“Where are you going, all dressed up in your new sari, shoes and carrying a handbag? Don’t forget you are the daughter-in-law of this house and you should be ashamed of going out for your ‘dirty’ work (implying meeting her lovers secretly).” These were only some of the contemptuous comments that Tinku Bagdi was subject to. As a village panchayat Nari Jagran committee member, Bagdi started stepping out of the boundaries of her home in 2014. “At that time my child was only two-and-a-half years old,” recalls Bagdi, who is currently the pradhan of Jamna gram panchayat in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. She adds that a creche was started by the Jamna gram panchayat as part of its gender-responsive budgeting, initiated after a series of capacity development programs by the Equidiversity Foundation run by Kolkata-based Anindita Majumdar. Majumdar who had been streamlining activities under the not-for-profit organization since 2014 worked in the development sector at the intersection of gender and grassroots for more than 20 years before formally registering the Equidiversity Foundation in 2016.
Kashmira Bibi, an ex-member of Birbhum district’s Thiba gram panchayat, recalls how she was married off at 16. As a mother of three children including a specially-abled daughter, life for Bibi was bleak. She knocked on the doors of one organization to another seeking support for her daughter. Everyone would give her hope but none a solution. “I was hurt and angry not just for myself but for thousands of marginalized mothers like me,” shares Bibi.
Women in proxy leadership
Although the West Bengal government has a provision of 50% reservation for women at all levels of the three-tier panchayat system, a panchayat general meeting, in reality, typically would mean women are present in ‘proxy leadership’, recalls Bibi who was ostracized by her own family members when she filed the nomination for a village panchayat member. Once a member, she soon realized how decisions at the panchayat body were taken by male members who hardly paid attention to ‘women’s issues’. Two years into her membership, and she had no idea about her work.
Designed to familiarize members with power dynamics, the Equidiversity training model helped Bibi recognize how gender is central to her identity. The training in gender sensitization, existing laws that women can avail to seek gender justice, role of the panchayat in planning, identifying funding channels and budgeting for women’s and children’s needs helped shape Bibi’s future role as convener of the Women and Child Development and Social Welfare Sub Committee. In 2017, Equidiversity conducted a survey to understand the status of elected women representatives, and found that almost 65% had no income of their own and less than 4% were graduates. Around 64% revealed they had filed their nominations because they were asked to do so by their husbands and political parties to reserve these seats, so they actually had no real interest in politics. This is where an organization like Equidiversity Foundation steps in with a critical agency. As Bibi says, “The training helped us recognize our political, social and economic rights and overcome the barrier of women serving as proxy leaders.”
A Madhyamik (state board of secondary education) drop-out, Bibi today straddles the world of Zoom conferences, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Delivering leadership in interior Bengal
The Equidiversity Foundation covers Purulia, Birbhum and the Sundarban areas, and directly works with more than 1,600 people. So far, Birbhum has seen nine elected representatives, who have all been re-elected in the present term. South 24 Parganas saw three re-elected members this term, and two new representatives from the Nari Jagran Committees that advocate women’s rights and support survivors of violence. Equidiversity steers sansad sabhas where members of these committees hold discussions with panchayat members and form planning committees. It is from this juncture onwards that the Nari Jagran Committees hold up their own and women start leading their own communities. The panchayat general meetings are preceded by the para baithak or locality councils where women leaders encourage women to voice their demands. These demands are then formulated as part of the Nari Jagran Committee submission to the Women and Child Development and Social Welfare Sub Committee. Economic empowerment at Equidiversity means loans are given for self-help activities ranging from running free masala (spices) baking units, detergent soap making units, puffed rice units.
Lack of nurturing
While the gender-responsive 50% seat reservation in the panchayat has pushed for the daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, sister-in-law into proxy leadership, the same has not ensured their growth into leadership goals. A woman is viewed in relation to a man — a wife, daughter, sister — who is only expected to sign documents but not ask questions or engage in decision-making. This perpetuates traditional gendered roles for women that demand their obedience. Moreover, the seats reserved for women one election year may not be reserved in the next as they rotate every election.
The Equidiveristy survey has shown that no matter how limited their agency is, women start expressing themselves or asking questions towards the fourth or fifth year of their tenure. However, only a few are re-elected or given nomination as there is a tendency to bring fresh faces among political parties. “This trend of not nurturing women to grow into greater leadership roles ensures that they go back to being housewives. This nurturing can’t stop after five years. Compare this to a man who has served as a panchayat member, and who continues to be in the party holding some post whereas the women just disappear from the party line,” rues Majumdar.
How far has 33% reservation of seats for women in the Parliament ensured gender empowerment? “After all, such a reservation is represented by high class and upper caste women,” observes Majumdar. On the other hand, she notes how women at the local level lacked decision-making power.
The moot question: Who are the invisibilized grassroots women? It has to be understood beyond statistical insights and a collective identity. A huge majority of women have the least resources and come from economically weak backgrounds with an average education of until class 8. The Equidiversity model starts by making women and even men aware of how their gender conditioning has shaped them over the years, and how realizing their own gender trappings can help them make a change.
There is a community-level demand for women elected representatives but there’s an issue with the supply chain. “We are trying to bridge this gap by preparing women who by the virtue of their leadership in their own communities can become a natural choice to be nominated by political parties,” elucidates Majumdar.
The urban/ rural divide should also be factored in while talking about Bengali politics, mostly represented through the urban/upper-caste and metropolitan gaze of Kolkata.
However, one look at the number of women from the grassroots in the Lok Sabha will tell us how strong this divide is, reminds Majumdar. Any analysis of patriarchy in the political system will be incomplete without acknowledging how women at the grassroots lack access and opportunities for social mobility.
Bengal’s party culture and women voters
Such a gap is accentuated by the fact that in the Bengal 2021 Assembly election, while several women candidates were fielded by contesting parties in a bid for women empowerment, most were from the regional Bengali film industry. This makes the narrative for women power myopic. As filmstars enjoying massive popularity with their audiences online and offline, they were supposed to translate the fandom into votes. Some did. But has it ensured greater mobilization of women who lack visibility, space and agency? Maybe not.
Women voters, touted as the ‘silent majority’, have risen both in numbers and significance. If earlier the perception was that women voters did not have a mind of their own and actually proxy-voted for male family members, Bengal 2021 and earlier the Bihar Assembly elections have shown how women have the power to bring a regime to power. The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in Bengal wooed its women voters with several women-centric schemes including direct cash transfers and health cards issued in the number of matriarchal figure heads of families.
The bigger question however is beyond whether political parties create space for women to talk about their issues? “What are the gender policies that political parties have around sexual violence or harrasment? Is it merely a tokenistic representation in terms of a committee still lacking in critical awareness?” asks Majumdar.
“What are the gender policies that political parties have around sexual violence or harrasment? Is it merely a tokenistic representation in terms of a committee still lacking in critical awareness?”Anindita Majumdar
West Bengal is the only state where panchayat elections are fought along party lines. Every decision is taken by the party in power and chances are if you are a local here, you would not be surprised if someone answers ‘party’ as their work/ profession. Amid such a pervasive party culture, studies reveal how women at the grassroots perceive politics to be ‘nasty’ and ‘everything to do with party’. Majumdar and her team are working hard to change that perception and develop a more cohesive understanding of politics as an exercise in the Indian constitution and human rights.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)