Woman, uninterrupted Society

Was Jayalalithaa a feminist?

The women of Tamil Nadu who wailed and beat their breasts last week when their icon and heroine died would be surprised if you went up to them and described Jayalalithaa as a feminist. They would not know what you meant. The State that had Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister for over 14 years is, contrarily enough, a deeply misogynistic and conservative place. Many years of having a woman leader has done little to dent this reality.

Equally, to describe Jayalalithaa as a feminist would be wrong. She was too clever to allow any ideology, however important, to become more important than her own persona. Because, ultimately, it was her person — her beauty, glamour, power, charisma and intelligence — that propelled her to power and kept her there. She was not driven by ideology, principles or any grand vision for the future.

Listening to her talk, her speeches, and descriptions of her meetings, the image that emerges is that of an intelligent woman with a fantastic memory and an ability to quickly grasp the complexities of any subject. These must have obviously been the qualities that helped her to excel at school as well. Add these qualities to great physical beauty and the ability to charm, and you get a deadly package, which the lady used to devastating effect to win power and wipe out enemies. Friends she appears to have avoided making, preferring to be surrounded by sycophants.

You have to be impressed by a woman who manoeuvred the nasty, male-dominated snake pit of Dravidian politics to not only become the big chief, but to eliminate all competition altogether. The abiding image — of her being adulated by male ministers and party members falling full-length at her feet in the classic gesture of respect and absolute surrender — established her dominance in State politics more than any mere statement of intent or administrative writ could have. It was also a gesture that infuriated her enemies who could not stomach the sight of a woman dominating so totally.

What her style of functioning demonstrated most was how well she had learnt to manipulate the patriarchy, not to change it but to become chief patriarch herself. She was fully aware of this. In interviews with ‘outsiders’ — a Simi Garewal or a Karan Thapar — she would talk like a quasi-feminist, about the hardships of being a ‘strong woman’. But at home, she was merely a strong person, above gender and uncaring of it. An autocrat wielding raw power.

One sees why it was important for Jayalalithaa to demand such total subservience. As someone who survived the virulent misogyny that was directed at her, including physical assault and smear campaigns, it was natural that she wanted to stamp out all signs of machismo and opposition. It was vengeance, pure and simple. There is a direct fairytale aspect to this that is rather satisfying. But when one steps back, it is impossible not to be disappointed.

Jayalalithaa wielded enormous influence over the minds of vast multitudes. She could have used this platform to bring about far-reaching and fundamental changes in society. Instead of being a mere politician, she could have been a transformative leader, someone who inspired men and women. She could have fought for women’s rights in substantive ways rather than only through the facile politics of populism and freebies. With her great love for academics, she could have changed perceptions in educational institutions that still segregate men and women and impose dress codes and curfews on students. She could have spoken out against honour killings and the rule of katta panchayats. She could have engaged with young men and women and influenced them to reshape lives and social mores. She could have chosen to begin the process of dismantling patriarchy rather than merely exploit it for her own means. She could have done so much more.

It’s no longer enough for women to just become leaders. They have to become the change the rest of us want to see.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 7:53:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/Was-Jayalalithaa-a-feminist/article16783981.ece

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