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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: A woman by any other name...

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Women politicians tend to baulk at references to their gender

Most people thought West Bengal’s new chief minister was getting her he, she and it confused when she blurted out “I am a simple man.” Poor thing, Mamata Banerjee’s well-wishers (which means all the world and his wife since everyone loves a winner) explained, she meant sadharon manush, aam admi, a person rather than a man. After all, her “Maa, Mati, Manush … Mother, Earth, Humans” slogan embraces everybody. It seemed plausible, especially since Miss Banerjee added, “I want to continue my life like a commoner, like a simple man.” India’s other new woman chief minister, Jayalalithaa, is hardly a commoner or simple, and she’s certainly not a man.

But Miss Banerjee’s gaffe may not have been a gaffe. It may have been a shrewd politician’s casual assertion of her determination to wear the pants… or dhoti.

Women in politics are like that only. Indira Gandhi protested when an Australian journalist introduced her at the Press Club in Canberra as “a remarkable woman.” She had no quarrel with the adjective; she may even have thought “remarkable” a somewhat tame description of her multifarious personality. But the noun was intolerable. Mrs Gandhi roundly told the audience she didn’t like being called a “woman”. She had always thought of herself as a “human being.”

It doesn’t need a linguist to point out that the objection was absurd for no one ever said women were not human beings. Since no man objects to being called a man, why should a woman object to being called a woman unless she thinks the term derogatory? The only exception Mrs Gandhi was prepared to make to her affirmation of masculinity was when Atal Behari Vajpayee compared her to Durga. But, then, despite her several children, the goddess who was more than a match for no less a male than Asura, was hardly the epitome of femininity. What Mrs Gandhi probably enjoyed most was being called “the only man in a Cabinet of women”, the phrase originally coined for Israel’s grey-haired and motherly Golda Meir.

No legends were woven around the world’s first woman prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike with her deep bass voice and no-nonsense manner. The glamorous didn’t have any masculine pretensions since her friend and biographer referred to her in his book’s title as Shahzadi (Shah’s daughter) and not Shah. Shah would not have been inappropriate since India’s first woman ruler was called Razia Sultan more often than Razia Sultana.

Among other royals, Russia’s Catherine the Great referred to herself as a gentleman and England’s Elizabeth I boasted of having a king’s heart in a woman’s body. The present may not do either but it’s tradition for others in Lancashire towns to toast her as “Duke of Lancaster”. When I first heard it, I wondered whether Prince Philip, had he been present, would be called Duchess. One imagines he wouldn’t be amused. Neither would Mrs M K Narayanan like the appellation of governess of West Bengal. Spouses tend to be a problem, as the man who described his master’s wife as his mistress soon discovered.

Actually, Mrs Gandhi demanded the best of both worlds, male and female. So did Britain’s Margaret Thatcher whose “dainty ankles” another Tory politician, the late Alan Clark, praised. Lady Thatcher could simper about “we girls” and deliver sexist jibes like “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman” or “It may be the cock that crows, but it is the hen that lays the eggs.” But she was also the notorious Iron Lady whom nothing and no one could budge.

But Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew thought that though Indira Gandhi “affected some feminine ways, smiling coquettishly at men during social conversation” she was “more determined and ruthless” than Lady Thatcher, Mrs Bandaranaike or Her attractive appearance and elegant attire notwithstanding, “once into the flow of an argument, there was that steel in her that would match any Kremlin leader.” Presumably, a female Kremlin leader would be an oxymoron.

Some descriptions defy logic. Some job descriptions are beyond gender. A woman judge in Britain is content to be Mr Justice. No one would dream of calling Miss Banerjee chief ministress, even if such a word existed. In fact, someone who is man enough to take on the daunting task of reconstructing West Bengal with a human face (to cite Trinamul’s ambitious manifesto) must be much more than “a simple man”. Hats off to her… sorry, him. 

First Published: Sat, May 21 2011. 00:42 IST