Celebrating his first year as Prime Minister of India in May 2015, Mr. Narendra Modi has garnered much international attention. While some newspapers, journals, and prominent academics have lauded his foreign policy, others have criticized this “one man band” for not successfully implementing various other reforms. However, Modi is receiving universal flak for something other than his one-year report card.
On an otherwise successful visit to India’s eastern neighbor, Bangladesh, Mr. Modi now infamously “praised” Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, saying “I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism,” The next morning, Twitter blew up with the hashtag #despitebeingawoman and Modi found himself surrounded by criticism for his vilification of women and his misogynistic statement. However, it has to be stressed that Modi is not a fluent, nor a native English speaker. While many see this comment as a reflection of Modi’s and the BJP’s supposedly overall sexist beliefs when it comes to women, this comment can also be seen as a misconception, especially in light of the pro-woman image the Modi Government has shaped since coming into power.
Modi has promised and delivered on initiatives empowering women in this last year, starting from the top. The current government includes 7 female ministers, 6 of whom hold Cabinet rank - a first in the country. Modi has also pledged to improve women’s participation in the police force by increasing reservations for women in the force to 33%. On National Girl Child day in January, Mr. Modi launched the countrywide, multi sectoral Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao - ‘Save the Girl Child, Educate Her’, the first initiative of its kind to address the diminishing child sex ratio in the country.
In addition, during the 2014 Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Modi questioned gender norms on the national stage by asking parents to interrogate their sons about their whereabouts, rather than their daughters, as it is boys who are responsible for rape and sexual violence. The National Crime Records Bureau estimates that there were 33,764 rapes reported in 2014, an increase since 2013; in response, the Modi Government has brought anti-rape campaigning to the center. Modi has spoken about improving gender equality and shaming rapists during many national rallies and has dedicated several episodes of his immensely popular radio show, Chai pe Charcha, to talking about rape and women’s empowerment. However, records show that there are still 93 women being raped every single day in India and regardless of the various initiatives taken by the Modi government, Indian women still face some of the worst inequality in the world. This is reflected in the most recent Gender Equality Global Rankings, where India’s ranking slid to 114th from its 101st ranking last year.
Despite the steps taken by the Modi government one really does question whether the administration is doing enough for women. In the future, Mr. Modi and his team need to ensure gaffes like the Bangladesh incident do not recur and that women’s empowerment remains a policy priority.