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Dr Joyshree Goswami Mahanta, a noted writer and educationist from Assam, a Padma awardee, an ex-MP, and a 2019 Sahitya Akademi awardee, was named as her husband’s wife in a sexist Economics Times headline about the awards.
In the recently announced Sahitya Akademi Awards 2019, one of the awardees is Dr. Joyshree Goswami Mahanta, who is an ex-MP and a noted writer and educationist from Assam. She was also awarded the Padamshree in 2018. She has also announced that she would distribute the award money among the victims of the anti-citizenship amendment bill protests in Assam.
However a recent Economic Times headline refers to another awardee English writer Shashi Tharoor along with Ms. Mahanta as Prafulla’s wife, as she is the wife of ex-CM of Assam Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.
This is the way a deeply sexist mindset and outlook of the media is reflected as this is not the first time that a woman achiever is referred to as so-and-so’s wife if her husband is also a well-known person.
The fact that a woman achiever is the wife of anyone equally or more famous is merely incidental to her many achievements. But that is not how the media and the society at large views it. Women’s achievements are often seen in reference to their male relatives’ achievements if these are exemplary too.
Esther Duflo, Nobel Prize winner for Economics, 2019
Controversy had recently erupted when the Nobel prize for Economics was announced for the Indian-origin economist Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer. While the two male recipients were mentioned by their respective names in various reports by Indian media, Ms. Duflo was referred to as Mrs. Banerjee or Banerjee’s wife. This inspite of her other stellar achievements in the field of developmental economics, and being the youngest recipient of the Nobel economics prize in its 50-years history was reduced to just her famous husband’s spouse.
In a repeat of this, when the couple received the award in Indian attire, with Ms.Duflo, a French woman, wearing a saree, she was again hailed by conventional India media as the “perfect bahu.”
Amal Clooney, international Human Rights lawyer
The West is no better in this regard, in August 2015 in a similar faux paus a reputed news agency referred to Amal Clooney, the famous Human Rights Lawyer as “actor’s wife”. She had represented major world figures like Julian Assange (Wikileaks) and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and was faculty at top academic institutions like Columbia Law School, but yet media referred to her as Clooney’s wife, him being a famous Hollywood actor.
Thus the problem is not just sexism in online newsrooms, but a misogynist, patriarchal and sexist society at large. Women are seen in reference to men, in terms of their relationship to men, and not as individuals in their own right.
In January 2019 Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of California Governor Gavin Newsom made headlines as she casually added four words to her Twitter bio: “First Partner of California.”
She is a documentary filmmaker and wasn’t satisfied with the traditional title of “First Lady”. This rejection of a moniker used worldwide to describe political wives for centuries was a first, and welcomed by many as a positive change.
Historian Matthew Costello writes in a piece for the White House Historical Association that ‘…. titles like “Mrs. President” and “the President’s wife,” as well as “Lady Presidentress,” gave way to “First Lady” as women started to expand the powers of the position.”
However the point of reference still remained the spouse in power, most often a man. When Hilary Clinton was in the US presidential race there was a raging debate about how her husband Ex-US president Bill Clinton would be addressed if she was to be elected as the first woman president of the United States. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer, is referred to by his own name publicly and so was Philip John May married to ex-British Prime Minister Theresa May. Proving that the rules are different for male spouses of women at the top.
The mold that doesn’t see beyond their marital status needs to change. One reason for this could be the fact that for a long time most women especially in places of political power in Asia and world over like Indira Gandhi, Khalida Zia and Benazir Bhutto were seen to be eligible for those positions because they were the daughter or wife of someone famous.
Hope that with changing times women’s achievements would be attributed to their own hard work and capability, and be celebrated with their own names.
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Pooja Priyamvada is a columnist, professional translator and an online content and Social Media consultant.
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