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Issue 11

Bombay Begums

What made me watch Alankrita Shrivastava’s six-episode Netflix series Bombay Begums was its title itself – laden with royalty. Watching the trailer, one could possibly ask, why call the lives of five women located in the city of dreams ‘begums?’ Each episode delves into the anxieties of these women’s private yet socially relevant lives. Their engagement with the ‘social’ reveals concealed realities of their ‘personal.’ Rani Irani, Fatima Warsi, Lakshmi Gondhali, Ayesha and Shai, with all their vulnerabilities in a man’s world “mend the pieces and move on, until it happens again.”  

“We are all part of the problem, Fatima …” aptly puts across our attitude towards preserving power while discrediting the powerless. The characters depict complexities accompanying the notions of power, freedom, dignity, sexuality, and integrity within a queen’s realm. It leaves one with thoughts that the world is too hesitant to express. The dialogues, narration, and the plot does not miss out on any opportunity to critique ways in which the patriarchal world fails each time it tries to understand women’s language of desire, power and respect. The series is flawed in its own ways, and that’s exactly how the lives of these women play out. Flawed. Yet unapologetic. 

These women are artists – with art fading at every possible turn of their lives, but their firm determination towards striking their brush once more, on that empty canvas, speaks for itself.  Their strength to assert their power in an oppressive world is what makes them the begums.

Another interesting aspect of the series – five out of the six episodes are named after books by eminent women writers who have aspired to live through all the lows and highs in their own, independent journeys. The plot of these episodes stays inseparable from their names, depicting relevant connections between women’s stories from a foreign land in a city closer to home.

“Our wounds can heal, and our souls blossom. And the jagged and sparkling dreams of women can find both earth and sky,” summarises the series at its best. With all the critiques and applauds that the series has received a month into its release, Bombay Begums is a must-watch for all.

Picture Credits: Tribune India

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Categories
Issue 10

How Mamata’s Trinamool Broke The Glass Ceiling For Women In Politics

New Delhi: With 50 women candidates, or 17% of the 291 seats from where it is contesting a heated assembly election in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) has once again taken the lead amongst states that offer the largest space for women’s representation in politics.

In the outgoing assembly, 14% are women, well above the 8% national average across Vidhan Sabhas, though slightly below the 14.6% in Parliament and significantly below the 24% worldwide average presence of women in elected assemblies.

When Mamata declared ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that 41% of her party’s tickets would be given to women candidates, she translated her commitment to women’s participation in politics into action. If the rationale behind the “magic figure” of 41% appears unclear, it could simply have been that the “percentage was based on the number of women already in her shortlist”, said Tara Krishnaswamy of Shakti, a non-profit organisation that works to enable and increase women’s participation in electoral politics.

Of the 23 women who ran on a TMC ticket, nine got elected—the second highest contingent of women parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha, after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That said, data suggest that while the TMC sails ahead of its opponents on this issue, the relatively higher participation of women in Bengal politics is part of a longer trend of gradual inclusion to which more than one party has contributed.

An examination of the profile of TMC women candidates over time also indicates that their inclusion in the party could well be the by-product of an instrumental approach to ticket distribution, rather than from the adhesion to a normative principle of equality that would prevail over electoral strategy.

TMC party members suggest that the inclusion of women in the party may be incidental to a selection strategy that does not consider gender to be either a particular advantage or an impediment to the party’s electoral prospect, even though Mamata has come out publicly in favour of women’s quotas.

“She is already committed to 33% reservation, but Mamata Banerjee has always tried to consider 50% women candidates,” said Dola Sen, the TMC MP in the Rajya Sabha, who has spent the last three decades as a trade union leader in West Bengal, and been a part of Mamata’s own efforts to develop and consolidate women’s solidarity into concrete electoral gains since the Nandigram and Singur movements.

Gradual Inclusion Of Women In State Politics

Since 1962, only 238 of the 4,119 individuals elected into the West Bengal State Assembly have been women.

Until the late 1980s, women barely made 2% of all legislators, a state of affairs to which both the Congress and the Left contributed equally. But starting in 1992 with the 73rd Amendment, which set up a three-tier panchayat system, women’s representation has risen steadily among candidates.

In the 2001 election, which took place after the split with the Congress and the formation of Mamata’s Trinamool Congress, women accounted for 9.5% of the members of the state assembly. From 1991 onwards, the percentage of women candidates has increased by about 1.5% in every election.

However, data gathered by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data shows that besides the TMC, other parties, especially the Left have also contributed to that rise.

