The "compliment" occurred while Modi was giving a speech at Dhaka University on a routine state visit. He was trying to commend the prime minister of Bangladesh for doing such a good job, but what he ended up saying came across like back-handed praise.
According to the Washington Post, Modi said, "I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism." Cue record scratch. What's especially weird about this is Modi — unlike his Indian politician colleagues — is known for being quite supportive of women. He has often spoken out against the injustices done to women in his country during his campaign and stood behind programs that work to stop female discrimination in families. Perhaps he's just been spending too much time around his sexist buddies?
It is also unclear what the prime minister was going for with his "compliment." Is he suggesting that a woman might have a harder time fighting something as aggressive as terrorism? Or that simply being a woman makes the fact that she's accomplishing anything in a power position surprising? Regardless of the reason, there is nothing that could make this qualifier flattering.
Even though Modi was speaking in Hindi, the phrase "despite being a woman" showed up in every language translation, thus prompting the apropos Twitter backlash, #DespiteBeingAWoman. Overnight, the hashtag flooded Twitter with scathing, sarcastic comments from women especially saying they can do anything despite being women. Here are some highlights.
ok. off to work. after cooking sending kid to school to write big story and run errands. like every other woman i know #despitebeingawoman— Gayatri Jayaraman (@Gayatri__J) June 8, 2015
I am not a 'princess' and I don't like pink unicorns #DespiteBeingAWoman— Rebana John (@RebanaJohn) June 9, 2015
#DespiteBeingAWoman SoniaG presided over the most corrupt regime in independent India!— VOXINDICA (@voxindica) June 9, 2015
Of course, there has been retaliation from Modi supports after the hashtag started trending, saying that he has always been a supporter of women, especially in politics. They started the hashtag #ModiEmpowersWomen to show all the things he's done in support of women throughout his campaign and time as prime minister. His spokespeople are also saying that PM Sheikh Hasina took it as a compliment, so everyone else should too.
Yes, Modi has been a fervent supporter of women's rights in the past. He spoke out against female sexual assault in his first Independence Day speech and launched programs to stop female infanticide. But does that mean he shouldn't be held accountable for giving such a flagrantly misogynistic "compliment" to a woman who he should regard as his political equal? The world is very clearly saying "no."
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