The case for criminalisation of public misogyny


A protestor holding a poster in response to Abhijit Mukherjee’s comment about painted and dented women protestors disconnected from ground realities (Pic: I Stand for Safe Delhi)

Misogyny and public figures 

Aristotle is believed to have said that women are just “imperfect males”, he is often accused of misogyny though he also believed that “a society cannot be happy unless women are happy”. Thousands of years after he lived, his companions still roam the Earth. They’re not only males but also “imperfect males” or “women” as I’d still like to call them- they are masters of doublespeak and they influence opinions given their positions of privilege. Thousands of years have passed but Aristotle’s words (which he may or may not have spoken) continue to be quoted today- one can only imagine the damage these words may have done over the years. Think about all the men who must have quoted them in a condescending, malicious or even playful manner to silence or demean or simply provoke women who dared to speak up. Imagine how many times these words must have been used as a last resort to silence women making perfectly legitimate arguments in debates. Anyway, you get the point: Just because a powerful person makes certain remarks they gain acceptability, even if they are highly unacceptable.

Sexist Comments and Hate Speech 

Hate speech i.e. vilification of a person or a group on the basis of their identity is usually understood as being directed against a religious or ethnic community and are increasingly being understood as directed against sexual minorities. However, for some strange reason, this understanding does not usually include sexist comments. While there’s no dearth of sexist (or racist) jokes floating around, all of these do not qualify as hate speech either. Although ideally I would like to see all sexist comments (especially those that perpetuate sexually submissive or intellectually challenged stereotypes of women) disappear, it’s simply not possible. I’m an advocate of free speech and, if people derive happiness out of cracking blonde jokes or cougar jokes, I’ll let them be. I’m often accused of “not being a sport” because I do not encourage Sardar jokes but I do that to protect my own self from holding negative stereotypes about a community to which so many of my friends belong rather than for the protection of Sikhs. The impact that these stereotypes have is important- a blonde girl or an elderly woman who is attractive or a Sikh man may actually be discriminated against in an interview based on the stereotypes that are built around them.

Although it can be argued that managers who are present on interview boards are sensitised towards gender, ethnicity, etc. politicians in this country are extremely sexist as can be seen from their vicious comments directed against women and it is these extreme, public expressions of negative stereotypes about women that need to be considered “hate speech”- they are not only full of hatred and ignorance, they are also capable of inciting discrimination and more hatred towards women. Comments on the dress, character, profession, appearance or general conduct of a rape or harassment victim by public figures, including police officers, especially while an investigation/probe/inquiry is going on can go beyond incitement and result in actual alteration of the results of such a probe. Similarly, comments about the protesters at India Gate being “dented and painted women” can actually strip genuine voices of their public support and even give reasons to riot police to be prejudiced against them. I am not using the argument that such comments “offend” women because taking offence is the national hobby of Indians and because one has the right to be offended in a democracy. However, comments bordering on hate speech need to be tested for potential to incite violence or discrimination.

Recent examples of sexist comments by public figures

- Congress leader, Digvijay Singh, while criticising political opponent (and anarchist) Arvind Kejriwal called him hollow like entertainer, Rakhi Sawant who happens to be one of the most brilliant dancers I have seen on Indian TV

- Congress party member, Sanjay Nirupam, called opposition leader, Smriti Irani, a dancer who trades her hip-shakes for money rather than a politician.

- Congress MP and incumbent President’s son, Abhijit Mukherjee, called the women at India Gate who were protesting against the brutal rape and murder of a young girl “painted and dented” women who have no idea of grassroots realities.

- Another Congress leader from Andhra Pradesh said (while commenting on the rape victim) that just because India got Independence at midnight, it doesn’t mean that women can roam around at night.

- BJP leader Narendra Modi, while referring to Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s wife called her a girlfriend worth 50 crore.

- Former Chief Minister of Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala said that girls should be married off early to prevent rape (this in a state where girls in their early teenage years get raped quite often).

(For more, sexist or otherwise stupid comments, see this)

Hate Speech Laws in India & Censorship 

There’s no dearth of laws in India. To deter hate speech against religious minorities, we have Sections 153 and 295 of the Indian Penal Code. These, however, are used more often to silence artists and opinionated people. There’s also a legislation which penalises vile comments made against the SC/ST community. I believe that such laws should be called into action only when a person holding a public office or a person addressing a public gathering or mass media makes extremely damaging racist or communal or gender-insensitive comments, except that a legislation against gender-insensitive comments is missing.

Although a section in the IPC (Indian Penal Code) penalises “insulting the modesty of a woman”, it has been used to censor political dissent. For example, in the case of Kolkata professor Ambikesh Mahapatra the so-called “cartoon” (read image meme) did not even contain any sexist remarks- covert or overt- and was simply an expression of political criticism. Also, I have a problem with the word “modesty”. What about women who are supposedly “immodest” or irreverent– is it okay to insult them or their femininity or to underestimate their intellectual capacity? Either this section needs amendment (overhaul) or an entirely new provision that penalises public misogyny is needed.

The case for a new law

The hallmark of a crime, it is said, is violation of criminal law. There is no legislation to prevent negative stereotypes about women from being propagated. Various laws in India prevent the “obscene” depiction of women. However, there is a raging, seemingly never-ending debate on what constitutes “obscenity”. To me, obscene stereotypes would include these: “women can’t drive”, “women spell ‘your’ incorrectly on their pink BB devices”, “women driving into a hole in the road”, “women shopping with her husband’s money (as shown in numerous ads)”, etc. My point of saying this is that obscenity is a highly subjective area and that it does not help curb negative stereotypes of women. A new provision is needed that makes public figures accountable for their sexist comments but at the same time contains enough safeguards for the protection of genuine political dissent.

Originally published in the author’s blog.

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