As the 14th legislative assembly of Kerala starts functioning, Kerala is yet to get its first woman chief minister. In an assembly with 140 MLAs and with a demography of 1,084 females per 1,000 men, the number of women MLAs in the state has never crossed to double digits.
Kerala takes a lot of pride in the high literacy, high life expectancy, and the political awareness of its female population. Despite this, the representation of women in the state assembly and Parliament continues to be poor. In every general election, Kerala sends 20 MP’s to Parliament, and the state has 9 seats in the Rajya Sabha. But since independence, only nine women - Annie Mascarene, Suseela Gopalan, Bhargavi Thankappan, Savithri Lakshmanan, AK Premajam, P Sathi Devi, CS Sujatha, PK Sreemathy, and TN Seema - have represented the state in both houses of Parliament. The shameful numbers make one question whether gender equality in Kerala exists only in statistics.
On May 6 this year, an all-time high of 108 women contested the assembly elections, but only 8 – all from the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) – were able to secure a seat. The United Democratic Front (UDF), which is in the opposition, could not send even a single woman representative to the assembly. When the UDF did manage to send PK Jayalakshmi in the last election, the ruling party celebrated it by making her the minister for welfare of backward communities. This year, the LDF set a record by appointing two women ministers – never before in its history have two women been appointed as part of the same cabinet. But Kerala is still miles away from getting its first woman chief minister.
When Gowri Amma could have been the CM
On a rainy evening in late May, one of the living legends of Kerala, KR Gowri Amma opened the verandah doors of her home in Alappuzha to welcome me into her simple living room with huge pictures of her neatly arranged on a wooden sofa. She was old and frail, and a lot grumpier, with a failing memory. While she struggled to recall how old she was, the octogenarian spoke enthusiastically about the land reforms struggle of the late 1950’s, and the Women’s Commission Bill of 1990 that she had helped draft.
Following the 1987 elections, Gowri Amma could have been Kerala’s first woman CM. She was the first revenue minister of Kerala and the only woman in the communist government that came to power in Kerala in 1957. This is an achievement that should be read together with the fact that she belongs to the Ezhava community, which is considered a backward caste. Gowri Amma was elected multiple times to the assembly and headed important ministries.
The 1987 assembly elections were fought with the slogan Keralanaattil KR Gowri Ammabharikkum” (In the land of Kerala, KR Gowri Amma will rule).
She accused Namboodiripad – the communist party stalwart and first chief minister of Kerala – of sidelining her in favour of another upper caste man, EK Nayanar, who had no experience of being a minister until then, and nor had he contested the 1987 election.
“It was understood that I would be made the CM if the party won. The person who didn’t let me be the CM then was EM Sankaran Namboodiripad,” Gowri Amma said.
“EMS Namboodiripad said that I was incapable [for the post of CM],” she said and turned to stare out into the verandah.
“I don’t know why the party adhered to his decision. The party was like that,” Gowri Amma continued, when I asked her why the party went with EMS’s decision.
“Whatever responsibilities were given to me, I have always done it to the best of my abilities. I am sure that people had faith in my abilities, but he [Namboodiripad] didn’t,” she repeated, blaming EMS’ wife and private secretary for influencing his decision against her.
Seven years later, Gowri Amma found herself expelled from the party, whose fights she fought from the forefront, and at whose altar she even sacrificed her marriage.
Paul Zacharia, prominent Malayalam writer and social critic, calls Gowri Amma an exception in the male-dominated society of Kerala that wouldn’t allow a woman to raise her head.
In his work, Politics, Women and Well-Being: How Kerala Became a “Model”, Canadian academic Robin Jeffrey writes, “She is unlikely to gain the prizes which, had she been a man, she might have expected. Her career stands as a warning against romanticising the place of women in Kerala.”
But the question is not just limited to why Kerala has not had a woman CM till date. “Let us not just ask why Kerala does not have a woman CM, let us ask why there is such poor representation of women in our assembly,” AK Antony, former Kerala CM and senior Congress leader, said.
Women are not allowed power
AN Shamsheer, one of the first-timers to the assembly, and a member of the CPI(M) pointed out that all the eight MLAs from his party won the election after defeating strong opponents, and most of them managed to do it with heavy majorities. “None of those victories can be called easy,” argued Shamsheer.
Indeed, most women MLAs won the election with very strong leads with advocate Aisha Potty securing a lead of more than 42,000 votes.
“The current situation in Kerala is extremely unfortunate and shameful for the state,” Antony said. Calling for urgent steps to fix this he warned that, “If not, we will have to soon face the anger and resentment of our women leaders.” He pointed out that whether it has been with education, or running organisations like Kudumbhasree, the women of Kerala have continuously proved to be better than their male counterparts. “But inside the assembly their condition remains backward,” Antony observed.
“To put it very simply, all the top leaders in Kerala, including Pinarayi Vijayan, have a feeling that things won’t happen if a woman is given control, and hence, women are kept out,” said Zacharia.
