Finding Women among “Common Men”: Aradhana Sharma


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I have often wondered about the place of women in all the current talk about the aam aadmi. Is she included in this expansive and apparently un-gendered discourse that claims to represent every ordinary citizen? Who speaks for her and how? And what does this tell us about the gendered, dare I say patriarchal, nature of the contemporary discourse on democratic transformation?

Congress’ claims on the political symbol aside, the aam aadmi’s recent resurgence has much to do with Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. Be it the mobilizations around the RTI Act or Lokpal Bill, the Gandhian cap or Kejriwal’s new party, the aam aadmi’s durdasha and a fight for his rights are front and center in political debate today. The largely male leadership of ongoing agitations for governance reform and their critics rarely talk about women or gender concerns specifically. They assume, it seems, that women are automatically included under the common man category and therefore are spoken for each time the figure of the ordinary citizen is invoked.

So imagine my surprise, when, during an NDTV show titled “The Kejriwal School of Politics,” gender issues within governance were raised directly, if fleetingly. The show, which aired on November 11, 2012, was hosted by Barkha Dutt and marked the release of the English edition of Arvind Kejriwal’s book, Swaraj. The guests, in addition to Kejriwal, were Prashant Bhushan, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and Shekhar Singh. The book was positioned as a manifesto of Kejriwal’s then unnamed party and, as expected, much of the discussion between the panelists concerned the meaning, mobilization and potential of swaraj or decentralized and participatory self-rule.

I thought this was going to be yet another unself reflexively “male” back-and-forth about democratic governance where gender goes unremarked. About 17 minutes into the approximately 45-minute conversation, the issue of gender erupted on the scene and how! Here I want to recount the particular moment, which lasted for all of 3 minutes, where gender issues made a brief but telling appearance only to be folded into the larger narrative about ordinary David’s struggle against an all-powerful Goliath. It revealed the underlying gender ideologies that guide the discourse of the spokespeople for the aam aadmi as well as their interlocutors.

First, a brief synopsis of what led up to this gender moment. Arvind Kejriwal opened the conversation by explaining that his book challenges the excessive centralization of power in India such that nearly all decisions about village development are taken in New Delhi. It actualizes Gandhi’s vision of a village republic, where the entire village community or gram sabha participates in local governance, takes independent decisions, and becomes self-reliant. “We need to… move from completely representative democracy to direct democracy where the people get to participate on a day-to-day basis on matters directly affecting their lives,” asserted Kejriwal, leading Dutt to question him and Prashant Bhushan about the nature and complexities of direct democracy. How would it function? Through referendums on particular issues and policies, for example, answered Bhushan. But couldn’t this form of direct democracy result in arguably bad decisions? Barkha Dutt cited a case from Switzerland where citizens passed a referendum banning minarets. Kejriwal and Bhushan agreed that direct democracy was not foolproof, but also suggested that majoritarianism can be prevented by stipulating that decisions cannot violate constitutional principles, such as secularism.

Now Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Shekhar Singh entered the conversation. Although they expressed full support for the goal of decentralized and participatory governance, both were critical of how Kejriwal’s book flattens the complexities involved in this process. Democracy, argued Mehta, entails negotiating differing opinions and finding consensus among various groups rather than shoving a particular opiniondown everyone’s throats. It involves using existing fora for engagement better as well as creating new institutions and reforming others. Shekhar Singh was also disappointed with the inadequate analysis in the book and picked up the following example to illustrate his point. This is where gender peeked from behind democracy’s door.

Swaraj argues that democracy is not an import but indigenous to India; that direct democracy was an ancient local tradition corrupted over time. It tells the story of Vaishali, hailed as the first democratic republic in the world, where people took decisions collectively. One day, at the king’s court in Vaishali, some people decided that a particular young woman in their midst should become a courtesan. The woman agreed to do so, but on the condition that she would get the king’s castle in exchange. The proposal was put in front of the gram sabha, which endorsed the decision. The king, though unhappy, had to defer to the democratic process and vacated his castle for the newly appointed courtesan.

Swaraj uses this vignette to demonstrate how direct democracy and people’s rule ought to work, explained Singh, but it also represents the problematic aspects of this vision. I quote from him: “First of all, I would like to ask… were there women present [at that gram sabha in Vaishali]? If there were, then the second problem… [is of] false consciousness.” Aha! I was all ears. Singh continued: “I must also say in all fairness that Arvind goes on to say that… it is wrong to have the institution of courtesans. But how can he say that! In his system, who is Arvind Kejriwal to decide this? It is the people who are going to decide whether it is right or wrong.”

