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Women of India

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ndia was under British colonial rule for approximately 200 years, and became an independent State in 1947. India then encompassed today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indian women’s involvement in politics started in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although British imperialism profoundly influenced the political engagement of both elite and non-elite women during this period, its impact on the character and purpose of their engagement was very different.

Non-elite women fought against the British colonialists. Moved by the hunger of their children, the British confiscation of their land (which was their means of livelihood), and oppressive taxes, women participated alongside men in `famine revolts' in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and other revolts in the 19th century.

In 1947, with the end of British colonial rule and partition from India, Bengal became East Pakistan. The marriage with West Pakistan proved incompatible over issues ranging from language to economic exploitation of the east wing, and domination by the bureaucracy and military of West Pakistan. In 1971, Bangladesh was born to fulfil the dreams and aspirations of the people.

Historically, two important movements characterised South Asia. One was the political movement of challenge and resistance to British colonialism, and the other, the social movement to reform traditional structures.

The national movement against British colonial rule in undivided India, spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi, was instrumental in bringing women in large numbers into the public space. Gandhi played a crucial role in creating a favourable atmosphere for women’s participation in the freedom struggle by insisting that the struggle for women’s equality was an integral part of the movement of swaraj. His choice of non-violent Satyagraha as the mode of struggle also allowed women to play a far more active and creative role than was possible in more masculine-oriented movements.

While he wanted a vanguard role for women in the freedom movement, Gandhi did not encourage women to compete for power. Rather, he wanted them to enter public life as selfless, devoted social workers to undertake the crucial task of social reconstruction. He wanted women to cleanse politics, to feminise it by bringing in the spirit of selfless sacrifice, rather than compete with men in grabbing power, and thus prove their moral superiority even in the realm of politics. In Gandhi’s view, “Women are the embodiment of sacrifice, and her advent to public life should, therefore, result in purifying it, in restraining unbridled ambition and accumulation of property.” Gandhi, therefore, created a political space for women within the patriarchal system, projecting the concept of women’s role being complementary to men's, and embodying virtues of sacrifice and suffering.

Gandhi, however, was very conscious of the power that women could have in a struggle based on the concept of non-cooperation. He stressed the importance of their participation in political and social matters, and exhorted them to join the nationalist struggle. Gandhi, therefore, played a vital role in attempting to feminise the nationalist movement in India. In the process, the values and views that he espoused influenced and shaped the women’s movement in the early phase of independence of the other nations of the region.

The leading South Asian social and religious reformers in the 19th century were males, whose principal objective was to cleanse and reinforce family life. For those early pioneers, women were, at first, objects of their emancipatory efforts. But, in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, they became more and more subjects in the political and social spheres, as is clear from the examples of women’s political struggles around a variety of issues in the countries of the region. Yet, the basic understanding of the national movement’s leaders on women’s issues continued to be filtered through the existing patriarchal system.

Women of India participated in demonstrations such as the all-night dharnas of 1930 against foreign cloth, and in selling `the salt of freedom' during the salt Satyagraha. These campaigns succeeded in breaking the myth of segregation. They also articulated liberal sentiments like suffrage rights. To advocate women’s equality and their right to participate in nationalist politics, the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) was formed in 1927 through an amalgamation of various regional women’s groups. It also spearheaded constitutional reforms and other provisions for women. Consisting of reformist, revivalist and radical streams, the AIWC played a critical role during the freedom struggle, and helped women systematically articulate their political rights in public forums.

In Pakistan, in the 1946 election, two Muslim women, Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz and Begum Shaista Ikramullah, were elected to the Central Constituent Assembly. That same year, Muslim women organised and held demonstrations to prevent the government’s refusal to allow the Muslim League to form a ministry. Violence was used against the women demonstrators, and they were arrested as well. Initially, most of these activities were confined to Lahore and Karachi. However, the civil disobedience movement of January 1947 mobilised even the Pathan women, considered the most conservative in the subcontinent. They marched in support of the movement, publicly unveiled for the first time. The most interesting form of political participation was the secret organisation called the War Council, formed by the Pathans, in which women helped run an underground radio station until independence.

By 1947, Muslim women were organising funds for the Pakistan movement, fighting oppression on the streets, and addressing issues such as education. The greatest numbers of women were not mobilised around issues relating to women’s rights or their political and legal status. Instead, the rallying cause was the Muslim homeland. The women believed that the newly created government would automatically expand women’s rights and open avenues for their participation at all levels.

In Bangladesh, the provincial education minister, Abdul Hamid, decided to close down the girls’ schools, as there were not enough teachers and students. Jobeda Khatun Chowdhury, the first Muslim woman politician of East Pakistan, resisted the closure of Sylhet Women’s College. She sought an interview with the minister on this matter. He stipulated a one-year period to enrol the requisite number of students; otherwise, the college would be closed down. Jobeda and a few other dedicated women then began a door-to-door campaign in search of students. They succeeded, and the college remained open.

