July 05, 2020
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Power, The Leveller

Why don't women's movements address real 'empowerment'?

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Power, The Leveller
Women And Politics
By Barbara Nelson &Najma Chowdhury
Oxford University Press Pages: 818;Rs.1,200
CONCEIVED at the United Nations Conference on Women at Nairobi in 1985, Women and Politics World -wide edited by Barbara J. Nelson and Najma Chowdhury took nine years to be born. These two dedicated and determined women professors-turned-activists have managed to motivate women from 43 countries, representing three-fourths of the world's population, to analyse and present women's struggles within diverse cultures and political systems.

But given the fact that the Country Chapter writers have been asked to select any three areas of importance to women in their countries for their study, the spectrum is wide and not focused on women's political participation, as the title of the book would suggest. What we have is a situational analysis of the status of women and issues that have helped to mobilise women to unite or act. While there is no doubt that organising women into groups to fight for what is their right (as was the case in South Africa) might eventually lead to greater political participation, this book has only managed to capture the activist movement which is not always political in nature; and that I attribute to the suspicion and distrust that defines the relationship between NGOs and politicians especially when it comes to gender-related issues.

It is true that the women's movement has helped as an incipient political articulation. Beyond women's development issues, it has focused on the absence of political participation, even entry into the male-oriented power structure. This is one common factor admitted across all socio-economic systems of the world, be it North or South, Socialist or Capitalist.

The chapter on India has been authored by well-known academicians and activists like Hem Lata Swarup, Naroj Sinha, Chitra Ghosh and Pam Rajput. Interestingly, the political introduction that precedes the article, compiled by the editors, states that the BJP "stands for a liberal, secular and democratic ideology but has close links with the National Volunteer Organisation (RSS), VHP, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena," while the authors mention the fact that Vijayaraje Scindia MP, a senior woman leader of the BJP, strongly defended the practice of 'sati' at a public function organised by the party's women's wing.

Further, the authors speak of the National Commission for Women (NCW) Act being passed in 1990—implying it has not been set up till 1997, the year the book was published in India—despite the fact that the NCW has been functioning since January 1992. The National Perspective Plan for Women (NPP) prepared by the Rajiv Gandhi government listing goals to be achieved by the year 2000, for women's development, has not found even a mention though it was the NPP that for the first time advocated 33 per cent reservation for women from panchayats to Parliament and spoke of a Commissioner for Women's Rights.

In my opinion, it is the 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayats,which has seen 1 million women assume positions of governance in India, that is the greatest example of women's political empowerment in the world.

The book would undoubtedly have benefited greatly if there had been more inputs from women politicians sharing the experiences of their struggles within the system instead of seeking contributory articles only from women activists. After superficially dealing with racism, the authors of the US country chapter, for instance, could list only abortion and universal health insurance as the greatest issues in their women's movement, failing to explain why a superpower like the US has been unable to elect a single female president or vice-president or see women in positions of political decision-making.

This book is undoubtedly among the most interesting and comprehensive ones produced, documenting the women's movement around the world. While the editors categorically state that it is not their intention to produce a handbook or an encyclopaedia, I am inclined to believe that this is what it is going to be classified as rather than as "an integrative and interpretative analysis of the patterns of women's political activism".

The editors sum up their findings on page 1, in a single sentence—"in no country do women have political status, access or influence equal to that of men". I dare suggest that they should have used this finding as a premise instead and assessed women's movements for a place in political processes despite the inequality that women the world over experience, accept and work with.

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