Women in South Asian politics have not empowered women


ON THE Indian subcontinent, as in no other part of the world, women have reached the pinnacle of politics. Indira Gandhi from India, Benazir Bhutto from Pakistan and Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar are all famous names. What is less well known is that Sri Lanka was the first country to elect a female prime minister, or that it also had a female president. For 22 of the past 25 years, Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country with more inhabitants than France and Germany combined, has been ruled by a woman. And the chief ministers of many Indian states the size of a country, from West Bengal in the east to Tamil Nadu in the south, were also women. Indian democracy is not pretty; these are the winners of the barehanded contests.

Yet for all of those headline-grabbing hits, the fine print tells a different story. Although there has been steady progress in areas such as the eradication of female infanticide and the dissemination of women’s education, statistics continue to reveal a clear gender divide. At 27%, the share of working women in India, for example, is less than half the level of China or Brazil (and also neighboring Bangladesh, although slightly higher than in Pakistan).

In 2012, a household survey found that four-fifths of Indian women needed permission from their husbands or families to visit a local clinic. A third said they couldn’t go alone. More than half also said they couldn’t visit a store, or even a friend, without someone else’s approval. For many, the very thought of going out was alarming: 70% said they wouldn’t feel safe working away from home, and 52% thought it was okay for a husband to beat his wife if she ventured without telling him. In November, following a shocking government decision to scrap higher-value banknotes, a domestic violence hotline in the city of Bhopal, central India, called There were a doubling of calls, mostly from women whose spouses discovered they had secretly saved money.

On your bike

For rich and middle-class Indian women, freedoms have continued to grow: Anubha Bhonsle, a TV presenter, remembers the strangeness of being the only female scooter driver on many streets when ‘she started commuting 15 years ago. “No one would give a second glance now,” she said. Yet in many professions, women remain a rarity. Barely 10% of India’s 700 high court judges are women, and only 17% of the 5,000 officers of India’s Administrative Service, the elite body of bureaucrats that run the country.

Women are rare even in politics. In the lower house of the Indian parliament, only 12% of the deputies are women. State legislatures are also male. Certainly, the share of women in the seats has increased, but slowly: 50 years ago, the proportion of women in the lower house was 6%.

It is only in village and district councils that women have great influence, but this is in part due to laws which allocate one-third or one-half of the seats to female candidates. Earlier this month, tribal members opposing efforts to impose a quota of women in local elections sparked riots in Nagaland, a state bordering Myanmar that is one of the few exceptions to these rules. . Naga men insist that local custom excludes female village chiefs.

Such unrest reveals a cause of slow progress towards gender equality: Indian politicians have generally found it more rewarding to respond to subgroups defined by caste, religion, ethnicity, language or local grievances, rather than to broader categories such as women. This is also true of women politicians and regional leaders less constrained by democracy. Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh with an iron fist, recently decided to lower the legal age for marriage from 18 to 16. Since child marriage is already common, especially in impoverished countryside, women’s rights activists are unhappy. But analysts explain that apa, or “big sister,” who has hunted down opposition parties, including Islamists, is looking for ways to deflect the wrath of conservatives.

To succeed, women politicians in the region often make it a point of honor to act decisively. Mamata Banerjee, the small but formidable chief minister of West Bengal, once dragged a male colleague out of the parliament well by the pass when she was an MP in Delhi. Like Sheikh Hasina and Mayawati, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, as well as Jayalalithaa, recently deceased former movie star and longtime chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms Banerjee has carefully suppressed her sexuality. These women are ostensibly “married” to their cause or to their party.

Such care is understandable. Male rivals have not shied away from using sex to slander female politicians. A party leader in Uttar Pradesh lost his job for accusing Mayawati, who comes from an oppressed caste, of “selling tickets like a prostitute”. A colleague went further against Sonia Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party. Absurdly, he accuses the leader of the Gandhi dynasty of working for a Pakistani escort agency.

With so many obstacles blocking the path to power, it’s hardly surprising that so many successful female politicians in the region have gotten a head start. Amrita Basu of Amherst College finds that more than half of Indian women parliamentarians over the past decade had family members who preceded them in politics. Very often these dynastic ties have been dramatic. Ms. Suu Kyi in Myanmar and Sheikh Hasina are both the daughters of slain independence heroes. Sonia Gandhi and Khaleda Zia, former Bangladeshi prime minister and bitter rival Sheikh Hasina, are both widows of slain leaders. Jayalalithaa and Mayawati both entered politics as dedicated lieutenants of charismatic and populist politicians; in Jayalalithaa’s case, her mentor also starred in several of her films.

For women to play a more normal political role in the subcontinent, perhaps it is in the movies, and in popular culture in general, that change must first occur. Too often on screens across the region, actresses who are paid a fraction of what male stars receive portray women who lack agency in their lives. There is, however, a hint of change. This season’s blockbuster and already the highest-paying film in Bollywood history, “Dangal,” tells the heartwarming story of sisters who become champions in the male-dominated sport of wrestling. Yet the main hero is not one of the daughters, but the father, a former wrestler, who bends them to his will.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “The Missing Link”


Lyle L. Maltby

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