Most favoured in panchayat, unwanted in Assembly: Why bias against women as MLAs and MPs in literate Kerala

Lathiks Subhash, Bindu Krishna, Sobha Surendran
(Clockwise) 1. Lathika Subhash tonsuring her head as a mark of protest after the party denied her a seat to contest the April 6 assembly elections; 2. A teary Bindu Krishna with her women supporters who came to the DCC office in Kollam. 3. BJP leader Sobha Surendran

In the past few days Kerala witnessed three female politicians responding quite intensely, though differently, to the male bias in candidate selection for the Assembly polls.

Congress's Bindu Krishna, who had fought her way up to the post of the Kollam DCC president, cried. BJP's Sobha Surendran, who is always in combat mode, for a change, smiled. It was not really denial of a ticket that had induced the loaded smile. Sobha was reacting to the extra consideration her party had given to a male leader in the party. It was as if she found K Surendran's twin candidature (in Manjeshwaram and Konni) amusing, a joke.

Annie Mascarene
Annie Mascarene, the first woman representative to Lok Sabha from Kerala. She had beaten T K Narayana Pillai with a margin of 68,117 votes from the Trivandrum constituency in the state of Travancore-Cochin in 1951 lok Sabha poll as an independent candidate. Photo: Manorama Archives

Congress's Lathika Subhash's was the most disturbing response. She tonsured her head, in full media glare, in front of the KPCC headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram. A woman's shaven head is culturally associated with something painful; a serious illness or widowhood or public shaming.

This could be why the act of tonsuring, even if it was Lathika's choice, felt gut-wrenching.

No mass appeal

It was not as if male leaders were not denied tickets by the parties this time. Many were. But in most of these cases, the men did not find the need to publicly demonstrate their hurt. A crowd had come out in support. Mass protests were witnessed in Ponnani, Kuttiyadi, Ranni, Irikkur and Palakkad.

But these three women were left alone, no one took out protests in their name. It was sheer helplessness, the realisation that no help would come their way, that had probably resulted in their varied, but deeply touching, responses. A stage has come where the woman has to take extreme measures to claim her space in the electoral stage.

Rosamma Punnoose and K R Gowri, who were part of the 1st Kerala Assembly.
Rosamma Punnoose and K R Gowri, who were part of the 1st Kerala Assembly. Photo: Manorama Archives

Where have our women gone

Even 64 years after Kerala was formed, female representation in the Assembly has remained stagnant. If the first Legislative Assembly in 1957 had six women members, the outgoing 14th Assembly has just eight, all of them LDF members.

In this time, Kerala had elected 906 members to the State Assembly. Only 49 of them were women. Women contestants had, in fact, increased over the years, from nine in 1957 to 110 in 2016. But since 2001, when the total number of women contestants had crossed 50 for the first time, 70 to 75 per cent of them had forfeited their deposits, indicating that they were either dummy or non-serious candidates.

And right from its formation, Kerala had sent only 15 women to the Lok Sabha.

K R Gowri, who was part of the 1st Kerala Assembly. Photo: Manorama Archives

Local wonder but Assembly misfit

Such scarcity of women at the higher law-making bodies looks unnatural for two reasons. One, this is a land where there are 1084 females for every 1000 males. Two, more than 50 per cent of the posts in local bodies are occupied by women.

In 2009, Kerala had passed a law reserving 50 per cent seats in local bodies to women. After the 2020 December local body polls, over 54 per cent of elected members are females. Had women been any less effective, it is clear that local democracy would not have thrived the way it has in Kerala.

So if women are good for local level leadership, why not at the state and national level.

“Participating in local body polls is a legal obligation for women. Even if they are reluctant, women have no choice. Since there is no such law that governs female participation in the higher elections, men needn't bother to promote women and the women are not keen to take part either,” said Deepthi Mary Varghese, KPCC general secretary.

Pennamma Jacob, the sole woman who made it to Kerala Assembly from Ernakulam district
Pennamma Jacob, the sole woman who made it to Kerala Assembly from Ernakulam district. Photo: Manorama Archives

Lack of staying power

The Congress leader said women in general were not ready for a prolonged stay in politics. “Within the Congress, there are less number of women at the organisational level. Only if they are willing for a prolonged stay can they reach the stage where they would be considered irreplaceable in the party,” Deepthi said.

She said there were innumerable instances of women panchayat presidents and municipal chairpersons who had quit active politics soon after their term ended.

Bitten by the housewife bug

Women, unlike men, are always inclined to limit themselves to domestic responsibilities. Leave alone politics, their participation in the workforce, too, is poor. The latest Economic Review says it is just 20.4 per cent of the total employed persons in Kerala.

Even a senior Congress leader like Laly Vincent, the KPCC's first women vice- president who had a “prolonged stay” in politics, refused to contest the Assembly polls in 1986 even though she was asked to by none other than Rajiv Gandhi.

“I was 25 then and had three children to care for. I did not think it was a good idea to leave my children and plunge myself into a rigorous election campaign,” Laly said.

It was only in 2016 that she finally got a chance to contest, but then she was not given the constituency of her choice and instead asked to fight T M Thomas Isaac in Alappuzha, a constituency where she had no links. She lost.

Women and mafia links

Feminist researcher J Devika, who had done research on women people's representatives, cites another reason for the low number of women legislators.

“Nowadays it is not public support alone that is required to be picked as a candidate. Other vested interests, too, will have to support you. This means that the chosen candidate will have to represent many mafia interests. This additional requirement works against women,” Devika said.

The woman Congress leaders Onmanorama talked to said they had to mobilise their own money for the campaign, unlike in the CPM or the BJP where the party provides the candidate the necessary funds.

Sensational beings

There are some patriarchal reasons, too. “Women are scandal prone, in the sense that they could easily be made the subjects of sleazy and sensational rumours. This is not a risk political parties are willing to take,” Devika said.

She is also not particularly proud of the powers handed over to local body representatives. “There is no power in the local bodies,” Devika said. “Unlike the power an MLA or an MP wields, the power a local body representative has is subjected to a lot of checks and balances. Also, the authority of local bodies has waned in the sense that they mostly implement state and central policies,” she added.

Stranger males

There are practical issues, too, that prompts a female politician to think twice about contesting for an Assembly or Parliament seat. “If a woman is asked to contest from a place she has no roots, she would find it extremely difficult. This happened to me in Alappuzha, in 2016,” said Laly Vincent.

“I knew no one in Alappuzha and I had to depend on a battalion of male workers about whom I had no idea. This can make a woman seriously uncomfortable,” Laly said.

How to improve numbers

Women Onmanorma talked to had two suggestions to improve female presence in the higher law-making bodies. One, make it a legal obligation, like it was done for panchayats, municipalities and corporations.

A constitutional amendment Bill that seeks to allocate 33 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women, which the Left has taken up as its own, has been doing the rounds for quite long. A consensus has still not been evolved.

Two, anoint a woman as the chief minister. Tamil Nadu, for instance, had more women legislators when Jayalalitha was the chief minister. In West Bengal, too, women legislators increased after Mamata Banerjee came to power.


Upshot of Islamophobia

The numbers can also increase out of political necessity. The Indian Union Muslim League has fielded its first woman candidate in 25 years, Noorbina Rasheed from Kozhikode South. She has been made a candidate ignoring the objection of Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, the source of spiritual guidance for majority of Sunni Muslims in Malabar.

“The growing Islamophobia has put pressure on a party like the IUML to convince others that they are good Muslims. Offering a seat to a woman is a reflection of this desire to be seen in a progressive light,” Devika said.

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