Former AICC secretary, advocate Shanimol Usman, who was very vocal about this gender discrimination in her party, said that the male domination in the Kerala Congress was higher than in any other political party in India. While pointing out the fact that Congress was the party that gave India its first woman CM, Prime Minister, and its first woman president, she said it is unfortunate that when it comes to Kerala, the same party has become one that doesn’t encourage women. She believes that it is the patronage of the party that’s helping the women in the LDF.
Sitting in her modest home in the heart of Alappuzha town, Usman, who joined the party as a student leader and then worked her way up, said that she was disappointed that the state leadership did not allow her to contest elections from her home constituency, even when there were six open seats in Alappuzha. Instead, the party asked her to contest from Ottappalam, while declaring her name as the last in its list of 140 candidates.
She contested the elections but lost to the CPI(M) district secretary P Unni after a hard fight. According to Shanimol, the only reason she was not allowed to contest from Alappuzha was because the state leaders did not consider any of the seats fitting for a Muslim woman to contest.
“It has been in the culture of the party to promote women,” Shanimol said, referring to the All India Congress. “But in no decision-making committee has a woman’s opinion ever been considered,” she said of the Congress unit in Kerala, adding that women have often been reduced to the roles of “wood-cutters” and “water-fetchers.”
According to Shanimol, a lot of top leaders do secretly support her demand for a larger representation of women in the state but they never do it openly. “Unless the leaders of the party come forward with their voices, keeping aside their compartmental politics, there will be no meaning to the dreams of women here,” Shanimol said.
“I would have never been an All India Congress Committee secretary if it was left to the compartmental politics of Kerala,” she added, openly acknowledging that the only reason she was selected to the AICC was because Rahul Gandhi directly called for her.
TN Seema, ex-Rajya Sabha MP and CPI(M) state committee member, shared the opinion that Kerala is still a male-dominated society with little space for women to rise to power. The democratic process through which women should come to leadership has not been happening even in India she remarked, and hence no woman political leader can be considered as part of women’s empowerment processes. “What most of these women in power do is perpetuate the power systems and structures placed by men before them,” Seema said.
When women in politics do step forward, they are rarely forgiven for doing so. When KK Rama of the Revolutionary Marxist Party’s lost in the May assembly elections after a highly politicised battle, CPI(M) workers insulted her by carrying out a demeaning march in which a person dressed as her, complete with a mask, was seen dancing along with the jubilant crowd. The incident was widely circulated and highly condemned on social media.
This was not a standalone event.
Last November, as the civic poll election results were declared, a video on Facebook attracted widespread condemnation. In the video, men allegedly belonging to Muslim League from Kannur were shown dancing around and inappropriately touching a burqa-clad man posing as a woman candidate who lost the elections. In the same elections, the winning member of Devikulam block panchayat in Munnar, Gomathy Augustine, of the Pembillai Orumai – an all-women collective that led workers agitations in Munnar plantations – was assaulted by her opponents during her winning rally. She later tried to commit suicide .
Condemning such assaults on women, Seema said that such campaigns have always been used as a way to discriminate against women who are strong enough to be in politics. “It is always easy to run a smear campaign against women,” she said.
Citing her experiences dealing with the local body members, Seema said that men, including the husbands of the members, were quick to allege that there was also talk about the character of the women. “It is an effective tool to intimidate and silence her,” she said.
But these local bodies have proved beyond doubt that reservations are indeed needed to bring women into governance. Reservation clearly helps women get these opportunities to leadership that are otherwise denied, she argues.
“Women’s organisations, their political awareness, and their commitment to work have to contribute together for the upliftment of women. Also, a change has to be brought about in the way society views women – she is not just a man’s commodity. That awareness should be brought, especially among men, that women have equal rights, just as men do,” Gowri Amma said.
But unhappily for fans of the progressive writer Paul Zacharia, he also said he has doubts about how many of the women in mainstream Kerala politics are competent enough and possess the political smartness, and ambition to outdo the men in the field. He said he often found that they weren’t ambitious enough to pursue a career beyond the post of a municipal chairperson. He argued that one of the reasons for this might be that most women in Kerala love their security and find this type of slavery convenient.
Seema countered this by saying that there is no dearth of women leaders in Kerala, but the problem is that they are often just seen as woman leaders. She argued that the absence of space for these leaders to grow is limiting them. She said it is women’s painful reality that they have to always convince others that they have the ability to do things, that they are indeed getting things done.
Malayalee women have always been ambitious. Haritha V Kumar climbed her way up to the top of civil service ranking in 2012, and in the same year, missile woman Tessy Thomas successfully headed the mission and tested Agni V – the country’s high-end intercontinental ballistic missile. From PT Usha, who ran in the Olympics in the 1980’s, to Kamala Surayya, the writer who redefined the Indian writing in English, and to singer KS Chitra who made a strong comeback from a debilitating personal tragedy – they have all been women who rewrote their respective careers.
“When the local government bodies introduced reservations, 80 percent of the women who came to power were new to the field of governance,” Seema, who has been part of training programmes for the local woman leaders, said.
When asked whether these women knew how to govern, she replied, turning the question on its head, “Do the men [know]?”
In arrangement with GRIST Media.