Women and their right to lead

Women politicians are stigmatised and attacked in ways that men do not face. How long are we going to ignore it?

In March 1989, a debate in the Tamil Nadu Assembly rapidly deteriorated into the kind of scuffle that is now disgracefully associated with Indian legislators. The lowest point of that incident — arguably the Assembly’s history — came when a DMK MLA tried to slap J Jayalalithaa, then leader of the Opposition.

He ended up pulling the pallu of her saree instead. In February 2016, Soni Sori, the Chhattisgarh human rights activist who has been arrested and allegedly tortured, faced a chemical attack by unknown assailants. Not only have Soni Sori’s allegations of torture been dismissed, she is also accused of staging the attacks.

Twenty-seven years separate these two incidents, but what they have in common is the level of outrage they exposed. Women in politics pay for their “audacity” by suffering violence — a belief that is evoked by the hash-tag #Not- TheCost which is used to protest violence against women in politics.

We celebrate panchayati reservations and advocate Parliamentary quotas for women arguing that democracy and peace without women are incomplete and even impossible. But is it compatible with our tolerance — a tolerance that normalises violence? Now, wait, you might say, politics is violent, isn’t it? Yes, but the difference is that political violence in itself is a tug of war between political rivals (even between the state and its opponents).


Violence against women in politics is intended to show women their place and punish them for their temerity to leave the private sphere — for entering a world monopolised by men and challenging its premises, women must pay. Sexual violence in conflict zones is also political violence directed at gender-related vulnerabilities, both male and female but with the objective of humiliating their communities. Like everyday genderbased violence, it is on the same continuum as violence against women in politics.

Violence against women in politics takes several forms. Women politicians are stigmatised and attacked in ways that men do not face. Their clothes, their relationships and their lifestyles come under scrutiny. Comments about their manner and appearance mask a discomfort with their clout. Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Sonia Gandhi have faced this. The recent US election campaign took this to another level. Thirty years of political experience served only as a lightning rod for continued criticism, in addition to endless discussion about Hillary Clinton’s appearance, manner and family.

Verbal abuse, regarded as an act of violence in other contexts, is violence here as well. In some cases, women voters and candidates are both targets of abuse and intimidation. In any case, anticipation of a violent election process is likely to keep women away. When women seek to be a part of the state’s power apparatus, they face ridicule, stigma and violence, but when they take on the state, the reprisals draw out its full coercive capacity — from financial to security investigations.

Women human rights activists face continuous intimidation and harassment by state and non-state forces. The cases against Teesta Setalvad and Indira Jaising exemplify this. But if it is fair from your political perspective, how is arresting the Idinthakarai village women protesting against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant on sedition charges nothing but an attempt to intimidate?

They were arrested and taken to a prison where they were held for 82 days, just because they asked questions about a nuclear plant in their backyard. The vulnerability of women rights defenders extends to their families also. We should protect the women and their families also. Non-state actors are no more welcoming of women’s activism either. The Taliban, whose ideology confines women to the home sphere, has targeted professionals and women activists for defying this dictate. The rise of militancy anywhere in South Asia appears to begin with dress codes for women and restrictions on their mobility.

Even where women are admitted into the combat cadres of the militancy (the Tamil Tiger and Maoist groups, for instance), they rarely occupy decision-making roles. There are also many reports about sexual violence within their ranks. Women are also placed in the vanguard of protests as a way to fend off police action against male leaders. This uses the patriarchal assumption that “women will not be hurt as a shield for male leaders — who monopolise decision-making but not risk. The threat of violence generates its own stigma:

A woman who remains politically active in the face of threat to her body and her family must surely be a person of dubious character. There is no more effective barrier to a woman’s active and effective participation in public life than the contempt of family and community. With the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day falling on November 29, we should take a moment to recognise the contribution that women in politics have made to our lives.

In Chennai, the women who were involved in the freedom movement, were the ones who devoted their lives to build the city’s best-regarded institutions — Andhra Mahila Sabha, Madras Seva Sadan, Guild of Service, Cancer Institute and Bala Mandir, for instance. Are we going to reward them by ignoring the violence their successors face? Or will we repay our debt by pledging zero-tolerance for violence against women in politics? They made a tough choice and made it the mission of their lives; it is now our turn.

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The New Indian Express