So the on-going television commercials of Tupperware have filled you with a sense of pride regarding a rising number of women CEOs, entrepreneurs etc. in our country? Now while the level of hindrances that all such women face precisely because of their gender would form a separate story altogether, let us see how women have fared in the field of politics, which is largely regarded as a male domain. According to the latest Inter-Parliamentary Union report, women occupy only 11% of the 545 Lok Sabha seats in the Indian Parliament, while in the Rajya Sabha it is limited only to a dismal 10.7%. It seems that other than the case when a woman gains power by finding herself in charge of a powerful political family, most women politicians have found it difficult to rise within party hierarchies, and have managed to achieve clear leadership only when they have effectively broken out and set up parties on their own.
While one can easily attribute such dismal numbers to our age-old patriarchal values, you would be surprised to note that the situation is no better in the so-called ‘modern and developed’ nations. For in the same report, countries like Italy, Britain, France and the US are ranked 53rd, 62nd, 63rd and 72nd respectively, only slightly better than India.
Why this kolaveri di against women? The answer lies in the level of sexism a female candidate has to endure as against her male counterpart, the case in point being that of Ms Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister of Australia. The menu in a fundraiser organized by the Opposition read “Kentucky Fried Quail -Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box”, making a mockery of her body parts. This overt sexism often gets coupled with the inherent misogyny that is present in quite a few of Indian male politicians as well. Remember when Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam said to BJP MP Smriti Irani, “Aap toh TV pe thumke lagati thi, aaj chunavi vishleshak ban gayi” (“You were shaking your hips on TV, and now you have become a political analyst.”) These instances highlight a sorry state of affairs, because despite the tall claims of women empowerment and liberation, a significant proportion of men are, till date, unable to cope with the idea of a powerful woman and hence subject her to a treatment they would never dream of meting out to another man.
Sexism hurts. It not only reinforces the gendered stereotypes that feminists all over the globe have been fighting against but also takes away all the attention from the work that a woman did. When it comes to criticism, men are questioned solely, and I repeat, solely, on their leadership abilities, but women politicians are judged on everything but that. There is a heightened scrutiny of their appearance, they are made prey to sexist ‘compliments’, and worse still, gendered language is used to attack them. Moreover, several researches have revealed that even mild sexist language has an impact on voters’ likelihood to vote for a female candidate and on how favourable they feel toward a woman seeking office, hereby affecting the final outcome.
The need of the hour is to recognize and respond to sexist behaviour. Additionally, we need to encourage more and more women to join politics and act independently, not at the command of their father, husband or father-in-law – a common phenomenon in India. Only this would ensure that female prime ministers do not remain novel, that a normal gender balance is maintained in the cabinet, and that there is parity between female and male leaders of political parties.
And before you dismiss this article as yet another ‘feminist rant’ (where feminism is understood as nothing but male-bashing), here is what I have to say: it was Aristotle who believed that women aren’t rational enough to be given voting rights; while the latter has been earned, a dangerously large number of men (and women too) continue to believe that women do not have the necessary acumen to be successful in this field. I think it is time we changed that.