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What the dismal number of women elected this time tells us

Despite these numbers, or rather because of them, the victory of each of these 70 women in the recent state assembly polls is remarkable, whether they make exceptional leaders or not

In a country with deplorable levels of women in the workforce, and social-cultural norms that heavily police women’s mobility and participation in public life, getting involved in electoral politics is a far-fetched dream for most women. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Written by Akshi Chawla

It’s 2021. It seems redundant to state this fact, but a reminder is needed considering the state of political representation in the country. Sample this: In the recent assembly elections, 70 women made it to their state legislatures. But out of all winners, they made up less than 9 per cent; their male colleagues will be an astounding 752 in number.

Even West Bengal, the best among the five states, will have just 14 per cent women, while Puducherry will have an assembly with only one woman as member. And barring Kerala with a marginal increase, the numbers have either remained consistent, or have actually worsened as compared to the 2016 election.

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Despite the dismal numbers, or rather because of them, the victory of each of these 70 women is remarkable, whether they make exceptional leaders or not. The numbers are eventually a symptom of a political culture that is deeply patriarchal, and often outright sexist, and for women to make it thus far can often mean surviving a thousand battle cuts.

In a country with deplorable levels of women in the workforce, and social-cultural norms that heavily police women’s mobility and participation in public life, getting involved in electoral politics is a far-fetched dream for most women. Politics is essentially a public act, and research shows that women’s ability to negotiate a space independent of the household is an important factor in deciding if or not they will be politically active.

Opinion |Us vs them: the battle for state culture in recent assembly polls

How many women are able to negotiate such a space is anybody’s guess. Even when they overcome familial resistance and jump into the world of politics, a rather harsh journey awaits. Political parties — the gatekeepers — are some of the biggest barriers women face.

Let’s take a moment to understand that with hard evidence.

Most parties express allegiance to the women’s reservation bill which could pave the way for 33 per cent reservation for women in the Parliament, but how many actually field even a quarter of their candidates who are women? In the recent polls, women made up 8 per cent of all candidates in Assam and 11 per cent in the other four states. Roughly, one in every 10 individuals who contested the election was a woman. If that number doesn’t trouble us in 2021, one wonders what will.

All parties were equally guilty. Among major parties across all states, the All India Trinamool Congress put forth the highest share of women candidates, but even this stood at 17 per cent. The Congress performed worst — 5 per cent women candidates in Tamil Nadu and 8 per cent in West Bengal. The Bharatiya Janata Party had between 13-15 per cent women among candidates in the three larger states, and 8 per cent in Assam. Regional parties, including the DMK and AIADMK, and the Left fared no better.

Also in Opinion |Post-poll violence in Bengal must stop

For India’s political parties, women matter, but only as vote banks. Across states, competing parties have wooed women voters with a wide range of promises including wages/allowances for “housewives”, washing machines, gas cylinders, free public transport, and so on.

And yet, they all fail when it comes to the actual test of “empowerment” — sharing political power. This is hardly about a lack of women. It has been almost three decades since the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments paved the way for at least one-third seats to be reserved for women at the local level, thus creating a large pool of women with political experience. In all four states that went to polls, this share has been increased to 50 per cent over the years.

Yet, male-heavy parties are simply uncomfortable about giving an opportunity to women to participate in politics at the assembly or parliamentary level. The ones who get tickets must be “deserving” enough — a criterion largely ignored while picking men. One of the most solemn yet riveting images from this election season was of Lathika Subhash, the head of the Kerala Congress’s women’s wing, who tonsured her hair to protest the denial of ticket.

Male party leaders think women can only climb up to be district panchayat presidents. After that, they will decide whether a woman should be an MLA or MP, she said. Several other women from the party resigned in Subhash’s footsteps.

Getting a ticket obviously does not mean an easier journey ahead for women. In an Instagram Live, poet and politician from Tamil Nadu, Salma, recounted how she lost an assembly election narrowly because the workers of her own party, the DMK — heavily dominated by men — were not supportive of a woman candidate. Instead of supporting her, they sabotaged her chances of winning.

Salma’s case is not an exception. Women often face hostility, apathy and even abuse from their own parties. In a 2014 study by UN Women, more than half respondents (58 per cent) from India said that they faced violence and abuse from members of their own parties.

The political world outside of their own parties is no less hostile to them. Sexist, misogynistic comments are rampant, and the 2021 elections were no different. The prime target of these was Mamata Banerjee, who happens to be, even in 2021, the only woman chief minister in the country.

From Dilip Ghosh, the BJP chief in the state advising her to wear bermuda shorts, if she were so keen to show her legs (because Banerjee had an injured foot, and the plastered leg was visible), or Surendra Singh, a sitting MLA from UP saying that she has the traits of a demon, and “no values or characteristics of women”, Banerjee, an exception in the male-dominated political landscape of the country, found herself at the receiving end of several gendered comments. Another BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya shared a picture of her cooking and claimed this is what she would be doing post the results.

The campaign in the state touched a new low when one of the most cacophonous jibes of the entire campaign came from none other than the Prime Minister himself, who chose to refer to Banerjee in a tone that reminded several women of the kind of catcalls they have faced while walking the streets. The Election Commission remained complicit with its silence and indifference.

In Tamil Nadu, V Gopikrishnan dropped the bar very low fairly early in the campaign when replying to a query on permission to enter a temple’s sanctum sanctorum, he asked MP Kanimozhi if the sanctum sanctorum was “like her bedroom, to be open for anybody to enter.” What is worth noting is that this remark came as a tweet — in full public display.

The toxicity women politicians face online is massive. A study published by Amnesty International last year found that one in every seven tweets that mentioned women politicians in India was “problematic” or “abusive”, and that women politicians in India faced substantially higher abuse than their counterparts in the UK and USA (which are no havens for women politicians, either).

But the damage this toxicity inflicts on women, who have already overcome several barriers merely to contest, is immense. It also acts as an active deterrent for women still aspiring to enter politics, making women’s poor representation a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle.

The journeys of the 70 women going forward are not going to be easy. Even after getting elected, these battles are likely to continue, exacerbated by a media which often amplifies these narratives, instead of critiquing them. And the fact that the women are so few, less than one for every 11 MLAs, offers little solace.

Akshi Chawla runs #WomenLead, a platform dedicated to tracking the work and journeys of women in politics from around the world.

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