For instance, even if the old generation of the CPM and its allies did not feel the need to extend their egalitarian views to women, the Left’s newer generation, led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, was more inclined to include women among their candidates. In 2011, the state’s Left combine, including Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc and Socialist Unity Centre of India, gave 49 tickets to women candidates–higher than the 32 given by the TMC. And, significantly higher than the national parties: Congress has not given more than 10% of its tickets to women candidates to date, and the BJP, which has been fielding more women recently, increased its number of women candidates from 23 in 2011 to 32 in 2016.

Mamata Banerjee addressed a public meeting at Nandigram on 18 January 2021/ALL INDIA TRINAMOOL CONGRESS

As it opened the door to a greater inclusion of women in politics, the TMC took the lead in the past three elections. The party has also received considerable publicity for its inclusiveness–perhaps by virtue of getting many more women elected than its opponents. Sixty-two women from the TMC have been elected in the past 15 years; the Left has managed only 111 women in 54 years.

Profiles In Diversity

In the patriarchal world of politics, women politicians get easily stereotyped. While much of the media focus is on the five actresses fielded this year by the TMC, few are paying attention to the 46 other women contesting.

An examination of incumbency data reveals that men and women politicians in the TMC share the same turnover.

It is still early to make pronouncements about the 2021 candidates, but an examination of the 2016 women candidates reveals that the TMC recruits a diverse lot of women candidates. In 2016, only two of the party’s 45 women candidates were film or television stars; 17 belonged to political families (mostly wives of politicians); and 14 got elected.

In terms of occupation, 14 were self-declared housewives; the occupations of the rest were split between education (nine), social service (11) and business (six), among others.

That Banerjee consistently manages to identify such a large number of women candidates in the first place also must mean that she assiduously scouts for talent and sends out feelers to find the right women to offer tickets to, Krishnaswamy said.

As far as we could determine from the 2016 candidate list, only three of the women had any prior experience in local municipal bodies. A few others also seem to have emerged from the party’s organisation or familial connections while 18 ran for the first-time. Another 22 had already been elected twice or more times.

The TMC’s 2016 women candidates were also varied in terms of caste: 19 upper castes, 13 in SC-reserved seats and two in ST-reserved seats. There were only three women candidates from a backward class background, while nine were Muslims. It is worth noting that the TMC is probably the one party that offers the most representation to Muslim women in India. Like their male counterparts, most of the party’s women candidates were highly educated (24 graduates and above, while two were 8th pass candidates).

One cannot conclude that the TMC recruits “a certain type” of woman candidate, nor can we reduce their inclusion among the party’s candidates to a publicity stunt. But it is evident that the party chief believes that celebrity and star power help win seats.

Banerjee has “good equations with youngsters not only from film but also TV stars. She goes to their marriages and celebrations, spends time with them,” said political journalist Jayanta Ghosal. As a result, she has developed strong personal attachments with ‘Tollywood’, he said.

But could the candidature of these celebrities appear exploitative at times, especially in constituencies where strong local female politicians have been overlooked in spite of years of grassroots work?

While giving tickets to celebrities is a formula that has generally worked well for the TMC in the past (especially in heavily contested seats where inner party rivalries are at work) it also raises questions about whether this is a deliberate strategy to keep complacent old-timers on their toes and balance whatever power challenges they may throw her way with newcomers who will be loyal.

Like all political leaders, Mamata, too, puts a premium on personal loyalty. “People who are new, have the least expectations. Most candidates talk about the party, Mamata’s achievements and schemes. No one is campaigning on the strength of their own work,” said Krishnaswamy.

Compared to most other parties, the TMC stands out by making women political actors rather than mere figureheads for electoral mobilization. Unlike other women chief ministers who work in a quasi-exclusively male environment, Mamata has surrounded herself over time with women contributing to party work or to the cabinet.

Five of her 42 ministers are women, some holding several important portfolios or portfolios not immediately connected to women’s issues, like agriculture, fisheries, SMEs or land reforms.

Her party’s organisation includes large numbers of women office holders, and many women play a prominent role in campaigns.

That Mamata has consistently supported strong women in politics and led by example, is no secret. Nor is the fact that the TMC is one of the only parties on India’s political map that seeks to consolidate women as a powerful vote bank through political participation, rather than sops.

Her genuine desire for inclusion of women in politics is evident, and her supporters say a result of her own political struggles. “Unlike so many other Indian politicians who are women, Mamata Banerjee never had a man helping her – with due respect to others, she is no one’s daughter, wife, widow or girlfriend,” said Dola Sen.

“Look at me, for example,” she said, “We are independent, efficient and competent politicians with or without reservation!”

Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data.

