A man’s world after all

A man’s world after all

A Man’s World After All, First Woman Home Minister Sabita Indra Reddy. Whether it is the firebrand Renuka Chowdary, an emotional Nannapaneni...

Whether it is the firebrand Renuka Chowdary, an emotional Nannapaneni Rajakumari, a fiery Vijayashanti, first woman home minister Sabita Indra Reddy, rebellious naxal-turned-MLA Seethakka or tribal MLAs like Suman Rathod, Sathyavathi Rathod and Kavitha Munoth - for women in politics the concerns are the same. The degree may vary, but the problems are the same as every other woman in India – to constantly prove themselves and claim their space in the male dominated arena.

Casual images on the web had me take a second look. There was a picture of a woman flexing her muscles in a rather masculine manner with the caption

“Yes, we can!” Another one which said “A woman’s place is in the House- Senate and the White House”....all suggesting quite overtly that gender parity will remain a rarity unless there is women’s representation in government. This also brought with it some memories of men who introduced their wives as “My Home Minister” but had a tough time accepting a woman home minister in the state even if she was albeit a dummy for the actual powers that be. Anyway the intent here is not male bashing as even innocuous comments on gender related issues are referred to, but an attempt to avoid clichéd statements, rhetoric and drama pertaining to women that we will witness in an election year which is preceded by the month of March which has its special “Women’s day”. Women all over the world will be feted and praised and made to feel like a goddess in this token celebration but will get a rude jolt even before the celebrations are over to face harsh realities.

We have images of powerful women flashed across newspapers, magazines, television screens and the all important social media. We have had a woman Prime Minister, President, Lok Sabha speaker, Chief Ministers, Governor, Party president, Mayor, spokespersons and of course members of Parliament and state legislatures. Yet for their seemingly noticeable presence (whatever the reasons) the fact remains that in over six decades the representation of women in Indian Parliament has registered a painfully slow increase of 6% from 5% in the 1st Lok Sabha to 11% in the 15th Lok Sabha. Pervasive gender discrimination makes it difficult for women to establish a foothold in politics without the patronage of powerful men within the party or close kinship ties with the men in politics. Wives, sisters and daughters have come in when a seat has been reserved, a situation demanded it or in most common cases as widows cashing in on the sympathy votes and lack of competition on compassionate grounds. Although every political party makes grand statements about women empowerment outdoing each other in theatrics the Women’s Reservation Bill has not seen the light of day.

Reservations for women in local bodies have ensured “Social acceptability” of women leadership in governance at local levels. Given the caste and gender bias, lack of resources and firmly entrenched bureaucracy in rural areas, one has to accept that governance at the local level is more challenging than at the state or national level. The new breed of “Sarpanch-Pati’s “who were the proxy representatives wielding power and taking decisions, and tricks including passing no-confidence motions to remove women from power not withstanding these reservations, at least ensured that women emerged from the shadows of the purely private sphere that they were restricted to and entered the public domain.

Yet.... it is entirely up to women to rise up to the occasion and get down to doing what they are supposed to do. Instances like the former mayor of Hyderabad who was also the first woman Mayor Banda. Karthika Reddy asking for her husband’s services as official adviser did nothing to enhance the image of women entrusted with power. The fact, however, remains that a large number of women from Andhra Pradesh who became members of the state assembly won on the basis of their experience and service in local bodies. The zilla parishads and mandal parishads became cradles of learning for a bigger political role at the state level as revealed by women MLA’s from different regions.

Consider the following adjectives that are in vogue to describe women politicians in general. Mercurial, moody stubborn, aggressive are just a few in a long list. Is it the political system that is known for sidelining the most experienced women politicians or the general struggle to stay in command in a typically male dominated scenario that makes them more aggressive than they would like to be? Is this just a facade to prevent people from trying to take advantage of the vulnerability of women? Even a firebrand politician like Renuka Chowdary who drives tractors during election campaigns, is ready for verbal duels and unafraid of physical display of strength by party cadres admits that women have a tough time in getting their way in politics. “There is a general insecurity among men with regard to the capabilities of women and it is for this reason that they resent women being in politics. That is one of the reasons why the Women’s Reservation Bill hasn’t come through, despite best intentions,” she says. One of the few women politicians who came from an apolitical background joining politics inspired by the Founder of the Telugu Desam party the late NT Rama Rao, Renuka says gender bias is a phenomenon common to all cutting across party lines.

