Of Smriti Irani, Casual Sexism and Barkha Dutt’s Open Letter

While sexist remarks against her are problematic, so are her often vicious attacks against women she does not like. 

4 min read
Former HRD Minister Smriti Irani. (Photo Courtesy: Youtube <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_D0D3B8oME">screenshot</a>)

It took one cabinet reshuffle to open the evergreen pandora’s box of casual sexism.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to rejig the cabinet moved from ‘who-got-what portfolio’ to ‘let’s troll Smriti Irani’ much too quickly. Amid debates, conjectures and (mis)informed speculations, there was a collective sense of animus against (now) former HRD minister Smriti Irani.

Everybody wore their trolling suits and a barrage of sexist, misogynistic and cruel comments were made against her.

Had these been about her failings as a minister, it would have been fair, warranted. But these were far from an attack on her administrative abilities – it was mostly about her identity as a woman.

Media Noticed, and Wrote About the Sexist Attacks

There was one section of the media that endorsed blatant sexism, publishing 72-font-size lead flyers calling Irani ‘Spinderella’ – an obvious, but distasteful comment on her demotion to the textile ministry.

But there was another section, that wrote about the media plumbing new depths with their coverage on Irani.

In a piece on Swarajya, Gayatri Jayaraman laments how the jokes on Irani came from even the “most feminist of women, all with unbridled glee at seeing a woman fail.”

“The objection is not to criticism, or even whether it is warranted –indeed, all criticism of politicians is warranted. The cherry-picking of a women to be slammed in a manner that is degrading and humiliating of the person, and not their work, must rankle anyone.”
Former HRD Minister Smriti Irani. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Smriti.Irani.Official?_rdr">Smriti Irani</a>)
Former HRD Minister Smriti Irani. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Smriti Irani)

Firstpost too carried a piece arguing about the “rather crude try at character assassination by zeroing in on her femininity.”

The article makes an interesting observation:

“If one needed a reminder that sexism isn’t an exclusively male phenomenon but part of a larger cultural discourse in which women also participate, one needs to only look at some of the comments on social media that have Irani as the target.”

It’s easy, even convenient, to blame men for their blatant misogyny, often considered reflexive and casual, but what explains women being complicit in a cultural construct as problematic as patriarchy?

There were jokes on her physical appearance, on starring in a video with singer Mika, even on her famous stint as Tulsi Virani in a television show. And beneath all the tawdry trolls was a disguised, subliminal layering – that of sexism.

Barkha Dutt has written an open letter to Smriti Irani. (Photo Courtesy: World Economic Forum)
Barkha Dutt has written an open letter to Smriti Irani. (Photo Courtesy: World Economic Forum)

And Then, an Open Letter by Barkha Dutt

As some of the media narrative delved into the attacks against Irani, NDTV’s Barkha Dutt chose to write her an open letter.

Dutt, taking due cognisance of the sexual innuendos and misogynistic comments aimed at Irani, moves on to raise a personal complaint:

“My problem is that while your supporters present you as having been the victim of bigotry that is reserved only for women, it’s the correct time to underscore that you have never stood up against the sexism that so many women are subjected to – on social media or off it. Not once.”

Dutt accuses Irani of the prejudice she herself has been a victim of.

In so many ways, your responses to other women – often vicious and lacking in any empathy – have represented exactly the same prejudice you have been damned with – I suppose that’s what you call cruel irony.

Expressing a clear sense of disappointment, Dutt says Irani has previously reveled in the humiliation of women whose opinions differ from hers.

Referring to the viral Facebook post Irani wrote after she was trolled for calling ‘dear’ a sexist salutation, Dutt asks why she is unable to accord “other women, whether you personally liked them or not, the same space for anger and hurt” that she wants?

She concludes her open letter-cum-rant with a legitimate assertion:

“We will still stand up for your rights as a woman; it’s pretty clear though, that you will never speak up for us. As a strong woman who could have been a trailblazer for equality, you, sadly, more than let down the side.”

Perhaps a Bit of Both?

While we support a discourse that speaks against sexist remarks aimed at Irani, we also find Irani’s tirades against women she obviously does not like, problematic.

Maybe there is merit in Barkha Dutt’s argument when she says that as a woman of stature, Irani should have stood up against sexism in more obvious and vocal ways than she has till now.

And that she should not dismiss journalists, activists, women who talk against sexism as those who “scream murder and whip themselves up into a feminist frenzy at the drop of a hat.”

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