Recently, some declassified White House Tapes revealed that former US President Richard Nixon’s policy towards South Asia during the Cold War was influenced by his repulsion against Indians, particularly Indian women. These policies backed military dictatorship in Pakistan, which led to the violent manner in which Bangladesh came into being.
In a ‘private break’ during his meeting with Indira Gandhi, Nixon talked to his then national security advisor Henry Kissinger, saying, “They turn me off. They are repulsive and it’s just easy to be tough with them.”
In a conversation with Kissinger and HR Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, Nixon said that Indian women were “undoubtedly the most unattractive women in the world”. “The most sexless, nothing, these people,” he continued.
Previously declassified documents have revealed that Nixon used the most unparliamentary language for Gandhi particularly.
After a meeting, Nixon said, “She suckered us. Suckered us…this woman suckered us.”
Henry Kissinger’s dislike towards India was also revealed in another set of tapes, with Kissinger saying that Indians were “the most aggressive people around”. He also insulted Gandhi, calling her a “bitch”. Even though Kissinger apologised for his remarks and had only good things to say about Gandhi in the later years of his life, he wrote in his book how he didn’t feel offended by Gandhi’s “strong personality”.
The words used against Indian women after the conversation with Gandhi and the words used to describe her all indicate something we’ve always known about women in positions of power – they are often a great threat to men and masculinity.
In early 2019, the chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati, took a jibe at the Indian Prime Minister, saying that he lived like a royal even though he marketed himself as the man of the people.
In response, an MLA of the ruling party, Surendra Narayan Singh said, “Mayawati gets facial done every day. She has no right to say anything about our leaders. Her hair has turned grey, but she colours them to look young. She has turned 60, but her hair is still black.”
While Mayawati took a jibe at the Prime Minister from the point of view of his extravagant lifestyle – a valid concern because it is directly related to a taxpayer’s money – the MLA’s response was directed specifically at Mayawati’s appearance and age, instead of her poor governance or authoritarian politics.
It is a known fact that women are unwelcome in masculine domains such as politics and business, but what about women who actually make it, and more importantly, move up the ladder and reach executive positions?
Women in positions of power are tormented for their sexuality
Patriarchy is omnipresent in both public and private domains. At home, women are encouraged to put less effort into education and more into learning domestic tasks, and to focus on marriage and motherhood. At work, women are paid less than men; they’re subject to threats of sexual violence; they aren’t taken seriously on many occasions, and there is very little support in terms of child care. Women are underpaid, overworked, and often struggle to strike a work-life balance.
But the small percentage of women who do fight against the odds and move up to executive positions have to face misogyny and sexism in ways that are intrinsically related to their bodies and sexuality.
Let’s take the example of Jayalalithaa, a wildly popular political figure in Tamil Nadu.
Jayalalithaa started out as an actress at the age of 16, but later moved to politics under the wing of the cultural icon, MG Ramachandran. In the early years of her political career, she was regarded as a ‘temptress’ and ‘vixen’ by those who were jealous of her association with MGR. When she joined AIADMK in 1982, her statement on wanting to join politics to ‘serve the people’ was twisted in a lewd manner – men encouraged young people to ‘use’ her body since it was given in ‘service’ of the state. The fact that she was a former actress was often brought up; her past association with the entertainment industry was used to slut-shame her and not take her work seriously.
But perhaps the worst instance of misogyny against a woman in a position of power was what Jayalalithaa faced in the state Assembly in 1989.
In an argument between AIADMK and DMK members, Jayalalithaa was viciously attacked with shoes and objects, and one member of the DMK attempted to pull her sari off her body.
Livid, dishevelled, and shaken, she stormed out and promised that she wouldn’t set foot in the Assembly hall till the space was safe for women and till she became Chief Minister. She returned to the Assembly two years later as the Chief Minister of the state.
Women are discouraged to venture out into public spaces because they are dominated by men, so any harm that may befall women is considered their own responsibility. This is why women in prominent positions of power have to modify their personas in public. They have to be more demure, welcoming, and agreeable to be accepted. One of the ways they do that is by desexualising themselves.
Women have to mute their bodies and sexuality to be taken seriously in the workplace
Have you ever wondered why women politicians in India are nicknamed didi, amma, or behenji? These ‘homely’ nicknames aren’t a coincidence – they are a deliberate attempt to make female politicians less threatening in the public eye.
