Coverage of the forthcoming visit of the Australian Prime Minister to India must also focus on the attention that she has brought to the issue of sexism in political life

Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, recently launched a blistering attack on sexism and misogyny in Parliament, that should serve as mandatory viewing by all our parliamentarians prior to her forthcoming visit to India. Her “epic speech” was provoked by Tony Abbott, the leader of the Opposition, where she told him to look in the mirror if he wanted to know what sexism and misogyny looked like.

The speech was delivered in the course of a debate about whether the Speaker of the House should resign over the publication of a series of sexist and misogynistic texts that he allegedly sent to one of his staffers. The Opposition leader argued that the failure to sack the Speaker would make Gillard complicit in the sexism. The Prime Minister promptly turned to Abbott and declared, “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.” She then proceeded to skewer Abbott, detailing a litany of sexist and misogynistic remarks that had been made by him more generally as well as specifically against the Prime Minister. The list ranged from Abbott’s questioning whether it was a bad thing that men have more power than women to his characterisation of Australian women as housewives who are busy with ironing. The Prime Minister accused him of “catcalling” her in Parliament as well as for standing next to a sign at an anti-carbon tax rally that stated “Ditch the Witch.”

Familial factor

Gillard’s speech has been hailed as a pivotal moment not only in Australian politics, but also globally as it is rare for a woman leader to make such a forthright speech on sexism in public life. There is often a fear that she will be accused of playing the “gender card” despite the statistics in most liberal democracies that gender is a significant issue at the level of both leadership in political life as well as in the workplace. Gillard’s blast resonates around the world, including in India. While in India, and a number of South Asian countries, there have been any number of women leaders starting most obviously with Indira Gandhi, there has not been any memorable moment when a woman leader has dared to challenge the sexism that is so deeply embedded in the body politics of this region. In order to combat sexism, it is important to name it as that also provides space then to do something about it.

The presence and role of women leaders within the South Asian context have often been cast in familial terms. That is, she derives her credibility as a dutiful daughter of a great fallen leader, as in the case of both Indira Gandhi or Benazir Bhutto, or as maternal and nurturing, a label sometimes used to describe Sonia Gandhi, or as a dutiful wife carrying out her “martyred” husband’s legacy as in the case of both Sonia Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, who was the first female head of government, and widow of assassinated Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike.

Rife but invisible

Sexism in Indian politics is rife, but it remains invisible as long as women’s public roles remain cast in familial terms. Creating space outside of these familial frameworks becomes both a challenge as well as necessary pursuit if the glass ceiling is ever going to be broken. Even in Australia, stepping outside of the familial fold encourages attacks on successful women and their being viewed with considerable suspicion. Prime Minister Gillard is not married and has a live-in partner. Nor does she have children, which prompted a conservative parliamentarian to describe her as “deliberately barren.” She challenges what are the accepted norms of gender in her society, which is why her speech resonates for women globally and has gone viral on the internet.

In India, it remains a sad fact that women constitute only 11 per cent of the current Lok Sabha. The Women’s Reservation Bill remains a stalled project. Representation of women in the central cabinet over the decades has remained appallingly low, with women put in charge of “soft ministries” reinforcing Abbott’s view that “men by philosophy or temperament are more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command.” Implicit is the assumption that the citizenry should feel more secure in the commanding hands of men. Women continue to be poorly represented in the judiciary, where the Supreme Court has seen only a handful of women justices in its entire history. In the public and private sectors alike, women remain under-represented. It is essential for women leaders to use their positions of power to speak out on sexism and misogyny and not to ignore it any longer. It is a part of responsible leadership and accountability. While it may be a precarious line to tread, and such comments can be put down as being “un-statesmen like,” they can serve to validate the experiences of many women in public positions who have experienced sexist comments or misogyny in the course of doing their jobs. The forthcoming visit of the Australian Prime Minister is to be welcomed for many obvious economic and trade reasons. But it should also be welcomed in light of the honest, eloquent and resolute oration, to the attention that she has brought to the issue of sexism in political life. Hopefully her words will reverberate in the Lok Sabha and encourage a more confident and determined stand against the incorrigible sexism that women in leadership and politics continue to face.

(Ratna Kapur is Global Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat.)

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