Woman President Equals Women’s Empowerment?

- Manisha Sethi

A World Economic Survey earlier this year placed India ahead of many western countries in terms of women’s political empowerment. The basis for the Survey’s optimism was the fact that India had seen a female premier, while many of the so-called developed nations, USA included, had yet to see a woman occupy the highest office. It appears that Indian women are poised to become even more ‘empowered’ with the triumphant victory of the UPA candidate, Pratibha Patil. The election of Patil, we are being told by the Congress, Left and other assorted secular allies, is a truly historic one. (Indeed Hillary Clinton, the US presidential aspirant has also expressed the hope that she might follow in PP’s footsteps). Sonia Gandhi has already made it to the Time’s list of most powerful people in the world. Indian women can presumably now take consolation from these and give up their demand for greater political representation—the slogan of 33 percent reservation can now be consigned to the dustbins of history.

Ever since Patil’s candidature was announced, there have been daily media scoops on what appears to be her rather dubious record. The skeletons include financial irregularities and even complicity in murder. The new icon of Indian women’s empowerment, it emerges, had siphoned off the money poor, working class women had deposited in the Pratibha Cooperative bank. PP sanctioned huge loans to her extended kin whilst heading the bank—loans which could never be recovered, as a result of which many poor women lost their life savings. But while corruption can be deemed non-sectarian and hardly an issue over which fuss could be expected in the ‘secular’ ranks of the Presidential Electoral College, what of her secular credentials, supposedly the talisman of the UPA?

It is on precisely this turf that PP fares the worst. Where her nomination for the candidature may have surprised everyone else—from the media to the common people—PP had already been communicated the momentous responsibility she would be called upon to undertake by her Guru who spoke through the body of another devotee. Sonia Gandhi’s telephone call followed the ‘spirit-ual’ communication by a few hours. Questioned about the obscurantism that the Presidential candidate supported by the Left was promoting on a public platform, the only defence offered by CPI-CPI(M) leaders has been that atheism wasn’t part of the ‘Common Minimum’ requirement for the Presidential candidate. 

At a function to mark the 467th birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap, Ms Patil averred that the purdah system had been evolved in India to protect women from the Mughal invaders. (Significantly, this function also celebrated the ‘legacy’ of jauhar (mass sati) allegedly performed by Rajput women to save themselves from violation by the victorious Muslim aggressors. It seems that according to Patil and those who vouch for her ‘secularism’, celebrating mass sati does not amount to the illegal practice of glorifying sati.)

The rhetoric of “purdah is of Mughal/ Muslim provenance’ is a central element of the communal discourse in India. Implicit in it is the myth of an idyllic pre-Muslim India, where women were worshipped and the veil did not exist. This rhetoric serves the purpose of absolving Hindu society of the responsibility for women’s subordination within it – all its ills from sati to purdah are justified as having been necessitated to protect ‘our’ women from the ‘foreign’ aggressor. Naturally, this requires wilful suppression of the ample evidence of subordination of women provided by a wide range of texts (from the Rgveda to the Manusmriti) that predate Islam in India by several centuries. Second, it establishes the Muslim male as lascivious and predatory, from whom the Hindu women have always needed protection and seclusion. Padmini and Allauddin are the exemplars of this argument. This trope of the Muslim male’s hypersexuality can then be deployed in the present to incite and justify riots and pogroms, as happened in Gujarat in 2002.           

And so we have Congress’ ‘secular’ choice for the President’s post, who enjoys the CPI-CPI(M)’s stamp of approval to boot, articulating communal commonsense about history. Under fire from critics for distorting historical facts, PP is believed to have done a turnaround. Apparently, what she meant was that it was out of their extreme respect for women that the Mughals developed the purdah! Thus she bestowed on the feudal practice of female seclusion, a veneer of respectability. In her turnaround, it became the benchmark of ‘respect’ one could accord to women.  

In a speech reminiscent of Hitler’s Eugenics, PP had once argued, as Health Minister in the Maharashtra cabinet during the Emergency, for compulsory sterilization of all those suffering from hereditary diseases. She has since defended forced sterilization as a valid method of population control.

To the UPA, just one word of appeal: she has been elected. But don’t hold her up as the victory of secularism and women’s empowerment. Not in our names please.