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Where do women stand in politics?
This is a question that very often results in misogynist rants denouncing women and their leadership abilities. Women are typically seen as not very rational, indecisive and impetuous. And yet, women everywhere are making their presence felt in politics. Much of the credit for the Sudanese dictator al-Bashir’s removal earlier this month goes to women, who played a prominent role in the uprising against him. The iconic image of a young woman addressing crowds from atop a vehicle bears testimony to this.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has offered an effective model of leadership that combines compassion with strong political determination—yes, it is possible to do so! In less than a week, she was able to ensure that gun laws were changed in the wake of a mass shooting at Christchurch, while also offering support and compassion to wounded communities in the most meaningful way.
Politics draws its roots from the Greek word polis, the city-state, which has often been presented as an all-male gathering. These accounts have come to us from venerable Greek men such as Plato and Aristotle. It is quite likely that they did not notice the everyday work done by women in keeping the polis functional. In a similar vein, the growing numbers of women in India’s panchayati raj institutions often go unnoticed and unsung.
Interestingly, social movements for change and transformation across the world boast of inspiring women leaders such as Medha Patkar (India), Wangari Maathai (Kenya) to name a few. Yet, women do not seem to be present in sufficiently large numbers in electoral politics and representative institutions across the world. Typically, this could be seen as a deficiency in women and so, they are urged to join leadership programmes, capacity building workshops and so on. While these are not redundant, the fact is that perhaps the very nature of electoral politics and representative bodies is exclusionary.
Why should women be part of electoral politics and representative bodies?
That women should have the right to vote is almost universally accepted now. It is indeed heartening to know that the gap between male and female voter turnout in India is becoming smaller. However, what is a matter of concern currently is that as many as 21 million young women in India, many of whom would have been first-time voters, are not even registered as voters.
Uttar Pradesh, for instance, presents a rather alarming picture—on an average, 85,000 women will not vote in each constituency because they are not registered as voters. Despite universal adult franchise, socio-cultural norms and traditional structures often prevent Indian women from participating in the electoral process— both as voters and candidates. This is the backdrop within which we need to locate any examination of women’s role in electoral politics generally and representative institutions more specifically.
Political parties tend to ignore grassroots female party workers, who typically set aside the best years of their lives for organisational work, door-to-door campaigning and community networking. But as can be seen right now, in the midst of the 17th Lok Sabha elections in India, major political parties have disappointingly few female candidates. The two notable exceptions are the All India Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal, which have given more than 1/3rd of tickets to women. It is not always the case that women do not take part in politics, but more often than not, their work is invisibilised and not accounted for – not very different from women’s work within the family and the household. It is unjust to draw upon the labour and work of women party workers while excluding them from electoral politics and a shot at power.
Having more women in representative bodies is crucial for many reasons, besides serving as role models for younger women. Women representatives in elected bodies are often able to bring sharper focus on what is termed as ‘women’s issues’—issues on which women, due to their specific role and location in society, seem to have valuable insights and understanding. When women are meaningfully represented and engaged in substantive leadership roles, it is more likely that inclusive and representative outcomes may follow.
Leadership and decision making, two important aspects of politics, require women to have influence with people in order to impact processes. Indian women face many challenges while attempting to make their way in politics. The nature of institutions—both in the public and the private domain such as the family, religious and educational institutions and courts—determine women’s access to political power. Another set of challenges emanate from the social, economic and political structures that create patterns of privilege and disempowerment over time in society, such as caste, religion, gender, sexuality, disability and so on.
Bold and innovative attempts to change these structures will help reconfigure power in society and bring more women into electoral politics and representative bodies. For example, a very substantial increase in women’s participation in the formal labour market in Bangladesh has challenged restrictions on their mobility and could well be one of the important factors that have helped more women participate in electoral politics. Worryingly, various studies suggest that the work participation rate of women has been steadily declining in India.
It is not surprising that Bangladesh is ranked at 97 (as of 1 January 2019) with regard to the number of women being elected to the houses of Parliament by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The body classifies 193 countries in a descending order based on the percentage of women in the lower or single house. Rwanda is at the top of the table and India is languishing at the 150th spot, just above Liberia.
