Two interconnected negative trends must be reversed: Plummeting women’s work participation and massive personal physical insecurity for women.
Tsunami Tsunamo has crested, propelled by people power. As one who entered the media in the late 1950s—then eighteen, now eighty—I stand witness to a rare karmic moment in the nation’s life. It has come only twice before: in 1971 when Indira Gandhi rose Durga like, post Bangladesh; again, in 1984, when a nation mourning her assassination gave an awesome mandate to Rajiv Gandhi. Ironically, both times fate also decreed else wise. Will this third opportunity redeem the nation’s trust or similarly fritter?
Daunting multiple challenges exist. Economic, social, political, compounded by extreme polarisation, hate crimes, a 24X 7 media amplifying all. The minority issue is upfront. As critical but less in focus is its largest minority—women. Women’s empowerment, constitutionally imperative, done right could transform the body politic.
The Prime Minister started well. Helming Women and Child Development (WCD) by a political heavyweight: Smriti Irani—the electoral battle’s giant killer whom media speculation had as Amit Shah’s successor—testified to new political will. Irani brings formidable field talents, tenacity and ability to tweak the Bharatiya nari image with barrier breaking shakti (witness Sita as pall bearer). But her absence from recently announced crucial committees does not augur so well. There must be place at the high table to ensure across board cooperation. Bridging all gender gaps is the most sure footed pathway to total vikas; it cuts across castes, classes, creeds, creates pan India empowered citizens.
This election evidenced maturing of women’s political agency: a critical half of voters were women, near parity with men, many making independent decisions. Ironically, political parties provided little corresponding support to women’s contestation. Only two regional parties gave women significant seat allocation: Orissa’s BJD (33%); West Bengal’s Trinamool (50%).
The 17th Lok Sabha boasts the highest tally of women since Independence—76. Yet that comprises only 14% of 543 members. This rate of increase will take forty years to reach women to 33%—the minimum threshold for critical mass enabling gender impact.
That 76 women made it testifies to their gumption. Smriti Irani is prime example, having conquered the Gandhi bastion and coped with murder mayhem. This was the nation’s most acrimonious electoral battle ever, with discourse coarseness and violence seldom witnessed before. Naturally, winners were mostly the crorepatis—88%; the criminally charged/court indicted—43%. Women are a given casualty when money/muscle power dominate. Besides demeaning sexist/sexualised smearing militates for a different macho type to enter the fray, not the softer gender influence hoped to uplift politics. Over half the current women MPs are dynasts also.
Equitable women’s political representation (WPR) remains a key unfulfilled political agenda from the 20th century. Demands to revive the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), challenging the Prime Minister to redeem past promises and prove his party’s pro women credentials are already resurfacing. However, PM Narendra Modi would be wise not to touch the WRB hot potato, which is a deeply flawed proposition seeking to unseat one third sitting members while holding the remaining two thirds in perpetual jeopardy. Each WRB attempt saw unprecedented scenes of gross misconduct/violence blemishing Parliament, prophesying worse outside. Naya India needs women leaders as harbingers of harmony and progress; gender parity, not fractional reservation.
WPR is a principal challenge. Done differently it could catalyse simultaneous solution to another equally vexing problem—the demographic stalemate distorting democratic processes, ensuring money and muscle power dominance. The misconceived 1976 era population control legislation continues to freeze Parliament/Legislature seat numbers at 1971 population numbers, causing both seat scarcity and bloated constituency size, as these average 2 million, many 2½ to 3 million population. The freeze extends till 2026. Fresh delimitation comes thereafter. The Constitution, which provided equality of vote and equitable state population ratios, stands diluted. Creatively enlarging the pie—not rotating scarce slices—and earmarking additions to women could ensure both gender representation and demographic justice without disturbing politically negotiated balance.
More immediately, two interconnected negative trends must be reversed: (1) plummeting women’s work participation; (2) massive personal physical insecurity for women.
Lack of personal safety threatens women’s freedom of movement/speech/ dress, jeopardises equal access to education, health, work opportunities/political participation. It was a major electoral issue unpacked by many pre-election surveys, perhaps a key factor propelling women to vote in large numbers.
Macro political stability must translate into micro safe environments as pre-eminent priority. The plummeting work force participation, the resonating #MeToo movement, highlight women’s insecurity in streets/workplaces/public places which are their Constitutional birth right to access. Significantly, women’s equality push could add 1.4 points to India’s GDP; bridging work participation gender gap an estimated $770 billion to the economy by 2025 (McKinsey Report).
However today women face menace to their bodily integrity even within their homes/neighbourhoods. Building home toilets was one key step towards women’s physical security. It resonated. But cleansing the Internet and social media platforms of pornography freely invading homes, polluting the social environment, turning near relatives and strangers alike into predators, is a burning issue yet left untracked, as vested interests of the digital economy prove too powerful to confront.
The dangers from prurience over the airwaves acquire ominous proportions as the airwaves penetrate deeper, compromising the very development they carry. This needs attention at par with national security threat; it is that and requires prioritised strategic action divorced from censorship concerns. Sadly, memes/morphs of political figures/devis elicit outrage, but the porn that bedevils ordinary women’s everyday lives is ignored. Rape/gang rape has become media fodder, while selective political blame games blunt the deadliness of heinous sexual crimes per se. Sexual violence against women constitutes an epidemic today. It must be labelled terror, shown zero tolerance. Streamlining prosecution and punishment is necessary but cannot replace primary prevention and protection.
Aping Western models currently dominant in feminist thinking/media exposure is not the way. Demand for the freedom from fear and the opportunity to grow is a very different (Gandhian) trajectory to pursue than the freedom for sexual assertion. The former has widespread societal support, the latter assures media space but also societal backlash.
These are seminal contemporary societal issues. Will Modi display the courage to walk a very different walk as Gandhi once did? The legacy and the lessons are right there.
Rami Chhabra is a media veteran, who pioneered the first feminist columns in the national press. She has served the country in various capacities, including in GoI and as Member, National Population Commission.