Women taking on challenges of politics


[ Ngurang Reena ]

Politics is a man’s world!
Not my words, but of men themselves. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “If women want to be in politics, they need to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros.” Like Roosevelt, many have observed that politics is a world inhabited by diplomats, soldiers, and civil servants, most of whom are men.
A feminist-IR theorist like Tickner also reveals to us that we are socialized to believe that war and power politics are more effectively managed by men while women are ascribed roles in reproduction and homemaking. When contributing in the workplace, their role is often discounted as well.

Masculinity and politics
Masculinity and politics have a long and close association. Typical male characteristics have, throughout history, been those most valued in the conduct of politics, particularly international politics. Violence and the use of force, has been applauded in the name of defending one’s country.
RW Connell points out that this stereotypical image of masculinity does not fit most men. Connell suggests that what he calls “hegemonic masculinity” – a type of culturally dominant masculinity that he distinguishes from other subordinated masculinities – is a socially constructed cultural ideal that, while it does not correspond to the actual personality of the majority of men, sustains patriarchal authority and legitimizes a patriarchal political and social order.
Feminists and their movements started to attempt to break these norms – notably the women’s suffrage movements of the 19th and the early 20th century. A second wave championed legal and social equality in the ’60s. The ’70s and ’80s saw further developments with the UN Decade for Women raising the individual consciousness of women and stirring a change in power dynamics, in both private and public spheres. This continued in the ’90s as the third wave, as a reaction to the perceived failures of the past.
For the first time in history, women’s rights were considered human rights. Feminism theory, which emerged from the movements, aims to understand the nature of gender inequality by examining women’s social roles and experiences whilst recognizing biological gender differences. Therefore, in its simplest understanding, feminism seeks gender equality. It is a multidisciplinary approach understood through various social theories and political activism. These theorists claim that “those who are oppressed have a better understanding of the sources of their oppression than their oppressors.”
Simone de Beauvoir highlights that male superiority derives from a misguided satisfaction from driving a male agenda to the detriment of the welfare of women and children. She concluded that traditional concepts of national security being delivered through armament and military action were outdated and ineffective and driven by male perceived aptitude in this area. This can also be seen in the personal arena: social constructs are designed to align to the perceived capabilities and interests of men, to the detriment of women and children, and manifests itself in family violence, which must be seen in the context of wider power relations. It occurs within a gendered society in which male power dominates at all levels.

Where are the women leaders in the world?
Cynthia Enloe questioned, “Where are the women?”, referring to the meagre 18.6% of the women in world’s political office years back. However, according to the UN Women, pictures still look bleak for women, with only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians as women as of June 2016, and as of October 2017, only 11 women are serving as heads of states and 12 are serving as heads of governments today.

