While interviewing a woman who had won the seat of the ‘ward panch’ unopposed on our field trip to villages near Jaipur, we realised she was a proxy candidate. Our initial enthusiasm of finding a woman representative extinguished, as the husband moved forward to answer the questions directed for the formerly elected ward panch. “The meetings of Panchayat used to take place 5 km away from our house, so you must understand that she can’t go alone. She is not educated so may have signed at the wrong place and as an educated man, I must keep an eye on all the functioning.” In 2015, women candidates contesting seats in Kerala had no pictures of them in posters, and captions read “Vote for xyz, wife of ABC”. Proxy candidature for reserved seats for women have hampered women’s political emancipation, especially at the grassroots. But there is a larger structural issue at hand.
Women’s participation in politics is a viable parameter to ascertain the success of any democracy in the world. It not only indicates women’s decision-making liberty, but also their access to political space and power. While the voter turnout and female legislators in India have been rising, is there a qualitative difference in how women occupy the legislative space?
As a country which has ranked the most dangerous for women in 2018, considerations of patriarchy, customs, and caste act as impediments in women’s prowess in policy making.
Women suffer a dearth of resources while contesting elections as they are considered weak candidates. This is accompanied by derogatory sexist remarks which are rampant during campaigning. Pamphlets calling Aam Aadmi Party’s East Delhi candidate Atishi Marlena a ‘prostitute’, Sonia Gandhi being called the Italian bar girl, Mayawati being called a sex worker are familiar slurs women endure in Indian politics. When Jaya Bachchan was offered a ticket instead of another MP, she was labelled as a ‘dancer’. Moreover, Indian women endure twice the amount of harassment online as compared to the women in politics in the US and the UK.
Once in the Parliament, the harassment continues. Comments by MP Azam Khan on MP Rama Devi, that too while discussing a woman-centric issue in the parliament attest to the fact that misogyny in the microcosm of the nation is rampant. Even when women occupy one of the most reputed positions such as the Minister of Defence, they are reduced to their gender. “PM Modi asked a woman to defend him in the Rafale deal”, accused Rahul Gandhi. Late External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was trolled online for granting passports to an inter-faith couple.
These incidents reflect an inherent sexist bias not only by the society at large, but also by those who represent the society and occupy the highest positions in the ‘temple of Indian democracy’. However, it is heartening to see that these incidents are not merely shrugged off; perpetrators are slowly being held accountable for their inherent misogyny, and are being called out for these problematic innuendos.
With the women electorate increasing with every election, the working space for women in politics too, may widen. Moreover, women have a significant impact on as well as a holistic and more empathetic approach to policy making. Studies have shown how women choose more liberal policies, are more likely to propose legislations concerned with health, education, and welfare, and focus more on women-centric issues.
Often accused of not being decisive, strong and rational, the COVID-19 experience with women legislators like Jacinda Ardern, the PM of New Zealand and the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen have exhibited that women can be efficacious leaders. India granted universal adult franchise at the time of independence. The country has also had a woman as a prime minister, which might have been assisted by dynastic succession, yet exhibits that the Indian society is not completely intolerant to the idea of a woman leader. Bolivia, with 53 percent women in parliament has one of the highest representation of women in parliament, a change which resulted from establishing 30 percent quota for women in politics. While there have been elaborate laws against sexual harassment, attacks against women politicians have also risen. This exhibits how an institutional or structural change cannot happen in isolation and needs to be complimented by a behavioural and attitudinal change in the society to enable any concrete and positive difference for women in the political space.
As an extremely heterogeneous group, women in India have to battle disempowerment based on multiple structures of oppression, such as gender, caste, class, disability, education, religion and sexuality. While a mere passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill (The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008) that continues to be pending for 12 years, may not address all issues of these diverse groups, it will definitely be a fundamental first step towards acknowledging women as legitimate stakeholders in politics. This may also help create a role-model effect in the future for young girls. With sensitised education for males and stringent laws to ensure compliance, like the The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the next woman ‘ward panch’ one might meet at their field trip may actually be a leader to look up to.
Saumya is a postgraduate in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interest areas include gender studies, social media and politics, populism, and civic engagement. She can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Featured Image source: Deccan Herald