By Diya Maria Abraham
Kerala, a state that has been projected as a safe haven for women, boasts of a high female literacy rate, life expectancy and a sex ratio of 1084 females to 1000 males, in contrast also shows a glaring inadequacy in the representation of women in both the legislative assembly and the parliament.
While there is the active participation of women in the local governments, where they make up more than half of the elected representatives, only 6.4% of the total MLAs are women. Women leaders from all groups have pointed out the patriarchal mindset of political parties in Kerala with respect to according space for women at the state level as the reason behind this disparity.
“Generally, women in politics turn a blind eye to injustices, stay quiet and settle far more than their male counterparts. This is what we have to do to be successful in politics.”
This was a statement by former Kerala Mahila Congress President Lathika Subhash. In a historic move, this politician of 54 years tonsured her head in protest of her being denied a seat in the legislative assembly elections after an impressive political career spanning three decades.
In a phone call interview, Mrs Subhash reiterated that her fight was not personal but for women everywhere. The fact that the Youth Congress President and the President of the Kerala Students’ Union (KSU) got a seat while a senior leader and President of the Mahila Congress did not was the tipping point of her leaving the party and contesting independently.
Diya Abraham (DA): Your political career started with your position as a Counselor in KSU, following which you were elected to the Zilla Panchayat twice and even became the first woman Zilla President in 2000. Can you briefly tell us your journey from starting out at the Panchayat level to becoming the President of the Mahila Congress?
Latika Subhash (LS): I started out my journey in politics as a student representative at Mananam KE College. I went on to become the University Union Counsellor, then a member of the Zilla Panchayat, then finally became the President of the Zilla Panchayat in 2000. After this, for nearly 20 years, I was given small roles within the party and even became the KPCC Secretary and General Secretary.
After becoming the Zilla Panchayat President in 2000, my name has been considered for a seat in legislative and parliamentary elections, but they have never chosen me in the past 20 years. I had to sit and watch by as people with far less political experience get awarded tickets to contest elections. Even when I was made to contest against former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthananthan in his home constituency, I did so knowing full well that I would lose, and I went through that because of my commitment to the party.
DA: What kind of support system from the party and your own family (or the lack thereof) did you have when you joined active politics?
LS: Initially, I received a lot of support from my family and friends, and that is why I was able to reach where I am today, but generally, women adjust a lot more than their colleagues, turn a blind eye to a lot of injustices and stay quiet.
Women politicians take care of their homes, their children, husbands and their parents before stepping out to work for the public. Along with this is the added responsibility of conducting oneself in a perfect light without bringing shame to their honour and ‘womanhood’.
This added pressure and fear of societal and media scrutiny is much higher for us than male politicians. After all these hardships, getting neglected and ignored at the workplace is not fair, and every party must seek to rectify this.
DA: It was reported that you had provided the KPCC with a detailed list of deserving candidates from varying districts and ages to be considered for candidature, most of whom were ignored. Furthermore, you were denied a seat in the recent elections even after an impressive three-decade political career. In this context, can you tell us the various challenges that women politicians face in a male-dominated scene?
LS: We had asked for 20% of the seat allotment to be from Mahila Congress, which is 14 in total. While some women outside of this wing got seats, not even one person from within the women’s wing was considered. We gave a detailed list of party workers who had dedicatedly worked for the party for several years. When the President itself was denied a seat, how would I advocate for their recognition, and how would I be able to set an example or lead?
People who work hard, especially women who have to give up so much and take on many risks to have a career in the public sphere, deserve rewards and recognition according to their work.
In a state-wide Congress rally that I was part of, I wasn’t even initially included in the roster, but after some deliberation, I was added as President of the Mahila Congress. My name wasn’t included in any of the media reports often, and neither was I given a seat at many of the events, despite having a high position within the party. I have faced many such acts of subtle exclusion all throughout my political life.
DA: How gendered is an average politician’s workplace? Did the party, in the past, undertake any awareness programs regarding proper conduct against gender violence, sexism and are there any redressal mechanisms in place for acts of sexual harassment within the party, like an Internal Complaints Committee? What do you think can be put in place to make the workplace safer and more accessible for women?
LS: The workplace for a politician cannot be easily defined as it is expansive in space. It can also not be restricted to a few individuals or the party office. I’ve had to travel the length and breadth of the state and meet different groups of people on a daily basis. The experience is definitely different for male and female politicians, but women work above these sexist norms because we have faced much worse growing up and have accepted that some things have to be overlooked in order to serve the people.
There haven’t been any awareness programs for members within the party, but complaints are taken up routinely. I personally have not faced any threats of a sexual nature. The only battle I’ve had to face was psychological in nature, and that came from not being given an equal footing as everyone else.
For that to change, the mindset of the male politicians at the top should also change. This party boasts of many female leaders in top positions, starting from the pre-Independence era, and it is hypocritical to see very few of us at the state level. There need to be more women at every level of party leadership, and only then will more women be motivated to join and be able to make the space safe and egalitarian.
Note: All political parties registered under the Societies Registration Act are mandated to comply with the POSH Act and set up an Internal Complaints Committee.
DA: What advice would you give to those who want to pursue a career in politics?
LS: For all marginalized genders to come up in politics, there needs to be an ideological shift in the minds of the people and subsequently the party. It is still popularly perceived that men will act as better leaders and representatives and do better in politics, and this needs to be wholly challenged by all genders.
The majority of the people in Kerala respect and acknowledge women. At the same time, women politicians are neglected by parties during elections. My fight is not personal but for the sake of women everywhere. We need to stand together, irrespective of party boundaries, to see anything resembling gender parity in our state and national politics.
Ms Subhash’s experience in politics for over three decades is telling of women’s experience at the workplace in the rest of the country:
India fared very poorly in the recently released Global Gender Gap Report of 2021, wherein we fell 28 places down to 140 of 156 countries. It’s important to note that our biggest fall has been on the Political Empowerment subindex – the share of women ministers has witnessed has gone down from 23.1% to 9.1%.
For India’s sustained growth, it’s of utmost importance that women are not only a part of politics but are actively heard and given the space to bring about change. An opportunity that was clearly kept from Ms Subhash and other members of the Mahila Congress in Kerala.
About the author: Diya is an undergraduate student at St. Stephen’s College. Her interests includes socio-legal research and criminal justice.