There is a huge controversy over an alleged statement made by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, where he apparently compared Manmohan Singh to a “dehati aurat” (village woman). The primary debate revolved around whether or not such a statement was made, and whether or not an Indian journalist was present when it was made.
This issue was brought up by Narendra Modi in his Delhi Rally. Soon after, a secondary debate started building up, perhaps being deliberately pushed to overshadow the main debate. It started with a section of the media getting “offended” with the negative connotation given to the term “dehati aurat” (apparently by Modi and his supporters). This article will focus on the secondary debate and show how it is a diversion.
Here are some examples of the discourse that took shape, soon after Modi’s speech:
Sagarika Ghose, Deputy Editor at CNNIBN-
Harinder Baweja, journalist with Hindustan Times-
Salil Tripathi columnist for Mint and Caravan-
The turn that the debate took is a little strange for two reasons. First of all, the real issue was not about whether Modi thought “dehati aurat’ was derogatory or not. It was about what Nawaz Sharif meant when he used the term (in jest or otherwise). Did he intend to compliment Manmohan Singh by comparing him to a village woman? By wrongly making it a debate about Modi’s supposed interpretation, Sharif was essentially getting an out! Whose interest did that serve?
Secondly, words like “dehati aurat “are indeed harmless if we go by their literal translation. There is nothing wrong with village women. However, context often makes words problematic, as it did in this case. To deliberately gloss over the context is dishonest and mischievous.
Interestingly, Ms.Ghose, one of the frontrunners of the secondary debate, had gone to town protesting when Mr.Modi had once addressed women at FICCI as Mata (mothers) and Behen (sisters).
So, Ms. Ghose would have us believe that referring to a woman a mother or sister is somehow insulting to womanhood, but referring to our male Prime Minister, as a village woman is kosher?
Ms Ghosh may like to note that speeches in Hindi often begin with “bhaiyon aur behenon” and that Mr.Modi is himself commonly referred to as Narendra-bhai. In Bengal, no one thinks its sexist to call someone Didi (i.e. elder sister) just as the term “Tau” (i.e. uncle) is used commonly in Haryana. Perhaps, Ms. Ghosh thinks it’s beneath her dignity to listen to speeches in native languages?
The “dehati aurat” episode reminds me of an earlier incident where Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh called a young party worker a “sau tunch maal” (100 percent pure commodity). When one refers to gold or silver as “tunch maal”, it is perfectly acceptable. But to refer to a woman as a pure commodity is quite another matter. As I said before, it is a matter of context.
Amazingly, the silence of the feminist journalist brigade on this issue was stunning. Many of the very same people who have suddenly become vocal advocates for “dehati” women, had nothing to say on the “tunch maal” slur.
These incidents raise an important question: What is feminist outrage really about? Is it genuinely about advocating for the dignity of women? Or is it about using the “cloak of dignity” to build up selective outrage when politically convenient?
As a woman who feels strongly about empowerment, I find this trend sickening. There are serious issues about power and perception that need to be addressed, challenged and fixed. There is a long and difficult battle ahead. Using flippant, inconsistent arguments for scoring petty political points damages the cause of women, as it undermines and trivializes more serious issues. But do the so-called “champions of women” really care?
Coming back to the original debate, given the trend where anything Modi touches is fair game for spin-doctoring, I am wondering what the Indian media would have said if Nawaz Sharif had called Manmohan Singh a monkey. Perhaps, they would have accepted that as a compliment too? Perhaps they would have claimed that since Hanuman is our revered monkey god, Mr.Singh was in fact elevated after being compared to a divine being!
After all, common sense should never get in the way of creativity.