Leaving aside the thorny issue of false consciousness for the moment, Shekhar Singh did raise the important issues of gender inequality, women’s participation in direct democracy, and the potentially patriarchal nature of the institution of ancient courtesanship (not to be confused with present day sex work) and of the decree that some women must become courtesans or do x or y. But rather than stay on the question of gender inequality, he folded this issue into the apparently larger question of whether one person should be able to make moral pronouncements on behalf of others or present his views as the general will under direct democracy. He continued to veer in the direction of legislating morality: “We live in a society where either we are going to say that what is right or wrong or what is good or bad is going to be decided by a majority vote or we are going to say, no. Very often in society you have to impose a value and it takes time for it to be accepted.” Singh elucidated his point with two examples. In Germany the death penalty was banned in 1949 despite the fact that 55% of Germans were for it. Similarly, in India, “when Sati was banned… 90% or 95% of the people, men and women, were against that ban,” he averred.

But wait! That is wrong. The practice of Sati did not, in fact, affect most of India. It was an upper caste Hindu practice restricted to certain regions of the country, like Bengal. Furthermore, the 19th century debate over Sati as a “good” or “bad” part of “Indian” tradition, as Lata Mani has shown in her work Contentious Traditions, largely took place between colonial administrators and elite Indian social reformers, nationalists, and Brahmin pundits who scoured Hindu scriptures for answers about whether Sati was religiously permitted and whether the actual practice of Sati was in line with the scriptures. This debate did not include most of India! Given all this, how could Shekhar Singh claim that Sati was banned even though 95% of Indians, including women, were for the practice? Were women even asked for their opinion in these debates?

Shekhar Singh opened up a key moment of possibility in the discussion only to shut it down. The issues of majoritarianism and who decides what is moral and how trumped that of gender. Arvind Kejriwal did not bite the gender inequality bait either. “The point that we were trying to make in this book,” he responded to Singh’s criticism, “is that in those days it was possible for the people to sit together and ask the king to actually vacate his palace. Today in Delhi, you have 40% of [the population] living miserably in jhuggi-jhopdis… but you have the president of India living in such a h-u-g-e palace… Can the… people of Delhi get together and say that can our honorable president move to a little smaller space and vacate the space for other people? No, we can’t. That is point I was trying to make.”

By 19:44 minutes, the gender-moment-that-could-have-been was over. Arvind Kejriwal clarified that his use of the courtesan example was solely to illustrate the power of people’s direct participation in democratic rule and the ruler’s accountability to the governed; that if this could exist in ancient India, it can be revived in modern times. There was no discussion among the panelists about who was included in the gram sabha meeting in Vaishali. Who were “the people,” the so-called demos of this ancient democracy? Did everyone get to participate equally in the discussion about a woman’s future? How was collective will determined? Was the woman who was told to become a courtesan given the option of refusing or was she bound to the pronouncement of the gram sabha? So many questions hung in the air unanswered.

How odd that this 21st century debate about democracy operated in a strikingly similar manner to the 19th century deliberation on Sati, I thought: both objectified and silenced women. In the 19th century what really mattered was defining and refining Indian tradition and women served as the ground for this, as Lata Mani forcefully argued. It seems like in the 21st century what really matters is defining and refining Indian democracy, and women continue to be the ground on which this proceeds. They are neither subjects of this discourse, nor active participants in it, but the invisibilized site on which masculinist arguments about state transformation unfold. The underlying patriarchy of this debate about the democratic inclusion, participation, and equality, and the empowerment of the common man needs to be named and challenged.

How might the terms, content and direction of this discourse on democracy shift if we were to begin from the perspective of, let’s say, a poor, urban woman? Mind you—not just a “generic” citizen—“the common man”—but a gendered and classed individual who experiences democratic citizenship and marginalization in a specific manner.

Let me introduce Pushpa, whom I met at a jan sunwai in New Delhi a few years ago. This public hearing was organized by Satark Nagrik Sangathan or SNS and itspurpose was to discuss people’s problems with their elected representatives, including MLAs and Ward Councillors, and to reflect upon the broader issue of how to make people’s democratic participation in local government more meaningful and effective than simply casting votes. Many people, from slum colonies as well as upper-middle class ones, talked about how their MLAs only showed up during election times and spent development funds on useless projects that had little to do with the needs of the constituents. I noticed that majority of these speakers were women. Among them, one stood out.

Pushpa, a petite middle-aged woman introduced herself as a resident of Jagdamba camp. She told the audience that she had filed an RTI application asking about the responsibilities of her Ward Councillor: Does he get any funds and if so, how much? What are his duties? But she did not get any response to her application. So she filed an appeal with the concerned department and was called for a hearing. Even though a couple of her female associates had accompanied her, they were asked to stay outside while she was escorted into a hall. She faced the all-male panel hearing her appeal alone. The men quizzed her: Why are you asking for this information? What will you, as a slum-dwelling woman, do with it? She replied that she was a voter and faced all kinds of problems relating to ration, sanitation, water etc., for which this information would be useful. Forget about it, they replied, accusing her of wasting their time and her own by filing RTI applications. When do you have time to take care of your husband and children, one male official asked. You should start watching the TV channel “Sanskaar,” advised another, and learn how to become a good housewife instead of doing RTI work. Pushpa ended her brief statement by telling the audience how awkward and difficult it was for her to face these men alone, in aclosed room. She was scared and decided not to file another RTI application asking about her MLA’s responsibilities.