It is striking to note that barely a decade after the genocide in Rwanda, women occupy more than 50 per cent of parliamentary seats. Despite constituting more than half the Parliament, women leaders in Rwanda find their political skills and competency questioned repeatedly. Transition clearly provided opportunities for far-reaching change, and combined with political will and determination, resulted in structural and institutional changes that helped women take an active part in politics.
Women joining politics in India are drawn from a wide cross-section of society. While, there are highly educated and professional women with experience of public life, there are also women who are poor and have no access to education. Thus, a one-size-fits-all approach will hardly work to strengthen Indian women’s involvement in politics. Women at either of end of this spectrum face challenges that are specific to their social location and background. Indian women are not a homogenous group—transwomen, women with disabilities (both mental and physical), women belonging to different castes, religions, classes and ethnic identities have different lives and experiences and these differences impact their approach to political work. To be truly representative, the Indian Parliament needs more female members drawn from diverse sections and groups of society.
How well a woman in politics is able to access and work the system depends to a great extent on a host of other factors, such as her family’s socio-economic status, the kind of work she is engaged in and other public roles that she might have held. Families are a critical training ground for women leaders along with student politics and professional settings. Typically, women in India experience varying degrees of exclusion due to the pressure to confirm to socially prescribed roles of marriage and motherhood and the limitations imposed due to lack of access to public life.
The gendered nature of violence, including on social media and other digital platforms, is an important inhibitor that dissuades Indian women from seeking political roles. Yet, young women leaders are emerging across university campuses of India such as AMU and Panjab University.
Indian women—like women elsewhere—have less time and fewer resources than men because of the gendered division of domestic and reproductive labour. Even when women are able to access formal political power, it does not always translate into substantive participation in politics. This is because informal (and at times, formal) homosocial networks remain strong and work to keep women out.
More women will be able to take their rightful place in India’s representative bodies only when Indian men begin to change their attitudes, acknowledge women as distinct persons and learn to take more responsibilities such as running of the household, child care and care for the elderly. So perhaps, some capacity-building workshops for men in this direction would be a great idea to usher in qualitative change in women’s participation in electoral and representative politics.
How do women fare in politics?
What matters the most is, of course, what women do when they do get an opportunity to be part of the representative bodies? Do they work differently and are they able to make a substantive change? It is women’s political work that has expanded progressive women’s rights in countries around the world and India is no exception. The anti-dowry movement of the 1970s and the campaigns against custodial rape and domestic violence remain important milestones while discussing Indian women’s political role.
Innumerable women activists and political workers at the grassroots level have spearheaded campaigns for better health, sanitation and education facilities across the world. The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, with its landmark provision for reservation of 33 per cent of seats for women in the panchayati raj institutions, opened up possibilities for women’s participation in political processes in India. Over a million women were able to join formal political processes through these provisions. They have ushered a refreshingly different approach to political work and have been able to set an agenda that is more relevant to the lives of the people they seek to represent. Many panchayats have reported timely and efficient working, better tax collections, greater attention to development work, water management and so on, but we seldom get to hear of these stories.
It is, of course, disappointing that the Women’s Reservation Bill [The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008] is still pending passage in the Indian Parliament, having been introduced in many forms since the 1990s. It is not surprising, therefore, that only about a dismal 12% of parliamentary seats are currently held by women in India.
This is not to suggest that having more women in power would automatically improve outcomes for women in general. Given the mindboggling diversity of Indian women’s lives and experiences, it is imperative that electoral and party politics change in ways to make them more hospitable to more and diverse groups of women.
The road ahead
A number of countries have used constitutional or legislative quota systems to advance progress towards more equitable presence of women in representative institutions. At the local level, in India, the reservation of seats for women in the panchayati raj institutions is a very successful example. However, quotas seem to work best within electoral systems that are based on proportional representation and have a system of mandated placements that require political parties to allot certain number of seats to women. This can be supplemented with leadership workshops and capacity building exercises for new entrants. These would bear fruit only when suitable alterations are made in the institutional and structural arrangements within society.
None of these, however, will be effective in the absence of training and sensitisation of men in politics to enable them to understand the change that is coming and equip them to work within a new paradigm where women have to be recognised as persons who are politically active and might even have political ambitions.
(The writer is a professor at School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi)