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Women in Politics: Rising in spite of sexism

By Swati Saxena
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Recent fact sheet in India Today magazine had some noteworthy facts. It noted that while not even 30 % of world’s lawmakers are women, in India the number is even lower,  just about 12%. After 60 odd years of one of the largest and most vibrant democracy these numbers come off as surprising, yet one can perhaps reason that given that India is also a largely patriarchal society it is to be expected. However, here is where the real surprise lies: India ranks even lower than some of our equally patriarchal (if not more) neighbours. A look at the data shows that India ranks lower than Nepal (29.5%), Afghanistan (22.6%), Bangladesh (20%) and Pakistan (19.4%). India also stands last among the five BRICS nation. And while participation of women in parliament has doubled in the world from 1995 to 2015, (11 % to 22.3%) for India it has been much slower (7.2% to 12.3%). Also, while levels of development do correspond to women’s participation in parliament (Sweden: 43.6%), it is not a precondition, in fact Rwanda with 63.8% of women in parliament tops the list on participation, making it one of the only two countries with more than half of the seats being occupied by women (the other country is Bolivia with 53.1%).

However, this data is not the full representation of the picture; after all our country has several levels of political representation. Yet the data on MLAs is even worse in terms of gender equity. As per the data from Election Commission of India out of some 4120 MLAs in India, only 336 odd MLAs are women. Percentage wise this is even worse than their representation in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha; women’s representation in state assemblies is just about 8 %. Here too, development of the state plays little part in ensuring representation with highest percentage of women coming from the state of Bihar which has higher than national average of 14% (34 out of 243 MLAs). This data is surprising in a country, which has had women PM and President, speakers as well as several chief ministers (Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee, Jayalalithaa, Anandiben Patel etc.)

Situation is however better in local governance institutions: the Panchayati Raj and Municipalities, mainly because of mandatory one-third reservation of seats for women as members as well as chairpersons. While there was initial concern that women being elected as sarpanch will mainly act as proxy or adjunct to their husbands (the phenomenon of sarpanch patis) this has not been true to a large extent. Studies have shown that after being elected women have largely, albeit gradually, come on their own, and have asserted their independence and forged an independent identity. They have also performed well, with lower levels of corruption than men and have better focussed on issues like health, water and sanitation, children and education.

Women in grassroots levels of politics have shown that they can work independently, honestly, and competently, yet women reservation bill in higher levels of politics continues to be defeated due to lack of political consensus. If the bill passes women’s reservation will ensure that not only will women’s percentage in the legislature increase but also within the party there will be more women leaders coming up as parties will need to train and nurture greater talent for the reserved seats. Greater number of women in parties will be office bearers, in charge of various cells and semi independent bodies and emerge as spokesperson, ideologues, mobilisers and youth leaders within the party, even if they are not elected as legislatures.

Women’s Reservation Bill in its 18 year old journey has faced many roadblocks. Even though it has been passed in Rajya Sabha in 2010 it is still pending in Lok Sabha. Despite Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s strong support for the bill two terms of UPA government failed to pass the bill mainly due to vociferous objection from the opposition parties. The bill has in the course of its legislative history been snatched from the hands of women MPs supporting it subsequently been guarded by women members. JDU leader Sharad Yadav has gone on to say “Do you think these women with short hair can speak for women, for our women?” Samajwadi party has raised slogans against the bill and attempts by UPA to pass the bill have been mired in objections by Uma Bharti who wanted quota for women on the basis of caste. In fact Sonia Gandhi has called the non passage of the bill her “greatest regret”. Its future in this government seems quite dismal and it seems that NDA might not introduce the bill at all, at least not in the immediate future.

Another point worth noting is that even when women are elected and represented in politics, especially at higher levels they are overwhelmingly from political families, either born in one (Indira Gandhi, Meira Kumar, Poonam Mahajan, Supriya Sule, Kanimozhi, Agatha Sangma, Sushmita Dev, Pankaja Munde to name a few) or married in one (Sonia Gandhi, Maneka Gandhi, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Dimple Yadav etc). Even some of the first generation women MPs and MLAs are the ones whose spouses were the first to enter the field and establish themselves as politicians (Ranjeet Ranjan, Rabri Devi). This is especially true for younger (under 40s) women. A large number of women politicians are associated with the film industry, thereby giving them recognition in their own right (Hema Malini, Jayalalitha, Jaya Bachchan, Nagma etc.) This raises the pertinent question: Why are there such few women from other fields venturing into political careers and if they are, why are they finding the career progression long and rather difficult?

The obvious answer is that politics, first of all, is not a profession. Unless one is an elected legislature (or engaged in some sort of managerial/back end capacity) one is not paid to be in politics. Indeed most of the elected legislatures are professionals (lot of lawyers), businessmen, entrepreneurs etc. especially if they are first generation politicians. They often do politics with their jobs, or have built up sufficient capital to quit job and do several years of unpaid political work required. Here women are at a great disadvantage. Given patriarchal structure of our society, where home is seen as a primarily female domain and working women are already struggling to balance family and work life, nurturing a time consuming political career becomes extremely difficult. Politics also initially requires a supportive spouse and some sort of steady income (even a pittance). Indeed Arvind Kejriwal after winning the election as CM of Delhi, made it a point to thank his wife for providing him with the same, while he built his long political career, which come with an equally long gestation period.

