Dr Carole Spary, deputy director, Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham, has been studying ‘Women MP’s and the Indian Parliament’ for a few years. She had recently held a workshop for researchers, scholars, academics and activists in the city. It got me thinking about women in Indian politics. Here are some take-aways from that discussion:
1. Despite high profile women leaders including Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Bannerjee, Mayawati, Sushma Swaraj etc, the representation of women in Assemblies and Parliament is miniscule. An increase in women’s participation is seen only in the municipal and Panchayat level elections, especially since the reservation in the 1990’s.
2. There is no dearth of women leaders. But the problem is bringing them to the forefront in a party that comprises mostly men. More women are contesting elections now, but because men too are contesting in large numbers, the rise of women is slow. While lineage and capital are important to bring women into politics (just as it is for men), there’s no guarantee that a party with a woman leader will give space for more women.
3. Election Commission data have shown that women contest more in SC seats, but not ST seats as compared to general seats. It is observed that women are more likely to win when nominated.
4. But that brings us to the question of caste, which is the very basis of politics in India. Why women vote for women cannot be statistically measured, but the question remains: do women vote for their caste or their gender?
5. A look at data on MPs’ participation in debates will tell us that male and female MPs are around the same average. Actually, some women MPs are more active most men.
6. It is certainly not easy for women MPs to speak in Parliament. Senior MPs get more chances to speak, and they mostly tend to be men. In giving all parties a chance to speak, party leaders grab it and again, not so many women are party leaders. Junior MPs often lay their speech on the table because senior MPs overshoot their allocated time limit
7. Women MPs are, sometimes, expected to participate on behalf of the party to speak on gender issues when they might want to participate in other debates. While men MPs discuss issues such nationalism and secularism, must they not also actively partake in debates on women’s issues?
8. The Parliament itself continues to be a site of sexual harassment and overt sexism. MPs Jaya Bachchan and Priyanka Gandhi were subjected to sexist comments from their peers, and a male MP is supposed to have said when debating, “if this is the state with 11%, what would 33% bring us?”. Let’s not forget comments on dark skins, pretty women, and southern siblings.
On parliamentary committees, regional politics, panchayat and municipal elections, proxy women candidates, women who come into the playing field to make a mark and affect their community, Dr Spary had a lot more to say. Will we discover new women leaders if the reservation in the parliament is extended to the party? Is it enough to just have numbers in women representatives if they don’t believe in progressive feminist ideals? Will the causes of the marginalised be represented by those in power? How far will the parliament go without sensitisation or a change in attitudes? And finally what change can the two houses bring about for women that one billion houses in the country take seriously?
(The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist & a media glutton)