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Praise For Indian PM's Diplomacy, Then A Backlash For His Undiplomatic Remark

It's India's latest social media battle cry: #DespiteBeingAWoman erupted on Twitter on Monday after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the phrase while talking about the female prime minister of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina was Modi's host over the weekend when the two countries ratified a historic boundary agreement, doing what nations rarely do, swapping territory to settle a four decades old boundary dispute. One hundred-eleven enclaves will go to Bangladesh, the remaining 51 will become part of India, and the enclaves' residents, who had been virtually stateless before, can decide where they want to live and which nationality they prefer.

Modi basked in accolades for the ground-breaking accord simplifying the 2400-mile long Indo-Bangla border, until Sunday when he delivered a wide-ranging speech at Dhaka University.

"Everyone knows how to fight a war, how to fight an enemy," he said, but "how to fight terrorism, nobody knows." In what was obviously meant as praise, Modi then referred to Prime Minister Hasina: "It is a happy moment for me that the Bangladesh prime minister, in spite of being a woman, is fearlessly declaring zero tolerance towards terrorism."

Modi got a dressing down on social media. Overnight, that line ricocheted around Twitter and gave birth to the hashtag, #DespiteBeingaWoman.

Here's a sample of the rebukes:

This one was retweeted hundreds of times.

And of course ... the stinging rejoinders went global –

Others simply posted photographs of famous female scientists, sports stars, and diplomats. Rosa Parks also popped up.

Modi has cultivated an image that suggests he understands women's issues. On Independence Day last year, he spoke from the ramparts of Delhi's Red Fort, taking young men to task for their sexist attitudes. He has condemned sexual crime and has decried female feticide.

But commentator Anna Vittacad, who writes on gender issues, says it's not the first time Modi has expressed "misogynistic" views. She says a couple of years back, Modi belittled the wife (now deceased) of Parliamentarian and former UN diplomat Shashi Tharoor, calling her a 50-crore (500-million) rupee girlfriend, in the context of a scam involving her, in which a lot money was alleged to have changed hands. Even though Sunanda Pushkar was Tharoor's wife, Modi choose to label her a girlfriend, because Vittacad says, "socially there is whole attitude of a girlfriend being a lightweight as opposed to a wife having been given a certain status by the man."

Modi's remark is one in long line of comments by Indian politicians that evoke casual sexism and which suggest women are incapable of making tough decisions.

"To say 'despite not 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," says Vittacad. "We've had women leaders of the opposition; we've had women chief ministers, a president, judges." She says Modi's comment "is a huge irony and also a bit of a shame."

One that she and others believe Modi ought to explain.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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