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Nagaland Elections: Will Nagaland Get Its First Woman MLA This Time?

Nagaland Elections: Will Nagaland Get Its First Woman MLA This Time?

Four women candidates are in the fray among 183 candidates contesting the upcoming Nagaland assembly elections. All major parties including the NDPP, BJP, and Congress have fielded women but regional parties remain aloof.

Naga women from the Phom community resting in between a hard days' work on the farm. They say they have no interest in the elections.
Naga women from the Phom community resting in between a hard days' work on the farm. They say they have no interest in the elections.

The markings of Betichemdan’s face are like the lines on a map — markers of identity and territory. Among the Kangshou Chang tribe in Eastern Nagaland, tattoos on a woman’s face were not just ornaments but identity markers that were imprinted on her at birth. 

While the tattoos of men were commemorative badges representing the number of battles a warrior had won or the heads of enemies that he had collected, the tattoos for women imprinted at birth did not just symbolise beauty and honour but her identity and location.

“A girl from the Kanghsou clan can easily be identified if she enters a Chongo village or sleeps with an Ung man. From my tattoos, one can identify my name, clan, tribe, and village,” the 83-year-old Chang woman from Nakshou village tells Outlook

With the arrival of Christianity and modernisation, the Changs gave up much of their old traditions and customs like headhunting and ritual body inking. Today, not many of Betichemdan’s generation survive and the art of face tattooing is slowly fading into the realm of memory. But Betichemdan, who is still here, has lived through two ears. 

Betichemdan, a Naga woman in her 80s from Nakshou village with traditional Chang face tattoos.
Betichemdan, a Chang Naga woman in her 80s from Nakshou village with traditional face tattoos.

“Today, women are much more free and able in Nagaland. They do all the work that men do,” she states while tending to her chickens.

This ostensible equality has nevertheless failed to translate into political representation for women in Nagaland, who remain overwhelmingly absent from the political sphere. Since its creation as a separate state in 1963, Nagaland has never elected a woman as an MLA. That might change this year with four women contesting the upcoming legislative elections in the state with tickets from the ruling NDPP and BJP as well as from Congress. 

Women candidates in the fray in Nagaland polls

The National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) led by Neiphiu Rio has fielded social entrepreneur and YouthNet founder Hekani Jakhalu as its candidate from Dimapur-III assembly constituency. Jakhalu received the Nari Shakti Puraskar award in 2018. It has also fielded Salhoutuonuo Kruse from the 8th Western Angami assembly constituency. Kruse is also a social worker who has been active in civil society organisations for the past 24 years. 

The BJP has fielded veteran woman leader Kahuli Sema, who has the distinction of being the first woman to become the Engineer-in-Chief of the Nagaland Public Works Department and the second Naga across the state to do so. She had been part of the government administration in Nagaland for the past 34 years before choosing voluntary retirement. Sema will contest from 32 Atoizu assembly constituency. 

Meanwhile, the Congress has also given a ticket to Rosy Thompson from the Tenning seat.

The four women, out of the 183 candidates contesting the upcoming elections, sum up the political representation of women in Naga politics. No major political party apart from NDPP, including the Nagaland People’s Front, has fielded women candidates. 

With a total of 6,38,473 female voters, women outnumber men in the hill state. As per details released by the Chief Electoral Officer of Nagaland V Shahsnk Shekhar, the electors’ population ratio in the state stands at 532 while the gender ratio is 1000 males to 1002 females. 

Naga women have also played an influential part in the state’s identity politics and movements for sovereignty and cultural autonomy. Then why do women continue to be underrepresented in Naga politics? And will the state get its first woman MLA this year?

Women in Naga socio-politics

The extent of women’s participation in political life is shaped by formal rules such as constitutions, laws and regulations, electoral systems, candidate selection procedures, and processes within political parties, but also operate within informal constraints such as values, conventions, customs and codes of behaviour. 

According to Sentsuthung Odyuo, researcher at Christ University, the pattern of women's position in Naga society is very distinct. While caste and other discriminatory practices for women were absent in the Naga Hills, there existed different social structures based on age, gender, clan rank, and the status achieved by feasts or warfare skills.

He states, “The traditional institutions around which the Naga social and political life revolves have never recognised the rights of women as primary decision-makers.”

Though seen as equal members of the community, women are not held equal as political subjects. 

