It’s hard to get self-righteous about President Obama’s supposedly sexist comment about his old friend and fervent political supporter Kamala Devi Harris. He said the 48-year-old Indian-African-American is America’s best-looking attorney-general as well as being “brilliant…dedicated…tough…exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake.”
So he praised her for being an all-rounder. The point, say women’s rights activists, is he shouldn’t have. He should have lauded her talent, ability, professionalism and brilliance. He shouldn’t have mentioned her looks. God forbid if any man note the fact of gender difference. Men should act as if a woman is in invisible purdah and no one is allowed to see – or know – if she is fat or thin, spotty or with a peaches-and-cream complexion, has a pretty smile or eyes too far apart.
It’s like everything to do with race. In parts of the Western world, you’re not really allowed to ‘notice’ someone’s race. In other parts, you might mentally note a person’s race, but you’re not allowed to refer to it. In the real world, of course, everyone notes a person’s race but doesn’t refer to it within earshot of officialdom (especially in writing).
But Obama has it coming from all those angry women activists. They say he spoke inappropriately in the public sphere about an elected official and by doing so, he underlined a regressive mindset ingrained in men. This, they say, shackles women. They say the American president, a progressive man raised by a progressive mother, very independent grandmother and married to a confident and high-achieving person, has done women a disservice by publicly reducing their value to the ratio of their looks.
I’m not sure they’re right. The President praised Kamala Harris’s professional acumen before he saluted the poetry of her form. In doing so, he appreciated everything that makes the whole of this remarkable woman – daughter of breast cancer specialist Dr Shyamala Gopalan (from Chennai) and Jamaican American Stanford University professor Donald Harris. Harris, whose sister Maya is incidentally just as talented and extraordinary and is currently a Ford Foundation vice-president, brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s comment on how “ordinary women never appeal to one’s imagination…One knows their minds as easily as one knows their bonnets.”
Kamala Harris is no ordinary woman. She appeals to the imagination. All of her. And the whole of her includes her face.
Will our faces, women’s faces, no longer be allowed to be ‘seen’?