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Will this Election Change Things? In Conversation with Indian Women

Here's how we will change our country

We asked five women with diverse backgrounds about their hopes and expectations from the government and ordinary citizens.

Women and Elections

Earlier last week, we spoke with women who had just exercised their right to vote. We also interviewed eminent feminist Kamla Bhasin on how politics and feminism can both co-exist to make things better for women everywhere.

Today we ask five women with diverse backgrounds –  but a common passion for India and its democratic process – about their hopes and expectations from the government and ordinary citizens.

About Our Respondents

  • Fiona Vaz is Operations Director at a not for profit for children
  • Ayesha is a business executive based out of Mumbai*
  • Rina is an entrepreneur based out of Bangalore*
  • Anukriti Pande is an ex-bureaucrat-writer based out of Mumbai
  • Mouna Devaiah Munshi is on the Board of an analytics start up in Bangalore

Are you going to vote this year?

We heard a vociferous “Yes!” from two of our respondents. Two others wanted to, but were not registered in their current city of residence (time for the Election Commission to recognize the growing tribe of urban nomads?). The final respondent Anukriti expressed the confusion faced by many of us today:

 I wanted to. But I don’t have anyone I would like to vote for. I don’t want to waste my time voting NOTA

Do you think that women need a separate manifesto, and why?

All five women were united in their belief that women did not need a separate manifesto, as that simply reinforces and widens the gender divide. Said Mouna : “Manifestos should be for the population as a whole, irrespective of gender. It’s time to stop treating women as a separate category in need of special treatment.”, while Anukriti felt that ” A separate manifesto will politicize things even more and defeat the purpose of any genuine impact”. Fiona rightly pointed out that the main problem is not promises but implementation. “The BJP’s manifesto speaks of women’s safety, entrepreneurship opportunities for women and taking care of girl children. AAPs manifesto too speaks of equal wages and employment opportunities. Even if a handful of these propositions were implemented well, we would have been in a much better place.

A cautionary note was sounded by Rina, who said:

Essentially women don’t make enough noise about their needs, and that needs to change.

What are some of the women centric things you’d like to see on the manifesto of political parties this elections?

Safety, health, education and equality – for girls and women – were paramount for all our respondents.

On health, there was universal demand for tangible actions to improve the overall health and nutritional needs of the girl child. Anukriti suggested greater awareness of menstrual hygiene and reproductive health for women, while Mouna asked for clean public toilets.

On equality, there was insistence on “equal pay for equal work”  and “ facilities to enable mothers to go back to work like specific working hours for working mothers, day care at offices etc”.

Anukriti also demanded zero tolerance for absentee or de-facto candidates in Panchayats. As she explained, ” after the 33% reservation rule (for women in Panchayats) has been put in place, most of the male politicians just put their wives’ names. These women don’t bother to come to office and even signatures are done by their husbands. This defeats the entire purpose of women’s representation“.

Fiona concluded with the observation that it’s unfortunate that issues such as entrepreneurship, safety and education need to be highlighted separately for women.

 I want to see a day when there is no separate section for women – are we not all equal?

If there was one seismic change you would like to see from the new government over the a next 5 years, what would it be?

No surprises here – all five women wanted an end to corruption, crony capitalism and criminalization of politics. But they also had concrete suggestions to make this happen, such as open financials and more transparency in implementation and decision making. There was also a demand for greater employment opportunities. Mouna made an appeal for “honest statements, honest effort to change things”, while Fiona wanted to ” see more people getting involved in governance.”

If there was one seismic change you would like to see from citizens – both men & women – over the next 5 years, what would it be?

Greater awareness and acceptance of differences is what our respondents would like to see from citizens of India. India is a heterogeneous land of language, religion, lifestyles, choices and thinking – and we need to respect this diversity. We also need to be more aware of the challenges faced by others – for instance, traveling in chauffeur driven cars may insulate a small section of the population from irregular bus services, absconding traffic cops and striking train staff, but the problem persists for the country as a whole. Fiona despaired that  “If each one of us lives in our own bubble and finds a way out just for ourselves, how will this nation ever improve?”

The last word came from Ayesha, who said:

Be good citizens and follow rules. Don’t try and bend the rules or be the exception. And demand that your leaders are also good citizens”.

