatic change in sex ratio results, partly from death and disease and partly from men migrating to seek alternative livelihoods. Scholars have shown with examples from history that when men vastly outnumber women, levels of violence in general increase, and especially violence against women.

In fact, increased levels of violence and increased vulnerability to violence may be described as the second disaster to strike women and girls in the aftermath of natural calamities.

In a 2005 report, the World Health Organisation stated that interpersonal violence including child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and exploitation including sexual exploitation are likely to increase after a disaster. When women and girls lose their homes and livelihoods, they are particularly susceptible to forced marriage and trafficking.

Along with this comes the increased threat of getting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

In other contexts, feminist scholars have speculated on what it means to a woman when her home — ostensibly her safe haven — is destroyed. Homes are also the site of their closest relationships and much of their work.

The loss or destruction of a home can be particularly traumatic in settings where women are confined to their homes by the norms of their culture. Researchers have also explored the way the home changes when relatives who are also coping with disaster move in or when the family moves, for instance, to the roof or a boat for shelter.

For young girls, it can mean the loss of privacy for personal rituals, from changing clothes to washing. The risk of incestuous sexual abuse is heightened.

Often, discussions about gender and debates about security tend to dwell on macro-level structural or ideological questions, but for women coping with emergencies of any sort, it is the very personal, immediate needs that pose the biggest challenge.

Whether at home or in refugee camps, safe access to scarce bath and toilet facilities pose a real challenge. Harassment en route, prying and molestation while bathing and using the toilet, combined with the need to observe society’s norms of modesty limit when and how women can address their simplest bodily needs.

They end up limiting their excursions to the point where they are at risk for other kinds of illnesses and infections.

Between falling sick due to lack of basic facilities for hygiene and not being able to walk to work without fear of molestation, the ability of women to take care of themselves is greatly diminished. The loss of children in the tsunami resulted in an increased demand for recanalisation surgery as women came under pressure to give birth again.

Forced marriages occur in these circumstances as men seek to rebuild a family structure soon after the loss of their wives. Orphaned girls are particularly at risk. Female-headed households are not unique to post-disaster settings; however, compensation and relief are often distributed on the assumption that only men head households.

Where existing property papers are lost as are male property-owners, title is hard to establish. This is exacerbated by the loss of livelihood in the agricultural and informal sectors.

Without compensation, relief, the ability to reclaim a home or to access agricultural land or other means of livelihood such as a boat or a loom, women cannot rebuild their lives.

Disasters thus return women to a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, poor, brutish” and if you are lucky, short. If you are not lucky, you have to find a way to survive against the odds. As we look at the Kosi crisis in Bihar, the true challenge is not in providing symptomatic relief to victims. It is in recognising those elements of our social and cultural life that place women and girls especially at risk and in ensuring that these are not reproduced in the post-disaster dispensation. Where disaster is anticipated or occurs predictably, such as the Bay of Bengal cyclones and river floods in northeastern India, planned relief should take into account the special challenges faced by women and girls. Unchecked, the real catastrophe for women and children lies in post-disaster violence and loss of livelihood.

(Copied and pasted here because the link is not stable at this site. E-paper version.)