Obama to Kamala Harris, A sexist comment or a genuine compliment?

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President Obama was pilloried for his remarks on Kamala Harris, when he called her ‘the best looking Attorney General’. Preceding the comment, he also mentioned that the California Attorney General was a ‘long time friend, brilliant, dedicated and tough’.

However critics in the media went on an overdrive demanding an apology for the alleged sexist remarks. Consequently President Obama tendered an apology. The President “fully recognizes the challenges women continue to face in the workplace and believes that they should not be judged by their appearance,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

The incident raises some pertinent questions. Was the above remark by Obama a sign of lust for Ms Harris? Did he deride her ability as a professional? Was Ms Harris offended or embarrassed? Is it wrong to compliment a woman while speaking from a political platform?

Would sections of media have reacted the same way if Kamala Harris was Kamal Hari? Significantly, if Obama has been called good looking and handsome, then should there be different rules for men and women?


Compare Obama’s comment to the remarks made by UP minister where he appreciated the beauty of the District Magistrate of Sultanpur. The Minister for ‘Khadi and Gram Udyog’ was at a function to distribute cheques for unemployment allowance. He addressed the crowd and said:

UP Minister praises District Magistrate for beauty“Is maamle mein hum bahut bhagyashaali rahe hain …. pichhlibaar jab main yahan (Sultanpur) ka prabhari mantri tha … tab bhi yahan ki DM mahila thee, aur saubhagya se is bar bhi mahila hi hain. Main sochta tha ki unse sundar mahila DM ho hi nahi sakti. Lekin is baar jab main prabhari mantri hoon … to DM unse bhi adhik sundar hain … bahut hi madhur vaani hai … karyashamta bhi adhik hai … Inki kad kaathi bhi bahut achchi hai.”

(I am fortunate …. the previous DM was also a beautiful woman …. I used to think that there cannot be a more beautiful lady DM, but the present DM is even more beautiful, she has a sweet voice and is competent as well. She has good physical attributes).

The lady District Magistrate sitting in the audience was visibly embarrassed as the Minister digressed from the subject and began commenting on her physical attributes.

This reminds me of Asif Ali Zardari who met Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2008. Zardari called her ‘gorgeous’ and said, “Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you.” When an official from President Zardari’s entourage requested the two politicians to shake hands for the cameras, Zardari quipped, “If he’s insisting, I might hug.”


Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda PushkarThere is a thin line separating a genuine compliment and a sexist remark. As a result life may be tough for good looking women in public service and politics. Sunanda Pushkar, wife of Union HRD Minister MOS Shashi Tharoor thinks “It’s tough for good looking women in this world.

Ms Pushkar was perhaps referring to the sexist remarks (50 crore girlfriend) made by a male politician against her to score political points. Apart from the sexist comments which provided enough fodder for television debates, Ms Pushkar had to deal with the incident where a young party worker tried to grope her in public view.

Hina Rabbani KharThe fact is that there is a dearth of good looking women in politics. Moreover, good looking women have to strive hard to be taken seriously. I remember sections of media referring to Ms Hina Rabbani Khar as the most ‘potent weapon of mass destruction’, while she was on her official visit to India. Ms Khar was reportedly offended by the undue obsession with her looks. To be fair, no section of media discounted her professional abilities even though they focused on her Birkin handbag, designer sunglasses and pearls.

Back home, Mrs Indira Gandhi had to strive hard to discard the label of ‘Goongi Gudiya’ and prove her mettle. Being a patriarchal society where women are struggling to find a place of their own, we come across sexist and misogynist remarks all the time. While politicians profess respect for women, some can’t resist calling them ‘dented and painted’. Most politicians and political parties are unaccustomed to the increasing presence of good looking confident women in public life. They continue to see women purely from an electoral reading glass.


Having said that, it is important to view comments made by any politician in the right perspective. Picking up one sentence and dissecting it on prime time debates for the benefit of television viewers is a dangerous precedent. President Obama’s comments on Ms Harris when viewed in the context of his speech appear innocuous but inappropriate for the occasion. However remarks made by Zardari and UP minister warrant condemnation and an apology.

Written by Alka Gurha >>

I am a freelance writer and an avid blogger. I write for a local newspaper called Friday Gurgaon and various media critiquing websites.
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Indian Exponent: Obama to Kamala Harris, A sexist comment or a genuine compliment?
Obama to Kamala Harris, A sexist comment or a genuine compliment?
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