Raat ko ghoomne wali”, or woman of the night, is what O.P. Sharma, one of the BJP’s three legislators in the Delhi Assembly, is reported to have called Alka Lamba, an AAP MLA, in the course of a debate on shelters for the homeless. He remains defiant in the face of his suspension from the rest of the assembly’s winter session, insisting that his words did not constitute an insult. The AAP has called for the BJP to expel Sharma, and the incident has provoked outrage, but this sort of casual — and unrepentant — misogyny, is sadly all too common, even in hallowed spaces like legislative assemblies and Parliament.
Earlier this year, in August, four women MPs from the Congress complained about BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri’s “abusive” comments — to which he responded by accusing them of taking advantage of the fact that they are women. Actor-politician Jaya Prada frequently found herself at the receiving end of this sort of stereotyping of women, with her Bharatnatyam recitals even discussed as an activity unbecoming of an MP in the House — which had little objection to, say, Navjot Sidhu or Shatrughan Sinha’s extra-parliamentary pursuits. In March, the JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav made distasteful references to “women from the south” who are “dark”, have “beautiful bodies” and “know dance”. In 2013, even as he was debating measures to prescribe stricter punishment for rapists in the wake of the December 16 gangrape in Delhi, he made an off-colour joke about how all the men in Parliament must have, at some point of time, “pursued girls”.
What does it say about the state of gender relations in Indian politics when elected representatives openly make sexist jokes and spew misogynistic vitriol towards their female colleagues? There is a public acceptability of sexism that they both thrive on and perpetuate. The December 16 gangrape galvanised the nation into demanding a conversation on gender and women’s rights, leading to the passage of draconian laws and strict codes of punishment. Yet, everyday sexism continues to rear its ugly head, even among politicians, whose responsibility it is to dent, not reflect, gender stereotypes. The outrage that has greeted Sharma’s comment is welcome and if he, and other offenders, are forced to pay a political penalty for their conduct, it will go some way towards weeding out sexist rhetoric in public life.