Secondly, there are several barriers to entry, including the most basic: how to start? Politics in India still largely operates informally and there is no standard test, procedure or open call for applications for people completely without any connections. At the most young women can become members of political parties (this procedure now even exists online) but this doesn’t guarantee them work, recognition or any responsibility. Student politics is perhaps one way where nominations are still clearer and within reach and indeed many women who have been successful as political representatives without any familial political connection have taken this route (Meenakshi Natarajan, Mamata Bannerjee, Sushma Swaraj to name a few). In other words a clear procedure to make a political career doesn’t exist anywhere and young women often end up without any guidance, even when political parties are actively seeking and inducting fresh talent.

However most importantly, Indian political scenario is extremely sexist. Even senior established women leaders have had to face blatant sexism and abuse from opposition, media, public and sometimes even within their own party. Women at junior levels have had it much worse and there are several cases of even sexual harassment and exploitation. Every election abounds with news about women campaigners molested and often end up becoming victims of character assassination. Smriti Irani has been called out for her ‘thumkas’. Mayawati, erstwhile CM of UP, leader of Bahujan Samaj Party and a tall dalit leader has been subject to this sexism, with one opposition leader wondering whether she should be called ‘he’ or ‘she’ and another wondering whether to address her as ‘shrimati, kunwari or behenji’. Sonia Gandhi has faced remarks on her ‘fair skin’ (more racist than sexist actually). Indira Gandhi was long called ‘goongi gudiya’ before she shut her critics by emerging as one of the strongest Indian Prime Minister.

These are of course some examples of direct remarks and do not even begin to cover the sexist remarks made by Indian politicians in general, mostly by men but even by women politicians who have internalised the sexist political culture. Politicians have blamed crimes on women on their clothes, diet, ‘western’ influences and their education. Rapes have been justified by leaders of political parties with boys will be boys argument. Scriptures have been distorted and quoted out of context to show women their place in society, to tell them to stay within the realm of home and family and to not venture into spaces of men, including politics, especially by the RSS. Even AAP which has attempted to project itself as a modern new age political party has indulged in running sexist ads and has ministers accused of domestic violence and sexist jokes. In fact it is in the domain of sexism and misogyny that all political parties are united across the spectrum. It is thus natural that women feel hesitant to make career in this domain.

In contrast to this sexism, indeed often in response to this sexism, Indian women have time and again displayed great political acumen and activism. To protest against Delhi 2012 gang rape incident a large number of young people, most of them women came out on the streets thereby contributing to historic amendments in laws for crimes against women. Women in Delhi protested recently against discriminatory hostel curfews (Pinjra Tod). The activism is not limited to young urban women. In rural areas women have been at the forefront of organising politically for their rights and voice. Chipko Andolan, where women hugged trees to stop their felling raising awareness on environmental laws in India is one such successful example. Women have historically been active in protesting against sale of alcohol, trade union rights, equal wages etc. Indeed even before independence women were fighting the British rule, burning the cloth, picketing, even taking part in revolutionary extremist activities like shootings and raids. Gandhi through his unique way of protest, satyagraha, envisaged a powerful role for women in political struggle and encouraged them for same.

However in the current political scenario there seems little encouragement from political leaders (even women) to encourage more young women to think of politics as a career option. Even the most progressive netas have encouraged young politics to join politics but have side stepped from addressing gender problem of politics, even when they have explicitly dealt with women issues like violence, women’s health, education and employment. Rahul Gandhi has expressed regret over non passage of Women’s Reservation Bill and has promised to bring in ‘tsunami of Mahila Congress’ and results of this will be interesting to see. Even though NDA has several women Ministers at present; RSS, BJP’s ideologue doesn’t even admit women members. And while Mayawati is an example of successful women in politics, one cannot name another woman from the same party.

In this scenario, where there is not a big dearth of women role models for young women (women, while smaller in numbers have occupied almost all top position in Indian politics), there is a huge absence of political mentors in the form of senior leaders both men and women. This is especially important in a scenario where guidance is the key, where there are no set rules for making a political career, and where women are already hesitant to enter. Political parties can perhaps encourage a mentor mentee programme for young women where she can follow a leader to learn the ropes and gain support of an already established member to explain to her and help her navigate the nitty-gritties of a complex world of politics. Student internships and volunteer programmes are indeed being already promoted by some political parties albeit on a very limited scale and are not gender specific.

Women must also be encouraged to realise that political careers are not just about elections and speeches but political parties require managers, strategists, researchers etc. and these options can be explored by someone who enjoys being more on back end and doesn’t prefer a public role. Indeed in the time of social media and technology entering politics in a major way, the roles for young people have expanded, and this should benefit women as well. For older women who are community leaders or thinkers there should be space in politics for them to use their talents with mid level entries.

National leaders can also make politics seem welcoming for women by exhibiting a zero tolerance approach towards any sexist remarks and take strict action from suspension to expulsion against any cases of sexual harassment or violence. In fact every party should strive to have an active and empowered committee or a cell to deal with any cases of discrimination or crime against women members within the party.

Recently Canada’s new liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a Cabinet with 50% women members. When asked the reason for the same he shrugged and said in a matter of fact way, ‘because it’s 2015’. The reason is clear: the need of the hour is gender equality and recognition of women’s contribution in every field of life. Equal representation of women in politics should be the natural order of things and not even a matter of debate.


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