Where are the Women? Finding Leadership, by Clara Presler

It is from the rickshaw that I do much of my observing of Delhi. The long stretches of kilometers that run through back alleys and over six-lane flyovers are not always conducive to foot travel. But a rickshaw grants you much of the same physical sensation as walking and the rides are never dull: I overhear snippets of conversations between drivers pausing at streetlights, catch a whiff of the chai sipped by groggy taxi drivers or a glimpse of families preparing for the day.  I see a city constantly at work: the same kids clamor at my side each day selling magazines, the dhobis teeter on their bicycles amidst traffic with oversized loads, the government Ambassador cars and the blue-plated SUVs of the United Nations whiz by authoritatively.

 

But these daily rickshaw rides offer more than sensory exposure and a series of near-accidents. They provide constant fodder for my work at Center for Social Research, the NGO with which I have been working since January.  The relevancy of Delhi’s street life to my project stems from the under-representation of one group: the women.

 

At the Center for Social Research, a 25-year-old women’s rights organization, I have been asked to author a leadership training manual for women aspiring to enter politics. Currently there is a pending bill that would establish a 33 percent reservation for women in state legislatures and Parliament. The course I am writing aims to mobilize women around political issues and empower them to see themselves as leaders. Our long-term goal—beyond providing women with information and training they may lack—is to pressure the government to pass the reservation bill through the voices of new women leaders.

 

When this project was first proposed to me, I hesitated. On the one hand, it had all the right elements: it was timely and stimulating, and would likely put me in contact with a wide cross section of society. On the other hand, I thought of the divisiveness of similar debates in the US and my role as a foreigner. I asked myself, “in my short time in Delhi, do I really want to enter into a debate as fierce and complex as something resembling affirmative action and quotas?”

   

Then I thought about my rickshaw rides through the streets and the teeming crowds: if there are so few women in daily public spaces, what would move them decide to run for political office, perhaps the ultimate of public positions? My curiosity peaking, I suspected the debate might be very different in India. 

 

I decided to turn outward. I contacted academics and NGOs, attended public debates, and spoke, through a translator, to local leaders. Through a series of interviews, I learned that the question of reservations in India, while just as lively and fierce as in the US, has a different starting point. Few dispute the disadvantage that certain social groups face in Indian society, particularly the lower castes and women. Reservations for lower castes are deeply entrenched in public sector institutions.  The debate around reservations for women concerns what we would think are the finer details but here, in such a populous and layered society, are the crux: numbers and percentages, and whether to address caste issues within or apart from reservations for women.

 

But it was not always this way. During the writing of the Indian Constitution, many leaders from disadvantaged groups felt that reservations were a way of ‘institutionalizing inequality’ and vehemently opposed them. The hope of unity and equality was too great. Sarojini Naidu, one of the most famous women leaders of India wrote: “To seek any form of preferential treatment would be to violate the integrity of the universal demand of Indian women for absolute equality of political status. We are confident that no untoward difficulties will intervene in the way of women.

 

That was 1950. In 1993, India’s Constitution was amended to establish a one-third reservation for women at local (panchayat) level government; as I mentioned, there is a pending bill to do the same for state and Parliamentary legislatures. Some women question whether these bills will bring about the radical shift in gender roles we hope for. Generally, though, the women’s movement is supportive. So what changed?

 

Towards Equality, a report published in 1974 by the Commission on the Status of Women in India, suggested that independence had not created the opportunities for women that the writers of the Constitution had hoped. The Committee claimed that its field studies showed that the status of women had actually deteriorated in the preceding decades and called for stronger legislature and grassroots mobilization. Towards Equality galvanized the women’s movement; the report is considered to be one of its founding texts.

 

Addressing the breakdown between ideals and reality for women in Indian society in a way that is accurate yet empowering has been my primary focus in preparing this course. Ideals—progressive legislation, success stories—will play a crucial role in drawing women into the public sphere in greater numbers. We rely on the ideals to chip away at the harsh realities:

 

Men, Money, Muscle-power: the typical phrase used to describe Indian politics. Violence: against candidates and their families, against young women in pubs, against women at home. The exorbitant price of party tickets and the shady deals required to pay for them. The proxy debate, suggesting that reservations for women simply encourage men to put their wives forward to represent their interests.

 

The list of factors that could repel women from the public sphere and political leadership goes on and on.

 

The next set of questions I seek to address in this course concern the definition and cultivation of leadership: once a woman has decided to hold on to ideals and work to effect change in her surroundings, what does she need? What information and skills will encourage women and prepare them for leadership?

 

Parts of this answer are universal; many others are locally-specific. I have learned that the only way I can write an effective and relevant course to Indian women is to listen. Each individual I have spoken to has added to the definition and message of the course. Listening has deepened my ideas about politics, leadership, and women’s empowerment, sometimes casting them in a new light. Interviews with certain individuals, men and women, have been particularly instructive:

 

Sumitra, a woman who has contested two local village elections entered politics through her work in domestic violence. A survivor of violence herself, she became a local councilor and entered politics in order to be more effective in her work preventing violence. She has proven to me that the personal is political.

 

Atul, a PhD student at Nehru University, contested elections in his home district in northwest Bihar. He went door-to-door, introduced himself to his constituents, and listened to them in their homes. He lost, but received many more votes than expected. As a result, the opposition murdered his brother. Yet Atul plans to run again, showing that scare tactics are not universally effective.

 

Rheka counsels women experiencing domestic violence. She is fierce in her defense of her clients’ rights and radiates as she works. But she does not advocate total independence; instead reconciliation. She has shown me the ways in which a woman finds power is often relative to her surroundings.

 

Pallavi leads the student government at Nehru University. She was never interested in politics before she moved to Delhi from Bihar. At JNU she looked to her seniors for guidance, informed herself of the issues, and chose a party. She has shown me that, with strong mentors, an interest in politics can be cultivated, and that a community in which to learn is vital.

 

My friends from the States who have led wilderness trips spoke to me at length about activities and consciousness-raising exercises that encourage new leaders. They have convinced me that leaders are not necessarily natural-born; instead, most traits can be turned into a leadership skill. Knowing and listening to your own strengths is the first step towards leadership.  

I have started to see women leaders all around me. A woman I met last week at a domestic violence counseling center is filing a case against her husband while going to college and raising her child. My flatmate, a head editor at a magazine, turns on a dime from relaxing at home to making quick decisions on her phone. I am part of a vibrant running group organized by one community-minded woman who didn’t feel safe running alone. I think back to the self-help groups I visited while at my previous placement in Tamil Nadu, and the crucial role the women held in managing their families’ 

finances.

 

It is clear that my rickshaw rides and newspapers only tell part of the story. Women are scarce on the streets of Delhi; they comprise only 8 percent of the Lok Sabha. Off the streets women are organizing, taking charge of their lives, and reaching out to others. The goal of the one-third reservation bill is to bring this grassroots action to the public. To represent and facilitate women-focused leadership in politics.  To change the way political leadership looks.

 

I like to think that Sarojini Naidu would be appeased to consider that perhaps reservations are not a negative reflection of women’s capabilities. Reservations instead recognize the barriers between the public and the private spheres and the social structures that reinforce them.  Instead of ‘institutionalizing inequality’, reservations could actually recognize leadership potential and carve out doorways through the barriers. The doors will still be hard to open and women will need a good reason to push.  But as more women step through and leave the doors open behind them, the reasons will become more numerous and barriers increasingly porous.  

– Clara Presler

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One thought on “Where are the Women? Finding Leadership, by Clara Presler

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