The Big, Fat, Gender-Biased Indian Election

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Via: WSJ

You may have heard the numbers: 815 million voters; 543 lawmakers; 9 rounds of voting in the world’s largest democracy. You also know who’s projected to win: the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led by divisive leader Narendra Modi, with the ruling Congress party set for its worst performance ever.

What you probably haven’t heard is how skewed India’s voter gender ratio is: 883 women voters per 1,000 male voters. Give or take. That’s an improvement from 715 per 1,000 male voters in the 1960s, according to data compiled by Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor, professors at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. But it is lower even than the national gender ratio, embarrassing as it is, of 940 women per 1,000 men.

How has this come about? Not for want of legislation. Indian women were granted the right to vote and run in elections three years after India’s independence in 1947, the same year as men. Women have played a significant role in Indian politics down: from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to present-day chief ministers Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa Jayaram.

Still, India’s largely patriarchal tradition and cultural mores that require women to acquiesce to the opinion of men has meant that women have often not been a part of the political conversation, or showed up to vote on election day. That has also resulted in very few women lawmakers: of nearly 5,000 lawmakers across the country, less than 10 percent are women.

While the Indian government did implement a law in 2009 that mandated the reservation of at least half the seats at panchayati raj or local government institutions in villages and districts for women, it has dragged its feet on the Women’s Reservation Bill. The bill proposes to amend the Indian Constitution to reserve a third of all seats in the lower house and all state legislative assemblies for women, and has not been passed by the lower house after the upper house passed it in 2010.

India ranks 101 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender-gap index that examines economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. That is the lowest ranking among the BRIC economies, and is lower than Botswana and Bangladesh.

In this election, the year-old Aam Admi Party has the highest percentage of women candidates, about 15 percent, while the Congress has 12 percent and the BJP has 9 percent. That doesn’t bode well for the future of women’s representation in India.

The Ominous Hijab Part II

I ventured into this topic a few months ago here, when I visited my boyfriend’s homeland of Turkey, for 2 months.  In that time, my boyfriend became my fiance, hosts became family and, well, the entire trip was pleasantly hijacked.

In the weeks that ensued however, I did manage to do what I set out to do: spend time in Turkey’s capital, drive along the coastal towns, and reaching as far south as the city of Izmir, and ending of my whirlwind tour in Istanbul.  What I found pertaining to the hijab was little short of disappointing.

I still haven’t been able to engage with much of the pro-hijab audience, only with my peers who seem adamant that it not only comes from an archaic mindset, but that it is very much anti-Turkish.  This harmless piece of cloth seems a strong point of contention not only from a feminist perspective, but from a political one as well.  And since being an outsider, I could only go on the sometimes biased opinions of my guides, I had to maintain a polite distance from adopting these beliefs.

However even in my own observations, it was hard to deny that within the intellectual and middle to upper class world, the hijab was truly found few and far between.  Through my exploration of the countryside, stopping in villages to get gas, food etc., I did notice that something as seemingly harmless as knee-length shorts and sleeveless tank tops did gather me stares.  I am not sure if they were simple suspicion or judgement, but when they came from women covered head to toe in 40 degree celsius weather, I couldn’t help feeling guilty of something.

At one point, visiting the market and bazaars of Izmir, a city strongly loyal to the old rule under Ataturk, there was a strong air of modernism and progression.  Muslims were very proud to be Turkish, and were very clear to highlight that the two were not the same.

My personal views on the hijab still have not been swayed, only moreso affirmed, so I am not left with much to say, but I took some photos while I was in the Izmir bazaar.  It shows two clothing stores, side by side.  One is selling current demure clothing for the muslim woman who chooses to cover herself, and the other sells beautiful and vibrant traditional Turkish dress hailing from yesteryear.

I think they describe the state of flux that the hijab has created in Turkey, far better than I ever could.

Modern vs. Traditional attire

Contrasting storefronts in an Izmir bazaar

The Ominous Hijab

I’m in Turkey for 7 weeks.

Among many new cultural experiences, I’ve been curious to witness first-hand the role in society of the ominous hijab.  I’ll be spending time in the capital Ankara, in Istanbul the largest city, and throughout the countryside and smaller villages, as we journey south to the Aegean coast.

There is no official religion here, although 96% of the population is Muslim, it’s a secular state.  Compared to most of their Arab neighbours to the east, they’re more like Islam-Lite.

I have to say though, in the short time I’ve already spent here, I’m pretty disappointed to find maybe… 5 women in a hijab.  There were two in niqabs in the grocery store and that got me pretty excited, but for the most part, I’ve been walking around the city and seeing girls in shorts shorter than mine, and couples making out like pimply teenagers in local pubs.  Damn.  No islamic rigidity here.  Actually most of them seem to be terrible muslims, like my boyfriend, who drinks like a fish, doesn’t know when Ramadan is, and hasn’t been inside a mosque since Allah knows when.  I’m hoping he doesn’t go up in flames when he takes me to Hagia Sofia.

Ask him his opinion of the hijab, and he’ll tell you it’s downright stupid. “Nothing in the Qur’an says you have to wear one, and it’s a stupid tradition perpetuated by idiot men who want to keep women docile.”

“Well what about women who choose to wear it freely of their own accord?”

“Well then they’re stupid too. Why would you want to cover yourself like that? It is hot as shit outside.”

