This Article is From Jul 09, 2016

Open Letter To Smriti Irani From Barkha Dutt

Dear Smriti - though by your rulebook, that's a supposedly inappropriate and sexist way to address you - a controversy so emblematic of the needless quarrels you have sometimes craved, sought and fought.

But I am not here to write a jeering I-told-you-so piece as so many of your detractors have in the past few days. 

In fact, at one level, the microscopic deconstruction you have been subjected to - the derision, the tawdry jokes, the sexual innuendo, the crass whispers - are absolutely misogynistic. No male politician, howsoever controversial, abrasive or arrogant, would have been exposed to this level of commentary. 

As feminists, we must stand up against sexism - and each time you have been at its receiving end - we have. From Sharad Yadav's swipe at you in Parliament to Congress acolyte Tehseen Poonawallah's nudge-nudge wink-wink aside about "no HRD feelings" - most of us condemn it in absolute terms. I certainly do. It's horribly illustrative of what successful and independent women are made to go through.  

My disagreement is with the selective debate around you after your shift to textiles from textbooks. My problem is that while your supporters present you as having been the victim of bigotry that is reserved only for women, it's the correct time to underscore that you have never stood up against the sexism that so many women are subjected to - on social media or off it. Not once. 

In so many ways, your responses to other women - often vicious and lacking in any empathy - have represented exactly the same prejudice you have been damned with - I suppose that's what you call cruel irony. Whatever my ideological differences with the decisions you took in the Education Ministry may be - and no matter how nasty or sneering you were with me during television interviews - it did not alter where I drew the line at the language and idiom permissible for use while debating your work.

Nor did it diminish my respect for your spunk, your combativeness and your extraordinary self-made journey.

You, on the other hand, seemed to revel in the discomfort and humiliation of women whose opinion did not coincide with your personal and political affiliations. You were unable to give them even a modicum of respect. I recall interviewing you recently at a dhaba in Amethi - where I really believe that you have put up a feisty challenge to Rahul Gandhi. As we sat on rickety wooden slabs that threatened to break under the weight of an excited swarm of your supporters pushing and pulling at our table, it was a perfect setting for you to show off your oratorical skills, considerable charisma and your earthy political style. After all, Rahul Gandhi would never be spontaneous or unguarded enough to squeeze himself behind steel tumblers of milky chai and mountains of mouldy namkeen in the presence of hundreds of bystanders to do an interview.  

So I get that it was your moment to perform - that comes with the turf. What was surprising is how malicious, even personal, you became. Any regrets, I asked about your tenure in the ministry. You didn't talk about accusing nuclear scientist Anil Kakodar of breaking the law or of the handling of the JNU stand off - or even about the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. "My regret is I am giving an interview to you and your channel," you declared, perhaps already doing a quick calculation on the hash tag that your troll army might trend - #SmritiSlapsBarkha - and proceeded to make sweeping pejorative generalisations about me and my colleagues. I think I disappointed you by not getting entangled in the argument. 

You then astonishingly declared that you had given "that woman a new lease of political life by acknowledging her" when asked about your Twitter altercation with Congress spokeswoman Priyanka Chaturvedi, who had received rape threats online and had somehow ended up in a debate with you over it. Now, I've had my own share of online spats with Ms. Chaturvedi - most recently after our news report that the Income Tax is probing Robert Vadra for holding a benami property in London - but there can be no rationalisations for sexual slurs and abuse. There must not be any Ifs and Buts. Yet, instead of even making a perfunctory statement of commiseration, you declared that journalists had told you that her career was sliding and "I saved it." You argued that terrible things had been thrown your way as well, that people had not even spared your children, but that you believed in a simple motto: "If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen. That's my personal motto for Twitter trolls."

As someone averse to any notion of victimhood, I admire you for that philosophy. I have been called a whore, a bitch and a randi online more times than I can count; my own fiercely individualistic beliefs on pluralism have been attributed to multiple Muslim husbands I've never had; my mobile number was shared online so that I was stalked on WhatsApp for weeks: and Dear Smriti, if you were dubbed 'Aunty National', I was the Real McCoy - I was a sickular, anti-national presstitute.

And like you, I've stayed just as argumentative, just as opinionated and still couldn't give a damn - I fancy myself to be a troll-slayer, just like you. 

So imagine my surprise that you couldn't even take the joke being on you when you picked a bizarre quarrel with the Education Minister of Bihar for him addressing you as 'Dear' - unleashing a flood of wisecracks online. Of all the battles you could have rightfully fought against misogyny, this was not it: on the contrary, it trivialized the seriousness of the daily violations women face.    

As the "oh dear" quips trended, I made a joke or two as well about wanting to 'endear' myself to a minister who clearly didn't like me - But you were not amused. You implied I was trolling you - this from someone who has never publicly condemned trolls for language that is abusive and violent towards thousands of women on a daily basis. I was startled to find that my innocuous (and friendly) pun on the word "Dear" had made its way into a Facebook post you would later write. In the post, you passionately and movingly argued against telling women to "zip it". You called out the culture of silence that imprisons young women, making them internalize a shame that should be that of their perpetrators. You spoke of your own journey up the ranks of the political ladder, how you have fought the "hard battles", how you have been taunted as "anpad", how you have been told repeatedly to hunker down and shut up and tolerate the humiliation - and why you wouldn't. 

The post went viral - and as a standalone piece, there was not one word to disagree with in it. But then, like now, I was struck by its striking double speak. Why could you not accord other women, whether you personally liked them or not, the same space for anger and hurt? Why were you so beholden to your social media troopers that you could never reprimand them for attacks on women in public life? Was it because they also happened to be women who in their professional capacity critiqued you and the government - in other words, simply did their job? 

The reference to me in your Facebook post described me as one of those who "scream murder and whip themselves up into a feminist frenzy at the drop of a hat". To which I would only say - I don't apologise one bit for my feminist frenzy. Your supporters and you have also fallen back on feminism, especially when it has been politically convenient or when you have been exposed to misogynistic bile. But at other times you (and your social media army) have presented women like us who refuse to "zip it"  and stand up against filth, profanities and obscenities as fake victims who need to get a thicker hide. Singer Abhijeet recently targeted a senior journalist online by declaring: "Besharam budhia - you sk Pakis I fk..You lick, I kick.." Should she "zip it" or ask for him to be criminally charged with abuse? When I shared a personal and difficult story of my experience with child sexual abuse in my first book, right-wing trolls claimed - in the coarsest language - that I had made it up for attention. 

But I didn't "zip it" then - and nor will I "zip it" now, Dear Smriti, when I say: We will still stand up for your rights as a woman; it's pretty clear though, that you will never speak up for us. As a strong woman who could have been a trailblazer for equality, you, sadly, more than let down the side. 

(Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and Consulting Editor with NDTV.)

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