India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi fell into a firestorm after he hedged praise of his Bangladeshi counterpart with a comment on her gender during a state visit to the country on Sunday.
“I am happy that the prime minister of Bangladesh, despite being a woman, is openly saying that she has zero tolerance for terrorism,” he said.
Hundreds of people took to social media to bash Modi for what’s being called a sexist statement. Many of them tweeted under the hashtag #Despitebeingawoman to satirize the prime minister’s comment.
Managed to wake up & eat breakfast #DespiteBeingAWoman
— Swati Chaturvedi (@bainjal) June 8, 2015
— Bobby Ghosh (@ghoshworld) June 8, 2015
“To say ‘despite being a woman,’ is ridiculous coming as a remark from the Prime Minister of India which is one of the first countries in the world to have a woman Prime Minister,” Anna Vetticad, a commentator on gender issues, said.
“We’ve had women leaders of the opposition; we’ve had women chief ministers, a president, judges,” she said, noting that Modi’s comment “is a huge irony and also a bit of a shame.”
Vetticad is far from alone in blasting Modi.
Many have attacked him for disregarding not just the prominent role women have played in shaping India, but also the major impact that women politicians including Sheikh Hasina have had on Bangladesh.
Hasina, who was elected in 2009 also served an earlier term as prime minister. She and opposition leader Khaleda Zia have basically alternated control of the country for the last 25 years.
While hedging a compliment of Hasina’s rule with the mention of her gender has been read by many as sexist, some have urged people to consider the prime minister’s record on women, and not just his gaffes.
Some analysts have pointed to Modi’s record on empowering women through political appointments and also social policies as a way to counter his alleged sexism.
After taking office last May, the prime minister appointed six women to his cabinet — the highest number in the history of the country.
Modi has also used his position to spearhead initiatives to enhance gender equality in India.
In January, he announced a program to help end female feticide, which he called a “terrible crises” since India has an abysmal child sex ratio of 918 girls for every 1000 boys.
“We cannot call ourselves citizens of 21st century by practicing such a crime and we by our mindsets belong to 18th century when daughters were killed soon after they were born,” he said at the time.
He also announced an initiative to offer girls bank accounts with higher interest rates and tax benefits for districts in India where the sex ratio is particularly low and offered rewards to villages that maintain a balance between the sexes.
Modi has also made efforts to to end what he called a “double standard” for girls’ education compared to that of boys.
On India’s Independence Day in August, he unveiled a program to deal more harshly with sexual violence — honoring a campaign trail promise. Modi’s speech was seen as “pathbreaking” for calling on Indian families to raise sons who respect women.