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My grandmother was Muslim, though she never wore a hijab, and I don’t really remember ever seeing anything too Islam-y in their home. She married a Christian, and I’m sure somewhere, someone probably thinks that means she’ll roast in hell and won’t get to heaven to receive her 40 virgins (wait… so do women get 40 virgins too in Islamic heaven? Talk about short-changed), but mostly all I remember of her, was that she was a sweet but firm woman, and the most wonderful hugger.  Hijab or no, she was respected and valued all the same.

I’ve never had the opportunity to speak with a fundamentalist or a Shi’ite to understand sharia law or why a woman would choose to veil her identity from an ever-growing visual world.

Western women complain about being objectified all the same, and judged for their looks before anything else, yet here in twisted irony we view the obscurity of the Islamic female face as part of that same distress.

I still haven’t gotten down to the bottom of why the hijab is such a thorn in people’s sides, but I’m hoping my remaining time here will lend me some insight.  At the end of the day though, I feel like women should be able to do and wear whatever the fuck they want, but the hijab to me, feels more like a visual statement of religion in your presence — and that, is something I have an entirely different opinion about.

More soon.

Where do I really belong?

As a woman of Caribbean descent living in this very multicultural scape of Toronto I feel most days that I am indeed invisible. Ironic I think since West Indians make up such a large number of the Torontonian landscape. The Canadian Caribbean identity is mainly Afro- Caribbean centric which leaves the transplants like me of mainly Indo Caribbean descent with a ‘likkle” bit of “sumthin” else feeling very displaced. 
As a milestone birthday approaches- its months away but, this year will mark the 15th  year that I have been a Torontonian, it will also symbolize what I have sometimes been dreading. This year marks the year that my Trinidadian born self meets up with my Canadian self. In a nutshell, I would have spent the same amount of time calling Trinidad my home as Canada. Time has caught up with me. The illusion that I had created however, that I can finally feel more Canadian at this milestone as well as simultaneously being fearful of leaving my Trini self behind is exactly  that- an illusion. I still feel displaced in both places even after all this time. 

Even though I yearn to visit Trinidad often, my entire path of interest has shifted since living in this reality. My perceived once cushioned life is not transferable in this context. 
I am so much more aware of my non privileged status her in the Canadian context. I hear about “white privilege” almost daily, the affect of being an educator in the inner city reality but little do many know that I myself had that equivalence of white privilege it just was named something different. It was the “Indian high colour child syndrome” where you had to succeed and live the life that your parents had wanted for themselves. This was indeed an ideology specific to the social class that I was a product of. I can definitely say that I lived a very sheltered life, very much as my colleagues on this site have admitted before.  I guess you can say I was one step away from white privilege and wanting to ascend that ladder at any cost. In my reality, ideas about superiority based on status and race was something that we tolerated silently rather than faced, it was the expectation that you married up the social ladder in both colour and money. It was the expectation that you were better than the rest and you made that clear by attending the best schools (as best your parents money could buy if you didn’t earn it yourself) and you fought hard for a place in the business world to make the money you needed to assert your importance in an already privileged working/managing class.
As a transplant I wished that those racist and idealist thoughts would have been erased especially in a place that boasts retention and acceptance of difference. Tolerance. To my horror, it’s been gentrified and renamed.

I deal with the consequences of biased thinking each day, that I somehow belong somewhere else than the place that I have made for myself in the life that I chose to lead currently. I fight everyday to unpack and delete the bias that I hear from colleagues and students and I feel as if I am fighting a losing battle at times. I am trying to work through my own displacement as well as try to de-code all the racism, sexism and many more ism’s in my students as they tackle the lessons of their own colonial past. 
This is really a full time job on its own—- 

Hockey night

From time to time in Kitchener (where I currently live) there are these great moments of cultural ambiguity. And as most great Canadian moments, they centre around hockey.

A couple of weeks ago a friend from work took me to an Ethiopian restaurant for some truly delicious cuisine. He was the only white guy in the place though the restaurant was half full. The restaurant was full of energy as people talked and exclaimed at the hockey match playing on a big screen. We could have been in one of those ‘I am Canadian ‘ ads. It was such a surreal and gratifying moment.

I had another great moment last night at an Irish pub that serves the best pizza in town. Four of us were sitting at a table taking in a hockey match. The men at the table next to us were dark skinned and wearing turbans. The table over from them were white college kids in team jerseys. Our table had two white people, one mixed race man (my bf) and myself (Indian). Irrespective of race, everyone was totally into it.

Aren’t sports like that though? When in a group, you can’t help but get into it. I’ve read articles discussing the carnivalesque nature of sports, especially when national pride comes into play. The everyday divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that in daily life divide by race, sex and political affiliation, all of these things melt away. Instead we become ‘Canadians’ versus the other team or nation. There’s unity there and actual acceptance. I saw that during the 2010 Winter Olympics when Canadians of all kinds were high spirited an united with a kind of pride.

Experiencing the World Cup while living in Toronto was amazing as well. When you walk around you see people sporting their nations flags. Strangers from different countries stop and talk, temporarily united in this fever. You could see what games were on each day by the enthusiasm on the streets. When Brazil or Portugal played, certain areas of the city would become a big street party and when Italy won in 2006 Little Italy closed of its roads and was totally engulfed with people.

There is so much to be said about sports and celebrations. I think that it must hearken back to some very basic cultural traditions that seem to pervade most cultures. The way that people are able to come together and get involved with each other during sport events is so different from the rest of the calendar year. It’s truly carnivalesque.

I suppose I am only now recognizing Canada’s pride in Hockey as the same thing I experienced in Trinidad with Football (Intercol memories anyone?).

For more on sport and nationalism check out Sport, Nationalism, and Globalization: European and North American Perspectives, by Alan Bairner.