Political participation encompasses consuming political content, awareness, exercising one’s vote, to contesting elections. How do women make these choices? Why do they make the choices they do? The article discusses the various factors, often invisible that decide the political behavior of women, with a deep dive into Haryana’s female politicians.
What influences women’s political behavior? A case study from Haryana.
Sanyukta Sharma is currently the Lead Policy Consultant at the Chief Minister’s Office, Haryana. Having closely worked on the Lok Sabha and Haryana State Elections in 2019, her research interests lie at the core of political philosophy, justice, and modern-day public policy. To put this in perspective how does ‘Who I am’ influence ‘Who do I vote for’?
‘Politics’ is intimidating, and for women, more so. I say this for two reasons. One, for us, discussing politics is not easy. It comes at the cost of being questioned, judged, and labeled. If opinionated, one is termed ‘aggressive’ or, on the contrary, as ‘misinformed.’ At the core of it, politics reflects people’s, demands and needs with regards to health, safety, education, work, public spaces, markets, environment, tax policies, abortion laws, sexuality, etc. But having a political opinion is also a privilege that depends on one’s identity and gender. For centuries, women have been denied education, access to public spaces, and equal experiential opportunities that are the most critical factors in shaping and forming one’s opinions ultimately which influences how one votes. The information and exposure scarcity coupled with that of representation at positions of power put us in a spot where one, we do not have the same level playing field, and two, we enter a territory that is unknown is risky and daunting. During a conversation, one of my friends once quipped, “Studying political science is the closest thing women do with respect to politics”. I am still not sure if that was said in sarcasm or disappointment.
In 1987, Gail Omvedt wrote- “the exclusion of women from political power has been more marked than their exclusion from paid work or even property rights.” Over the years, I have realized that a conversation on the participation of women in politics often means one of these three broader themes – their voting patterns, representation or the difference in leadership styles. But, surprisingly, not many people in the room asked or discussed the most fundamental question vital to women voting, supporting or contesting for or against a candidate and a political party. What influences and contributes to women’s political behavior?
In 2016, I first met Sapna, a 21-year-old young Sarpanch of Kheri Brahaman village located in Kurukshetra district of Haryana. I asked her as to how did she make up her mind on contesting the local elections? How difficult was it to win the elections? Sapna’s own experience suggested that socioeconomic status and caste identity hugely determines how likely it will be for a woman to participate in politics. As an upper-caste Hindu, Sapna felt it was relatively easy for her to seek votes by convincing people from her ‘own’ community. “I am a Brahmin. And the majority population in our village is Rajputs and Brahmins. I was confident that my people would vote for me,” she explained. Of course, she admitted that the Modi wave was a significant factor that explained the winning margin. I did not understand what ‘my people’ meant – people from her village or the likewise upper-caste Hindus? “Since my father could not contest the elections this time, he told me to do so. He has been a three-time Sarpanch, so the goodwill also helped me win” she confessed.
To compare the extent of agency that women have, we cannot see them as a uniform category. Caste, class and demographic differences must be accounted for if we study the political aspirations and societal standing women have. Caste is an important parameter to understand the leadership method adopted. It denotes the members’ placement, access and control in Panchayats.
In 2015, the Government of Haryana amended the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994 introducing ‘minimum’ education requirements for contesting panchayat elections. This requirement mandates completion of matriculation for general candidates; completion of Class 8th for female or Scheduled Caste candidates. As a consequence of the newly tagged ineligibility, the baton was handed over to Sapna out of compulsion rather than choice. “I would have never allowed her to enter politics. Local politics is also not easy, plus who would have voted for her without my support?” Sapna’s father asserted.
A woman in India who tries to navigate the world of politics is often made to feel like an outsider, The lack of experience in political administration, predominantly male staff, restrictions on mobility, unsafe work environments, and elected women being represented by their male relatives (as proxy or stand-in representatives) to lead deliberations and decisions, are all factors which have consistently restricted politics as a man’s world.
