Women’s Inclusion In Politics Needs To Go Beyond Tokenism
When I work with children through peace education, one of the most interesting things that always comes up with respect to India, is the history of resilience shown by its women. We start by looking at history textbooks, and find the women conspicuous by their absence. We see Sarojini Naidu nestled in a corner under the epithet of “Nightingale of India.” A few pages before that, we see a rather courageous looking Rani of Jhansi challenging the reader with the sheer power of her eyes. But between these two names, we see oceans and oceans of words, a lot of which are men’s names – and the women remain invisible long after the book is closed and set aside.
And yet, there are some irrefutable truths in Indian history, even if textbooks think they’re not important enough to be mentioned. History textbooks will tell you that about the Sepoy Mutiny, but it wouldn’t tell you about Kittur Chennamma, who led an armed rebellion against the British for their Doctrine of lapse. History will tell you about how the British arrived in Bombay, but it wouldn’t tell you about how Abbaka Rani, the queen of the coastal lands of Karnataka, led the defense against the invading colonial powers of its time. India’s women got the right to vote long before their counterparts in other countries did. And this, in 1917, when the first women’s delegation met the Secretary of State to demand political rights for women. The All India Women’s Education Conference in Pune in 1927 became a major and pivotal point in our journey for social change. With this paragraph, I’m merely scratching the surface. As for other people of gender identities beyond the binary, the erasure is near total: one can’t find mention of particular names.
India’s women got the right to vote long before their counterparts in other countries did. And this, in 1917, when the first women’s delegation met the Secretary of State to demand political rights for women.
- Women’s inclusion in politics needs to go beyond tokenism.
- An intersectional understanding of gender oppression in politics must precede any action.
- India hasn’t a history of exclusion of women in politics, but tells its history through the exclusion of women.
- To feminise our political scenario, we need to feminise our socio-cultural ethos.
The point I’m trying to make here, is that women being sidelined in the political narrative is relatively new, having begun in the post-modern space where men wrote history textbooks. As a nation, today, gender identities that are not cishet-male comprise a significant part of the voting demographic in India. However, they remain on a spectrum that ranges from under-represented to completely neglected. I hear you say that we have had powerful women leaders in the country, undoubtedly true – I write this from a state that had the most fierce woman leader who died in harness – and yet, I also argue that it is not enough.
India’s gender problem is a unique one, rendered so by the myriad intersectionalities of caste, class, religion, linguistic segregation, and a range of other identity attributes. To address gender inequality and gender violence means to take into account all the voices that represent unique experiences of this inequality and violence – and to respond to these needs through leadership that is created from each community. Tokenism in representation on the ground of caste, region and gender will achieve nothing, as opposed to strong, community-led grass root movements and home-grown leadership from among the communities in need. If gender is not suitably represented through an intersectional lens, which has been the case, you have policies that allow sindur and vermillion to be tax free, while menstrual hygiene products will be taxed, and urban privilege will frame the dialogue around addressing this issue without including voices facing variant forms of oppression. If gender is not suitably represented through an intersectional lens, which has been the case, you have ignorant one-size-fits-all approaches of considering gender as a binary, and the label of “third gender” homogenizing an enormous spectrum of varying gender identities.
Tokenism in representation on the ground of caste, region, and gender will achieve nothing, as opposed to strong, community-led grass root movements and home-grown leadership from among the communities in need.
Gender in politics in India is largely representative of the social ethos: the notion that a bunch of cishet males are in charge, and will decide what’s right for bodies, minds, and experiences of every other gender identity.
The words of WB Yeats in his famous “The Second Coming” comes to mind:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This has got to change.
Kirthi Jayakumar is the founder of The Red Elephant Foundation. The views expressed in the column are the author’s own.