Pushpa was threatened and demeaned and put in her place. Her marginal social position, in terms of class and gender—poor, female, slum resident, “housewife”— effectively debarred her from questioning officials, demanding accountability from elected representatives, and exercising her right to information. How dare she! Patriarchal state institutions and representatives anyone?

The current discourse on structural changes in governance avoids directly engaging gender issues as they relate to state structures. While many participants in this discourse recognize the classist nature of state institutions and policies, which privilege certain groups and corporate interests, they do not take gender seriously. It is assumed that the state is a gender-neutral entity and that governance also an ungendered technical process. There is no room for discussing the patriarchal nature and impact of state institutions and policies, which feminists in India and elsewhere have been pointing out for a long time. This absence is striking, given that a number of the grassroots groups who work on RTI and governance reform issues in New Delhi, including Kejriwal’s Parivartan with which I volunteered in 2008-09, tend to work primarily with women residing in slums. Whether it is the issue of improving ration delivery, water and sanitation services in urban slums, or ensuring poor children’s admission into public schools under existing quotas, or agitating against slum demolition without adequate resettlement, it is predominantly women who are at the forefront of these struggles. What I find surprising is that there is very little discussion about why this is so or an analysis of its impact. Why does the primary responsibility for fighting these fights for household survival fall on women’s shoulders? What does this tell us about gender division of activist labor and household labor or about idealized expectations of motherhood? Moreover, how does this activism impact the already harsh workloads of women in urban slums? How does it empower them and alter gender relations in the household? If marginalized women are engaging state structures in this visceral manner in their daily struggles for survival, wouldn’t it be a good idea to highlight their voices when thinking about governance reform?

The website for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), states that the party is committed to gender equity. I appreciate this statement, but I would also like the AAP think through carefully what the promise of gender equity means and how, specifically it will be ensured. It has to be more than numbers game. If AAP is envisioning major structural changes or “vyavastha parivartan” in governance, it needs to think about how the existing institutions and policies as well as proposed ones are fundamentally, not nominally, patriarchal and serve to preserve male dominance in society. Gender identities, relations, and strugglesare not incidental to democratic rule, but integral to it.

Any movement for democratic transformation worth its salt must actively seek out and center the perspectives of those who are oppressed by multiple social and political structures—subaltern women—rather than erasing their embodied experiences and voices under the generic rubric of the aam aadmi. Don’t give gender short shrift or bring up women in a patronizing manner just because it is the politically correct thing to do. Make gender a serious category of analysis and mobilization because democracy and justice demand it.

Aradhana Sharma is Associate Professor in at Anthropology at Wesleyan University, USA

5 thoughts on “Finding Women among “Common Men”: Aradhana Sharma”

  1. enjoyed reading the piece! several comments though: (1) there is plenty of gendered discourse in the aam aadmi andolans (as there always was and will continue to be much of the same in the marathi manoos calls from the shiv sena), except the gendering attaches itself to discourses of masculinity. so what would be worth thinking of is what kinds of ascetic/non-ascetic masculinities are being forged in the absence of women? (2) and, ah yes, the inevitable courtesan reference. as someone who works on devadasis in western india, i’m always struck by where the courtesan appears, and how her appearance conveniently resolves or allegorises a crisis of representation. so, kejriwal’s story needs to be pushed further in terms of what vernaculars are available for women to narrate their stories, and why sexuality is one of those choice forms. (3) which takes me to your own final example of the poor urban woman — there are of course (as you know more than i do, i’m sure) a weighty set of counter narrative where poor urban women have equally taken on the state and spoken against the kinds of bureaucratic erasures you’re addressing. pace here, the decades of organising by sex workers in kolkatta, mumbai –what would their stories tell us about where women are in the unfolding of this aam aadmi story?

    1. right on! masculinities is certainly something i have been thinking about a lot, especially in the context of Anna, Gandhian fasts, focus on “purifying” the system etc. i wanted to focus on women, specifically, in this piece. your idea about why sexuality becomes the mode for telling women’s stories, in particular, is fab. the relationship between sexuality and politics in this aam aadmi discourse is problematic, but fascinating.

  2. “Aadmi” literally means man so that “aam aadmi” = “common man”. This is a phrase encountered in western countires also. “Common women” sounds almost disparaging !

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