Opinion| Politics is still considered a man’s world. Why this must change
Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Sadhana Singh attacking Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati with caste and gender-coloured remarks, is representative of a culture supported by partiesUpdated: Jan 24, 2019 19:53 IST
Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Sadhana Singh, a legislator from Uttar Pradesh’s Mughalsarai, recently courted controversy after attacking Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati with caste and gender-coloured remarks, calling her a “blot on womankind” and “worse than a eunuch”, a vicious jibe at both women and the transgender community. Then came a ghastly remark by Congress leader K Sudhakaran, who said that Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan “turned out to be worse than a woman”, while addressing the alleged ineffectiveness of the latter’s administration. In the first case, Sadhana Singh’s comment comes from a position of caste power. She is a Kshatriya (according to the UP government’s website), which she must feel gives her the upper hand in a fight against Mayawati, the Dalit leader. What’s alarming here isn’t just that it’s one woman attacking another, but how her caste supremacy came into it. In the second, entrenched patriarchy is the foundation of our social order, so much so that even women are found to be patriarchal.
Two instances which boil down to the same problem: that politics is understood as a man’s domain.
Mayawati has built her political career on the social mobility of the lower castes (Dalits and OBCs), and brings the voices of the oppressed to the forefront of politics, all while carrying the weight of her ‘womanness’. Women in Indian politics have been subjected to violence of all kinds – facing hate at the drop of a hat. The attempted disrobing of the late AIADMK’s leader Jayalalithaa’s in the Tamil Nadu assembly at the beginning of her career, BJP’s Uma Bharti being accused of and shamed for an affair with RSS ideologue Govindacharya (without proof), BJP’s Smriti Irani being mocked by leaders of her own party and other parties about her life before politics (as a TV star), former Congress president Sonia Gandhi being called a widow while being accused of corruption late last year, the list goes on and on. Politics hasn’t favoured even the most powerful of women politicians. The tone of political discourse in India, mired in caste, class and entrenched patriarchy, is representative of a culture supported by all parties. After all, politics is a reflection of our society. India also continues to battle a significant gender imbalance in Parliament, with a lower percentage of women than most other South Asian nations.
But gender discrimination in politics isn’t just an Indian problem. Women’s pursuit of a predominantly male political sphere has been challenged world over. The Telegraph, a British newspaper, doesn’t just call out United States President Donald Trump’s sexism, it tracks sexist remarks made by him from the 1980s until now. Many of these have been attacks on women politicians since he took over the White House. The Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe interviewed 123 women from 45 European countries (81 Members of Parliament and 42 parliamentary staff members) and concluded that 85% of the respondents suffered from psychological violence in Parliament. Towards the end of 2018, when Julia Banks of Australia’s Liberal Party quit because of bullying and intimidation within the party, she said, “Women have suffered in silence for too long”.
Women across the world have fought long and hard to conquer both ends of the political spectrum: from ensuring suffrage, to stepping into Parliament as policymakers. Empowerment can only be achieved when there is equality in operation. This places the onus of cultural change largely on political parties to stop this behaviour from going unchecked, and from being encouraged. Perpetuating this toxic culture consequently inhibits women’s growth in politics. Ironically, a study by the United Nations Women titled ‘Women’s Leadership and Political Participation’ highlights how the role of women in politics and policymaking paves the way for an inclusive, peaceful society with health and childcare benefits increasing. Specifically taking the example of Panchayats/local governments in India, female-led councils take up a more development projects than male-led councils. These include drinking water projects.
But if getting her foot in the door wasn’t already hard enough, the current political discourse doesn’t make it any easier. It’s time we admit that we have a problem, and it’s as much a reflection on us as it is on our politicians.