As they say, Keep It Simple, Stupid.

What can citizens do in their everyday lives to ensure women get better representation and a greater hand in governance?

Access, participation and respect topped the agenda here. It was unanimously believed that it’s critical to ensure every woman has access to education and healthcare, but that’s simply scratching the surface. Equally important is that women are not restricted from questioning stereotypes, expressing their opinions and being told what they can do and cannot do. As Mouna said:

Women need to feel liberated, even in educated homes where the role archetypes are so rigidly defined.

Women themselves have a responsibility to respect each other, question pervasive gender biases, strive for financial independence and continue to participate in every aspect of society. Fiona made a plea to women to be “informed and responsible participants”, Rina expected women to be “more involved in the debate, and more vocal” and Anukriti raised the need for training women to “opinionate and engage with policy makingin education institutions and workplaces.

What do you think about reservations for women in the assembly & Lok Sabha – do you think that a woman politician is more likely to be aware of women related issues and work towards addressing these?

The jury was split here – a majority of our respondents were stridently opposed to reservation, but a couple of them believed that this might be the only practical way to bring women into the public sphere, and hoped that all things being equal (including greed and corruption), women politicians may be more inclined towards addressing gender issues.

Interestingly, all our respondents were united in their belief that the current lot of women politicians served as poor role models for women aspirants. As  Mouna remarked:

The fact that women are still unsafe and subjugated in this country means that the women representatives are not effective in governance either because they are complicit or their voice is being drowned out.

Fiona was more explicit, citing the inefficacy of several prominent women politicians, including the erstwhile President who was notorious for her international travels and misuse of power by her family. As she said:

If the choice is  between a man of integrity and calibre and a woman with just her gender- I would choose the former.

What is your overall belief about the future of India as a country- are you optimistic about change, not sure, worried that we are descending into some kind of anarchy?

Of the three women who responded to this question, one expressed outright hopelessness, while the other two hoped that a short period of anarchy would be followed by a much longer period of growth and rejuvenation. 

Fiona observed that “it takes way too much strength to be optimistic in this country”, but drew hope from the rich nature of discourse in the run-up to the elections. Rina sanguinely pointed out that ” given the massive social changes that are happening in India today and given the high inequality, there are bound to be years, or decades, of churn, anarchy and confusion”, but trusted economic equality to establish some semblance of order.

Editor’s End Note: 

As citizens of this country who are – rightly or wrongly – defined by their gender, we feel it our responsibility to end this conversation with our views on the questions we have raised. Like any self respecting individual, we abhor the idea of being singled out in manifestos, just as we passionately oppose the usage of “welfare” in discussions on women issues –  it reeks of the very patriarchal chivalry that we seek to defy. However, we are pragmatic enough to recognize that we live in a society that is intrinsically biased against women –  in which case we are left with no choice but to make specific demands that address the desires and aspirations of women.  We also recognise that we come from a position of privilege here, and that the Womanifesto attempts to voice the opinions of a majority of women which may not be heard otherwise. It also did a remarkably good job in getting people (and politicians) to talk about issues that are otherwise considered an afterthought – we just wish that there wasn’t any need for one in the first place.

We’d love to see a government that treats all citizens with dignity and respect (and we are not just talking about women here – we’d also like to see the equality extended to the long suffering LGBT community), but we strongly believe that a government is a reflection of the citizens it represents – we are with the Mahatma here on “be the change you wish to see in the world”. Unless we bring about a fundamental change in our attitude – towards hygiene, towards dowry and discrimination, towards the people who help run our homes and towards bending the rules for personal benefit – we cannot expect corruption and inequality to disappear.

We are strongly opposed to reservations of any kind, but one of our editors believes that at the grass-roots level it may force political parties to field more viable female candidates. Both of us remain disappointed by some of the prominent women politicians, their flippant remarks, and overall record on women’s issues. But despite the daily reports of rapes, female foeticide, bride burnings and acid attacks, we remain unabashedly optimistic about the future  of India. We draw hope from the thousands of citizens – both men and women – who are creating ripples of change, which one day will hopefully spill into a tsunami of revolution.

 

*Some names have been changed upon request, opinions expressed are personal.


Photo Credit: Arun Basil Lal via Compfight cc

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