Whither gender? On poll surveys and reportage in TN

As Tamil Nadu counts down to voting day, the Association for Democratic Reforms has released the results of a February 2016 survey of over 16,000 voters in across all of Tamil Nadu’s districts.  The survey listed 31 policy areas and asked rural and urban voters to rate the government’s performance on each as well as to indicate how important the issue was to them. This is a wonderful initiative, and we need civil society to undertake more of them, not just before elections.

The 31 items include one labelled “Empowerment of women and security.” This predictably ranks very low as a voter priority—17th among rural voters and 11th among urban voters. The reporter who first drew my attention to the survey asked me what I thought of this. That gender equality is a low social priority is not a surprise to any of us; it is the very situation we seek to change.

What caught my attention was the framing of this item. I am sure I should award some points to the authors of this survey for including at least one gender-related item, and I do recognise that in other hands, this survey would have been completely gender-blind.

I cannot help wondering: Would that have actually been better?

What, after all, does “empowerment of women and security” signify to the respondent of a survey? We do not have a narrative available yet from ADR to explain that. That this is one category, “empowerment of women and security,” suggests two things to me, quite compatible with each other. First, it says to me that “women are empowered when they are safe.” Second, it says that empowered women are safe. Given that in a survey, “empowered” is hard to pinpoint, “safety” is left standing alone as something tangible to rate and to prioritise.

Women’s safety is important; the safety of all citizens is a fundamental and foundational responsibility of the state. But when you single out the safety of a single group of citizens, you alter their relationship to the rest of society. They are to be protected, like infants, and concerned as they are with safety, it’s a ‘safe bet’ that they will not be interested in other issues. The other 30 items are therefore issues that citizens, mainly men, are concerned about. For women—not all genders, just women—protection and safety are the main thing.

What are the other issues? Almost all of them, except drinking water, electricity for domestic use, primary health care and food prices and subsidies, are stoutly public sphere issues—traditionally, the world of men. When “empowerment of women and security” are set apart, the suggestion is that these are of peripheral concern to women.

Staying within that realm, however, the exclusion of growing inter-caste violence is still odd—both caste and communal revenge for intermarriage and gender-based violence along caste lines. The violence suffered by both men and women here is not placed on the agenda.

Surveys like this are an excellent agenda-setting device. It is hard not to wish for a more gender-sensitive instrument than the one that seems to have been used. It might have contributed to putting gender justice on the Tamil Nadu agenda.

The reporter who called to ask me what I thought about the low priority accorded to gender seems to have been the only one who highlighted this concern but she clubs it with other infrastructure issues. The Business Standard listed “empowerment of women and security” as being among one of the top priorities despite its middle rank (17 and 11). None of the media reports have called for gender-disaggregated data and because, at this point, only a press release is available, we do not know whether ADR in fact disaggregated the data by gender and other demographics.

Civil society works on gender sensitization and rights issues year in and out, but at election time, it is critical that the media pick up on civil society’s groundwork and use its superior network of reporters, its access and its platforms to highlight and amplify a change agenda for society.



Swarna Rajagopalan

Political scientist and Managing Trustee, The Prajnya Trust, Chennai.


WB Elections 2016 and the third gender issue

Whenever they step out, curious eyes steal a glance at them and whispers follow them. But now they are coming out with their heads held high, and confirming their gender identity. The long fight of the transgender community continues, for a life without discrimination, hatred, negligence. They demand their rights, and a life of dignity and respect for every member of the community.

In this context, the assembly election of West Bengal 2016 has a whole new angle. Transgender people will have voter identity cards on which the words ‘Third gender’ are written in bold. But while there are hopes there is also despair amongst the community, centering on state politics and the election.

While many from the hijra or eunuch community (which comes under the umbrella of transgender) feel that the stigma attached to them has its roots deep in the social psyche, some are hopeful that a political intervention will help to bring some change. It is a question of economic independence, social security and, above all, respect for all the different sections of society.

One indication of this change was the appointment of the first transgender poll official, Riya Sarkar. Most dailies carried prominently displayed reports on this, with visuals. The Indian Express reported on April 30: “It’s 11 am and the centre is teeming with polling officers. Sarkar, like hundreds of other officials, joins the queue to collect her poll material.” They all look nervous; they are all “scared about handling an entire polling booth”, as Malati Saha, another polling officer, put it. Sarkar, who on May 7 will be the first transgender person in India to preside over a polling booth — Number 260 in South City International School (Rashbehari Assembly constituency) — will have the additional responsibility of creating history. “I hope everything goes well,” Saha said.

