Women in Politics: a view through a Dalit Feminist Lens
Art by The Ladies' Compartment (www.theladiescompartment.co)
The participation of women in politics brings about changes in the attitudes towards the issue of gender and is most crucial to the current political sphere. It is women who can reinvent the political scenario and approach to politics. This is because women’s experiences are not isolated from the political sphere: they have the agency to redefine the boundaries of political participation with their own ideas and make their way into politics. With their current status and prospects, they can drive the need for a change encompassing diverging and critical viewpoints.
The masculine endeavors in the patriarchal society have always caused injustices to women, restricting them from the opportunities in political structures. It is assumed that politics is a domain meant only for men in a world where women are constricted even to define their activities as ‘political’. Kate Millet in her work ‘Sexual Politics’, enunciated that politics is not just an activity that takes place within structures of government but also relationships based on power by which one group exercises control over the other.
However, we should not forget that with power comes resistance, and this resistance begins from the private domain itself, to which women are confined. The gender inequality is so deeply entrenched that the political and economic privileges are bestowed upon men whereas women have to undertake the burden of household work disproportionately, which is also unrecognized, and at worst, devalued at the day’s end. The concerns and contributions of women remain a farfetched idea because their social political and economic freedom is already curbed.
Concerns of women and their representation in political scenarios
The differences in the access to material resources due to which they are denuded in political reasoning coupled with the absence of a distinctive political voice. There is a subtle difference when we say they are silenced (by the systematic use of power, force, and coercion) and remain silent (because of the constructed perceptions of self). Predominantly, equal respect should be reciprocated so that they can take decisions in their own individual capacities.
An inseparable component of politics is conflictual viewpoints. However, there should be consensus on certain insights provided by marginalized genders and the knowledge and skill that they’ve acquired through their experiences. Their voices should be recognized and accepted to drive a change in the practice of politics. The stereotypes and prejudices that discriminate against women and their engagement in politics are limited due to normative beliefs such as masculine traits are the favored leadership trait whereas feminine traits are regarded contrary to requirements of leadership. But the only ability of leadership is not the precondition to involve a group in politics. Even women can be definers of reality with their own vision; leadership is complementary towards helping women be socialized into politics.
Today, wherever women are represented in politics they have displayed remarkable progress but, still, in many parts of the world, they have no agency to even ensure their political representations. For instance, Rwanda has been exemplary in this regard. Women hold more than half of the seats (nearly 60%) and make it one of the leading countries with females represented in the majority in Parliament despite being only the fourth-highest country globally in terms of gender equality (2019 report of World Economic Forum). On the other hand, in a highly developed nation like Sweden, women’s participation in the political process has been slow. Nevertheless, their presence in the legislature has increased over a period of time.
Enabling Women and providing agency
Political power is a valuable good and when women acquire it, they begin to hold power over prevailing social institutions such as education and family which are a primary site of violence against them. With the political position also comes authority, through which women can not only make gender visible but also work in pursuit of the interests and welfare of women. Golda Meir, a former Prime Minister of Israel, on the outbreak of nighttime assaults on women retorted the minister who suggested a curfew for women to stay home after the dark by saying “But it’s the men who are attacking the women; if there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home, not the women.” This shows clearly that women’s views and opinions should be incorporated in the political and policymaking processes as they play an important role in political decision making. Also worth noting here is the view of ‘streets’ as gendered spaces where men naturally and forcefully exert their sense of belongingness and ownership. Therefore, women do not have easy access to such spaces at any time of the day.
Dalit women in Indian politics: the pressing need for increased representation
When we talk about the caste axis in politics, things begin to get complicated for Dalit women. Their access to roads, be it as a site of work or a rise in protest, is seen as transgressing limits. For them, the social institution of gender, caste, and patriarchy pose a great challenge towards freedom to live, think, and develop in a way that suits one before they even articulate political opinion. Dalit women’s participation is reflective of their status in Indian society. Since the founding of the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFWD) brought forth a new Dalit Feminist Standpoint, the group also came forward to set up a women’s wing of Bharatiya Republican Party, and Bahujan Mahila Parishad was set up by Bahujan Mahila Sangh. The Bharatiya Streemukti Divas was celebrated by Vikas Vanchit Dalit Mahila Parishad to commemorate the day on which Manusmriti was burnt by Ambedkar. Similarly, in 1997, the Christi Mahila Sangharsh Sanghatana, an organization of Dalit-Christian women was established. These organizations have put forward different non-Brahmanical ideological positions.
These changes are important because they gave Dalit women’s expressions and voices the recognition and acknowledgment that is their right. According to Gopal Guru, Dalit Women talk differently because non-Dalits homogenize their issues. In addition, they internally face patriarchal domination as it foregrounds the identity of Dalit women. Here, Sharmila Rege argues that a Dalit Feminist standpoint will only pave way for narrow identitarian politics and that this assertion centers only around caste and gender. Also, naming the difference between claiming authenticity on the basis of ‘direct experiences’ instead of 'a different voice’ is imperative for feminist politics.
The improvement in the group’s situation is abysmal still, as they claim their rights, articulate, and become conscious of their disadvantaged position in society. Here, it is worth noting that this shouldn’t be mistaken for a separately organized movement led by Dalit women to politically empower themselves. The correct approach is that their political activism can only help them to reinvent themselves and make their perspectives and voices heard. In 2019, a panel on ’Dalit Women in Politics: Past, Present and Future’ was organized in which 60 Dalit women leaders from across India participated and highlighted that along with political engagement of Dalits, there is a necessity for Dalit women leadership in political spaces.
Women’s leadership put to the test by the COVID-19 outbreak
Even amidst the running pandemic, some female political representatives have brilliantly displayed how, through their leadership styles, they have handled the pandemic in their respective contexts. For instance: Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, was able to not only control, rather put a stop to the outbreak of coronavirus, through her decisive policy-making efforts. Similarly, in Germany, under the leadership of Angela Merkel, the nation saw lower death rates compared to Britain, France, Italy, and Spain. In Finland, the PM Sanna Marin led a coalition of four other parties led by women, and the nation witnessed 10% lower deaths compared to Sweden. The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, worked ambitiously to contain the spread of coronavirus by venturing into regular testing, contact tracing, and isolation measures despite putting a nationwide lockdown.
In India, there are three political rights available to each citizen: the right to vote, the right to contest elections, and the right to hold public office. In present times, women are increasingly realizing the importance of their vote but contesting in elections and holding public office still remain a distant dream. There is a need for intersectional political consciousness. Women have to struggle not only to garner cultural capital but also to develop a knowledge system which is the main cause for their underrepresentation in politics and the public sphere. The deeply ingrained stereotypes of women political candidates or as political opponents are the major cause of their marginalization. They continue to face obstacles due to rigid structural and institutional barriers to create a space in the political arena.
Politics is the domain of our collective life where everyone fights for their interests by making claims on each other and contesting significant issues. Why should women then be left behind to envision a future where they are respected and heard? Yes, women are concept-bearing animals and they do not merely exist, rather, they have a thoughtful experience of living which forms their lived experience. This conscious concern will be attained only when women act as agents of progressive social change, deliberate, participate, and reinvent themselves in the conduct of politics. Bharti Varun is a student of political science at the University of Delhi. She wishes to delve deeper through writing to realize the agency and power of resistance. Further, she thinks developing her ideas regarding social and mental conditioning through writing can be significant to bring a paradigm shift in changing times.