Kamala Harris’s selection as Joe Biden’s Vice President candidate is of particular interest to Indians for obvious reasons — she is of Indian origin. She is also of great interest to women and the feminist movement the world over. If Biden wins, she will be the first woman this close to the oval office in the history of the US democracy.
Slander is part of political campaigning and has been increasingly taking centre stage in recent years. It comes from the belief that the larger public associates “one word” or phrase with a candidate. That one word or phrase determines the overall image created of that candidate and typically dwarfs everything else he or she represents. The race to define that one word is what political campaigning is all about. It was the mainstay for Julius Caesar in 47 BC with “Veni, Vedi, Vici” — “I came, I saw, I conquered” that displayed his strength as a warrior. It defined his political persona and led to his rise in power and his murder. It was these defining words that determined the 2000 US elections in favour of “Dumb” George W Bush against the “Liar” Al Gore. People preferred being led by the former. This political slander has no real depth, but it sticks and it moves elections. Sadly, it says a lot about how we consume knowledge and how easily we, as humans, are swayed.
As the political machinery is in full swing to slander Kamala Harris and define her “one” word, the phrases used are: “angry woman,” “supports abortion,” “vegan,” “not American”. Think about how the slander would look if it was Kamal Harris and not “Kamala” contending. Angry, would definitely not feature on the list. It is somehow ok for a man to have a temper, but an ideal woman is subservient, adjusting, and gentle, but angry, never.
Where did this notion of an ideal woman come from? In the nomadic times, all our gods and goddesses were women. Women as gatherers brought 50 per cent of the food to the table as opposed to the hunter men who returned without a kill, majority of the times. Women provided the stable form of food and therefore were not only equal, but revered in history — probably for the magical powers they possessed of producing another human. Agricultural society gave rise to the need for physical labour to till the fields — men had more physical power and women needed to provide children to help on the fields, reducing their power of bringing food to the table. Industrialisation led to men going to factories to earn the bread and women staying back to raise the children, shifting the power of the food/income earner further to the male. It was not until contraception, the pill, that women gained control of the story — the ability to say I don’t want to only be a child-bearer but to do more. It gave her a chance to regain some power. This doesn’t work well for the male story. The debate over “abortion” in US politics is really a debate over this shift of power.
India might be a developing nation economically, but abortion has never been an issue of any real relevance in our politics. Maybe it has to do with the fact that we have one-seventh of the world’s population cramped into one-hundredth of the world’s land mass. Clearly, population control is a bigger issue for us. Even politicians realise it would be imprudent to make it an election issue and then imagine having to live up to it on being elected to office.
India is at the forefront of women’s participation in politics, with strong women like Indira Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa. No one really doubts the political fervour or ability of women in politics in India. Yet, a study conducted on women rights, by the BAV Group and the Wharton School, in 2019, showed that the US ranked at 16 and India at 57.
Clearly, even though India has made far more progress with women in politics than the US, when it comes to equality and rights of women, it lags far behind. Why is that? While it’s easy to blame the men around us for the disparity — and it is partly so — we women need to think about what we can do independently to change that. We need to see the context of our historic past to recognise the baggage we carry. We were raised to be subservient, adjusting and to “not get angry”. But we are as human as men, and should recognise that we will be judged — and judge other women — by the same standards. In the roles we play as women — as mothers, mother-in-laws, female bosses, colleagues, voters — we should treat men and women, boys and girls around us alike, if not in a more sympathetic manner. We need to understand each other and our collective biases of the past. We need to stick together. Let’s change the way we view and support each other. Let’s change the narrative.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 25, 2020 under the title ‘Angry woman and other cliches’. Goenka is director, RPG Foundation