Sarkar was approached by Smita Pandey, the district electoral officer, Kolkata South, for the job of polling officer. “She (Pandey) said I had to do this for my community. She felt if more transwomen like me come forward, there will be more acceptance,” Sarkar said. Pandey, who shortlisted 24 other transgenders to be polling officers, said she was disappointed at not being able to involve more members of the community in the electoral process. “The Election Commission has a rule that only government employees can be polling officers. None of the transpersons who were shortlisted, apart from Riya Sarkar, were government employees,” Pandey said. Of the 6.5 crore voters in West Bengal, the number of registered voters from the third gender is 758.

The Times of India reported on April 30: “On a day when West Bengal made history with a third gender managing a polling booth in the assembly polls, a prominent leader of the transgender community here has lamented the lack of sensitisation among polling officers regarding the ‘other’ category.”

Transgender activist Ranjita Sinha has also spoken out on the lack of coordination between the state’s transgender welfare board and the Election Commission.

“When I went to cast my vote in a booth in Bhabanipur constituency in Kolkata South, the presiding officer and other officials were confused as to the ‘others’ category I am enlisted in. They wanted me to be placed in ‘general’.

“After insisting a few times, they relented and let me vote. This shows how unaware they are. Since I am an activist and I am known in the area, I was able to push but what about the others in rural pockets who are shy to come out and vote,” Sinha asked, adding, “There is a huge lack of sensitisation among poll officers.”

For details on the West Bengal elections and the third gender, please read:


Sudarshana Chakraborty, Bengal Network, May 5, 2016

Local media on Elections 2016 in West Bengal: development and gender concerns are conspicuous by their absence

In West Bengal, the legislative elections are taking place in six phases spread over 20 districts for a total of 294 seats. They were kicked off on April 4 and April 11 in districts referred to as jangalmahal, and they conclude on May 5. All the results are expected to be out by May 19.

Coverage of corruption, not development
The media reports, once the poll dates were announced, threw the spotlight on the communities’ expectations in addition to electoral issues. However, the collapse of a flyover in a congested area of north Kolkata on March 31 not only crushed many people to death, it also put an end to hopes of any extensive reporting of development and gender-related issues. Though the tragedy brought into focus corruption and the shoddy attempts at giving the city a better look, most dailies, both vernacular and English, have targeted the twin issues of corruption and power first, and stories of violence and lawlessness thereafter. Even with ADR Election reports that there are 52 candidates with serious criminal cases against them, including murder, attempt to murder, theft and crimes against women, we have had no reportage or analysis of these.

Four years earlier, women candidates of each constituency were interviewed to record their aspirations and their roadmap, while citizen journalists were given an opportunity to air their concerns regarding developmental issues such as health, women’s safety, education, infrastructure, and hygiene. This time around such issues seem to have been given a quiet burial.

Some articles on oral triple talaq
However, as a run-up to election issues, two national media houses – Outlook (print) and NDTV 24×7 (electronic) – focused on the practice of oral triple talaq among poor Muslim women in West Bengal at a time when Sharaya Bano has challenged this very practice, resulting in a number of reports and serious comments in the national media of late. Incidentally, Shayara Banu received triple talaq through the post while she was at her parent’s house.

In Dola Mitra’s comprehensive story in Outlook, titled “Mamata, Muslim women and Triple Talaq” (February 3, 2016), she wrote that Muslim women of the state were overjoyed when Mamata Banerjee, a woman, was voted in as Chief Minster.

Khadija Banu, founder-director of the Rokeya Nari Unnayan Samiti is quoted as saying: “When Mamata came to power the Muslim women were overjoyed. They wept with happiness saying ‘finally we have a woman as chief minister and also someone who does not hate Muslims, so now our needs will be taken care of.’ These very women felt let down when the CM announced the stipend for the Imams. Some of them came to me and said, ‘How could she do this? She can pay the Moulavis who don’t need so much money and yet do nothing for us?’”

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the ruling Trinamool Congress have been criticized for “appeasement” of Muslim priests, notably Banerjee’s decision to pay a monthly stipend of Rs 2,500 to the state’s Muslim clerics (imams). “We feel let down and saddened,” is the common refrain of people working for the Muslim community and women’s rights. There is a consensus, cutting across political parties, about the sorry plight of Muslim women.

“It is unfortunate but it is a fact that it (the Muslim community) is a male-dominated society,” admits Adhir Ranjan Choudhury, former union minister of state for Railways and Congress MP from Murshidabad, one of the three Muslim majority districts in the state, in the same report. “It is a fact that political parties don’t pay too much attention to their specific needs because they focus more on the community as a whole. But there really is a need to look at the different set of problems and demands and these should be addressed more conscientiously.”