Jayalalithaa’s rise to power after the episode in the 1989 state Assembly shows one significant development – her embodiment of the role of a ‘mother’ to her citizens.
As Jayalalithaa’s power increased manifold, she gave up all elements of vanity – she stopped wearing bangles and makeup, tied her hair in a neat bun, wore muted or block-coloured saris exclusively, and covered her body well.
Given that she was a former actress, it was especially important for her to shed the image in order to be taken seriously. She was lovingly called amma by her followers – the same woman who was labelled ‘temptress’ now had people fawning and prostrating themselves over her quiet, maternal demeanour. Another nickname given to her was adi parashakti, meaning ‘the eternal mighty goddess’.
Similarly, Mamata Banerjee is called didi by her followers, and Mayawati is called behenji. If you were to notice their clothes, you’d see a similarity in the way they dress – minimal with no vanity.
The one way women can carve their way into the public sphere, especially when they are not married, is by losing their individuality and becoming desexualised versions of themselves – amma, didi, or behenji. They are mothers and sisters to the state and its citizens, and these familial nicknames ensure respect and safety. After all, no one can lay a hand on amma, didi, or behen.
None of the women mentioned here is married, but their success in the public sphere shows that as long as they exist with their citizens as family members, their space in the public sphere is legitimate.
Women in top positions in the workplace are more likely to be doubted and sexualised when they are single. It’s not uncommon for men and women to presume that a single woman at a high rank in an organisation has gotten there by ‘sleeping around’.
Women are considered inherently lustful and are believed to be able to seduce and sexually manipulate their way into getting what they want.
Conversely, married women or women with children are desexualised in the eyes of the public. After all, a ‘family woman’ could never breach the boundaries of matrimony to get ahead.
An interesting point to note here is that unlike the politicians mentioned above, Sonia Gandhi does not receive similar treatment in public, despite having muted her body perfectly well – that’s because she isn’t considered Indian, even though she was married to one. This goes to show that at the end of the day, only an ‘original’ Indian woman understands the importance of being a mother or sister, and an outsider is very likely to turn back to her ‘Western’ ways.
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Women are accepted in positions of power when they embody toxic masculinity
In the case that a woman does not embody the role of a mother, sister, or Goddess, she has to embody the role of a man.
Several personal accounts of women in industries such as advertising and marketing show that women in higher-up positions have to resort to foul language or raise their voice to be taken seriously because otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to make it. Male subordinates often share misogynistic jokes and pass lewd comments behind their backs and purposely do not pay heed to orders, which adds to the stress. Women have stated how they had to modify their behaviour against their will – being in charge inevitably means letting go of supposedly feminine qualities and embracing masculine qualities.
Anger, irritability, loudness and aggression are seen as masculine qualities, though there is no solid evidence that women can’t possess them.
Even women who do possess them aren’t considered womanly – they’re considered to be part of the ‘boy’s club’.
Let’s take the treatment of Archana Puran Singh in The Kapil Sharma Show for example.
Archana Puran Singh is a veteran actress whom 90s kids, in particular, know as Ms. Braganza from the massively popular film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Known for her comic timing and exaggerated acting, she appeared in several comedy competitions as a judge over the years and was recognised for her loud, unapologetic, ‘Punjabi’ laugh. Her laugh has now become a significant part of her personality.
As a woman, she is made the butt of sexist jokes; but the sexism isn’t as direct as you think – as a big, Punjabi woman with a loud laugh and a commanding screen presence as a judge, her traits are equated with masculinity, which is the punchline.
Kapil Sharma and team often joke about her monstrous laughter; her ability to eat copious amounts of food; her physical strength which can surpass a man’s; and how she was daring enough to ‘kick out’ the show’s former judge, Navjot Singh Siddhu (he left the show of his own accord; she merely replaced him).
These seemingly masculine qualities become a punchline when they’re embodied by a woman, which not only disallows Singh from owning and expressing her femininity, but also shames her for not being conventionally feminine – quiet, shy, thin, and graceful.
Women in positions of power have to constantly grapple with their identity as sexual beings and public figures. Their bodies become the site on which people judge whether they are good enough leaders, which is something men don’t have to endure. After all, when a man in a position of power boasts of a ‘56-inch ki chhati’, it shows masculine vigour and pride, but a woman expressing her desire to serve her people is an invitation to men to indulge in verbal assault.
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