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     Volume 4 Issue 37 | March 11, 2005 |

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Food for Thought

The Other Side of the Story

Farah Ghuznavi

Despite the fact that we have now entered the 21st century, the role of women in politics remains a strangely contentious issue. This is the case all over the world, albeit to a greater or lesser extent. With a few exceptions (Sweden, Rwanda), most countries have yet to reach anything approaching parity between women and men in terms of participation in public life and political representation. And although women make up half the population of the globe, they remain conspicuously absent from the seats of power.

Where women are seen to fully participate in the political process (i.e. not just as voters, but as candidates), and are represented among the political community, it seems to be the result of extraordinary circumstances. For example, in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, women now hold a high proportion of seats in parliament. A critical factor in bringing this about may be that women were able to utilise the opportunities for political participation offered by the regime that took over after the genocide, precisely because the situation was not normal. As a result of the conflict, they had already broken out of traditional gender roles e.g. rather than being confined to their domestic roles, women were forced as a result of the war to find ways of looking after themselves and their families, surviving without male "protectors", and finding ways to look after orphaned children. This ultimately allowed them to use their capacities to the fullest, and contributed to making them independent, albeit at a high price.

The other, and undoubtedly preferred, route to boosting women's participation is the example offered by the Swedish model, where the sustained investment in equal opportunities and education for women and active support for women to participate in all spheres of public life--has paid off, with Swedish women being highly represented in terms of parliamentary seats and in the holding of government posts.

And yet, despite the progress made in many Western countries in terms of more equal pay for women and better access to education and other resources for girls, there has not always been a commensurate change in attitudes in all these countries. This is reflected in the recent concerns raised in the US (which has yet to ratify the UN Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women i.e. CEDAW) around the possible candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the presidential election of 2008. As one commentator pointed out, some conservative observers are alarmed at what this would mean for the role of First Lady (since Bill Clinton may not be best suited to that post!)…

The US is in no way unique in balking at female leadership at the head of state level. In South Asia, where there have been a number of female heads of state in recent decades, much is made of the fact that women who get into politics are usually someone's daughter (Indira Gandhi) or wife (Sirimavo Bandaranaike). Despite her short but excellent record of service to New York State, the same comment has been made of Hillary Clinton. But let's be realistic. Given that politicians need networks, experience and money, how else is a woman likely to succeed in politics, particularly given the kind of financial, social and attitudinal barriers she faces on average?

Two generations ago, women were firmly restricted to the household sphere. How many of our grandmothers were formally educated or held paid employment? Today the vast majority of women worldwide remain within that domestic sphere, despite the many who have challenged and defeated some of the barriers holding them back. While we have seen many individual women taking leadership positions as entrepreneurs or professionals, representative office still remains one of the last bastions of male privilege. Perhaps that is not unrelated to the fact that such position can offer considerable power!

Given the earlier requirements mentioned for success in political life, the fact is that most women are at a disadvantage both financially and socially to compete with men for such positions of power. How can we expect centuries of disadvantage and conditioning to be wiped away in a few decades of (uneven) progress? And yet, when criticising women politicians people rarely take into account those wider factors. In Bangladesh, everyone blames "the two ladies" for the current state of deadlock. While not in any way attempting to defend the record of recent governments, for me this raises a number of questions. The political culture in Bangladesh was corrupted a long time ago, even though the rate of deterioration has been accelerating. So, whatever you may think of the two female leaders, I think it is fair to ask the question whether their predecessors were much better? Furthermore, are most of their advisors (and the vast majority of politicians in Bangladesh) not men? Are they not at least partially responsible for the current state of governance?

The extent of the barriers faced by women in politics can be seen from a recent report detailing experiences of women MPs in the UK. The tactics used against them by hostile male MPs ranged from derision to patronising to being downright chauvinist. One woman MP belonging to the Conservative Party mentioned how a male MP from her own party insisted on calling all women MPs by the same first name i.e. "Betty" (regardless of what their actual name was), because according to him, they were all the same anyway! A Labour MP described how whenever the female Labour MPs stood up to speak, some male Conservative MPs would pretend to wiggle their imaginary breasts in their hands. As a female Liberal Democrat MP put it, this kind of behaviour seems less like an old boys club and more like "a public school full of teenage boys"…

The fact is, even today, in most countries women enter politics on terms set by men, and in order to survive, they have to "play the game" on those terms. Hence, the issue can be less one of merit, than of survival skills. While it is undoubtedly sad to see women politicians buying into or reinforcing the existing political culture (e.g. Mrs. Thatcher) rather than challenging it, it is not altogether strange. This phenomenon can be described as "showing as you are as good as a man by becoming a man" i.e. becoming a "sociological male", and most often occurs when women feel marginalised (because they are so hugely outnumbered).

By contrast, there is evidence to show that where there are sufficient numbers of women, as in the current UK government, they have been able to change this political culture--to some extent--for the better. One of the greatest challenges is to get that "sufficient number", often referred to as "critical mass", into politics. Where critical mass has been achieved, political will and enabling circumstances seem to be the key factors. To see women politicians succeed on their own terms, society will have to invest in women, to build their capacities, and to encourage them to enter the political system. Furthermore, political parties will have to be willing to promote them as candidates. By those criteria, the world has a long way to go.

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