Their names are Renuka Devi, Mathurabai and Kenchamma, and they are the village sarpanch the mukhiya and the panchayat leader, respectively. They are, as a documentary produced by the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, elegantly puts it, “daughters of the 73rd amendment”, beneficiaries of a constitutional brushstroke that reserves one-third of all panchayat seats for women. They speak of ignominies and insults with steely-eyed resignation; a matter-of-factness that is disconcerting to a city woman such as myself, used as I am to presumed equality and outrage if I perceive otherwise.
Girl power: Sarojini Naidu had her own world view.
In a documentary called Voice of the Voiceless, Renuka Devi describes how a tamarind tree in her village was auctioned off in her absence. And how before she could reach the panchayat meeting, its vice-president—a man—took her place, her seat. Rather than confront him, she came home, tail between legs, metaphorically speaking. Other women are puppet leaders, dictated to by their husbands and other male relatives.
But for every Renuka Devi, there is a Kenchamma of Nereleka gram panchayat in Karnataka, who survived life threats and served two terms. She made sure every child in her village went to school and has said in multiple interviews that her future plans include climbing the ladder of politics.
To make sense of the role of women in Indian politics, I call Devaki Jain, a developmental economist and activist who has embraced the women’s movement for decades. I have a simple question for her: Why are there so few women candidates in national politics? Her answer surprises me.
You know, she begins, in the 2004 elections, all the political parties fielded a lot of women candidates. The problem was that a very small percentage actually won. “So when the political parties say that we won’t field women because they don’t succeed, it is true,” says Jain. “Women are not winners—maybe it is because of lack of money or a proper mentor. But being in the political space, you have to deliver the votes.”
It is a disquieting thought—the notion that women aren’t elected because we don’t play to win. And it dovetails nicely with something that has bothered me for years. Even though I am a feminist, sometimes all the whining gets to me—the blame game, the reasons why, the circulated emails with jokes and anecdotes about why women are “better” than men, as if we need to reassure ourselves.
What complicates matters is that most of what women contend is true. Yes, women in India have been suppressed for centuries. Yes, the system works against women, not just in India but globally. Yes, women have to work twice as hard as men to prove themselves. We have to overcome history and all the biases it has produced. And yet… Rather than point fingers, perhaps it is time for us to introspect. Perhaps it is time to accept the hand that we have been dealt and play with it, fair and square. Play to win.
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Playing to win has little to do with GDP, culture or history of a country, as the UN’s 2008 survey of women in politics proves. The four countries which have 40-50% participation by women in parliament are Finland and Sweden (no surprises there) but also Argentina—and get this, Rwanda. Regional contradictions exist: The “Arab states” have the lowest representation of women in parliament and the Nordic countries the highest, but 22.5% of the United Arab Emirates’ parliament is made up of women, higher than the US, UK and China. India is one of 11 countries with a woman head of state but only 9.1% of its members of Parliament are women. Even Iraq and Kyrgyzstan fare better, with 25%. The point is that a complex set of factors causes women to ascend the ranks of political power; a cauldron into which we can stir economics, culture, national psyche, its history, mindset and a whole host of other reasons that can be encapsulated by the neatly nebulous word “miscellaneous”.
India is almost at the bottom of the ranking with respect to the representation of women in politics. But that doesn’t mean things cannot change. Although I am in two minds about quotas and I know what the detractors say about it being misused, I think that the 73rd amendment has done great things for women. Reserving one-third of panchayat seats for women has opened up possibilities at the grass-roots level. It has given women “a taste of honey” and a “sense of muscularity”, as Jain says. Things can be improved and I am confident that the slow wheel of history will aid that.
It is us educated women who need to do better. We can stop talking and act. In Bangalore, two women I know are involved with Smartvote.in, a wonderful citizens effort that disseminates information about the different parties and candidates. That’s a start. Two women—Meera Sanyal and Mallika Sarabhai—are contesting for prestigious seats and I hope they win.
What we lack is national cohesion. “The women’s movement in India now is so fragmented,” says Jain. “We should have had a view on all the important issues of the day—like the nuclear deal, FDI, or the SEZs—but we didn’t. We all just ducked.”
Sarala Devi Chaudhurani had a view. As did Sarojini Naidu, Muthulakshmi Reddy, Anusuya Sarabhai, Maniben Kara and Ahalya Rangnekar (who died about two weeks ago). They were strong mobilizing forces who just so happened to be women. That’s the way it should be.
Shoba Narayan is a feminist who likes men. Her view on women in politics is that they need to have a view. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org