MARCH 29, 2021

By Kavitha Muralidharan

It was a mask not many had expected to fall. In the course of heated campaigning in Chennai on a sultry March day, former Union Minister A Raja – often seen as the intellectual face of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and perhaps rightly so – turned into what every male politician (and sometimes female politicians, too) aspires to, at least once in their career. A casual misogynist.

Drawing parallels between his own leader, M K Stalin, and Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy, who belongs to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), on March 26, Raja said that the former was a healthy baby born as a result of a legitimate relationship while the latter was a premature baby resulting from an illicit relationship.

The remark was wrong at many levels. It is judgmental, yes, but more importantly, the remark also ridicules pregnancy and childbirth, and the complications associated with them.  This was not the first instance of casual misogyny to happen during this election, nor will this be the first election to have such misogynistic tones in campaign speeches.

Much before A Raja made the derogatory remark, Dindugul I Leoni – a popular orator and a DMK spokesperson – remarked how women’s bodies were now like barrels, and not like the figure ‘8’, because they were drinking the milk of foreign breed cows. “The babies do not stay on the hips these days,” he said.

Dindugul Leoni (Source: Dinamalar)

Between Raja and Leoni, there was another office bearer of the Tamil Nationalist Naam Thamizhar party – which had ironically fielded women in 50 per cent of the constituencies – who criticised DMK’s poll promise of free sanitary napkins. “Aren’t we good enough to buy sanitary napkins for our sisters and mothers? Are the Tamils (men) so worse? If you launch this scheme, who will you hand the first napkin to? To Kanimozhi? Dayalu Ammal? Or Rasathi Ammal?”  he had asked.

Of what use is reservation for women by the party if the campaign by its office-bearers reek of patriarchy and chauvinism, besides of course casual slander? If Tamil men take the free napkin scheme (which, incidentally, has worked very well in some states) as a personal assault on their ego, why shouldn’t Tamil women also be offended by the suggestion that only men can buy them napkins?  Tamil women actually have a long history of being valorous and fiercely independent.

But casual misogyny is not an aspect of this election alone.

The Tamil political landscape has sexism written all over it, sometimes in capital letters.  Sadly, sometimes women, too, perpetuate such attitudes. Jayalalithaa, who is often seen as the lonely warrior struggling in an all-male world, has made slanderous remarks about DMK MP Kanimozhi in her campaigns. Another woman leader accused Jayalalithaa of not being ‘fit to rule’ because she had ‘no family.’

During the ongoing election season, an AIADMK office-bearer has made a defamatory, crassly misogynist remark about DMK youth wing leader Udayanidhi Stalin and a well-known actor. During the campaign he had also heaped personal slurs on Kanimozhi.

Senior BJP leader H Raja, who is now a candidate in Karaikudi Assembly constituency, had in 2018 tweeted an indirect reference to Kanimozhi as an “illegitimate child born out of an illegal relationship.” He has now condemned namesake A Raja’s recent remarks.

Despite its progressive face, Tamil Nadu’s political landscape is not without its share of sexism.  Much before social media became the norm of the day, the ‘pechalargal’ or ‘speakers’ of almost every political party in the state would often be seen and heard using vulgar language and personal insults at public meetings. But these stand-in speakers, who preceded the main scheduled speakers, generally remained in the background politically, rarely making it into the mainstream.  However unjustifiable their distasteful remarks were, their reach and influence were limited. In the world of social media frenzy, these ‘speakers’ have been replaced by nameless, faceless trolls.

In this entire sordid episode of blaring sexism the silver lining is the response of women leaders. Kanimozhi especially put out a strongly worded tweet: “Whoever the political leader is, to pass derogatory comments and personally slanderous remarks against women is condemnable. It is good for society if everybody remembers this. This is the social justice that the Dravidian movement and Periyar had aspired for.” Ironically, the responses from the troll brigade to the tweet represented exactly what she had spoken out against. The trolls, too, were protesting against Raja’s remarks but by essentially following in his footsteps.

That is the power of misogyny for you.

Kanimozhi (Source TN Flash News)

Meanwile, DMK President M K Stalin also asked his party leaders to exercise caution during campaigns. “We believe in duty, dignity and discipline.”  A Raja, on his part, said he drew the analogy to explain the difference between Stalin and Palanisamy, and had not intended to cast aspersions on Palanisamy’s mother as had been made out on social media through shared video clips.

But the more important question to emerge from this debate will, for me, be this: How removed is misogyny as an idea central to everyday existence from our normal lives? How angry are we about everyday, casual sexism in our lives, which perhaps indirectly drives our political discourse, too? I can perhaps explain the point better with the example of Dindugul I Leoni.

 Leoni’s claim to fame is the fact that he used to be a judge in ‘pattimandrams’ (popular, stage-based debate shows) and will perhaps continue to judge such events in the future, too. A cursory glance at such pattimandrams – a regular feature on television during special holidays like Diwali – would expose their intrinsic misogyny and sexism. Sample the topics of pattimandrams that Leoni has participated in over the years: Thaaya Thaarama? (Mother or wife?), Magizhchiyaana vaazhkai thirumanathirku munba thirumanathirku pinpa (Is life happy before marriage or after marriage?), Kudumbathin magizhchikku perithum kaaranam maganaa magalaa? (Who is more responsible for family’s happiness – son or daughter?), Pengal perithum magiznthiruppathu pirantha veetila puguntha veetila? (Are women happy in their parents’ houses or in-laws’ houses?)

Leoni presiding over a pattimandram on the theme: “Happy life before or after marriage?” (Source: Internet)

If we are among the audiences of such shows, nonchalantly laughing and putting our hands together to encourage the sexist jokes that flow freely in them, aren’t we also egging Leoni on to make such crass remarks on stages that are more politically mainstream as well?

The argument can be extended to the taboos around menstruation in both urban and rural spaces in Tamil Nadu. I can also never tire of wondering how we happily consume patriarchy and misogyny on a daily basis through our television serials and films.

Of course, we expect our politicians to behave better because they set precedents and examples. The change has to begin with them because they claim to be leaders. Perhaps they can begin by at least listening to the women in their own parties?

UPDATEOn Monday, March 29, A Raja apologised for his remark against Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami