“Politics is not for women.”
“It’s just simpler for a woman to handle her responsibilities at home, and leave the politics to men.”
The social codes of ancient Indian society tended to straightjacket elite women into domestic roles, denying them entry into the political sphere. But defying these codes, many women played indirect, and sometimes, even direct roles in the exercise of political power. The ancient Indian text Arthashastra acknowledges women’s political agency. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi plays an active role in the debate to decide whether the Pandavas should go to war or not. And in ancient Tamil Sangam poetry, we see evidence of women ambassadors, advisors, and even bodyguards and throne guards under Chola rule. The women seemed to have held certain offices, apart from owning property. Centuries later, in Mughal India too, we see evidence of wives and mothers of Nawabsplaying a prominent role in politics. For instance, Babur, considered the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, was trained in lessons of warfare and diplomatic affairs by his grandmother, Daulat Begum. And in the 19th century, when the British annexed the kingdom of Awadh, while Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was sent into exile to Calcutta, it was his wife Begum Hazrat Mahal who chose to stay on and challenge the British. But even though women played unofficial roles in policy-making and diplomacy, they were rarely given official opportunities in the political realm.
This changed with the birth of print media in India, and women’s public participation in India’s first debates on law and reform, related to the age of consent and child marriage. Padma Anagol has argued that modern feminism came to India through women’s participation in the nineteenth-century child marriage controversy. The nationalist movement too encouraged the participation of women, especially after the agitations against the Partition of Bengal in 1905. This enabled nationalist feminists like Sarojini Naidu, Herabai Tata and Mithan Lam to push for greater participation of Indian women in politics, including their right to vote. Between 1920 and 1929, all British provinces in India decided to give women the right to vote i.e., of Punjab and Assam in 1926, and Bihar and Orissa in 1929 amongst other. However, this was a right enjoyed merely by 1% of women. It was only after the drafting of the Constitution in 1947 that all women could vote. But even thoughwomen could cast their votes, they were still not holding many of the political leadership roles.
Even today, women make up a wee bit of about 13% of the Indian parliament, while the global average is around 20-25%. It’s been 25 years since the bill for reservation of 33% of seats for women in the parliament was introduced, but it is yet to be passed. Most national and regional parties too, don’t give more than 20% of MLA and MP tickets to women. This attitude stems from a monolithic patriarchal mind-set, according to which only men can be capable of being good leaders. And we reinforce this mind-set from a tender age. Research has found that inthe low-incomehouseholds in India, while young boys are encouraged to build leadership through sports and public speaking, young girls are often made to skip school, and go home early to take care of household chores. In colleges and universities, unions and presidential roles too are often filed by men, because women who do make it to the university level prefer to focus on their studies, or stay away from ‘dirty’ politics. This notion of politics being a ‘dirty game’ plays a huge part in families and their support system, finding it dangerous or unsafe for young women to enter into politics. This adds to the vicious cycle of politics continuing to be male-dominated, a fact which is often highlighted in the treatment of the few women politicians we have, now. From what they wear and how they drape their sarees, to how they talk and express themselves, everything comes under scrutiny. They are far more prone to sexualisation or derogatory remarks about their merit and demeanour. In fact, a large scale study found that one in every seven tweets about Indian women politicians is abusive. But there is established and growing evidence that women’s leadership in politics actually improves governance by increasing responsiveness to citizen’s needs, improving cooperation across political parties and ethnic lines, and by prioritising long-term development through education and healthcare.
So, maybe, it’s time we make space for women in politics, not just with this tokenistic gestures, but challenging and changing this ’56-inch chest’ hyper-masculine way in which politics takes place. The field of politics and the world at large would be a better and better governed place if we battle these biases that stop women from entering into the political roles.