TN Governor May Have Meant Well; That Doesn’t Make His Cheek Pat OK
News that Tamil Nadu governor Banwarilal Purohit patted journalist Lakshmi Subramanian on the cheek in response to a question from her at a press conference is making waves. Subramanian, a special correspondent for The Week, had tweeted about the incident two days ago:
“I asked TN Governor Banwarilal Purohit a question as his press conference was ending. He decided to patronisingly – and without consent – pat me on the cheek as a reply.”
Much has been made of the “without consent” part of her tweet, and fairly so; no one should be subject to physical contact they do not wish for, especially in the workplace. But that focus has allowed the conversation to take a patriarchal twist into outrage over the violation of the reporter’s modesty: “The Governor has brazenly outraged the modesty of the lady journalist.He should at once be fired and also arrested for committing cognizable offenses,” ranted one Facebook commenter.
Which, in turn, has allowed a not-small number of people (men) to dismiss the incident entirely, because the governor’s intentions were pure.
“Oh lady…he is your father age..just patting in your cheeks like your father had done ….nothing wrong…have some decency and respect,” said another Facebook commenter.
“Making a mountain out of a mole is uncivilised trait,” said yet another.
Purohit himself is brushing off his actions with the same justification: “As an act of appreciation for the question that you posed, I gave you a pat on your cheek considering you to be like my granddaughter,” he wrote in his official ‘apology’ letter. “It was done with affection and to express my appreciation for you as a journalist…”
It is worth noting his professional appreciation did not extend to actually answering Subramanian’s question.
Describing Subramanian as a granddaughter was an attempt, as was the cheek pat, to put her in her place.
Which is why, while consent is of course an issue here, we also need to be talking about the fact that this ostensibly innocuous cheek pat is condescending as hell and would never have happened to a male reporter. The working woman was due “affection,” while all the working men in the same scenario were worthy of professional — and therefore physical — respect. She is appreciated; they are taken seriously. It’s almost impossible to picture a head of state patting the cheek of a male member of the press, no matter how young, and describing him “like a grandson.”
Family relationships come with strings that professional ones should not have, and Purohit’s statement reveals more about his expectations of Subramanian, and women more broadly, than his in-the-moment reasoning. Good granddaughters don’t question or stand up to grandfathers. Good granddaughters certainly don’t hold grandfathers responsible for their actions. That’s what the (male) press is for.
Patting Subramanian on the cheek and describing her as a granddaughter was an attempt — perhaps subconscious, but no less offensive — to put her in her place.
I’m sure Pirohit had no intention of being sexist, no active motive to denigrate Subramanian; patriarchal attitudes are so ingrained in society that he probably thinks both his action and his explanation are acceptable — magnanimous even. When the faux-familial sobriquet of “uncle” is the default way of respectfully addressing older men, the lines between social politesse and professional courtesy blur, in both generational directions. “Granddaughter” may well have been courtesy once upon a time, but it isn’t anymore, and certainly not in the workplace. And before the inevitable rebuttal to that statement comes: In a post-Weinstein world, “The old man doesn’t know any better because he came of age in another era” excuse rings hollow, particularly from a statesman, a leader whose job it is to know and do better.
If Pirohit had really wanted to express his appreciation for Subramanian as a journalist, he would have answered her question. It’s telling that she – and all of us – are still waiting for an answer.