Maya Mirchandani is assistant professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

Niharika Mehrotra, an undergraduate student in the Political Science major, assisted with data collection

This piece was republished from Article 14 with permission of the author. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 8

Feminist Bollywood, Really?

The question – are you less of a feminist if you listen or dance to songs that demean women is perplexing. All of us regardless of whether or not one is a feminist should feel degraded by writing, singing, dancing, or listening to songs that demean any human being. 

Unquestioningly accepting disparaging attitudes -whether in-jokes, images, music, or literature –  normalizes conversations and behaviours that exacerbate an already existing unequal power structure. 

All this matters particularly in the context of popular culture. Bollywood plays such a disproportionate role in defining our culture and values that it would be the obvious place to first examine what is being propagated.  Bollywood songs are everywhere. Not only does the music influence us but so do the themes, dress, dialogues, and the subtle ideologies that are conveyed almost imperceptibly. Clearly, Bollywood’s broad reach both mirrors Indian culture and shapes it.      

This two-way stream of influence makes it difficult to establish causality. But anecdotal evidence suggests that our everyday mimicry of the reel becomes our reality.  

Let us first consider a song like ‘Makhana’ by Yo Yo Honey Singh. A hugely popular Indian singer, rapper, composer and actor. Yo Yo’s (as he prefers to be called) single hit ‘Makhna’ climbed the charts soaring to around 19 million viewers immediately. He was flooded with messages welcoming him back, cheering this song and eagerly awaiting the next release. Some viewers talk about the beat that makes one want to jump onto the dance floor. While others have protested and wanted to file a case against the vulgarity of the lyrics. At a Delhi poetry slam another rapper Rene Sheranya Verma wrote and performed an open letter entitled “Namkeen Kudi” berating Honey Singh’s lyrics and views.  The most offending verse in Makhana says: 

 “Par Main Hu Womanizer

Mujhe Akele Main Mat Mill” .  

Misogyny in Bollywood lyrics has come a long way from the now seemingly innocent “Choli ke peeche kya hai” released in 1993, which had caused such a stir in those days. 

Some critics have attributed what they call India’s ‘rape culture’ to suggestive dance numbers and glamourized often forceful courtship to Bollywood.  But did this problematic portrayal of women already exist in our culture or has it been created and exacerbated by Bollywood? Indian culture seems to hold the veneration of women goddesses and the denigration of women seamlessly in the same hand. 

The issue, of course, is not merely about the lyrics but also about the in-your-face, crass eroticism of scantily and sexily clad women who sing and dance in an exotic carnival-like location. Women in Bollywood films often are not mere objects of and in the songs but are an integral part of it – by participating in it as actors, watching it, dancing to it, and, loving it. Where does one draw the line? Misogyny is not only a men-only domain. These ‘item numbers’ are as much for what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey termed the voyeuristic male gaze as they are for women who could also take pleasure in the women but also in the bare-chested, hip-thrusting men and even the bad-boy image projected by Honey Singh’s Makhana. Is it feminist to enjoy this kind of turning of the tables or is it merely reverse sexism? 

 If we accept the huge impact of  Bollywood on the Indian psyche then the fabric of our culture is already interwoven with misogyny. Honey Singh might be a one-off example, but so much of the way Bollywood depicts women and men’s relationships remains questionable, and, yet we continue to accept them as normal – ‘it is like this only’. Till recently we took Bollywood’s men forcing their unwanted attention on women and not taking no for an answer as acceptable if not ultimately desirable.  The many ways women are mentally, emotionally and physically abused and demeaned are visible in almost all Bollywood films. Even so-called feminist films such as English Vinglish or Dangal remain problematic.

Feminism may not dictate a response but we as individuals and part of a patriarchal community should not find it too difficult to come up with our own creative responses to what we find offensive. One might be to have these kinds of songs banned or censored and have Honey Singh and others of that ilk castigated, another would be to respond in kind as did the Delhi rapper Rene but ultimately the answer would depend on each individual. However, these individual protests need to blossom into something bigger that will raise awareness about what our popular culture is actually teaching us.  

There is no one size fits all formula for the degrees of feminism one should aspire to. I find Honey Singh’s songs vulgar and lewd not only because I am a feminist but they should offend anyone because the lyrics, and indeed the whole package is offensive.

Let’s not make feminism a rigid rulebook. We know censorship is a bad approach, especially in today’s borderless world. Already we see that Ailaan and Asi Vadangey – two Punjabi songs critical of the farm laws have been taken down from YouTube at the behest of the Indian government. There is no great distance between politically objectionable and culturally offensive.  

Geetanjali is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ashoka University. She has also been Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master’s degree from George Washington University. 