Bangaru Usha Rani, the Palakole MLA who defeated the Praja Rajyam founder Chiranjeevi, created a history of sorts by defeating a popular actor and party founder in his home turf, a feat that remained largely unrecognised probably because of her being a woman. “Chittaranjan Das was made a minister after he registered a thumping victory against former Chief Minister NT Rama Rao but I was not rewarded with a ministerial berth for reasons best known to those in power,” she avers.

The fact that the person she defeated merged his party with the Congress and was awarded a union berth was also an embarrassing truth that had to be endured. Women MLA’s in general echo similar sentiments when they talk about achievements being sidelined and failures highlighted. Says Sabita Indra Reddy who had the distinction of being the first woman home minister of the state and the entire country and who felt she was unduly embarrassed by the CBI for no fault of hers, “It became fashionable to blame me for every petty incident that happened in the state. I became a target and a stage came where even an instance of domestic violence was attributed to the failure of the home minister.” Blaming a woman home minister was easy and despite atrocities against women being perpetrated every day, at that point of time she was made a scapegoat.

Former minister and qualified medical doctor G Kuthuhalamma who also belongs to the scheduled caste has a long innings in politics but feels her political career was marked by great struggle. She says she got a party ticket after personally convincing the party high command once she was denied a ticket by the local leadership. She feels being a woman and that too from the depressed classes she was doubly disadvantaged. Galla Aruna Kumari who came into the political arena after working and living in the United States says she grew up with politics in her blood thanks to the grooming of her politician father Rajagopala Naidu. She, however, feels politics is not a cakewalk for women even if they came from affluent and politically powerful families. “Entry is easy if you come from a political family, but you have to be with the people and work hard if you have to sustain yourself. It is tough for women but with support from the family and hard work we can do it”

Many politicians like Uma Madhava Reddy, Sunita Lakshma Reddy, YS Vijayamma. Eleti Annapoornamma, Paritala Sunita, Kolli Bharati had to take on the mantle of leadership from the sheltered confines of their homes after tragedy struck and they had to continue the legacy of their late husbands. Most of these women had to address big gatherings and make speeches which they had never done in the past but they had to go throw the learning process and nitty gritty of politics to stay relevant.

An interaction with more than 40 women politicians gave an interesting glimpse into the world of politics and showed the common thread of belief that whatever the space they came from, whatever their party affiliations, however strong they were, the underlying bias in society is something they all had to face. Women in politics feel that there will be a sea change in society if more women enter politics and make their presence felt reservations or no reservations.

Actress turned politician and Secunderabad M.L.A Jayasudha on the other hand feels women in general whatever their profession have to work harder than their male counterparts and be prepared to face any criticism in the public domain. “I have come across many ordinary women who struggle to support their family financially as well as do all the work at home without any support whatsoever. We are living in times where we have to accept certain realities.”

Information Minister DK Aruna is very soft spoken and polite in private conversations and one is really surprised to see her verbal duels with many male politicians from Mahboobnagar district where she comes across as extremely aggressive. Quiz her about it and out comes the truth. “Most of the male politicians from my district resent my popularity and the work I have done in my district. They think I am high profile and get a lot of publicity. If I do not retaliate I will be seen as meek and incapable of fighting back”. Aruna reiterates that she spares a lot of time for her people and even went in a boat during rescue operations risking her life during the floods in Kurnool district. Such acts are never recognised by those who resent her being in the limelight she feels.

Anguri Lakshmi Shivakumari MLC from East Godavari is a young politician who made her mark as a member of the self-help group in her village. Educated up to Class VI she became the leader of her self-help group and her bold speech about women’s empowerment in front of the then Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy earned her a place in the council under the governor’s quota. Despite being from the depressed classes and not having the advantage of higher education, she became a crusader for women’s empowerment experiencing financial independence and power through savings in self help groups. “I have been lucky to get an opportunity to do something for women but I am aware of the extreme discrimination that women have been facing in the rural areas. I am constantly made aware of the fact that I have to live up to expectations more than my male colleagues”

Like the ugly caterpillar struggling to emerge as a beautiful butterfly these women feel their struggles make them stronger. Next time you see a woman politician striding in looking all powerful with gunmen behind her, know that it is a confidence that comes from an inner struggle not visible externally. The strength drawn from overcoming bias and constraints imposed by the system ---- “Yes, We can”!

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