A crisis defines the popular memory of a generation. Those who step up and take on the challenge become our heroes. They inspire us and we follow in their paths. For many Indians of the previous generation, the freedom fighters who participated in the independence struggle became heroes. But how many of them were women? Takes us a minute doesn't it?
Very few (men and women) know about Pritilata Waddedar, one of the main masterminds of the Chittagong Armory Raiders that precipitated the freedom struggle in Bengal. Not many have heard about Sulochanabai Dongre who advocated for birth control and labour rights for lower caste women in 1942 at the All India Depressed Classes Women's Conference. Many more such women fought tooth and nail with our men during the Indian Freedom struggle but most got forgotten from popular memory. History does indeed become 'his' version of the 'story' often! Even in present times, there are only a fraction of women leaders who receive the limelight and recognition they deserve in public space and politics, despite being in the system for a long time.
Barriers To Entry
Politics, as a given, has higher barriers to entry than other fields and professions. There are no clear pathways into different roles, money and political connections are considered a precondition to survival and the popular perception is 'politics is dirty', 'a space for corruption' which is a definite no-no for respectable households and their families. These constraints amplify when it comes to women. The result - Women held only 14.3% seats in Lok Sabha and 10.7% in Rajya Sabha in 2019 and this is the highest that it has ever been! How will they successfully represent almost 50% of the Indian population is a question to think about!
Of the women who manage to cross the barriers to entry, only a chosen few are given important decision-making responsibilities and power. The representation of women in the Union Council of Ministers currently stands at 12% with 6 Women of Cabinet rank.
Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha MP from Tamil Nadu had mentioned in a conference, "To be taken seriously itself is a big achievement for a woman. She has to be at least twice as intelligent, twice as hardworking! Party workers told my father not to put women candidates, as they won't help them campaign - such perceptions exist. It is not inclusive at all, and like every other field, women will have to break the glass ceiling."
Myths About Women In Politics
Glass ceilings exist for women everywhere, it is not news to any of us. But the political glass ceiling is a bit more unique! Here are some interesting myths and truths that may help you understand the politics behind women's absence, well in politics!
A. Voters DON'T want women leaders
A big perception is that voters don't want women leaders and hence will not vote for them. A survey conducted by the Shakti-Neta App asked about 10 lakh registered voters across the demographics lines "Do you want more women MPs in Lok Sabha in 2019?" The answer was an emphatic 82.2% YES across 24 states.
B. If a party gives tickets to women leaders, women will NOT win!
Data from the Press Information Bureau and the Election commission has found that over the years, women have had a higher winning percentage than men. Out of the total number given tickets, more women tend to win than men.
C. Women are NOT good leaders!
Research conducted across villages with women sarpanches in Tamil Nadu found that 60% of panchayat women leaders worked independently without male interference. Women leaders invested 48% more money than male counterparts in infrastructure, improving road access and sophisticated systems for clean water provision. Another research also adds that female PRI leaders are more likely to focus on issues important to women, public goods and infrastructure.
Difficult Road Ahead, But...
There were 15 women, out of a total of 389, in the constituent assembly that collectively drafted the Indian Constitution in 1949. That is a meagre 3.85%!! Yet this team took one of the biggest steps towards gender equity by providing the right to vote to all Indians, men AND women at the dawn of our democracy.
There continue to be some fiery examples of women leadership across parties that give us hope! We have had some strong women CMs from Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu to Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, from Sheila Dixit in Delhi to Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal over the years. Non-feminine portfolios like Finance and External Affairs have been led by women like Nirmala Sitaraman and Sushma Swaraj. National parties led by women like Sonia Gandhi for Congress, Mayawati for Bahujan Samaj Party or Mamata Banerjee leading Trinamool Congress continue to lead the way. Yes, they have faced criticism, been objectified and vilified by counterparts. But they are fearlessly fighting to break the glass ceiling.
Women can heal the heart of politics by the innate ability to nurture. Our politics needs healing, it needs to walk away from the spirit of dominance and centralisation to that of collaboration and compassion. We need leaders who can think, both at a meta-level but also care for the last person. This shift is imperative in today's politics and enhanced participation of women is absolutely essential for it. Some have already jumped into the arena. Are you ready to join them?