“The universe,” wrote a wise woman (Muriel Rukeyser), “is made of stories, not of atoms”. Several years ago, chatting informally with some outstanding women parliamentarians from privileged backgrounds, the talk veered towards some unspoken facts of careers that demanded constant mobility in company that largely consisted of men. Stories, at once sad and hilarious, tumbled out.
One of them, in her time, was the youngest parliamentarian and had a baby she was breastfeeding. It came about that the grand Parliament House then had no facility for this. So, at each two-and-a-half hour interval, she ran to her car where her son’s nanny sat with the baby. Senior women parliamentarians finally intervened on her behalf and helped end her ordeal. Another talked of long and tedious trips to rural Rajasthan during elections, where her car was followed by 40 others with male colleagues and security men. Fearing that the whole caravan would screech to a stop and embarrassment would follow if she had to answer the call of nature, she learnt to withhold her natural needs so much that after each election she fell ill with severe urinary tract infections. This was capped by another similar tale from an actor who had been nominated to the Upper House and discovered to her horror that her being a Bollywood actor led many of her worthy colleagues to make passes at her till she spoke to the party chief.
Politics is one area where we have not come a long way. In 2019, women’s actual involvement remains noticeably weak across parties. And nine out of 10 of our legislators are men. In the matter of women’s actual political representation in Parliament, India ranks 151 globally among 190 countries. Among its eight South Asian neighbours, India ranks below Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. And (according to the Inter-Parliamentary Forum), as of 2014, India’s women occupied less than 12 per cent seats both in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Even in the state and national decision-making bodies, women remain hugely under-represented.
The present dispensation has long paraded the fact that it has handed two of the most important portfolios to women — defence and external affairs. But neither the MEA nor the DM have accompanied the prime minister on several important trips abroad. If major deals were made and bilateral treaties were signed during these years, it was mostly done by the PM and his bureaucrats. Since the question of the necessary presence of women ministers was not confronted sufficiently in Parliament or the mainstream media, might something not be missing in the conceptualisation of women’s political worth, and the understanding of our history of democratic consciousness? The MEA’s allocated primary role seems to have become playing a sort of Mother Teresa figure — dispensing help and justice to stranded couples, abandoned wives or workers trapped in war-ravaged areas abroad. Sushma Swaraj’s considerable political experience and negotiating skills remain under-utilised. As for the defence minister, since the events following the terror attack in Pulwama, Nirmala Sitharaman has been noticeably absent from the public arena, appearing only to lay wreaths and re-tweeting messages about peace on earth and goodwill to the youth, and occasionally calling upon injured soldiers in the hospital.
What form of power does this seeming curtailment of the legitimate powers of a minister give men? The answer came as we watched the serial male chest-thumping over the Balakot strike. It was obvious power is most ruthlessly male when it chooses to play the war game, or moonchhon ki ladai (the battle of the moustaches) to quote a Hindi phrase.
Why lay so much stress on active and fair gender representation in the legislature, some may ask. Fact is, a proper and active representation matters to all marginalised groups, including women who form the numerically-largest chunk. There has been a noticeable spurt in the socio-economic position of women in panchayats. Despite much smirking over many women being “proxies for family interests”, quotas have raised women’s self-esteem and decision-making capacities noticeably at the local level. Hence, records from the last three decades show a spurt in pro-women, pro-family decisions. IndiaSpend, for example, reports that in Tamil Nadu, women in panchayats, compared to their male counterparts, were found to have disbursed 48 per cent more public funds in building roads and improving access.
In this atmosphere of mutual suspicion and trust deficit across political parties, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik’s decision to field women candidates in 33 per cent of the seats in the general election provides a welcome relief. He has become the first to trip the lock for women’s rights and move the bar on gender parity higher. Like Babasaheb Ambedkar, Indian women will always remember and respect him for walking the talk.
Old ideas about gendered roles actually retain their magnetism, even when they are long past their sell-by date. Stories that surface from time to time show that it is not only that men will frequently treat women badly, but that it is accepted as their choice whether or not to give women power, and how much. The political right, forever foraging into India’s mythical Hindu past, justifies the continued subordination of women and Dalits when push comes to shove. This mindset has four interconnected facets in politics. One, women as an elected group are subordinate to the party, which is mostly or entirely male. Two, women are subordinated because of biology. Three, women’s primary role is to raise families and any large-scale induction of women in active politics will mean the end of home life as India has known it. Four, all women share the same biology so they must be treated as a group, not addressed as individuals.
A fact little noticed in the media is how male power is a myth that makes itself true and begets, in turn, a grim paranoia about a sudden loss of total control.
Like a gigantic peepal tree, my understanding of this fact began with a grain of truth from a grandmother, a widow far ahead of her times whose sons had been in the forefront of the Gandhian satyagraha in our little town. When I asked her about her own non-participation in the azadi ki ladai raging outside, her answer was: “Well, I asked the men if I go out with a placard with you all, will I still have to have a bath and then cook rice and dal for all when we return from the street marches? They looked away. And I knew there was nothing in it for me.” Decades later, the late Aruna Asaf Ali told me during an interview, that she felt like Babasaheb pushing for the rights of his community, women too should have made sure they had proper representation in national decision making. We all joined the movement initially, she said, not so much for ideological reasons, but because of our love for our husbands, sons or brothers. Men decided the next course of action and we followed like lambs, no questions asked. We loved and trusted them so much that we forgot to push for gender equality. We should have.
In 2019, we need to move beyond reflections about family relationships and motherhood and women’s inalienable duties to society. Till we do that, a politics that does not dominate and bully women will remain as difficult to envision as a society in which men can no longer dominate and bully women — verbally, physically, politically or economically.
This article first appeared in the March 13, 2019 print edition under the title ‘A time for her story’