Updated: June 21, 2021 9:41:03 am
Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita outside the gates of Tihar Jail, raising slogans and fists, after a year-long incarceration that saw Narwal denied a chance to meet her ailing father before his death. It was a striking image. It is also a picture we have seen before. Young women coming up against the might of the state; their bodies and voices at the centre of crucial political contestations of Indian democracy. Neither penal action, nor charges under draconian sedition and terror laws, nor prolonged imprisonment, have discouraged them. Think of Amulya Leona, another anti-CAA activist who spent nearly three months in prison after a sedition charge was slapped on her for raising a slogan. Or the thousands of women who stepped out of homes to occupy public spaces across the country in vocal protest against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act. Or Safoora Zargar, another anti-CAA activist who was charged under UAPA, like Narwal and Kalita. Think of Disha Ravi, jailed for editing an alleged “toolkit” to drum up online support for the farmers’ protest against the new farm laws. Or Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit labour activist, who mobilised workers at the Singhu border in solidarity with farmers.
The pattern speaks of a generation of women, politicised by different realities and impulses, from the feminist activism at universities and colleges to the global climate movement. Beyond their specific trajectories, however, their greater political assertion and more visible presence in public spaces is a culmination of deeper changes — from the steady rise in numbers of women in higher education to their emphatic presence in voter turnouts, from cracks in the patriarchal consensus created by the weight of the #MeToo movement to the silent changes incubated by internet subcultures around gender identity. And yet, this political and democratic energy has grown outside of — almost in spite of — conventional party and political structures.
Indeed, political parties appear to be unaware of this shift — and seemingly unexcited by the possibilities for democratic politics that it represents. They have learnt to tailor their electoral pitch to women as voters. In this view, women do represent a vital constituency, but only of passive beneficiaries, to be cultivated with welfarist schemes that deliver gas cylinders and ration and bank accounts. Few parties have made space for women as leaders and ministers. As the remarkable protest of Kerala Congress leader Lathika Subhash or the questions about the dropping of KK Shailaja from the new Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet showed, even progressive Kerala has struggled with this paternal condescension to women. The demand for 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament remains in limbo, and political parties have done little to remove the structural barriers that discourage women. The pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate toll on women’s employment and income, calls for a politics that responds to these altered realities. Most of all, it demands that political parties catch up with women who are not silent spectators — who speak the language of democracy and are unafraid to build new solidarities.
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