This election, as with elections before, has seen the usual sniping at the women in the fray by their male counterparts. So, we had ugly references to the feisty Smriti Irani’s marital status to Priyanka Gandhi’s change of attire from skirts and trousers to sarees with the aim of getting votes. Film actresses in the arena seem to bring out the worst in certain male politicians with the barbs being mainly about their ability to dance and garner votes.
This is not a particularly Indian phenomenon. We have seen it in many other countries, including in Trump’s America. The minute women come forward to compete in politics, they face a backlash of serious proportions. These include abuse in public arenas and online and even physical attacks. Mercifully, we have not had physical violence against women candidates this election. Women may be making an impact in public life more than ever in India but this has not translated into greater political influence. We have a woman foreign minister and defence minister but the general impression is that it is the men who take the big decisions in these ministries.
Clearly, political equality is still far away on the Indian political horizon. And it will remain so as long as it is seen as a women’s issue. The good fight must be fought equally by men.
I cannot quite see real women’s rights becoming a talking point in political discourse just yet, but the sheer force of women voters alone could bring about a change eventually. Male politicians must take a lead role in challenging traditions which foster inequality and also unequivocally condemn the misogynistic language that their counterparts use.
This has to be an ongoing process in which the male political establishment must also promote policies which encourage greater participation of women in politics and give them greater representation in public life. If a man makes a derogatory remark about a female politician, it must not be left to the feminist brigade to counter it. I did not see too many men come to the support of actor-turned-politician Jaya Prada when a male politician made unsavoury remarks about the colour of her innerwear.
It is not enough to just sensitise men. This goes beyond that. If powerful male politicians were serious about gender equality, they would push for a more egalitarian system and allow women to share the political spaces that they so zealously guard.
A woman’s political perspective is invaluable for a democracy to evolve and be truly inclusive. Canada’s Justin Trudeau has pushed for gender inclusion not only out of altruism. He has done it also with an eye on the female electorate. Which is why it is surprising that in India, women’s rights are never really an issue in elections. Dealt with in a non-condescending and nonpatronising manner, it could be a big vote-catcher. For a start, we should do away with these mahila wings in political parties. There should be no gender segregation in parties. It is also time we stopped dismissing successful women politicians as having got there because of their dynastic credentials or powerful male mentors. All these factors can get you so far and no more. The late J Jayalalithaa may have got a leg up from MG Ramachandran, but she became the successful brand she was thanks to her extraordinary ability.
There are thousands of potential women politicians out there. They just need the male political establishment to share more space with them. Then, maybe we will see a different and better gender mix in the fray next time around.