April 14, 2007

Is misogyny South Asian?

Yesterday a friend of mine wrote a note on facebook that had a direct bearing on my last post about Mandira Bedi and Ann Coulter.

Turns out that some of my countrymen (and women apparently) have put up an anti-Mandira group on facebook. No surprises there. The appalling part is the language used against Bedi, which I’m not going to give wider circulation by reproducing it here. It’s even spelled out in the name of the group. Any surprises there?

More specifically, let me ask this: is there something inherently misogynistic about South Asians?

When someone says something we strongly disagree with, most people’s first reaction is to attack the individual instead of countering what is being said. And internet forums, even on the once-elitist facebook, bring out the worst in people. Therefore, when Al Gore speaks of global warming, people on the internet call him fat . They don’t go on live television and do so, because let’s face it: that’s tacky! But the anonymity of the internet suits them just fine. And to be completely “non-partisan” about this: people highly critical of Bush’s policies almost always mention the man’s inability to string two coherent sentences together. As much fun as Bushisms are, they should not be mistaken for criticisms of his policies. In any case, South Asians/ “Third worlders”/ Bangladeshis aren’t the only ones to mount personal attacks.

The problem is with the nature of the personal attack. Bush is called stupid. Gore is called fat. Kerry is called a coward. Mandira Bedi is called a “whore”. Even ignoring the fact that being labelled with an epithet for a sex-worker should not be insulting in an ideal world, why focus on her sexuality? Even if criticism was warranted (and in my last post, I tell people that even mild criticism would be an over-reaction), why not call her stupid or anorexic or a coward? Because, underpinning all this is the assumption that informs all misogyny: men can be whatever they want and women are only sex-objects. Ergo, men possess other qualities to criticise, while women have only that one thing you can put her down with. Even worse, in this construction men can be other things not related to their biology, in the process transcending their gender. But women! They remain slaves of their biology regardless of what they become. As a result, you can criticise Kerry for being a traitor and a liar, but your first criticism of/fear for Hillary is that she might come across as a “frigid woman”, “robotic”, “passionless”. Don’t believe that Westerners are capable of that sort of sentiment? Try googling “Hillary” and “frigid” and take a look for yourself!

So back to my original question: is misogyny peculiarly South Asian? Well, clearly not. But it is prevalent more in South Asia (and other parts of the South) than in the North. Ahh, when I put it this way, inevitably you think: so it is income-poverty that leads to misogyny? Possibly not, but it might lead to misogynistic values being shared and thus to misogynistic cultures. That’s simply my intuition and if someone has any research leads for me, I’d be more than happy. What I DO know is that in South Asia (and elsewhere in the global South) there is a gender imbalance in the total population that is unfavourable to women. Amartya Sen (South Asian, Bangali, born in Shantiniketon to a family hailing from - you guessed it - Dhaka!) has been trying to raise awareness of this for years, but not even his Nobel Prize seems to helped in making any impact in South Asia on this issue.

And now we are attacking Mandira Bedi. In my last post, I divided the blame equally between her producers - who cynically use her charms as a woman - and the Indian and Bangladeshi supporters, who lap it up and give her disproportionate attention simply because she is a beautiful woman. This time I have no one to blame except my fellow Bangladeshi supporters. Attacking her in the first place was utterly useless. Attacking her womanhood is simply part of the sick disease we want to cure. Here’s hoping that Bangladesh is the first South Asian country to elect a woman whose father, husband, brother or son did not also hold office!

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