The sad Indian story
The world’s largest democracy has been an utter failure when it comes to women representation in the parliament, let alone those wishing to be a significant part of the ‘game’. India is sadly at the 103rd place out of 140 countries with a mere 12% representation. Among the Asian countries, India stands at the 13th position out of 18 countries while countries like South Sudan and Saudi Arabia have faired better in bringing women to parliament than India.
The detailed article titled ‘Glass ceilings in state cabinets’ (The Hindu, 16 February, 2015) studied and reported on the status of women representation in the ministries; it is low, and often restricted to certain portfolios.
“With all state assemblies put together, 360 of the country’s 4,120 MLAs – or nine percent – are women.” The Hindu’s analysis of data compiled by Bhanupriya Rao, an open data campaigner and an RTI activist, however, shows just 39 of the 568 ministers in state governments, or less than seven percent, are women. Fewer still are cabinet ministers.
“Two states and one union territory – Nagaland, Mizoram and Puducherry – have no women MLAs at all.” Quite a shock isn’t it? “Four additional states – Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Punjab – have women MLAs, but no women ministers. Nearly 12 percent of Punjab’s assembly comprises women, while Telangana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have close to 10 percent women MLAs, yet none of these states have a woman minister.”
Why do we ‘celebrate’ Women’s Day every year? Mere compliments, messages and flowers are not the marks of Women’s Day, and the celebration will be real only when we have understood and achieved its meaning.
Just to remind you readers about the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill – which is a lapsed bill in India now – had proposed to reserve 33 percent of all seats in the lower house of the parliament, the Lok Sabha, and in all state legislative assemblies, for women. The upper house, the Rajya Sabha, passed the bill way back in 2010, but as of February 2014, the Lok Sabha has not yet voted on the bill. Can we ask why?
As the 2019 general elections are nearing, we will not be surprised to hear from all the political parties about the reservation – women empowerment and other rhetoric. But soon, they too shall fade.
Empowerment is not just in the reservation – empowerment isn’t in ‘giving’ the seats but in evolving from the archaic-feudal-patriarchal mindset, which I believe is a long way to go. Some of this have been well displayed in the assembly itself – the most exemplary one is that of JDU leader Sharad Yadav, who, when opposing the women’s bill, said the bill would only benefit the well-off in the cities, describing well-off women as ”Par kati auratein (women with short hair).”
Similarly, men are not very happy when women are ‘loud’. Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam to BJP MP Smriti Irani: “It’s only four days of your entry into politics and you have become a political analyst” and “Aap toh TV pe thumke lagati thi, aaj chunavi vishleshak ban gayi (You were shaking your hips on TV, and now you have become a psephologist).”

Women taking on the challenges of politics in Arunachal Pradesh
The plight of the women leadership is frail in Arunachal, just like the other Northeast states. My state Arunachal has only two female leaders in the 60-seat assembly today. The state goes to vote next year. Will we see more women or resort back to nil?
The term ’empowerment’ is rhetorically comprehended, let alone advocated in our state, where vices like polygamy and child marriage, along with the culture of ‘bride price’, however diminishing, still persist pervasively, and the social representation of women is and has been a sad affair for a very long time. And political and economic empowerment is strictly bleak or minimal, along with the primary concern of education for the girl child.
As per the 2011 census, the literacy rate in Arunachal Pradesh is 66.95 percent, with male literacy at 73.69 percent and female literacy at just 59.57 percent. Not to forget the contention of the right to proprietorship, to which many women rights activists have spoken widely about along with other unveiled issues. Here, women are still considered a secondary gender and are often perceived as the shadows of their husbands, like in the rest of India.
“Electoral politics is still a far cry for women in Arunachal Pradesh,” says Jumyir Basar, an assistant professor at the Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies under Rajiv Gandhi University.
An assessment of women’s political status could be made through studying the role of women in rural politics, through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act -promising but not effective. According to Nirupam Bajpai, the director of the Columbia Global Centres, South Asia, “Not only is the political participation of women in the northeastern states very low, it is actually an all-India phenomenon. Across political parties, the total number of women candidates account for less than 10 percent of all those contesting the 2014 parliamentary elections.”
The recent episode of ‘forcing women politicians to compromise’ is another grim reality of the status of women leadership in Arunachal.
According to the Kani Nada Maling, the former legal advisor to the Arunachal Pradesh State Commission for Women (APSCW), “The recent appointments made in the APSCW clearly indicate that women are being victimized at the hands of male political leaders who feel threatened at the leadership of women. Whenever a woman is ready to take up a strong political role, it is a threat to the existing power structure; it so happens that she is adjusted in the APSCW” (The Arunachal Times, 21 March, 2018).
It is said, “Until we reach a point where values associated with femininity are more universally valued in public life, women will continue to try to give up being feminine when they enter the world of politics, for those who are the most successful are those who can best deny their femininity.” I, however, as an educated woman of my state, and many like me, would like to envisage and attempt to break such establishments and propose the idea of a society and state that is universal for all of us. And it cannot be achieved until the oppressive gender hierarchies that operate to frame the way in which we think and engage in politics are dismantled.
A non-gendered perspective could truly offer us a more inclusive way of thinking about our collective future – a future in which women and men could share equally in legislations and decision making towards the construction of a safer and a more just world. (The writer is an activist and a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)