Coconuts broken, idlis ritually devoured and pujas offered at the Sri Dharma Sastha temple in Thulasendrapuram worked their magic, it would seem. The ancestral village of the United States Vice President Kamala Harris in the Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu had taken it upon itself to propitiate the deities to ensure the success of their ‘daughter’ Kamala. Her victory was theirs, because politics, like marriages in Southasia, is a family affair. Daughters and wives of the grand political dynasties of the Subcontinent – the Bandaranaikes, Bhuttos, Nehru-Gandhis, Rahmans and Zias – have come to represent the face of ‘female leadership’ even though their regimes were never notable for advancing the rights of women in their respective countries.
Instead, their governments were often characterised by repression and autocratic rule, whether Indira Gandhi’s Emergency from 1975-77, one of the periods in modern Indian history noteworthy for its stripping of civil liberties and fundamental rights, or the dubious record of Bangladesh’s longest serving prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s corruption, nepotism and high-handedness. Opportunism, imperiousness, political expediency and brinkmanship have exemplified the regimes of these leaders. Of course, these unseemly political legacies are not very different from the male leaders from these political dynasties. What, then, do women leaders have to offer, other than symbolising the basic equality principle – equal access to the corridors of power?
Mentors, mothers and sisters
The family factor giving a leg up to women politicians is vastly overstated in a political ecosystem where dynastic politics is firmly entrenched. Sons, sons-in-law, nephews and brothers of prominent politicians take off on a smooth runway to power, as the Nehru-Gandhi, Bhutto or Rajapaksa regimes have demonstrated. Yet, it is women’s family networks, or even close connections with powerful males in the party, that are far more under the microscope. Some, like Sonia Gandhi, have had their ‘foreign’ origins repeatedly flogged in the absence of other criticism. The metamorphosis of the quiet Italian daughter-in-law of the first family of Indian politics, to an astute politician who revived and led a comatose Congress party to a resounding victory in 2004, is the stuff of legend.
Several other women politicians in India have gained prominence against all odds. Not coincidentally, they were unmarried, viewed as asexual, almost ascetic. Most were introduced to politics young and mentored by top leaders of their parties: J Jayalalitha (M G Ramachandran) of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; Mayawati (Kanshi Ram) of the Bahujan Samaj Party; and Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee (Subrata Mukherjee). They have continued to play a significant role in national politics from a vantage point of commanding significant power in regional parties, the ‘king-makers’ in the era of coalition governments. Banerjee, India’s only woman chief minister is currently engaged in a desperate battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut that has made dramatic inroads into her strongholds in the lead up to the state assembly elections. It might be the less-noticed female vote-bank that might tip the balance: a Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies analysis of the 2016 assembly polls found that 48 percent of women voted for the Trinamool Congress, six percentage points higher than men. Picking up on this cue, the TMC has floated 50 (17 percent) women candidates in the upcoming assembly elections. This is higher than other parties in the fray in other states, a situation that has had female politicians cry foul in dramatic ways.
What, then, do women leaders have to offer, other than symbolising the basic equality principle – equal access to the corridors of power?
Matters came quite literally to a head when Kerala State Mahila Congress President Lathika Subhash publicly tonsured her head in protest against being denied a ticket in the upcoming assembly polls. As Kerala goes to the polls, the Congress-led United Democratic Front has fielded only 11 women out of 92 candidates (12 percent). Other major parties in the state have not done much better, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) fielding only 12 women of a total 85 candidates (14 percent), and the Bharatiya Janata Party selecting 15 out 115 seats (13 percent) it is contesting. How might this gender disparity across party lines be viewed?
The trivialisation of women leaders by constant references to their appearance – clothes, make up or lack of it, hair style or footwear – is accompanied by monikers based on deified family relationships: Jayalalitha Amma (mother), or Mamata Didi (sister), or Mayawati Behenji (sister). Labelling Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as the “only man” in her “kitchen cabinet” (a ‘compliment’ shared by the world’s first woman prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike) was arguably an oblique compliment but seems more like a recognition of her authoritarian ways. The mass following these leaders have been able to command, bordering on veneration, has matched that of the male leaders of their parties. Jayalalitha’s larger-than-life cutouts and Mayawati’s statues are storied symbols of political power, albeit from very different ends of the spectrum. The former, an actor using familiar tools of image-building; the latter creating flamboyant – though controversial – symbols of Dalit assertion. The personality cults they have nurtured, however, closely resemble those that have grown around male politicians, and say little about women’s style of governance.
Watch the first episode of ‘Southasian Conversation’ – our online crossborder discussion series – on women leaders in Southasian politics.
Boosting female leadership
Pakistan from 1954 onward, and Bangladesh soon after its Independence in 1971, took the quota route to boost women’s political participation at all levels of governance. In 2002, under President Musharraf, 17 percent of seats in the national and provincial assemblies were reserved for women. For Afghan women, prohibited from studying or working under the Taliban, public life was virtually non-existent. It was only in 2005, with the enactment of an affirmative action law, that 25 percent of seats in parliament and around 30 provincial councils were reserved for women. While these quotas might seem small, they represent a shift in acknowledging women as political entities and recognising that politics is incomplete without them.
Yet, women’s participation in politics comes with a heavy price tag, notwithstanding the foray into public service by first lady Rula Ghani. After she became Afghanistan’s first female mayor in 2018, 26-year-old Zarifa Ghafari, has had to bear more than just abuse, including attacks by mobs and death threats simply for carrying out her work in the city of Maidan Shar. Tragically, she believes that her father was killed in an assassination attempt directed at her.
