A few days ago, the vice-president of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) unit of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Daya Shankar Singh, shocked the nation when he unabashedly stated that Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo, Mayawati, was – hold your breath — “worse than a prostitute”. That was a new low, even by the abysmal standards of our politicians. Expectedly, all hell broke loose, and a severe media backlash followed. With elections looming in UP, the BJP could ill afford the controversy and was compelled to expel him from the party.

So far, so good.

But this unsavoury incident exposes, yet again, the regressive, patriarchal and sexist mindset of our ‘netas’, and raises a very pertinent question: what ails our society? Why is it that our political and social landscape is littered with loose cannons with medieval mindsets?

Do our ‘netas’ live in the 21st century?

Worryingly, almost all political parties seem to be unable to manage without these semi-evolved, loutish elements, and, oftentimes, it’s not just the chaps at the bottom of the pyramid, but the ones right at the top as well who exhibit gender biases blithely and brazenly. We live in a country where a heinous crime such as rape is termed a ‘galti’ by our politicians — recall the Samajwadi Party (SP) head honcho Mulayam Singh Yadav’s infamous comment about rape “ladke hain, galti ho jaati hai); where a sitting MLA of Delhi, O P Sharma, calls Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) legislator Alka Lamba “raat ko ghumne wali”; where the Maharashtra head of SP, Abu Azmi, proclaims that women who have consensual sex outside marriage should be hanged; where an MP, Tapas Pal of Trinamool Congress, threatens to let loose his boys in the homes of opposition Communist Party Marxist (CPM) members, who will then rape their women;  where a prominent politician from a mainstream party, Satyadev Katare of the Congress, brazenly pronounces,Jab tak mahila tirchi nazar se nahin dekhegi, tab tak purush usey nahin chedega; where elected legislators declare that women should not be allowed to possess mobile phones (Rajpal Saini, BSP MLA), where political bigwigs liken women who wear lipstick and powder to terrorists (Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, BJP leader, in the wake of 26/11 attacks)…the list is truly endless.

The underbelly of Indian politics is ugly — laced with misogyny and patriarchy, it is unbelievably sexist. Our venerable politicians seem to be competing with one another to reveal an even more archaic thought process, make an even more sexist comment, project an even worse gender mindset.

An all-pervasive regressive thinking

And it does not end with just politicians. Just about everybody has an opinion on the framework into which women should fit, how they should lead their lives, what they should wear, how they should behave in a marriage, or the workplace, or simply on the road, how much they should be allowed to aspire for – you name it. As for men, they can do as they like.

Even those who should know better don’t seem to be immune to the sexism virus. Recently, prominent television journalist and anchor, Rajdeep Sardesai, interviewed tennis star Sania Mirza on the occasion of the release of her autobiography, “Ace Against Odds”. Everything went on well, until Mr Sardesai popped up a question about when Sania planned to “settle down”. Check out his words: “Amidst all the celebrityhood, when is Sania going to settle down? Is it going to be in Dubai? Is it going to be in any other country? What about motherhood, building a family, I don’t see all that in the book, it seems like you don’t want to retire just yet to settle down?”

Settle down? What was Rajdeep thinking? One would assume that a journalist of his calibre and repute would not be a prisoner of the “this-is-what-a-woman-is-expected-to-do” paradigm. Sania’s epic reply reveals the angst of any woman who has gone on to become an achiever, but is still held to ransom by the bogey of domesticity, marriage and child-bearing. “You sound disappointed I’m not choosing motherhood over being number one in the world,” she said, adding, “but I’ll answer your question anyway. That’s the question I face all the time as a woman, that all women have to face – the first is marriage and then it’s motherhood. Unfortunately, that’s when we’re settled, and no matter how many Wimbledons we win, or number ones in the world we become, we don’t become settled.”

To his credit, Sardesai, was quick to admit his mistake. He apologized immediately, and admitted that he would not have asked the same question to her male counterpart. Such candour is refreshing and one is inclined to give Sardesai the benefit of the doubt. Sania herself seemed to have forgiven him, saying, “I’m so glad, you’re the first journalist to apologize to me on national television.” Sardesai’s on-air apology could potentially go a longer way to underline an anti-sexist mindset than a hue and cry over his question might have done.

Gender-biased mindsets and attitudes abound in every strata of our society, leading to discrimination in every walk of life. Often, those who reinforce gender stereotypes are unaware of doing so. Consider the refrain for a female progeny in many families, “Yeh hamari beti nahin, beta hai.”  Intended as words of high praise for a daughter who might have done her parents proud, the appalling sexism underlying the words goes unnoticed. What they are saying is if the daughter has done something noteworthy, she has overcome the handicap of being a female, and has transcended into the realm of being an almost-son.

Mass media – the other culprit

Our mass media is not helping matters much either. Instances of our movies, television serials, ads, songs, et al, reinforcing gender stereotypes abound. An ad placed by Bookmybai.com, a website that provides domestic helpers, sparked a furore recently. The tag line blared “Diamonds are useless. Gift your wife a maid”. First of all, it reduces the maid to the level of a commodity that can be gifted. And while the service might be much appreciated, the ad taps into the thinking that a domestic helper is something only a wife would need, as she is the one who will otherwise have to do the domestic chores. She, and she alone. So, the maid is a gift for the wife. Yet another subliminal message that gets absorbed by society, to resurface as gender discrimination at some point or the other.

Sample another ad for a washing machine from a brand as reputed as Lloyd. This gem says, “Washing clothes is not just a woman’s department.” Not too bad, you might think. But that’s when it springs the actual message – it goes on to say that the product has so many features and is so easy to operate that even men can use it. There you have it! As long as it is difficult, give it to the woman. Now that we have made it easy, even men can pitch in. Another shocker from Head & Shoulders seems to belong to the 18th century, but is very much from the present times. “Gossiping about TV show with wife? Stop before you stop being a man,” it has the brazenness to declare!

These are just a few examples; the mass media is replete with such misogyny and contorted mindsets. What makes matters worse is the mass acceptance of the discriminatory attitudes. Gender-based discrimination is often trivialized in our country. The chalta hai attitude ends up feeding the monster and creating an unacceptable level of tolerance of even serious issues pertaining to gender. This has been aptly portrayed by No Country For Women, an internationally recognized gender education initiative that aims to combat systemic gender-based discrimination in India. Recently, it started a campaign, Break The Silence, based on visuals created from anonymously submitted real-life stories of gender-based discrimination. The stories reveal the extent of the malaise in Indian society.

An upheaval and a thorough shaking of the entire system is the crying need of the hour. It has to start at the top. But are we headed in the right direction? This is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2015 at an event hosted by the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh: “I am happy to say that the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, despite being a woman, is boldly saying that she has zero tolerance toward terrorism.”

Despite being a woman? Should we even hope for change?