Vijayalakshmi and Chandrashekar (2002) point out that a majority of male leaders thought panchayat president-ship was the first step in a successful political career. But, a majority of female presidents did not aspire for any political career so there are significant differences between expectations of male president and female president and also their attitudes regarding political involvement at the panchayat level. The lack of political aspiration is also reflected in the original reason to contest elections. The table below shows that it is not common for women in most states to either decide themselves or be encouraged by a female relative to stand for a position.
Other male relative
Source- Women’s Leadership in Panchayati Raj Institutions, Participatory Research in Asia (1999)
But, I wanted facts. So, let’s talk about numbers.
Despite coming from a culture of low self-confidence and normalised patriarchal norms, we see beginnings of the emerging leadership of rural women in India. When posed with an option, fewer people would go to a female panchayat leader than a male. However, women have consistently taken up these petitions and tried to resolve the ones which have come to them. The table below indicates data from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. 56% women representatives (WRs) in the position of chairperson received a petition while 43 % members received a petition.
Efforts made to solve problems presented (percentage of WRs)
Petitions Problems received
This seems optimistic, even if it is not the ideal situation. A barrier that exists and makes genuine political participation more difficult is the dependency on male members. Almost a third of women reported that they tried to solve problems with the help of their husbands (My husband told pradhan’s husband “Mera Pati Ne Pradhan Ke Pati Se Kaha ….” ). This not only indicates the lack of social and political capital that women possess, but also a lack of awareness combined with a lack of confidence. While some of them were not sure of how to resolve the issue and decided to seek a ‘well versed opinion’, others felt that their word would be less valuable than their husband’s.
Participation of women in politics is primarily looked from the ‘representation’ lens. But the statistics are grim. In a country with around 49% women population, India has less than 15% representation of women in the Parliament. An Inter – Parliamentary Union and UN Women Report published in 2017, titled ‘Women in Politics’ suggested that while with Lok Sabha’s 11.8% and Rajya Sabha’s 27% women MP’s, India scores way behind a country like Rwanda that has more than 60% women representatives in the Parliament.
The state of Haryana has been long shadowed by the patriarchal setup where Panchayats have been male dominated and rigid resulting in marginalization of women – socially, economically and politically. A handful of political families and patronage to powerful caste/groups have been the only entryway for women who had political ambitions. In the last 40 years, the state has had only four women MP’s, with no women ever elected from constituencies like Sonipat, Gurugram, Faridabad, Rohtak, Karnal and Hisar.
Out of the 6,205 Gram Panchayats in Haryana, I analyzed the data of 6,187. As per the figures, there are presently 2,564 females and 3,623 male Sarpanches in the state. The biggest setback to women’s participation in politics is that despite being elected, the entire responsibility is taken care of by their male counterparts-the “Sarpanch pati” tradition-leaving them to be mere political puppets.
Interestingly, the number of female graduate Sarpanches is almost half as to that of men, and conversely, this is more than five times compared to men if checked for Class 8th pass outs. The same is true even with the caste filter, except that the difference margin is three times if taken only for Class 8th pass outs. Studies show that women drop out post-high school (close to when they get their first periods), and the low self-esteem in women stems from the lack of education and exposure, an issue they continue to deal with as they take up political roles.
Table 8: Social conditioning
Would have done better if she were a man
Source: PRIA Research
With the exception of Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, women from the other states feel that they would have been better at their jobs had they been men. This self-assessment does not find evidence in the work they do but the perception they hold of themselves as a product of social conditioning. If one examines the roles played by the elected women representatives, it is evident that they have been successful in doing all the jobs that men have been doing within panchayats and more. The validation and recognition that women have received for their activities has been very limited to further add on to their own insecurities.
In the past four years later, I think what Sapna’s father said has only been reinforced by the umpteen conversations I have had, or with my own experience at the intersection of policy and politics. Political participation or desiring political power demands awareness, education, and empowerment. And in this case, also, making one’s voice heard. Sometimes by casting one’s vote and at other times, convincing someone to vote for you.
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