Why Shobhaa De’s piece on Raghuram Rajan is utterly sexist and not funny at all.

WrittenBy:Namita Bhandare
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If this is meant to be funny, then I’m happy to be humourless. The nudge-nudge wink-wink jokes (sex back into the limp Sensex, banking with an “a” not an “o”) would do a third-grader proud. But the problem is not bad jokes. The problem is they’re embarrassingly out of tune with a newly-ignited gender conversation in the nation.

On a day that a trial court in Saket handed down the death penalty to four convicts found guilty in the murder and rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, columnist and author Shobhaa De chose to publish a paean to “RBI Guv” Raghuram Rajan in The Economic Times. The resultant column is plain cringe-worthy.

“He should lie back and enjoy the attention”, writes De. Either De lives in a very dark cave called South Bombay or else she simply made a subconscious slip by referring to one of the worst “jokes” about rape. Either way, her timing is shot.

Shobhaa De describes Raghuram Rajan variously as “seriously hot”, “very dishy”, “a much-panted-after sex symbol” and, in case you still haven’t got the message, “the poster boy of banking”. Oh yes, she also makes a passing nod to his intellect: “his chiseled features are as sharp as his brain”.  How very reassuring.

Now assume that Raghuram Rajan was a woman. Assume a new “seriously hot”, “very dishy” etc. woman had been appointed RBI’s “Guv”. Can you imagine the uproar? Nothing short of public lynching would have followed had a male reporter written of his fantasies about a woman’s falling towel. Would this ha-ha, look-how-smart-and-funny-I- am column have been approved? Would any editor in a mainstream newspaper have given it more than five seconds before hitting delete?

I think not.

All over the world, women, particularly professional women, have battled sexist stereotypes. It’s the sort of stereotyping that Christine Quinn faces after losing an electoral battle to become New York’s first woman mayor. It’s the sort of stereotyping that leads her own party colleagues to question, as reported in the New York Times, “Why can’t she dress better?”

Barack Obama gets hauled over the coals for commenting that India-born Kamala Harris is “by far the best-looking attorney general”. If you’ve seen a photograph of Harris, then you know Obama is not wrong on fact. But the US president’s “compliment” on her looks, belittles her professional calibre and reinforces the degree to which women are judged by their appearance.

Closer home, who remembers the outrage that followed Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh’s description of party colleague Meenakshi Natarajan as “sau tunch maal”? Natarajan later clarified that she wasn’t offended. But that wasn’t the point. Frankly, I don’t care if she was offended or not. I am. For women who battle sexism every day of their lives, the statement remained and does still remain deeply offensive.

Indian men, particularly politicians, tend to be open and boisterous when it comes to their own misogyny. So, our very own very funny Lalu Yadav gets away with promising to make Bihar’s roads “smoother than Hema Malini’s cheeks”. Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam can tell Bharatiya Janata Party MP Smriti Irani on live TV that she has no right to a political view because “aap toh TV pe thumke lagati thi”. The BJP’s Prime Ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi can talk about a minister’s wife as a “50-crore girlfriend. And the SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav can tell rural women that they will never get a chance to get ahead in life because “you are not that attractive.

So, no Ms De, this is not funny. If it’s not cool to accept personal comments on the way a woman dresses or looks, then it’s equally not cool to make those comments on the way a man dresses or looks. Your column undermines the efforts of those who are trying to correct a historic portrayal of women as sex objects and bimbos. Just because it’s about a man, it doesn’t make it better or acceptable.

De is a smart woman and a woman who is not shy of speaking her mind. Many of her comments post December 16 seem to indicate her stand on the gender debate, and it is a stand I tend to agree with. Just one example: “Rape is not the end of life, declares 22-year-old survivor. And wins the nation’s respect”, she tweeted in reference to the recent Shakti Mills gang-rape. Well said, Ms De, and take a bow. And, yet, what’s the point of making the right political noises when all it takes to rip off the mask is a newly appointed RBI governor?

De knows what a personal, sexist attack aimed at a well-known woman writer feels like. So, you’d imagine she would be a bit more eager to embrace a new gender neutral or at least gender-just tone to her writings.

To rewind to a bit of recent history. On July 31, 2013 De had tweeted: “Maharashtra and Mumbai??? Why not? Mumbai has always fancied itself as an independent entity, anyway. This game has countless possibilities. The tweet was made in the backdrop to the decision to create the state of Telangana but it was hardly political. And as De later clarified it was meant to be “satirical.

But what followed this apparently off-the-cuff remark was the sort of predictable misogyny that we’ve now come to expect from our political class. Raj Thackeray of the MNS said creating a state was not as easy as “getting a divorce; a Shiv Sena spokesman dismissed her as a page 3-socialite who drank free liquor and then vomited. And Nitish Rane, son of Congress minister Narayan Rane made an open threat, tweeting that had she said the same thing on the streets of Mumbai she would be left without “shobha”.

The vile, bilious comments and the scarcely veiled personal remarks did get Shobhaa De a fair amount of media defence from columnist Vir Sanghvi to on the website She later tweeted, “A big thank you to mediawallas across the board”.

Shobhaa De had won this round, and who amongst us weren’t on her side?

Which is why I would have expected a bit more circumspection from the seasoned writer. This is not some 22-year-old intern writing a piece worthy of her or his college newsletter. This is a byline that means something, that carries some heft and with it, one would have hoped, a bit of responsibility.

An article, even if it is meant to be satirical or light-hearted, that objectifies men is as reprehensible as one that objectifies women. If Yo-Yo Honey Singh offends, then, frankly so does Shobhaa De.

So what does this mean? That we all fall into some politically correct standard and lose our sense of humour altogether? Well, perhaps. Just as it’s no longer funny to make a racist joke in the US, we simply have to signal our zero tolerance to all forms of sexism – even when it’s men who are at the receiving end.  To those women who say, “Oh boo hoo, men have been doing it for years”, I say two wrongs don’t make it right.

And to those who say I don’t have a sense of humour, well I’m fine with that too.

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