Why Barkha Dutt Got It All Wrong This Time


What many thought was Barkha Dutt’s befitting response to CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell at the 6th annual “Women In The World” conference, sounded more like a jingoistic rant of a hyper-nationalist to me. On being faced with a misleading generalization that Westerners often make about non-Westerners, Dutt found herself on an unusual defensive, even as she insisted that there is nothing defensive about her personality.

Her response is symptomatic of a commonly felt quandary to balance feminism and patriotism. To acknowledge sexism and misogyny in one’s own country at an international forum is always harder than we think. It is like displaying the deepest scars of one’s being to the world. Rega Jha captures the dilemma with absolute precision when she writes, “Foremost: As the international media puts a spotlight on sexual assault and harassment in India, how can Indian women reconcile their patriotism with their feminism?” I must confess that I have no answer to this question. Would I have done what Dutt did in a situation like this? I do not know.

However, having the privilege of an outsider’s view, I can tell Dutt did something wrong. “Society’s way of coping with the embarrassment, the shame, of what it does to its women is to marginalize [rapists], to try and pretend they’re just rotten apples in a barrel… It is the barrel that is rotten. It is the barrel that rots the apple. It is society that is responsible. We all are responsible,” said Leslee Udwin to a highly enthused audience. And having been a student of sociology of gender myself, I cannot help agree with her.

An uncharacteristically silent Dutt soon broke her silence. “I have a problem with the narrative being built around my country,” she exclaimed. Her tone betrayed a sense of hurt national pride.

She began her attack on the West by arguing that statistically speaking, the incidents of sexual violence are higher in the US and UK than in India. As her comments were received by a roaring applause, the distortion of her assertion got somehow blanketed. While her remark is factually and statistically correct, it has no meaning considering an overwhelming number of rape cases do not get reported in the country. Further, unlike the US and the UK, marital rape is not recognized as a crime in India. In a country where the number of women sexually assaulted by their husbands is 40 times the number of women attacked by men they don’t know, this statistic is hardly a mirror to the abysmal state of affairs for women.

Secondly, she stated that while interviewing Hillary Clinton about five times, a topic that came up again and again was the USA’s inability to elect a woman as their president. “These are not the conversations we have at home, for we had a woman prime minister four decades ago,” she declared with a hint of vanity. Indeed, we have had a female prime minister, a female president, female chief ministers, and a woman who has been the most powerful person in the country despite being none of the above (read Sonia Gandhi). However, Barkha Dutt – one of the leading journalists in the country, a staunch feminist, a shouting critic of the condition of women in India – need not be explained that just because a handful of women happen to be at the helm of affairs, does not mean that all is hunky dory. A more stark reality is that the Indian Parliament has failed to pass the 108th Amendment which proposes to reserve 33 percent seats in the Lok Sabha and in all state legislative assemblies for women since 1996. The few women who occupy top echelons, in fact, embody patriarchal might themselves and do little to better the condition of other women.

She further said that India is not struggling for abortion rights and maternity leave. While saying this, it seems, Dutt forgot of the staggering rate of sex selective abortions in India or gendercide, and the fact that an alarmingly low proportion of Indian women remain in the workforce after having a child and only 27% of females over 15 years old are working to begin with.

Somewhere in between, she stated that gender is more complex than we think. Well, it seems, however, that this is what Dutt herself forgot. Gender is more complex than how many women get raped in which country and whether a country has a female head of state or not.

Let’s not sweep this complex issue under the mat of patriotism and shame. I myself am fully cognizant of the ubiquitous tendency in the West to other-ize the problem of gender by making the third world countries seem like the hub of gender inequality. However, a tit-for-tat approach to gender is the last thing the international women’s movement needs.

There are differences in which patriarchy manifests itself across the globe, but it is the same patriarchal tree of which the different manifestations are just the branches. There have to be different approaches to annihilate patriarchy in different contexts – but if the feminist struggle continues to be inhibited by jingoistic or racist interventions, the movement cannot succeed.

Sanya Dhingra

Image Source: The Viewspaper