Women, and feminists in particular have a complicated relationship with power, given the collective history of powerlessness and oppression.
In Nepal, there is evidence to suggest that the political churning during the decade of armed insurgency and the push for democracy over the post-conflict years led to increased presence of previously disempowered communities, including women, in the parliament. The Constituent Assembly, constituted through a unique combination of proportional representation and first-past-the-post elections, was arguably one of the most representative bodies in the region. What is more, this inclusiveness and diversity seemed to be from bottom up. Leveraging the “open moment” post-revolution, local politics in Nepal also appeared to have become more inclusive of ethnic identities, as one University of California, Berkeley, research suggests, particularly in places that had experienced direct armed conflict.
India has witnessed a distinct kind of female leadership when women have risen from the ground. Law fast-forwarded this process, making quotas mandatory for bodies of local self-governance. The 73rd Constitutional Amendment in 1993 paved the way for women to stake their claim in Panchayati Raj institutions – a move that has caused a wave of change and a recognition of the force of women’s leadership in institutions of local self-governance. Encouraging women’s involvement in community governance, such as forestry management or water-resources management through affirmative action, have further enhanced women’s entry into the public sphere and political participation in rural areas.
It is here, amidst the tangle and slush at the grassroots, that a new awakening of women can be witnessed, one that has transformatory power. Women, and feminists in particular have a complicated relationship with power, given the collective history of powerlessness and oppression. The rampant and distorted wielding of authority has made most feminists shy away from power, and leadership as it is conventionally defined. Yet, capacity building and nurturing women’s leadership at the grassroots has been a painstaking though rewarding process that many feminist groups in India have engaged in.
We see the emergence of a more women-centred governance at the ground level, where leadership is about accountability and responsibility, communication, consultation and transparency. It is about wielding the explicit power in your hands and acknowledging the less visible power of privilege – family connections, caste, class and resources.
Women Sarpanchs have been beaten up, humiliated and intimidated for daring to occupy (quite literally) the seat of power in a context where Dalits and women are prohibited from even sitting in chairs.
In India, though initially dismissed as ‘proxies’ for their husbands and fathers, women Panchayat Sarpanchs (village council leaders) proved that they could articulate priorities and needs in potent ways. There is evidence to suggest that women’s political participation does impact focus on issues and policy changes directly impacting women, such as access to drinking water, sanitation or health. They have made policy making more proximate and also instituted more accessible grievance redressal avenues – one of the hallmarks of responsive governance.
Ironically, the recognition of the potential of women’s political empowerment has contributed significantly to the stalling of the Women’s Reservation Bill, first mooted in 1996. The Bill was passed in the upper house of Parliament but has been pending in the lower house since 2008. Stated objections from political parties include spurious arguments about mandating ‘quota’ for marginalised women within the women’s quota, though there is nothing stopping these parties from putting up women candidates from oppressed classes if they were genuinely concerned about increasing the political representation of women from these marginalised sections.
Decades of male gatekeeping at the portals of the parliament is not unexpected, however. Feminist economist Devaki Jain reminds us of a central truth: “power is not something people give away. It has to be negotiated, and sometimes wrested from the powerful.”
The stakes are particularly high at the level of assemblies and parliament. Almost three decades into reservation for women at the Panchayati Raj institutions, shifting the power balance has not been pretty. The fierce clash of gender, caste, ethnic and class interests can have only winners and losers in the current political set up. A brutal backlash has greeted women who assert themselves, especially those from marginalised castes. Women Sarpanchs have been beaten up, humiliated and intimidated for daring to occupy (quite literally) the seat of power in a context where Dalits and women are prohibited from even sitting in chairs.
Women on top
It is probably no coincidence that the countries with the best response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic are led by women. Studies suggest that Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and Finland’s Sanna Marin drove “proactive and co-ordinated policy responses” that resulted in lower death rates and fewer adverse impacts during lockdowns. Women leaders were found to react more swiftly and decisively. “Being female-led has provided countries with an advantage in the current crisis” found a June 2020 study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum. Notably, none of these women leaders belong to political dynasties and have worked their way up the political ladder from serving for years as lower rung cadres.
The fear of women seated at the table must be jettisoned before mainstream politics can redefine what shape the table can take and what meal it is possible to serve.
Women seem to have more winnability too, even in countries which have low representation of women in parliament. India, for example, ranks 40th from the bottom out of 188 countries, with only 14 percent of women in Parliament. Yet, evidence from the 2019 general elections in India reveals that though only 9 percent of the candidates were women, 14 percent of those elected were women. They seemed to have been voted in by men too, since there was no gender gap in voting (unlike the US where, although larger numbers of women turn up to vote, fewer of the women candidates won). It is worth noting that in every single general election to the Lok Sabha (Lower House), women have won at a higher rate than men, as per data from the Election Commission of India.
The bottleneck, clearly, is located within political parties that are reluctant to field women candidates. They have consistently refused to institute any measures of affirmative action to draw in and retain more women and acknowledge their considerable contribution without bias. While scrutiny of politicians is vital to accountability, women leaders must be examined and assessed for their performance, not appearance. The fear of women seated at the table must be jettisoned before mainstream politics can redefine what shape the table can take and what meal it is possible to serve.
Watch the first episode of ‘Southasian Conversation’ – our online crossborder discussion series – on women leaders in Southasian politics.
This article was updated after publication on 24 March 2021.