On Saturday, a number of women gathered at Cauvery Hall in Chalukya hotel in Bengaluru. The gathering was a unique one, and probably one of the largest coming together of women from various political and leadership backgrounds. Their agenda: to discuss what's stopping women from entering and succeeding in politics, and the way forward.
Organised by Indian Women's Caucus (IWC), the day-long event began with the unveiling of the 'Shakti' logo. It was a silhouette of three women, much like the visible lions in the Indian emblem, on the Parliament. The message engraved read, "Political power to women".
The challenges to women attaining political power
In the keynote address, Srilatha Baltiwala, social activist and Director of Knowledge Building and Feminist Leadership at CREA, explained what were the hurdles to women entering political power. She listed the myths that surround women and politics - that they are not interested in politics, they are not competent to be in politics, and that women politicians tend to be more corrupt than their male counterparts.
Further, 'deep structures', like informal norms that contradict the formal rules -like beliefs that women must only do certain kind of work, rewarding certain kinds of behaviour like flattery and blind loyalty, hidden power groups like the boys’ club which exclude women on purpose and subsequent hidden decision-making mechanisms also hinder women in a patriarchal setup.
Tara Krishnaswamy, founder of Citizens for Bengaluru and one of the conveners, also pointed out, "Studies show that when women are in power, they concentrate on health, education and sanitation compared to the two C's - cement and construction - which men in power concentrate on."
The panel discussions that followed also touched upon these issues. Shaheena, a journalist with the Open Magazine, pointed out what while women do find competitively more success at the Panchayati Raj level, they are often not able to move ahead. "This is because Panchayat is seen as an extension of the family. That's not the case with the Legislative Assemblies," she said. "These women end up going back to the same family structures where they are treated as secondary citizens."
Shaheena added that this ends up depriving women of having a say in the decision-making process as Assembly is where political decisions are made.
PA Devi, a cultural activist and one of the seven women who filed a petition in the Hyderabad High Court questioning the Telangana government over their failure to constitute a committee to look into women artists' sexual exploitation in the Telugu film industry, observed that women are actively seen in liberation struggles. "Even in the struggle for a separate state for Telangana, women were in the forefront. But once the motive of the struggle is realised, these women become dependent on the generosity and backing of a male leader to back them," she said.
Sushmita Dev, President of the All India Mahila Congress and BJP Malavika Avinash conceded as much in another panel discussion. They added that caste and wealth also become important factors for political parties and leaders to give women party tickets and back them.
"However, if the party feels that you have the winnability, they may back you in your campaign," Malavika added.
Patriarchal structures within parties
Surabhi Hodigere, founder of Political Quotient, and who also writes in Swarjya, pointed out that besides external factors like cultural attitudes towards women's roles, there are also internal factors. "Many times in the political meetings or conventions I am part of, I am the only woman present. Sometimes you yourself start wondering if you belong here. This affects your confidence," she said.
Dhanya Rajendran (Moderator), Ruth Manorama, Bader Sayeed, Sushmita Dev, Malavika Avinash
This experience was echoed by Congress spokesperson Kavitha Reddy on the same panel. "I have found that acceptability of women is least at the grassroots, at the ward level. I have not felt awkward but I have felt many times that men around me have felt that way when I have been the only woman in a room of 20-30 women," she shared.
Further, when parties want to have women, they want women who come from certain backgrounds, wealth or caste, said Ruth Manorama, Dalit social activist and a JD(S) candidate for the Lok Sabha.
The fact that most political parties have their 'mahila' units was also questioned - was this a way to keep women out of the parent party, and hence out of real power? Sushmita Dev shared her experience: "Not every woman comes from an elite and empowered background. Some women need a softer platform to enter politics, devoid of male aggression, where they can learn the ropes. Many women in the Mahila Congress tell me that they feel more useful here and do not want to go to the main party because they don't want to become an optic. However, sometimes when parties do not want to take a woman they do tell her to join the Mahila wing."
Need for affirmative action
Across discussions, speakers emphasised the importance of affirmative action, particularly the need for the Women’s Reservation Bill, which aims to reserve seats for women in the lower house and state Legislative Assemblies. The Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010, however, relapsed in the 15th Lok Sabha.
This lack of reservation was also discussed as a possible reason that there are not enough women MPs and MLAs in the Parliament.
Kavitha Reddy, Surabhi, C Motamma, Vasanthi Hariprakash (moderator), PA Devi, Shaheena
Cutting across party lines, there was consensus that the Women's Reservation Bill needs to be revived. "When it comes to who should get the party ticket, it shouldn't come as an entitlement. However, what hurts is when competent women were denied tickets. This is why there is need for affirmative action and parties need to acknowledge this," Sushmita argued.
Ruth emphasized on the need for gender sensitisation in political parties also. "Every party has an ideology. And every party must ensure that gender equality is a part of that ideology," she said.
Leaders agreed that despite hurdles, women needed to continue participating in politics, continue pushing against patriarchal norms in society as well as in politics. And, as Bader Sayeed, former AIADMK MLA and first woman head of Wakf Board and State Minorities Commission said, women need to stop standing against women and support them instead.