When the sight of a handbag greatly upset the patriarchy

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In the era of her male-dominated politics, Indira Gandhi avoided overt signs of femininity, only taking out her handbag when she traveled abroad. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, was rarely seen without her. Metaphorically, you might visualize her hitting the patriarchy with her structured purse in her hand.

For the rest of us, handbags are a necessity in a pocket feminine wardrobe for essentials such as money, cards, a hairbrush, sanitary napkins, lipstick, a sanitizer, a phone, a notebook and a pen or two.

So when a handbag made the news last week, it wouldn’t be out of place to recall that sexist attitudes haven’t changed much since the Gandhi-Thatcher era.

The spark was ignited during a price hike debate in Parliament when Trinamool (MP) Congresswoman Mahua Moitra hid her monogrammed Louis Vuitton handbag. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokeswoman Shehzad Poonawalla took the opportunity to tweet: “Marie Antoinette Mahua Moitra was hiding her dear bag.”

I can’t claim to know why Moitra chose to hide his bag. Maybe she realized the political recklessness of flashing a bag that sells for around 150,000 and costs more than the average annual salary of the citizens she represents. Or maybe it was nothing.

In her old avatar as an investment banker, Moitra could have afforded a designer bag, or three. But few things upset the patriarchy as much as the sight of an outspoken, independent woman.

Never short of a comeback, Moitra’s response was with a defiant tweet of a montage of seven photographs of her with the same bag in Parliament.

There is a difference in the way Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monogrammed suit was talked about during his first term and the incessant chatter about what women wear and what they look like.

Nobody calls politicians for their Swiss watches, expensive pens and hand-woven clothes jamawar shawls. But Mayawati will be pilloried for wearing diamonds and silk on her birthday and called “worse than a eunuch” by a female BJP member of the Legislative Assembly, Sadhana Singh.

Mamata Banerjee is ridiculed for her rubber slippers and crinkled cotton saree, with BJP State Chairman Dilip Ghosh saying she should have worn Bermuda shorts while flaunting a leg injury. Smriti Irani may be mocked on TV for her acting career by Congressman Sanjay Nirupam. And Gul Panag is easily photographed with a strategically placed Aam Aadmi cap just before the 2014 election. The list is endless, but you get the idea.

Hypocrisy, to use Poonawalla’s word, doesn’t hide an expensive accessory, hypocrisy pretends you don’t have one. If men can ditch the once ubiquitous Gandhi cap and if kadithe symbol of our freedom movement, can be replaced with polyester, what is so unusual in modern India about a woman’s expensive handbag that she won and purchased legally ?

It’s time for women to own who they are and tell men to mind their own business.

Namita Bhandare writes about gender

Opinions expressed are personal

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