Odyuo adds, “Male dominance and patriarchal values remain a big obstacle in Naga society. It limits their voice and agencies by purposefully preventing women from sharing power as equals with men.”

In Nagaland, women enjoy more equality and importance than in non-tribal societies. But even if Naga societies have not generally oppressed women in a significant way and women are seen as equal members of the community vis a vis men, traditional Naga laws and customs clearly assign gender roles and gendered responsibilities. Women are seen as the head of the domestic sphere, keepers of the hearth and often in charge of handling home economics and treasury. But the outside world is seen as the preserve of men.

Though important as builders of the Naga community, women played no direct part in political affairs. 

“Naga women never had the authority and power to participate equally in traditional assemblies and customary courts where decisions are made. They were not even permitted to attend village council meetings, speak, or stand in front of the village crowd during any type of meeting. Women’s rights as primary decision-makers have never been acknowledged by the traditional institutions that govern Naga’s social and political life. Their role was attributed only as nurturing, sacrificing, moral, hardworking, and caregiver of the family,” Odyuo explains.

Nasan Monu, a farmer and home maker at her home in Eastern Nagaland.
Nasan Monu, a farmer and home maker at her home in Eastern Nagaland.

The deeply patriarchal Naga culture holds that women must be respected and that men, especially, should not jeopardise their security. YB Angam, a former school teacher from the eastern Tuensang district of Nagaland, claims that women’s education has also been a reason for the political backwardness of women. 

“In most rural Eastern districts, families tend to educate their sons and not their daughters. The trend of educating daughters came very later to the state,” she tells Outlook.

Role of Naga civil societies in upliftment of women 

It was only in the later half of the 20th century that women in Nagaland began to find their political voice, mainly thanks to the efforts of civil society organisations that brought women leaders into the socio-political discourse. 

The Naga Mothers’ Association, a body of women representing multiple Naga tribes, has been at the forefront of political activities since 1984 when it was set up in Kohima. The body brought together various women’s wings of the different tribes that exist in Nagaland and developed a focused agenda for uprooting social gender evils. The body also formalised a framework for how women could participate in the peacebuilding process. Peacekeeping processes of Nagaland, which has been rife with factionalism and militancy owing to its difficult history of integration with the government of India. In fact, Nagas note that the body was instrumental in the signing of the 1997 ceasefire between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland NSCN-IM and the Indian armed forces.

The body also laid the path for increased women’s participation in public spaces and encouraged a generation of feminist scholars, writers, and leaders to speak up and take part in governance and administrative discourse and processes. In the east, the Eastern Nagaland Women’s organisation, the women’s arm of the ENPO, has been actively working for increasing political mobilisation among women of the Eastern districts. 

However, Dr Rosemary Dzivichu, who teaches at the Department of English at Nagaland University and is an advisor to NMA, feels that the deeply patriarchal nature of Naga society has proved to be cumbersome and continues to decide the fate of women’s politics.

She says, “Political parties over the last decades have not sponsored women candidates. Elections is all about money, no matter what everyone says. There is so much feminisation of poverty, under such unfavourable complex conditions, women have been unable to come out as winning candidates, even though several in the last few decades have entered in the fray.”

The Naga Hoho, one of the apex civil bodies that represent all major tribes in Nagaland has no women’s wing. When the women of NMA demanded 33 per cent reservation in local elections for women, there was unanimous and violent opposition from male leaders from across the political and civil society spectrum of Nagaland. 

The lack of women in positions of power empowers the notion of women as incompetent political leaders and the cult of male chauvinist politics does nothing to help. But the winds of change, though slow, are certainly here.

“This time we have three major parties that have fielded women candidates. I think parties are feeling the pressure to include women in the decision-making process and bodies as it impacts them the most,” Dzivichu states.

Odyuo, however, points out that parties often give tickets to women usually with aim of polarising votes against dominant opponents or simply to exhibit their party's importance in the public domain. 

“This misogynistic idea of perceiving women as mere representatives creates a boundary of discrimination. This is another triggering factor that disallows people to vote for women despite their capability and competency,” Odyuo adds. 

Change, however slow, has been constant and the fact that all four women who have received tickets this time have done so from national political parties seems to be a good sign. Will the legislative assembly elections 2023 herald a new dawn for women’s political leadership in Nagaland? Both Odyuo and Professor Dzivichu agree that it will be a hard fight. 

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