A classic case of the manel if ever there was one. The front page of yesterday’s Hindustan Times carried a full page advert of an awards event for parliamentarians, with the headline ‘honouring the leaders amongst leaders’. The event was sponsored by Lokmat – a newspaper popular in Maharashtra and Goa. Eight award categories and their winners were listed, four for each house of Parliament: lifetime achievement award, best parliamentarian of the year award, best woman parliamentarian of the year award, and best debut woman parliamentarian of the year award.
The advertisement listed the all-male judging panel, which included a number of prominent parliamentarians past and present, such as the former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil (panel chair) and current parliamentary party leaders such as Mallikarjun Kharge, Sitaram Yechury, and Sharad Yadav, as well as former Lok Sabha Secretary-General Dr Subhash Kashyap and senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. The awards were to be presented ‘in the august presence’ of fourteen dignitaries, all of which are male. These included the current Vice President of India as Chief Guest, and two former Prime Ministers of India, among others.
I have some questions for the event organisers, if I may. Why did they find it necessary to distinguish between a non-gender specific parliamentarian award and a woman parliamentarian award? Why did they think it necessary to have a ‘debut’ award for only women parliamentarians and not men? Why could they not find at least one experienced woman to join the judging panel? And why could they not find at least one female political leader prestigious enough to be among the ‘august presence’ congratulating the award winners?
Why was it necessary to distinguish between a non-gender-specific award and a woman-specific award?
The debut woman parliamentarian award is particularly interesting. According to the Lok Sabha website, there are 324 first time elected MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha, of which only 43 are women. This is about the same as the proportion of women MPs in parliament, or 13 per cent. Around two thirds of male MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha are first time elected, but the organisers thought a debut award was relevant only for women. Similarly, sitting MP profiles on the Rajya Sabha website suggests that more than half of MPs in that House are serving their first term. Only 18 of these 147 first-term Rajya Sabha MPs are women. So again, why only a debut award for women MPs?
This is not being pointed out in the spirit of ‘whataboutery’, that male MPs are missing out. The organisers may have thought it a priority to give greater visibility and recognition to the important contribution women MPs are making in parliament, and as more women come into politics their achievements should be recognised. But having a debut award only for women MPs reproduces the problematic stereotype that women are novices in politics, and that political novices are only women.
having a debut award only for women MPs reproduces the problematic stereotype that women are novices in politics.
On the flip-side, both Lifetime Achievement Award winners are men, as are the two other non-gender-specific ‘Best Parliamentarian’ Award winners. For both awards, but particularly the latter, it would be interesting to see the shortlist of nominations. Were all the nominees men? If so, why not call the award Best Man Parliamentarian of the Year Award? (The grammatical awkwardness of the equivalent ‘man’ prefix is telling). If not, why the need for both general and women-specific awards?
It is also bizarre that the advert led with the claim that this was a ‘first of its kind platform’ which is a bit of a stretch, as the Parliament of India has had Outstanding Parliamentarian Awards since 1992, setup by former Speaker Shivraj Patil who coincidentally chaired the Lokmat award judging panel this year. In addition, the Sansad Ratna Awards, another privately sponsored award, have existed since 2010 and, like the Lokmat Awards, appear to have women MP categories. I would be interested to know what women MPs think about separate award categories, given that they are elected (or nominated) according to the same procedures and face many of the same challenges as do the male MPs, if not more.
To be clear I am not making an argument against affirmative action to address historical under-representation and discrimination on grounds of gender. Such strategies can be important to achieve change. But however well-meaning the organisers were in ensuring a 50-50 outcome of award winners, categories do matter.
By this event’s reckoning, men are non-gender specific MPs, women supposedly need their own award category.
Similarly, recognising women’s contribution, experience, and knowledge, need not only be through awards but as judging panel members. By this event’s reckoning, men are non-gender specific MPs, women supposedly need their own award category. Men are experienced in politics, women are debutants. Men are authorities who judge and gift, women are grateful recipients. While recognising women’s participation in politics, this confines and undermines their participation, and perpetuates stereotypes about their participation which do not reflect reality or efforts to change. To my mind, women in politics, in India and elsewhere, deserve better.