What women want this Tamil Nadu election?

With elections round the corner, we examine whether they’re empowered enough to make informed choices, assert their opinions, and perhaps even enter the battle arena

CHENNAI: It’s often assumed that women aren’t politically inclined; or at least not as much as men. If so, how are they going to vote? And are they even ready to? Perhaps it all boils down to the information they have. And today, it’s easier than ever to get objective data on politicians and their parties. “Tools like the Right to Information (RTI) Act are being used increasingly.

But thanks to our patriarchal set up, women comprise just 10 per cent of RTI applicants,” social activist Anjali Bhardwaj points out. Things can improve if the Central government takes Section 4 of the RTI Act seriously, she notes. “Data must be available on accessible platforms and in local languages. Only then will 70 per cent of Indians, who don’t have internet access, will gain political awareness.” It’s not that women aren’t interested.

When Anjali’s organisation Satark Nagrik Sangathan, which promotes transparency and accountability in governance, sought data on how elected representatives performed, they found that women engaged with political developments on a deep level. “Women are increasingly asserting their voices but don’t have reservation in the elected sphere yet.

There is resistance to equal or substantial representation of women. It’s high time they are empowered to take informed decisions, as there’s no shortcut to social or economic development of women,” Anjali insists. One of the reasons people assume women aren’t politically aware is that they don’t know what women think, says feminist and historian V Geetha. “It is inappropriate to gauge the degree of empowerment based on perceptions and not on studies or empirical evidence. Maybe, having such studies/ surveys done will give us clarity.”

A perpetuated myth
The idea that women have less knowledge of or access to politics is a “perpetuated myth”, says AIDWA’s Kavitha Gajendran, adding that it’s fuelled by the lack of recognition of working women. “Ask any woman selling flowers, fish, and doing household work. They will be abreast of political developments. Working-class women are opinionated as they run their family and handle finances. Perhaps middle-class women, who are provided for by men, are less politicised,” she explains.

With news, to some extent, becoming a form of entertainment, political information now reaches far and wide. “How can we say women don’t know what’s happening, even after seeing them stand in solidarity during the Shaheen Bagh protests in Vannarapettai? Even all-women campaigns happen in India. It’s just that people don’t know it,” Kavitha states. Asserting that women in Tamil Nadu are clear about their political choices, Kavitha adds, “Under the Modi government, crimes against women, and women’s political awareness, increased. They understand that the saffron party is subjugating women.

It’s evident from their choice of words – ‘Rashtra Sevika Samiti ’,and not ‘Swayam Sevak’. They believe women are to serve men.” If there’s a way to change, it’s by making basic sex education available to all, Kavitha asserts. “Only when men trash the gender bias will they consider everyone equal. Secondly, changes in the family system, which breeds inequality and patriarchal thoughts, are inevitable. We also need a leader with a vision to bring reformation through education.”

Dangerous social engineering?
When discussing women’s political choices, we also ought to examine their political participation. On a macro level, most women entering politics have their husbands backing them in reserved seats, observes Vasugi Bhaskar, editor of Neelam magazine and Neelam Publications. “In reality, women hardly wield political power directly. They are just given seats to shut a few mouths. Even in dynastic politics, women get power either as a token gesture or because a suitable man isn’t available.

A leader like Kanimozhi couldn’t take the lead in the DMK as preference was given to the men in her family. This is why many women admire the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa. They saw her as someone who did things they couldn’t,” he explains. Bhaskar further says it’s not fair to culturally and politically oppress women, and then expect them to know everything. “Undue criticism, mostly gender-based, keeps some women from being politically active.

Also, a woman who grows organically in politics is branded as an undesirable Swarna akka (a don from the Tamil movie Dhool).” What’s needed is an environment where women can independently satisfy their needs, Bhaskar believes, adding that feminists and individual thinkers aren’t enough. “Women in mainstream politics should freely talk about their struggles. If they continue to justify the happenings in society, it reinforces patriarchy. We must also stop propagating women’s freedom and start documenting and debating their issues to see a change in society.”

Break the glass ceiling, together
Women often struggle to be heard, more so in the corridors of power. Even if men want women in politics, they seek someone who doesn’t think on their own but follows their directions, opines DMK leader Kanimozhi. “Not many understand that a man’s liberation includes a woman’s liberation. Only when a woman is empowered can a man have his choices in life. At least for this, women should be empowered.” As for whether she sees herself as an empowered woman, the MP says she is still struggling to break the glass ceiling.

“Even leaders who have risen to much higher positions in politics have been breaking the glass ceiling throughout their lives. It has to be broken by everybody.” She strongly believes passing the 33 per cent reservation bill for women would make a huge difference in society and draw more women to politics. “Conscious policymaking is key to empowering women. Also, their economic independence will pave the way for informed political choices and participation,” she adds.

No shortcut to progress
As elections approach, political parties dish out populist offers for women. But if they really want to empower women, they must push for the Women’s Reservation Bill, asserts Dr Lakshmanan from the Madras Institute of Development Studies. “Empowerment is a process, like a child’s development. It can’t be bypassed.

A child learns to walk only after crawling. Likewise, women should be allowed to make their own choices and commit mistakes before they are expected to grow exponentially,” he explains. Congress MP Jothimani Sennimalai says her interactions with rural women reveal that they are strongly opinionated and exercise their franchise with caution.

“Some people are conditioned to believe women are incapable and incompetent... But nowadays, more youngsters encourage women to find their calling and break the glass ceiling,” she says, adding despite their differences, women in politics are fighting social stigma. As for the way forward, she too asserts that more women are needed in politics. “Most parties have promised 33 per cent reservation for women, but this hasn’t been implemented in letter and spirit.”

The ‘curse’ on Tamil Nadu
So if women are politically literate and needed as elected representatives, what’s stopping young women from taking the political plunge? It’s the politicians, according to G Manjula from the National Federation of Indian Women. “Unlike in Delhi and Kerala, those who are active in politics at the college level are not identified and nurtured by recognised political parties. This is a curse on Tamil Nadu. The State is far behind others in encouraging youngsters to take up politics,” she asserts.

But that’s not all. Nutritionist and founder of the Mahilmadhi Movement, Divya Sathyaraj, was set to enter politics, when she started being criticised for her outfits. “A lot of people advised me against posting pictures online in shorts and ripped jeans. They said an aspiring politician ought to be seen in a cotton saree. Being a Periyarist, I strongly oppose people like the Uttarakhand Chief Minister, who stop women from wearing what they want,” she says. As elections come and go, one can hope women’s empowerment becomes a reality. But if everyone gets busy empowering women, who will prepare the men for them?

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