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They don’t talk to her

Political leaders must address women’s aspirations in their election agendas.

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
September 25, 2013 5:48:00 am

Political leaders must address women’s aspirations in their election agendas.

It appears that no political party sees fit to have gender on its election campaign agenda. Arvind Kejriwal has a token line on safety,saying women will be more secure if the Aam Aadmi Party comes to power in Delhi. But that is simply cashing in on the dismal state of affairs in the world’s rape capital. Strangely,women have disappeared from the discourse of political parties. Politicians pay a good deal of attention to other demographics — youth,middle class and poor — which they believe influence election outcomes. Women are not considered an important demographic,not as youth,not as middle class and not as poor.

This despite the fact that,in recent times,gender has thrust itself into the popular consciousness because of the extreme violence inflicted on women. With more women emboldened to report crimes committed against them,there has been an unceasing litany of sexual violence against women of all ages,castes and classes. The perpetrators are varied — politicians,godmen,rich,poor,adolescent,young and old men.

Speeches of key political party leaders remain gendered and stuck in time,framed in terms of traditional gender roles. Because Rahul Gandhi is a youth icon and a popular political leader,I use his recent speech in Rajasthan as an example. One would have expected him to be more sensitive to gender nuances,but what are we to understand of his repeated exhortation that “the poor labourer who looks skyward” should dream that “my son will fly in that plane one day”. Why only the son,why not the daughter? Is she not capable of dreaming of flying a plane? He goes on to say “we brought in the land acquisition bill to let the farmers’ sons dream big,to respect your blood and sweat”. This after the government passed an amendment to the Hindu Succession Act,granting women rights to ancestral property,including land.

In the same rally,Rahul Gandhi said “kisan pasina deta hai,laga rahta hai”. There is no mention here of the fact that women also sweat in their daily work,help manifestly in food production and do the lion’s share of ancillary work that sustains agriculture. Not to mention women workers in other sectors of the economy. If recognised at all by politicians,women are viewed in the context of managing domestic budgets (price rise and women wielding belans are a favourite trope of the BJP in marches and rallies,attesting to the belief in frozen gender roles),raising children or looking after the elderly. Or they are granted a patronising Mother India identity — Rahul Gandhi,paying the usual tired lip service to women,said “mahilayen is desh ki shakti hain”.

Language is a reflection of the mind and conveys,ideas,values,thoughts. The language of Rahul Gandhi’s speech appears archaic as far as the transformation in gender roles or women’s aspirations is concerned. When I was doing research in rural India,women with young daughters would accost me and my colleagues,asking us to take their daughters with us and give them jobs. We found young girls who were willing to be fieldworkers for the paltry sum of Rs 6,000 a month. Their parents were willing to throw caution and reputations to the wind just to have the Rs 6,000 in the household kitty. Rather than lose out on the income,a mother-in-law accompanied her new daughter-in-law to the field to keep a watch on her. Every day,parents in small towns surrender their daughters to call centres — the earning daughter is of some use,after all.

Yet,when ministers and bureaucrats speak of “youth aspirations” or “youth unemployment”,they only have young,unemployed males in mind. The Indian imagination continues to see the male as the breadwinner,despite much evidence to the contrary. Isn’t it time for our leaders to consider including young women and their aspirations?

Rahul Gandhi was also conspicuous by his absence during the protests after the Delhi gangrape. One would have thought he would snatch the opportunity to make a pitch on an issue that is not as thorny as Hindu-Muslim relations or corruption. It is curious and disappointing that he chose not to speak against gender violence or show his solidarity with the agitating youth. Or was he simply calculating the possible cost to Congress governments at the Centre and in Delhi? But Rahul Gandhi is not alone in this.

Delhi’s backyard,Haryana,is rife with honour crimes. Yet the young Naveen Jindal does not dare speak out against the murderous khaps. He fears he will lose support if he upsets the patriarchal males who control the votes. Isn’t it time some political party cashed in the woman’s vote by focusing on them? Is it because women’s votes make no difference to poll outcomes,because they vote as their husbands and brothers tell them to? Or is that just an assumption?

The writer teaches at IIT Delhi

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