It is a truth universally acknowledged that nationalist governments clamp down on women’s rights. Nationalists and sexists tend to share a common core belief that certain groups of people are inherently superior to others, by virtue of identities they are born with. History is witness that as soon as authoritarian governments make it to power, rights of women and those in minority are the first to go. Women in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy all slid down from relative freedom to forced domesticity, once those leaders came to power.
You are counted as a nationalist leader, Mr Modi. But, I have also heard from your supporters that you aren’t cut from the same cloth. And even though your record on women’s issues while you were the Chief Minister of Gujarat was mixed at best, in Parliament and press conferences, you have repeatedly emphasized that your government has done more for women than your predecessors.
Now, I am not sure if women were meant to be the intended beneficiaries for most of this work, or that they happened to benefit from it, but I really appreciate the fact that you put your weight behind it.
Mr Modi, you will now begin your second term as the Prime Minister. I don’t doubt your nationalism or your commitment to this nation. You may be a Hindu nationalist, but you also call yourself a man of progress and development. And I am counting on it and holding you up to doing right by millions of India’s women who voted for you, by making these much-needed interventions once you get sworn to power a second time:
Mr. Prime Minister, in your first term, you appointed six women Cabinet Ministers – the first government after independence to do so. And while I think that’s commendable (if it wasn’t a lucky coincidence!), may I suggest that in your second term, you take up the cause of finally passing the women’s reservation bill in Parliament so that more Indian women can have a level playing field in Indian politics?
After all, why should politics remain a largely male-dominated, dynastic bastion? And why shouldn’t more women belonging to humble backgrounds like yours, get an equal shot at it?
In the first term, your government didn’t pass the bill, despite having a majority in Parliament. In your second term, will you finally take it up, so that we know that when you talk about ‘Sabka Saath’ and ‘Sabka Vikaas’, you are also thinking about the women of this country?
When you came to power the first time around, Mr PM, you made India’s economic growth a priority. You know a demographic whose contribution could seriously boost India’s GDP? Millions of Indian women who are looking for economic freedom and an enabling environment to work!
Equal opportunities for women could add as much as $770 billion to the country’s GDP, yet most Indian women continue to be burdened by traditional gender roles. Our female labor force participation rate, in fact, is among the lowest in the south Asian region!
In your first year, you rallied behind the cause of educating the girl child through the ‘Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao’ andolan. Popular opinion would have us believe authoritarian, nationalist governments would do anything to curb women’s freedom and choice, and we all know how big a role economics plays in it. But, you are also a statesman, a man of development – can we expect you rally behind women for this one?
I know many women who voted for you because they see you as a strong and decisive leader, someone who can address difficult problems and keep our borders safe. Indian women, though, are crying out to feel safe and secure in their own country.
We are currently perceived as the world’s most dangerous place for women, and over the course of recent years, we have seen a rise in all categories of crimes with thousands of cases of dowry harassment, assault, kidnapping, and rape registered every year.
To be clear, I am not asking for unnecessary curbs on women’s right to mobility and choice, hooliganism or running anti-Romeo squads. My recommendation would be to not only make it a political and institutional issue, but also a cultural one, which brings me to my last point.
Over the course of the last few decades, a lot has changed in India, but one thing has mostly remained a constant in Indian homes – the traditional status of women as secondary to men, that feeds into the mentality of Indian women’s labor counting as unpaid, and robbing us of our economic independence. So, it is the woman who is expected to take care of the home, and the woman who is expected to quit her job after marriage to look after the baby.
Now, I know that patriarchy is a beast inherently meant to benefit structures power structures. And I also know that it’s not patriarchy is not a problem one leader can fix, or one fix can make go away. But, I also know that a large part of India listens to you, and believes in you and what you stand for.
Which is why I think this is going to be the litmus test of your leadership when it comes to Indian women. Are you willing to stand for our interests, Mr Modi? Are you willing to ask India to fight patriarchy with its women?
This time around, will you be the Prime Minister of millions of Indian women too?