In the same story, CPI-M member of Parliament and Politburo member Mohammad Salim says, “Though the Left Front had brought in a number of reforms as far as gender equality is concerned including 33 percent reservation for women which has also positively impacted the participation of Muslim women in the electoral process, by and large the decision-making and how a family will vote is ultimately left up to the head of the family, who is more often than not a male member.” However, Salim points out that in comparison to other, namely north Indian, states, West Bengal is more progressive. He claims that as much as 85 percent of the Muslim vote is cast by women.

The report concludes: “In most Muslim communities, especially amongst the poor, illiterate, uneducated and downtrodden, women don’t have any decision-making power.” As observed by Farzana Choudhury, former CPI-M Mayor-in-Council at the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, “Sure, they do exercise their franchise and cast their ballot but only in name. In most cases they are told by the male members of the family whom to vote for. ‘Put the stamp beside this and that symbol,’ they are ordered, and they comply.”

In reality, therefore, very few Muslim women of the state really make personal choices or deliberate on candidates and issues before making a choice.

Suatap Deb’s news documentary on NDTV, telecast first on April 15, 2016, trains its lens on how young divorcees in Murshidabad, a Muslim majority district of WB, are battling apathy and penury. She reports on a number of young women victims of the oral triple talaq. They were also victims of child marriage, married before they were 16. Many of them find themselves divorced and abandoned after having a child or two. Khadija Banu, also quoted in the television programme, says that there are a number of schemes to benefit women but the most vulnerable sections are too powerless to access them. Alongside, the programme asks the question: if oral triple talaq is no longer in practice in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, why can’t India do the same?

In fact, Bangladesh, which shares its borders with Murshidabad, has also done away with oral triple talaq which was declared illegal by Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961. The methods of talaq applicable to people governed by Muslim law here are talaq e tawfiz, which makes it mandatory to apply through either pouroshobha or union parishad which forms a three-member committee to see if reunion is desirable between the divorcing couple; if not, they must wait for 90 days before divorce becomes effective and enforceable.

Back in West Bengal, regardless of which party has been in power, not much headway has been made in the re-examination of the Shariat Law, though several NGOs and women’s groups have been working seriously towards this. The only glimmer of hope is that several self help groups are emerging to empower women. However, there is hardly any media coverage in the local media on this work. The online media is doing a tad better.

By and large, however, such issues have disappeared from the election radar with no glimpse of them in the different parties’ election manifestos. As Ruchir Joshi writes in his op-ed column in The Telegraph (April 28, 2016), all that the elections seem to focus on is the Congress-Left jot of snatching power from the ruling TMC, while the TMC is doing all that it can to cling to that power.

Needless to say, the people of Bengal suffer, and disadvantaged groups such as poor Muslim women continue to bear the brunt of a number of inequalities.

Manjira Majumdar with Urmi Rahman
Bengal Network
May 2, 2016

TN women struggle for space in politics

  • Meera Vankipuram (Courtesy: Times of India, April 15,2016)

Uma Maheswari, the PMK candidate from Srirangam, has been a member of the party since 2006. Inspired by PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss’ campaign for prohibition, she decided to apply for an assembly seat. “I want to help my leader in his mission to get rid of this scourge,” said the 33-year old first-time candidate.

Uma Maheswari was fortunate to make that transition from party member to candidate. Others like Kasthuri, 42, of Sinnandivalasai in Ramanathapuram district, who has been a panchayat president for a decade and implemented several welfare measures, feel they do not have the financial wherewithal to even hope for a seat.

“Many women panchayat leaders aspire to become MLAs but they [political parties] will not give it to us. We neither have money power nor muscle power,” she said.
As Tamil Nadu goes to polls, the top Dravidian parties have not fielded enough women candidates to change the situation. On its initial list, AIADMK fielded 31 women in the 227 seats it is contesting, DMK 19 (173), and PMK 8 (117 seats announced so far).
Though women are at the helm of many state governments in India, representation in Parliament and assemblies continues to be low. Successive governments at the Centre have been dragging their feet on passing the women’s reservation bill, which is pending in Parliament.

Former chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi strongly believes that parties should field more women candidates, till reservation becomes a reality. “Although participation is better at the panchayat level, it is not the same in state assemblies and Parliament. Parties hand out far few tickets to women, citing low winnability. But this is not correct. In 2014, women were around 8% of total candidates, but 11.6% per cent of elected MPs,” he said.  Former bureaucrat and dalit activist P Sivakami, of the Samuga Samathuva Padai, who is contesting from Perambalur (Reserved) constituency felt that women find it difficult to balance family life with active politics.

 “Women entering politics is seen as a taboo. But if she does manage to enter, for a woman to become well-known in the party circles, she has to organise meetings and take up leadership roles at union and district levels.”