The citizens of the Indian sub-continent saw a new dawn in 2019 when India had a 14% representation of women in Parliament, a welcome and much needed growth. The steady increase has been lauded by the socially-aware generation of today, which expects inclusivity from the country’s leadership. While we are still far away from the debatable 33% ideal representation of women in the House, it is important to not forget the little milestones we achieve on the way.
The 78 women leaders elected in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections came from diverse backgrounds. A frequent question that is asked is why push for women? Why have seats reserved? The intersectionality of race, gender, caste, religion and so on often takes gender as a base where women are seen as commodities to be attacked or used to send across a message. The cumulative effect of being from a marginalised community and being a woman in that community creates an environment for discrimination for a variety of reasons.
For example, a Dalit woman is harmed because she is a woman and a member of the Dalit community. Be it religious minorities, the lower-caste in our country, or the trans community. Research shows that being a trans woman puts one more at risk of abuse and assault.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we don’t just have an adequate but diverse representation of women across all walks of life. The MPs elected this time show they are trying to bring more inclusivity and diversity in our leadership.
A self-help group activist
Pramila Bisoyi of Odisha is a grassroots self-help group activist. Hailing from rural Odisha, the 70-year old stood against all the stereotypes of what an elite leader should look like. Bisoyi’s life was no different from the lives of most girls from economically weaker sections of the society, in that she had to drop out of school after Grade III. While schooling stopped for her, nobody could stop her from learning. She continues to reside in her modest tin-roofed house and believes that her representation needs to reflect in her work, not her quality of living. An advocate of women empowerment ever since she was a child bride, Pramila Bisoyi continues write and sing songs on women empowerment. She is now responsible for self-help groups for over seven million women.
Inadequate representation for minorities
It may seem like we have a healthy representation of women across the economic pyramid, it doesn’t hold true for the minorities of the country. MP representation for Muslim women is still lacking. The first five Lok Sabhas since Independence had no Muslim women members and the number doesn’t go above four, ever. Right now, we only have two MPs representing the interests of Muslim women in India.
At a time when The Triple Talaq Bill was introduced in the Parliament, speakers debated amongst themselves about passing it. Strangely, not one of those speakers was a Muslim woman.
The Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan founder says “In our application to the Supreme Court, we had asked for a ban on not just triple talaq, but also polygamy and halala (a practice under which a divorced wife who wishes to remarry her former husband must first consummate an intervening marriage). Unfortunately, the court only heard us on triple talaq and not the other two issues.” It is important to acknowledge that right now as a country, we don’t have the bandwidth to do justice to these because the voices of those who are directly impacted are barely reaching us. The onus lies on political parties to field more candidates and provide them with the support to ensure equality in opportunity.
The Lok Sabha now has women from varied backgrounds foraying into politics through their resolve to improve governance. The leaders come from all walks of life – a rural woman, an investment banker, a lawyer, an actress, a veterinary leader, who are championing the interests of each of their communities. The rise in the representation of Dalit women is note-worthy and offers a beacon of hope.
To put things into perspective as to why it is important and an absolute win to have Dalit women representing their communities at the Centre, the top ten percent of India’s Upper Caste own 60% of the wealth. A paper by Chandrapal Singh Chauhan on Education and Caste found Dalits are under-represented in educational institutes and therefore grossly under-represented in positions of power, where qualifications play a vital role.
Avoiding tokenism in politics
However, the effectiveness of reservations have often been questioned, and rightly so. Some of our leaders may be women, but the decisions are often made by someone else behind them, in political tokenism. Women are often given a ticket to contest elections to satisfy the reservation criteria by their ambitious spouse/party leader- who makes all the decisions. The classic backseat driving is what plagues politics in India even now.
Rabri Devi is a classic example of this tokenism. Pulled from her household to contest for the position of Chief Minister in Bihar, she became a household name at a time when her husband Laloo Prasad Yadav was grappling with the investigations of fodder scam. Although she won the elections, it was Laloo who continued to act as the de facto CM, while using his wife as a ticket to provide him access to power.
The argument is therefore steered towards whether or not representation, and diversity in representation, make any difference when tokenism plagues the sphere anyway?
The answer to that is a definite yes. Firstly, the lived experiences of women across diverse strata cannot ever be adequately expressed by someone who has read it or heard second-hand accounts of them. Most importantly, seeing women as leaders and as role models, enables the younger generation to seeing role models that look like them. The political representation acts as an enabler to a range of possibilities that have been buried under layers of misogyny for women. The tokenism is a democratic deficit and brings down the status of women as puppets who cannot be trusted to make their own decision. But that is a fundamental flaw which arises out of our society’s discomfort in seeing women leading. If we stop representation on all accounts, it is dialling back progress by many years.
Instead, the conversations need to be around designing checks that would stop the culture of tokenism in Indian politics. The judiciary has played a great role in putting a stop to tokenism in politics and further having clear penalties for the same could be a great check, to begin with. That’s an institutional check which can be used to treat the symptom that tokenism is, but the underlying disease of gender roles are deeply embedded in our culture and therefore society as a whole needs to consciously argue against the prejudices women encounter in their daily lives.
Women Empowerment is a phrase interpreted in more ways than one depending upon the context but, there is no denying that a fundamental part of empowerment lies in enabling leadership for women across the diverse spectrum.
A version of this article first appeared at Public Policy India.