Women and Politics

women-and-pol.jpg“Women Empowerment” is a government slogan. There is a ministry for Women and Child development. There are laws against female foeticide, domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace. Determined women are carving their own niche in every field including those which were entirely male dominated till 1947. Despite all this they remain second class citizens in almost every sense in rural areas across India. Crime against women continues to increase, female foeticide is very common among educated women, incidents of sati still take place. The head of the family continues to be a man.

Women are made to account for themselves all the time. We are expected to justify our actions. An explanation is demanded from an adult woman if she stays out late while a young teenage boy who stays out all night is not questioned.

The story does not end here. In fact what underlines the inferior status conferred upon woman is their status in the field of politics. Throughout the world women face obstacles to their participation in politics. In 2005, the rate of female representation was only 16% globally. This figure has increased in recent years. The largest democracy in the world India elected its first woman president in its 60th year of independence. This clearly reflects the position of women in Indian politics. The 1940s saw active political participation by Indian women in the national struggle for independence. Woman leaders played a major role in the movement. Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Aruna Asaf Ali were some of the educated, elite women who joined politics in large numbers.

Recent reports in India indicate that many women politicians find it difficult to participate in an effective manner in politics, this points to a pressing need to analyze the role that women play in Indian politics. “Domestic responsibilities, lack of financial clout, growing criminalization of politics and the threat of character assassination” have made it increasingly difficult for women to be part of the political framework. Moreover, women politicians point out that even within the political parties, women are rarely found in leadership positions. Women have different strategies to cope with these constraints. If the family has accepted a woman’s career in politics, she can negotiate with her family. This is more likely if the family is an elite political family with more than one member participating in politics. If the woman was already active in political life before she married, she can face tremendous pressures from her husband’s family to conform to a traditional role that allows little scope for pursuing an active political career. A woman politician’s options in this case are either to conform to the expectations of the family and retreat from public life, or to leave the family in pursuit of an uncertain future in party politics.

The demand for greater representation of women in political institutions in India was not taken up in a systematic way, until the setting up of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI). The CSWI suggested that women’s representation in political institutions, especially at the grass-roots level, needed to be increased through a policy of reservation of seats for women.

The majority of women in the Indian Parliament are from the elite class. While their public role challenges some stereotypes, their class position often allows them a far greater range of options than are available to poorer women. Caste has been an important feature of Indian society and political life. Most of the women MPs in the Tenth Parliament were members of the higher castes. It is important to guard against making an easy correlation between caste and political representation. The influence of individual national leaders is also an important factor that militates against the “male equivalence”

theory. While Indira Gandhi, for example, did little to promote women’s representation in politics, Rajiv Gandhi accepted the principle of reservation of seats for women. He initiated measures that had a direct impact on the inclusion

of women in politics.

Women’s representation in the parliament, while important on the grounds of social justice and legitimacy of the political system, does not easily translate into improved representation of women’s varied interests. While we cannot assume that more women in public offices would mean a better deal for women in general, there are

important reasons for demanding greater representation of women in political life. First is the intuitive one: the greater the number of women in public office, articulating interests and seen to be wielding power, the more the gender hierarchy in public life could be weakened. Without sufficiently visible, if not proportionate, presence in the political system – “threshold representation”12 – a group’s ability to influence either policy-making, or indeed the political culture framing the representative system, is limited. This fact is confirmed by the various other contributions in this volume. Further, the fact that these women are largely elite women might mean that the impact that they have on

public consciousness might be disproportionately large in relation to their numbers.

Second and more important, we could explore the strategies that women employ to access the public sphere in the context of a patriarchal socio-political system. These women have been successful in subverting the boundaries of gender and in operating in a very aggressive male-dominated sphere. Could other women learn from this example? The problem here is, of course, precisely that these women are an elite. The class from which most of these women come is perhaps the most important factor in their successful inclusion into the political system. We can, however, examine whether socio-political movements provide opportunities for women to use certain strategies that might be able to subvert the gender hierarchy in politics. Finally, we can explore the dynamics between institutional and grass-roots politics. As this study demonstrates, the “politicization of gender” in the Indian political system is largely due to the success of the

women’s movement.

Aastha Khurana