Stink of sexism: When even gritty achievers become nameless wives

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HAT old cliché, there is always a woman behind every successful man, could be partly true if not completely. But when it comes to recognition of an accomplished woman and her achievements, a man, mostly her husband, invariably pops up right in front of her. And she ceases to be an autonomous human being for the world.

The media coverage of French–American economist Esther Duflo’s achievement after she became second woman to win Noble in Economics last week, demonstrated how success stories of married women get overshadowed by their matrimonial status. This was established by the following headlines that reek of media’s patriarchal prejudices:

“Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife Esther Duflo win Nobel in Economics” — National Herald

“Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife win Nobel in Economics” — The Economic Times

“Indian-American Abhijit Banerjee, wife Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer win 2019 Nobel Economics Prize” — FirstPost

“Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife Esther Duflo win Noble prize in Economics” — Business Insider

In these headlines, Esther Duflo could have preceded Abhijit Banerjee’s name without a mention of her relationship status. Media may have done it unconsciously if we give them the benefit of doubt, but this kind of insensitive reporting certainly reinforces gender stereotypes. Despite their achievements, women are seen as someone’s wife, daughter or mother and not individuals in their own right. Biased media validates the subjection of women.

Media is considered to be the fourth pillar of a democracy. How news media chooses to report an event mostly reflects the mindset of viewers. Even though the Nobel prize was received by at least three economists, only a woman among the awardees was referred with her marital status. By doing so, the media mindlessly promoted an idea which most women have been fighting, with their backs against the wall, in every sphere of life on a daily basis. Her being referred to as wife of Prof Banerjee is nothing short of saying that the 2019 Nobel Prize that she won has come from being the “wife” of an economist. Her achievement wasn’t lauded as hers but an achievement which fell into her lap by virtue of her matrimonial relationship with a male economist.

Arguably, Indian media tried to portray for its viewers a male hero who studied in Kolkata and Delhi, and went on to marry a foreign woman before becoming a Noble laureate.

In a society where men performing “havan” and “puja” to ward off the “menace of toxic feminism” hog the headlines, such media biases only normalize anti-women attitude, encouraging ill-informed men to infantilize and patronize their wives, daughters and sisters.

Understanding of individual identity is, as it is, dismally low amongst Indian women. Their identity struggle begins even before they are born. They are always expected to be servile and subservient to men, be it the family they are born into or the family they are married into. Women never get the same share of respect and care which men enjoy by virtue of being humans. Sadly, it’s mostly a woman’s association with a man that gets her some recognition.

Earlier in February this year, noted American author Tabitha King was dismissed as Stephen King’s wife by the media after the couple donated $1.25M to New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer and former Additional Solicitor General of India, Indira Jaising, encountered a similar situation inside the apex court a few months ago. She had filed an intervention in a contempt case and a fellow senior lawyer Anand Grover, who happens to be Jaising’s husband, was representing her. When Grover stood up to speak and referred to her as “Ms Jaising”, Attorney General KK Venugopal asked him to refer to Jaising as his wife.

Jaising rightly took umbrage at this and asked the AG to take back his remarks. She asserted, “I’m a person in my own right. We are not to be identified as somebody’s spouse, wife or husband. This is why I haven’t changed my name (after marriage)”.

“…Please see me as a lawyer. It’s my choice as to who should represent me,” she told the court.

Such incidents only showcase how even women well established in their career become the target of all pervading casual sexism.

Of late, a newspaper article by Parakala Prabhakar, an Indian political economist who held a cabinet rank position in Andhra Pradesh government in the past, was used as a weapon to buffalo Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on social media.  Modi baiters used the article to deride government and Sitharaman, referring to her husband’s critique on Indian economy and advice to the government.

Sitaraman was trolled for having failed to “convince even her husband” that country’s economy was doing just fine.

How difficult it is to make such people understand that two individuals in a matrimonial relationship can hold different opinions! And there is nothing abnormal about it.

When a woman’s marital status gets importance instead of her independent individuality or achievements, its only male chauvinism that gains legitimacy. Whether society or media, such an attitude condones discrimination against women and undermines the entire movement centred around individuality, especially of women, and gender equality.

There is nothing wrong in being referred to as someone’s “husband” or “wife”. But that should strictly be a private and not public affair.