Femme First Foundation launched its first She Runs Government dialogues, a platform to encourage women’s participation in politics, in New Delhi on 5th December 2019. It brought women from different political parties together to discuss myriad ramifications of systemic patriarchy, embedded within Indian politics and society. The event spearheaded an effort, to normalize political discourses inclusive of women, to question misogyny, and to forge resilient solidarity.
The diverse panel was moderated by Padmaja Joshi, Editor, Times Now; and included speakers across the political spectrum:
1. Atishi, Spokesperson, Aam Admi Party
2. Jothimani, Lok Sabha MP, Congress
3. Lalitha Kumaramangalam, Former NCW Chief and Member, BJP
4. Priyanka Chaturvedi, Deputy Leader, Shiv Sena
Women Politicians v/s Rape Culture
The normalization of rape is a corollary of patriarchy. It emerges from socialization and acceptance of the rape culture which begins from turning a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour. Women leaders, with diverse and diametrically opposing ideologies, came together, to discuss the common denominator in their life – being a woman in a patriarchal political ecosystem. Many pertinent questions were raised, discussed, and pondered upon as they dissected – what is it like to be a female politician in India?
An ode to equality with tokenism
“Women also think twice to ask for something which should be a normal natural demand”
- Lalitha Kumaramangalam
Padmaja Joshi questioned the extent of inclusion of women within the political spectrum. Lalitha Kumaramangalam put forth that the changes in the system have merely been cosmetic – wherein reservation for inclusion only remains at the party level but not for distribution of tickets. She throws light upon the fact that successes of female pradhans at the panchayat level remain absent from popular discourse despite statistical evidence that women leaders have worked more for the alleviation and upliftment of their people. While the norms of campaigning formulate the bedrock of Indian democracy, they have been very exclusionary – bereft of‘toilets’ for women let alone a conversation around menstruation. She said that “we don’t drink water, we take the pills, grit our teeth and just go on”. The patriarchal paradigm conditions women to make multiple compromises and sacrifices across professional careers. The surreptitious and blatant sexism within our society is protected by the beneficiaries of the oppression it yields. Jothimani raised a point about separation between electoral politics and women’s issues and how notions of women empowerment and safety are far removed from the priority list of party-manifestos. She feels that while overnight radical change is impossible in any sphere – oppressive structures can be broken down if women raise voices within their own parties. Representation of women in Indian politics rests on the concept of trickle-down effect. Therefore historical action of adding a few women as token representatives has been used to negate the anti-women imagery of politics. However, as women finally realize the façade of selective inclusion, there is significant amplification of voices that demand equity within the system.
Perception as Professional Liabilities
“Good family women don’t go into politics”
- Jothimani (Advice she received from numerous relatives)
As feminists rose with the slogans of personal is political – they sought to challenge the system of biological determinism. Professional investment in women is deemed to be futile as women in lieu of their ‘intellectual inferiority’ are only capable to fill their biological role of chaste mothers and wives. This outright assumption exists in all mainstream careers – but becomes more profound in the masculine world of politics. Jothimani questioned the marital destiny of a woman – as only a supportive wife, caring mother and homemaker. She shared her experience with unsolicited advises from ‘well-wishers’ that “good family women don’t go into politics” and faced undue attention for exercising her individual agency to not get married. The patriarchal institution of marriage warrants performative roles of subservient supporters and domineering providers from women and men, respectively. While many breach this normative marital doctrine - men are lauded for ‘helping in raising kids’ whereas women are rebuked for not fulfilling their roles. And even if some men manage to embrace equal partnership in their relationship – they are ridiculed for being emasculated.
The Woman Card?
‘The keel has always been uneven. It is nowhere close to even. Men fight on an uneven keel. Then so should women.'
- Lalitha Kumaramangalam
Many women in politics face overtly sexist comments within their political parties. As women report these misdemeanors, they are either ridiculed with comments like ‘are you PMSing?’ and often portrayed as triggered hysterical beings guided by their physiological functions. They are also accused of seeking privileges and using the ‘woman card’. Padmaja Joshi emphasized on Vasundhara Raje being considered as an 8 p.m Chief Minister, “Male politicians can usher men into their bedrooms and hold darbars at midnight. But a woman cannot. And even if she wants she will be judged for it.”