In Sri Lanka, the erstwhile Ceylon, several movements characterised the fight against British rule. The Suriyamal campaign, which was started as a counter to the sale of poppies to assist British soldiers, was the training ground for the rise of the leftwing socialist movement in Sri Lanka, which spearheaded activities against British imperialism. For the first time, women entered radical politics. They became vocal and visible, and a variety of women’s organisations emerged, like the Mothers’ Union, the Ceylon Women’s Union, the Women’s Franchise Union, the Women’s Political Union and the Lanka Mahila Samiti. The formation of the Eksath Kantha Peramuna (the United Women’s Front) was another great event in the political history of the country. It was the first autonomous socialist women’s group in Sri Lanka. This party asserted its socialist policies in its declaration seeking changes in the fundamental structure of society. The women of these organisations continued to take part in active politics as members of parliament and cabinet ministers.

At the grass-roots level, constitutional provisions have ensured reservation for women in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. In India, there is a 33 per cent reservation for women through direct elections to panchayats or local-level self-governance institutions that function in almost every State. At the local level, the new ordinance of 1997, which ensured a 20 per cent reservation of seats for women, has been a breakthrough, and has contributed to the increased participation of women in local elected bodies. One seat is reserved for women in each ward of the Village Development Committee. The new ordinance forced all political parties to support at least one female candidate. This fact encouraged women to get more involved in political activities in Nepal. About 40,000 female candidates were elected in the local elections of 1997. This provision has increased the numerical involvement of women in the local government units. However, their involvement in positions of decision-making and influence is insignificant. Overall, a strong male domination prevails.

The long history of struggles in South Asia--from women’s suffrage to women’s participation in electoral politics at national and provincial levels--is an ongoing one. The family and the community have replaced the State as the agency for granting voting rights to women. The State’s initiative of granting quotas or reservation for women has proved to be a mixed bag, depending on the country in question and the stipulation for reservation. India is still struggling for a constitutional amendment reserving 33 per cent seats for women in the parliament and State assemblies through direct election. The system of indirect elections through nominations to the national assembly and parliament, as in Pakistan and Bangladesh, has ended up in women depending on political patronage and becoming `secondary members'. Here, affirmative measures such as reservation and quotas end up as merely notional.

At the grass-roots level, the case of India, which now has direct election and 33 per cent reservation for elected members in the local bodies at all three tiers of administration, with an additional equal reservation for leadership position, has emerged as the best model. Bangladesh and Nepal feature restricted reservation at a particular tier of administration. Whatever the outcomes, the power of legislative reforms to ensure women’s participation in electoral politics cannot be underestimated. Women are emerging as leaders, waging struggles on several fronts.

South Asia boasts no documented case of political parties promoting the active participation of women in the party hierarchy or politics. In contemporary South Asia, the interaction of women in the public sphere has improved as a consequence of the women’s movement, particularly at the grass-roots level, and due to the proliferation of non-political women’s organisations. They have created alternative political spaces for women outside the party and other formal political structures, and women have started to engage with the State on a larger scale.

It is, however, evident that there are variations in this relationship between the State and women. Across countries in South Asia, constitutional provisions, legislative reforms and affirmative actions designed to encourage women’s participation in politics at the national level did not automatically result in the enhanced participation of women in politics. Socio-economic, religious and cultural factors remain major impediments. The governments of these countries are taking various initiatives to increase the political participation of women. However, it must be remembered that the affirmative measures are being injected externally into societies with extremely entrenched systems and traditions, and therefore, political restructuring will take a long time to usher in social transformations.

Women have greater potential and opportunities under democracy than under any other political system, although there are enough examples of autocratic and repressive practices within democratic systems, especially in the realm of party politics. The experience of democracy in practice in South Asia is that elected representatives routinely make politically expedient compromises and betray the confidence of their electors. That has been a negative development, as far as women in these countries are concerned.

The mere fact of being elected to office as a woman does not, however, automatically ensure gender sensitivity. This is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with, as it involves matters of class and caste. Having articulated the limitations of elected representative democracy, one must, however, emphasise that South Asian women would never have been able to rise to where they now are without democracy and reservation.

The women’s movement in South Asia, despite constraints and fragmentation, has had a number of achievements. In every country of the region, a vibrant movement has become a countervailing power to the State. However, the relationship between the State and the women’s movement is an uneasy one. There are attempts to co-opt leaders from the women’s movement through policies and actions. Once they are co-opted, self-aggrandisement gets priority over gender issues. Then the `female patriarchs' perpetuate the existing system.

It is important to strengthen the links forged amongst the women’s movement, activists, civil society and women politicians. At the same time, there is need for extensive programmatic interventions to develop women’s skills to be efficient candidates and managers in governance, both locally and nationally. There is need to develop a system to provide women with information. Women also have to be taught to overcome the psychology of subordination, of being portrayed as victimised and helpless, and not be content with being guided by men. In all these countries, the training programmes on women in politics were received with great enthusiasm, despite the hurdles the women faced in getting to attend them. The women are fully aware of the importance of knowledge and skills to fulfil their new roles, and, in many instances, are creating new leadership models.

Dr.Kedar Karki

Senior Vet.Officer,Central Veterinary Laboratory Kathmandu Nepal M.V.St. Preventive Veterinary Mrdicine


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