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Mainstream, VOL LV No 40 New Delhi September 23, 2017

The ‘Madam’ as Defence Minister

Saturday 23 September 2017


by Garima Mani Tripathi

“Men define women not as ‘herself’ but relative to them,” wrote Simone De Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949). While Ms Nirmala Sitharaman’s appointment as the first (full-time) woman Defence Minister is a welcome step, the patriarchal perspective identified by Beauvoir still pervades Indian society where nationalism, defence, border etc. are all part of the grand masculine narrative of subjugation, dominance and power. No wonder, the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ was evident in examples like jokes that went viral on social media pooh-pooing her appointment as the Defence Minister.

Jean Paul Sartre talked of human beings empowered with existential freedom wherein they become ‘being for itself (pour-soi)’. However, Beauvoir thinks that the aforesaid transcendental freedom has eluded womanhood in most social set up where they are doomed in imminence and remain ‘being in itself (en-soi)’, with the sole exception of some Scandinavian countries where women enjoy equal privileges and participation in socio-political life. In India, women continue to suffer subjugation. They are under-represented in government and corporate jobs and the position is no better in the unorganised sector. In fact, the percentage of female workforce has slided in India from 42.6 in 1993-94 to 27.4 in 2015-16. Even Nepal and Bangladesh are miles ahead of us. The political arena is an extension of this anomaly despite the so-called 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution.

When Indira Gandhi reached the political pyramid, it had less to do with her gender and more to her dynastic lineage. Women in general have struggled in India for a reasonable participation in the political process and some of them neutralised their feminine outlook to stay relevant in the political arena. Very few women in Indian politics could benefit from their ‘acquired’ feminine outlook. From this perspective, her appointment could be the BJP’s propensity to adopt the umbrella politics of the Congress to pander to the intellectual class, Dalits, Muslims, women etc. where they make an endeavour to reach the wider classes of citizens outside their domain.

Sitharaman’s appointment brings into debate several issues that challenge our socio-political arrangement.

First, is sexual division of labour justified? Can there be a cultural construct in which women are found suitable only for soft jobs like nursing, teaching, etc? It took 26 years of post-independent history for India’s first woman IPS officer to break the glass barrier. Even today, women are discouraged to take hard services that would involve 24 hours on the job availability.

Second, are there any really masculine jobs? Traditionally, policing and soldiering have been defined as rile and rough jobs not fit for women. While policing has been made open since long for women, at least formally; the armed forces still keep a safe distance from women’s entry. Women officers had to constantly knock the courts to gradually make space for themselves. Incidentally, only recently, the Army has announced the decision to allow women into military police jobs. The feminist literary history itself is not unanimous about role of women in army. One view advocates right to fight as it will give equality of opportunity irrespective of gender. The other view is against military participation because it legitimises ‘violence’ which is masculine in nature.

Third, how long do women have to make extra efforts to prove themselves? Nirmala Sitharaman did not make news because of her name but primarily because of her gender. This is avoidable since it dilutes her work in various Ministries in the past. Not long back, when Ms Pratibha Patil became India’s first woman President, the nomenclature of ‘Rashtrapati’ came into debate for a wider de-gendered narrative in the Indian Constitution since the terms like ‘Rashtrapati’ were essentially male connotations. However, we have failed to revise our social and political frame extension and continue to live with a male-centric provisioning and interpretation of the Indian Constitution.

Why is Ms Nirmala being doubted for being the Defence Minister? One would have to link it with her womanhood and the stereotype images associated with it. The patriarchal set-up attuned to feminist phemonolgical pers-pective is not willing to accept her leadership, at least in the open, of an organisation that is largely composed of men. To them, womanhood symbolises inferior power incapable of taking hard decisions like purchase of tanks, fighters and submarines etc. Perhaps, a woman Defence Minister may not be able to visit Siachen Glacier etc. and dine in barracks with the jawans. Also, the Defence Ministry is a vast and complex organisation. However, such arguments ignore the fact that it was Indira Gandhi who led India to its first decisive military victory in the post-independence period. It goes beyond saying that Ms Nirmala Sitharaman has landed in the job because of multiple considerations beyond the patriarchal contours.

Irrespective of the polemics, her appointment has induced a change of vocabulary in the political discourse. It would also facilitate the move towards gender mainstreaming in society and larger inclusion of women by deconstructing the traditional norms of equality, sameness or role reversal. The advocacy of ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’ movement for girls’ empowerment and inclusion of as many as six women in the Modi Government as Cabinet Ministers are good signs along with the contested development on triple talaaq. Only time will say if this paradigm-shift in the treatment of gender is cosmetic or substantial.

Dr Garima Mani Tripathi teaches Philosophy in Mata Sundri College for Women, University of Delhi.

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