By Taruni Kumar
In 2013, Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand devised a marketing campaign around the slogan ‘Women Who Work’ with the aim to better sell their highly-priced products. The slogan also became the title of her book – “Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success”. The NPR’s review of the book was headlined, “Many Working Women Won’t See Themselves in ‘Women Who Work’”.
Yet, the political advisor and daughter of US president Donald Trump has been actively marketing the image of a women’s rights proponent and an active voice for women entrepreneurs. And now Ivanka has arrived in Hyderabad to attend the three-day-long Global Entrepreneurship Summit and to promote women’s entrepreneurship and economic power in India.
According to NDTV, Ivanka Trump’s “advocacy for women on an international stage has become a key element of her political profile and personal image.” In an interview with The Times of India, Ivanka said, “I aim for GES 2017 to be a global celebration that elevates the importance of empowering women entrepreneurs. When women do better, communities and countries thrive.”
No arguments there, Ivanka.
And far be it from us to argue that women entrepreneurs in India have it easy. India ranked among the lowest on the Women Business Ownership index. The country came in at 49 out of 54 countries.
India has vast contradictions in terms of women and women’s issues. On the one hand, India’s politicians make regressive remarks about how women have no business being out late at night and on the other they laud the Indian winner of Miss World for bringing honour to the country. An issue as universal as harassment on the streets is euphemistically called eve-teasing in India to make sure nobody mistakes it for a real problem like corruption or climate change. Not that there’s consensus on that last one either, especially not from Ivanka’s father.
In a situation like this, a supporter of women’s economic rights and entrepreneurship like Ivanka sounds ideal. But, that’s where the trouble creeps in. Ivanka’s brand of support for women seems superficial, clueless and occasionally sinister.
Let’s begin with her business ethics. Some of the manufacturing units for Ivanka’s clothing line are based in India. Her brand has declined to identify the factories or the wages or working conditions of the employees. The garment industry in India is primarily women who are paid meagre wages for heavy workloads and long hours: ‘women who work’ very hard. Do Ivanka’s workers have a better time? Hard to tell, as a report in The Washington Post points out, which factories produce the goods remains a mystery.
If Ivanka were to practice what she preached, these women should have all the facilities and privileges that she promised to work towards when her father came to power in the United States of America. After all, before loving thy South Asian neighbours, it makes sense to change the way one’s own business empire functions, right? Well, The Guardian spoke to women who work in one of the Indonesia factories of the label six months ago. These women claimed that they were paid so little, they couldn’t afford to live with their children and were subjected to verbal abuse as well. Permanent employees of at least one of the factories received a monthly bonus if they didn’t take a day off for menstruation. So, women who needed that day off were indirectly penalised.
All this leads one to wonder which women Ivanka speaks in support of in terms of their economic rights. Her book sheds some light on the subject. The New Yorker called it a “painfully oblivious book for basically no one,” and Vox said it was a “pink-tinted sea of innocuous blandness.” Most reviews agree that parts of the book are akin to typing in “inspirational quotes” on a Google search and skimming through the first few listings. The book is aimed for an audience that is nowhere close to the garment workers that Ivanka’s company employs. It’s aimed at an audience that Ivanka believes will connect with her when she says paying bills and buying groceries is “not enormously impactful.” For most women—and men—in the world, these activities aren’t optional. Not everybody has the privilege to structure their lives in a manner that the mundane housework or the basic mechanics of running one’s life are handled entirely by those hired for the job.
“Passion combined with perseverance, is a great equaliser, more important than education or experience in achieving your version of success,” she writes in the book. Whether they’re passionate or not about their work, perseverance is something the women working in Ivanka’s garment factories don’t seem to be short on. But, it’s safe to say that their version of success probably isn’t a job with minimum wage and low privileges.
Then there’s the complication of blaming Ivanka for her father’s sins. Even if you don’t want to, she remains ‘complicit’. This last being a word that has taken on a whole new charge in the Trump era, because beti Trump also has baap Trump’s ability to mutate meaning of familiar words.
In August 2017, Ivanka supported the Trump administration’s decision to get rid of a policy that would have made it necessary for employers to share their workers’ pay, gender and race information with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the US. Though she is a publicly staunch supporter of equal pay for women, Ivanka saw no contradiction in the decision to roll back a policy that helped identify gender gaps in wages.
Despite the many accusations of sexual harassment and assault against her father, she has repeatedly defended him. She has even gone as far as to call her father a proponent of gender equality when he’s repeatedly proved otherwise through his actions, words and, most prolifically, tweets. Perhaps, it would be more sensible for Ivanka to focus on cleaning up her own house before taking her advocacy for women to the world.
At a time when Indian women are struggling to recapture their rightful place in society and the workplace, the contradictory feminism of Ivanka is vastly unwelcome. It’s difficult enough to explain the idea of women’s autonomy, freedom of choice, right to work and the need for economic independence to the layperson without a ‘role model’ like Ivanka getting in the way.
It could be said that Ivanka is at best a hypocrite and at worst oblivious. But, the dilemma of which of the two is more damaging refuses to resolve itself.
Co-published with Firstpost