Since man-made civilisation, women have been navigating their way through the rocky reefs of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny. Male chauvinism fostered a damaging myth, that women were mentally inferior. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer and an advocate of educational and social equality for women, wrote her famous book titled Vindication of the Rights of Women in which she drew attention to “the baneful lurking gangrene of the tyranny of men over women.”
Have things been any different in the Indian context, if we talk about women’s participation in politics right from the 1960s? Truth be told, it has never been a walk in the park for women whose personalities were forged in the blazing smithy of political ambition. Despite succeeding to a large extent in breaking the political glass ceiling, they have often been subjected to physical violence, jibes and sexist remarks. Indira Gandhi was dubbed as a goongi gudiya (dumb doll) by Ram Manohar Lohia. Her foray into politics was not without its share of trials and tribulations. At an election rally, Mrs Gandhi was hit by a stone, giving her a bloody nose and swollen upper lip. She became the Prime Minister at a time when male politicians from the Congress party held all the aces.
In 1989, the late J Jayalalitha’s saree was “pulled and torn” by a DMK minister in Tamil Nadu’s Legislative Assembly. Jayalalitha had a tough time recovering from this humiliating experience. Made of sterner stuff, this former actress from the South had to fight every inch for political space and succeeded in storming the male bastion with a vengeance.
The tough, combative West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has always found politics to be red in tooth and claw. In 1990, during a protest march, Ms Banerjee, who was then a youth Congress leader, was attacked by a CPM youth wing leader. The attack, instead of breaking her spirit, strengthened her resolve to remain wedded to her political vision. Small wonder that Ms Banerjee became the chief minister of West Bengal for the third time last year when her party defeated the BJP in the assembly elections. She has now the rare distinction of being the only woman chief minister in India at present.
The feisty Mayawati of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had to pay the price for her refusal to play ball with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government in 1995. Irate SP workers abused and beat her up when she was holding a meeting with her party workers at a Lucknow guest house. For women politicians in India, the road to a successful political career has always been paved with challenges and difficulties. Nevertheless, they have overturned the victim trope. They have displayed courage and chutzpah in doing what they truly believe in.
Jibes, insinuations and outright attacks notwithstanding, women are winning elections and getting elected to Parliament more than ever before. Some of today’s young women politicians are educated, outspoken and upfront about their political priorities. Politicians like Mahua Moitra (TMC), Priyanka Chaturvedi (Shiv Sena), Smriti Irani (BJP) and Atishi Marlena (AAP), to name just a few are in their forties and come out all guns blazing when it comes to taking up important issues of the day in Parliament. Ms Moitra recently approached the Supreme Court challenging the release of 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano rape case.
However, while the present Lok Sabha boasts of the largest-ever presence of women MPs, the fact remains that women continue to be marginalised in the political stakes. Political empowerment of women in India still remains elusive for multiple reasons. Take, for instance, the average percentage of women in Parliament (both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) which is 12.8 and, considered less than that of the South Asia region, Asia and the world. The representation of women in the State Assemblies is lesser than the Parliament with 11.23% of women being members of Legislative Assemblies in the states. Interestingly, India is lagging behind countries like Pakistan (19.7%) and Bangladesh (20.9%) when it comes to better representation of women in Parliament.
Even 26 years after the introduction of Women’s Reservation Bill in Lok Sabha by the then United Front government of HD Deve Gowda, which proposed to reserve one-third of total seats in Parliament as well as in all state assemblies for women, it is still pending in the Lok Sabha, despite its reintroduction.
India can take a leaf out of Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba’s book where more than half of parliamentarians are women. Countries like France, South Korea and Nepal have passed laws mandating parties to reserve as much as 50 per cent of all tickets for women. It is high time all the national and regional parties passed resolutions to ensure that 50% of the seats are reserved for women candidates in Parliament as well as in the state assemblies.
However, all is not lost given the increasing women’s participation in politics, and the day is not far off when India will achieve gender equality in terms of political decision making, and create a level playing field for them.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Delhi