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WOMEN’S ENIGMA

The Election Commission’s announcement of polls in the northeastern states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura last week has bared a grand tapestry of electoral designs for the February franchise. Of the three states, the toughest contest is likely to occur in Meghalaya, where the ruling Congress coalition hopes to return with a majority. In Tripura, the last remaining Left Front bastion in the country, the ruling formation is likely to sweep the polls once again, while in Nagaland a solution to the Naga imbroglio rather than elections is of primary concern to the voters.

In Meghalaya, the scenario that is unlikely to change is the poor representation of women in politics in this matrilineal state where women voters outnumber men. Of the total electorate of 14,90,015, the chief electoral officer, P. Naik, has pegged the number of women voters for 2013 at 7,53,307, a clear 16,599 more than the men.

Yet the electorate evidently does not favour women representatives. It elected one woman to the first assembly since the state’s formation in 1972, although nine had contested. In 1978, of the seven women candidates, again only one made it to the legislature. In 1983, women candidates drew a blank (eight contested), two (among three) won in 1988, one (of seven) in 1993, three (of 14) in 1998, two (among 14 nominees) in 2003 and one in 2008.

The last elections witnessed a record number of 21 women contestants, and this year has spirited participation. The Congress has announced six women nominees, the United Democratic Party four, the Nationalist Congress Party two, the Lok Janshakti Party one, the Hill State People’s Democratic Party one. These, with four Independents, make up a healthy tally of 18. More may follow, since the last date for filing nominations is February 6.

Let the men play

But the “winnability factor” of these candidates is suspect in a state where women hold exclusive property rights and the children get the mother’s clan name. It remains a mystery why a woman legislator is anathema to the electorate.

The empowerment of women calls for political representation amid other crucial parameters like health, schooling, labour force participation, domestic life and legal rights, among others. Decision-making is directly proportional to a woman’s social status. Economic independence is a significant marker, but even custodial rights over ancestral property do not give the women in Meghalaya any brownie points as lawmakers. They are visible but, contrary to views about them, they do not straddle the universe.

The Khasi historian, David R. Syiemlieh, asked me why Manipuri and Naga women were being projected as torchbearers while their counterparts in Meghalaya were ignored in spite of their unique social structure. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the much-acclaimed democratic grassroots institution of these tribes, called the dorbar, from which women were barred till recently.

According to Roshan Warjri, the lone woman legislator in the 1993 assembly and till last month the chairperson of the state women’s commission who will be contesting on a Congress ticket this year, the reason for minimal representation is possibly women’s own reluctance to break social shackles. While global trends in gender equality harp on the need for greater participation of women in public life, in Meghalaya women feel that their status is elevated if they remain apolitical. This is understandable in patriarchal societies as in Nagaland and Manipur, where women may be activists who hold hunger strikes, or organize marches to highlight social evils, but shun politics. It remains unfathomable how such a situation can prevail in a matrilineal setup, with women themselves being the most vocal champions of the “politics is for men” theory.