Her book:  Indian Women in the House of Fiction (2008) is now in its third edition with the University of Chicago Press. Aside from participating in many conferences internationally,  Geetanjali has written numerous articles on various subjects including Sikh Masculinity, Representation of Sikhs in Bollywood, Children’s Literature in the diaspora, Indian women’s fiction etc. 

Geetanjali co-founded The Attic, Delhi – an interactive space for the living arts.

Picture Credits: reidy68/ Pixabay

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 8

Wages for Housework: Giving Wives Their Due?

What do Kamal Haasan, Charlize Theron and Julianne Moore have in common? One proposes salary for housewives in India and the other two support a Marshall Plan for Moms in the US. Very similar ideas, prima facie laudable and progressive.

First of all, in India, several women who get counted as “not working” actually contribute substantially to household economic activities (farming, livestock, kirana shops, workshops etc): work that is unrecognized and unpaid. For this work, women need to be recognized legitimately as workers. They need to be seen as equal partners whose labour allows the household to earn a livelihood. 

Turning to domestic chores, everywhere in the world, the burden falls disproportionately on women, regardless of whether they are “housewives” or not. The enormous weight of endless and repetitive housework leads women to either drop out of paid employment altogether (or temporarily), or to seek part-time work. Women who manage to re-enter paid employment after a childcare break typically enter as juniors of, and earn less than, men comparable to them in age, education and qualifications. In other words, collectively as a society we want children, for which mothers pay a penalty, but not fathers.  

Feminists have highlighted the sexual division of “reproductive labour”, where women disproportionately bear the load of domestic chores, care and nurturing responsibilities, which eases male participation in “productive labour” and allows the productive economy to continue running smoothly. A typical picture of a standard early 20th century family, where the man is the breadwinner and the woman the housekeeper and caregiver. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened this divide: women did more housework than men before the pandemic; they do even more now. Even though the sheer volume of this work is enormous, it is undervalued, invisible and completely taken for granted. Globally, the monetary value of this work (calculated at minimum wage) is estimated to be USD 10.9 trillion

Then what is wrong with explicitly recognizing this and paying women for their massive contribution to the household? The short answer is: everything

The salary-for-housewives proposal takes the “male breadwinner” heteronormative family structure as a given. It completely solidifies the boundaries and divisions that have kept women in the kitchen and/or taking care of the kids, and/or caring for the elderly, and/or maintaining the house, and/or be responsible for nurture of family members. 

Over the last 70 years, all over the world, these boundaries have gradually begun to blur as the movement towards greater sharing of the reproductive labour has gained momentum and voice. While the division is far from fair or equal anywhere in the world, there are green shoots of gender equality that, until Covid-19 hit, were gaining strength, albeit not fast enough. 

Covid-19 hit and those lucky enough to have jobs to work from home found themselves stuck with demands of both domestic work and their paid jobs. The immense pressure of childcare and home schooling has led to women dropping out of the workforce in greater numbers than men.

The gender gap in paid employment has markedly worsened due to the pandemic. To fix this, women need enabling conditions to get back to work. Instead, the pay-the-moms/wives proposal is arguing for the exact opposite. It has nothing to say about sharing the load. 

South Asia in general, India and Pakistan in particular, have among the most unequal division of domestic chores, where women spend as much as 10 times more hours compared to men. In India, this is the key social norm that hinders women’s participation in the labour force. The lack of economic independence also lowers women’s position within the household in terms of decision making and mobility. Often even women who work outside and earn a salary have limited control over their hard-earned money.

In this scenario, what would payment to women – most likely controlled by the husband — for domestic chores result in? Greater respect? More equality? Greater decision-making abilities? Higher mobility? More control over their own lives and choices? 

None of the above. 

It would result in greater dependence, reduced status, enhanced burden, with a shift to paid employment even more difficult than earlier. We can only imagine how many Indian families might sack their domestic maids and nannies if they had to pay their wives for the same work. (PS: How would this work in families with same-sex couples?)

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that women’s unpaid reproductive labour is the biggest social safety net that allows the wheels of the paid economy to continue moving. This work has to be shared equally within the household, instead of pushing women back into the 1950s-style traditional stereotypes. 

Since the suggestion is about valuing women’s work in India, a good starting point would be to explicitly recognize their contribution to household enterprises as workers, on the same footing as the men, and share the earnings from the household enterprise fairly. 

And stop thinking of domestic chores as women’s work. 

Ashwini Deshpande is an Indian economist who specially works with topics concerning poverty, inequality, regional disparities and gender discrimination. She is currently an Economics professor at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).