This perceived equality in popular discourse often superimposes gendered actions – ‘Why are you overreacting? A man would not have a problem with such comments’ or ‘fight on an equal keel, don’t make it a man v/s woman issue’. There is deliberate ignorance of the principle of equity which proves the pervasiveness of unequal distribution of power and agency. Therefore vested interest in maintaining the status quo emerges from the desire to conserve the existing power dynamics – wherein men exercise disproportionate power.
Paternalism in Politics – women as extension of male figures
“Many leaders are patriarchal. But organizational ideology towards women is different – some respond more aggressively, whereas others are less aggressive.”
Atishi professed her privilege as she claimed to have never faced overt sexism from her party colleagues. However, the controversy, pamphlets assassinating her character, during her MP election campaign revealed undercurrents of masculine paternalism. Working women often realize that the rampant sexualisation of ‘career girls’ is a societal off-shoot of their own choices. As women make peace with the flak that follows their decision – men often assume the role of saviours to ‘protect’ women from their ‘own’ decisions. She said that the male members of her party knew about the derogatory pamphlets – it took them three days to finally tell her. Interestingly, when she raised her voice against the pamphlets– she was met with questions like ‘where is your husband?’ from different quarters. Jothimani also observed, that women leaders are often given titles of nurturance such as Amma, Behenji, Didi etc. Whereby suggesting that, women leaders are respected only when they share some semblance of familial relations. This also shows that the long drawn history of oppression has also led to internalization of patriarchy. As women begin to submit to the societal norm which denotes femininity or femaleness with weakness. Therefore, while men are considered to be powerful by the virtue of their gender role – women work hard to become ‘Iron Ladies’ to be accepted in the masculine world. Thus, in every sphere of life, a woman’s existence is one way or the other, viewed in comparison to, or as an extension of her male patriarchs – father, brother, husband, son.
Image of women in Politics
The legitimization of traditional gender roles began from the sexual division of labour. The gendered binaries actively defined the essence of masculinity and femininity. So – these external factors defined – ‘who is who’ based upon generalized attributes. However, it is interesting to notice that traditionally male characteristics are byproducts of rationality, logic and strength/power thereby securing their position in public realm. Whereas women are associated with attributes such as sensitivity, gentleness and nurturance which are relegated to the private realm.
Now the political sphere has always been considered as a man’s world – governed by His rules. Without any ivory tower argument, the politicians agreed that women in politics are taken seriously only when they showcase behaviour typically attributed to males. So, many women leaders – actively try to separate themselves from the stereotypical features attributed to their gender. This also shows that the long drawn history of oppression has also led to internalization of patriarchy. Herein women begin to submit to the societal norm which denotes femininity or femaleness with weakness. Therefore, while men are considered to be powerful by the virtue of their gender role – women work hard to become ‘Iron Ladies’.
'When we raise our voices [women] together, in unison, for each other, there is no might in the world that is going to stop us from being able to speak and being heard.'
- Priyanka Chaturvedi
The panelists emphasized upon the need for women solidarity within the political system. The Rama Devi controversy, objectionable remark made by another MP, showcased the importance of collectivization of women. Women MPs criticized the sexist comment and sought accountability in support of Rama Devi. The gatekeepers of patriarchy have created a self-sustaining structure. A system wherein men fashion greater unanimity in lieu of their camaraderie/brotherhood, and women tend to internalize the structural misogyny. Patriarchy is so deeply entrenched, that it is not limited to men, women also display overt antagonisms within themselves. Panelists agreed that women need to reject masculine notions of politics. Lalitha Kumaramangam said that women should “stop trying to compete with men on men’s terms” and reflect greater empathy towards each other. We need more female mentors in the system that are invested in the political grooming of women. It is imperative that women in political positions compartmentalize their party/ideological differences and forge a unified voice to create a sustainable women’s movement.
You can listen to the conversation here on Soundcloud and here on other platforms.
Watch the video here: