Successful women leaders

Rockets with fire in their tails?

Hope and despair

I learned the hard way that rising above narrow considerations, bringing in the ideas of more and more people into the everyday business of governing, is utterly dangerous. But I do not regret what I did, for today, even though not in power, I am treated by the people of the panchayat as a ‘public leader’ though I am not really a powerful politician… I became aware of politics and of things beyond the panchayat and how the world is changing. This changed the way I think. I began to speak my mind and fearlessly point to things going wrong, though it was not easy at all. But that was the only way I’d value myself. The more fearlessly I speak, the more I value myself.

… The most valuable thing that I learned in this is the pleasure of public life. Mummy and others [referring to her mother-in-law and relatives] in this house tell me often,enough of this, give it up, this is wearing you out. I tell her, Mummy,the pleasure of this must be experienced to be known. So many people salute you with affection when you step out of the house! Truly, it is only when we come out of the narrowness of our homes thatwe learn to love ourselves. We learnto value ourselves. This can happen only in the public. No matter how much love we receive in our homes, this cannot happen.

Recent research on the reservation of 33 per cent seats in Panchayati Raj institutions in India in the mid-1990s has revealed that the measure had indeed permitted the entry of an unprecedented number of women into local governance in most parts of the subcontinent. On the other hand, there is research which reminds us that many of the initial hopes which this move aroused in feminists—for example, the idea that a ‘critical mass’ of women in local bodies will help to change priorities and raise collective issues of relevance to them—are unfounded.

In some fairly recent research on gender, governance and politics in Kerala, I spoke with ‘successful’ women presidents— ‘success’ defined as presence in local governance, in any one of the tiers, in the three successive terms—trying to understand their ability to stay in the system. They were clearly a diverse set, but overwhelmingly from the Malayali ‘new elite’—of those communities which had reaped the greatest gains from the intense social reform in 20th-century Kerala, the Syrian Christian, the Nair, leading groups of the Muslim community, and the Ezhava.

Posing this question from this research, one is left with a mixed picture: more than anything else, it seems to have ignited a struggle or the possibility of one. Consider, for instance, the voice quoted above: that of a woman ex-president of a village panchayat in one of Kerala’s south-eastern districts in the last term (2006-11). However, it holds out a message of hope and throbs with the potential that the women’s quota in decentralisation holds out for the women of the state, for it belongs to a young woman who had faced many stiff challenges, but managed to get past them. Her efforts to make decision-processes more inclusive brought her considerable recognition. But her rising popularity threatened the local male politicians of her own party. Her party shared power with another in her panchayat; they devised a way to get her to ‘voluntarily’ step down before her term was over.

Clearly, there is reason to be hopeful. At least one ‘macro-myth’ about women in local government—that they are merely ‘proxies’ completely controlled by family members and local politicians—seems to have been rendered largely invalid, at least for Kerala And judging from the fact that in the present term, more than half of all the local bodies in Kerala are led by women, it may appear that their success is widely acknowledged and welcomed—it may even appear that their struggle for acceptance is over.

That, however, would be too hasty a conclusion. This voice is a relatively lone one. And the ‘success’ of women leaders in local governance is ambivalent; it does not necessarily mean the loosening of patriarchal ties. There is no neat pattern of sinking below and rising above patriarchy evident. What may indeed be charted is an on-going struggle, experienced with deep ambivalence by women who have been catapulted into its very heart.

‘Gentle power’ and ‘knowing the rules’

The need to exercise caution in judgement becomes all the more evident when we consider the fact that these opportunities have largely opened up to ‘development femininity’ in Kerala, which is implicated in forms of power that are undeniably patriarchal. In other words, successful women leaders are often the bearers of a specific form of ‘gentle power’ linked to the deployment of sentiment and affect associated with ideal femininity since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ‘Gentle power’ has been projected as characteristically ‘feminine’—relying upon persuasion, moral admonishment, caring and rarely assuming a strident posture. Indeed, it is power that does not claim to be power at all. That successful women leaders of local governance have chosen to deploy such power is perhaps only to be expected in a society in which women are most often directed towards the modern domestic realm as the true domain of femininity, which they may legitimately claim, from which they may derive resources to make sense of and deal with the world in general.

The contours of ‘development femininity’ were apparent to us from the biographies of the successful women leaders we interviewed. First, we found that their previous public exposure was not of political agitation but of developmental activism. Second, they pointed to certain conditions that may be largely accessible only to new elite women, such as the presence of the husband/male member as escort and guide, and interestingly, access to cash. Both these are linked to the women’s need to maintain respectability in the local community. And even when they proclaimed to be political, these women rarely identify themselves as politicians in the sense of handling or desiring political power. Rather, they projected themselves as altruistic agents of welfare disbursal who ‘give’ welfare to the poor, and manage their disappointments and anger through the deployment of the ‘gentle power of persuasion’ which, of course, historically perceived as typical of the ideal feminine. No wonder’ then, that many women argued that their work was ‘social work” and in an exceptional case, a president serving her third term in a village panchayat remarked that this was her way of performing charitable deeds:

My father had given us some property when he died which he wanted us to devote to charitable purposes. I’d planted rubber in that plot and it yielded well. It is that money which I use to fund my work in the panchayat. The honorarium is a pittance, you know, and as president, you have to attend to everybody … marriages, sicknesses, all kinds of collections…, I had donated the income from that plot to the poor much earlier, now I use it for this. Now the rubber’s being replanted, and I’m a bit exhausted!

Such power allows the woman president a certain closeness— an intimacy—with welfare seekers, especially women. Our interviewees, across party lines, very frequently identified this as the defining quality of women’s presence in panchayats. Interviewee after interviewee claimed that women are blessed with ‘natural talent’ that makes people open up to them and reveal their most intimate issues, while with men, there will always be aloofness. As another woman panchayat president who vouched very strongly for the efficacy of ‘gentle power’—a form of power women could hold with full male approval—observed:

When women presidents give their word on something, there is an advantage. Because people do feel we are more sincere, we are more forthcoming. Maybe that’s because of our style. When it is a woman leader, she takes care to ask the person approaching her to take a seat. She speaks gently and sympathetically, reassuringly. She gives detailed reasons and assurances about the speediest disposal of t issue. Male politicians aren’t like that. They will examine the issue and give a view, and the person usually has to withdraw and wait for further action. When it is a woman, they can approach us at home and there too, we will offer a seat and kind words.

‘Gentle power’, we found, was efficacious in many diverse situations. For example, it worked well in panchayats where the traces of earlier militant working-class mobilisations of the Left were still active. Kerala has had a fairly long history stretching from about the 1940s to the late 1980s, of militant popular mobilisations often led by the Left parties, demanding welfare, in which State welfare was understood to be ‘people’s right’, as above bureaucratic wrangling and, therefore, permissive of ‘ethical illegality’. While this political culture has suffered seriously in and after the 1990s, it does persist, and sometimes strongly, in some villages. In these panchayats, welfare beneficiaries were impatient with the bureaucratic norms through which welfare handouts were administered and resorted more frequently to the older political language of welfare as ‘people’s right’, the rules of which ought to be eminently bendable in the interests of the poor. Here, the women leaders, especially of the Left, had to mediate between the altered regime of welfare in the state and the militant poor. ‘Gentle power’ was found not only useful, ‘but absolutely indispensable in such instances. Another instance where it worked was when the staff of the panchayat was difficult. Women leaders are extremely aware of the fact that precisely because local governance involves considerable bureaucratic tangle, the cooperation of staff — especially the secretary — is an absolute must for even the routine functioning of the panchayat. Here, they felt, there was entrenched patriarchy which could be ‘softened’ only through the exercise of ‘gentle power’. This seemed peculiar to women — as one of them commented,

Male panchayat presidents can be closer to the officers. After all they are men, they can all go off and have a drink or smoke together. But we can’t do that.

Thus the exercise of ‘gentle power’ involves careful strategic moves, such as not ringing the bell for the peon, and instead picking up the files, walking to the concerned clerk’s desk, sitting down beside the clerk, and getting the matter settled. The thin dividing line between subservience and gentility was sometimes blurred; the challenge was to keep it sharp and clear and this is where ‘knowledge of the rules’ mattered. Almost every woman leader we interviewed stressed

that while docile behaviour can indeed be turned strategically into a useful tool, ignorance can only disempower. ‘Gentle power’, they say, comes naturally, but not ‘knowledge of the rules’. Historically, the project of domestic-oriented ‘female education’ was rejected in Malayali society in the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression which forced many women of the emergent new elite into the labour market, especially into teaching and other professions deemed ‘genteel’. More and more women sought to enter higher education in the 1930s and after, hoping to find such work. The history of women’s education in Kerala is of course much celebrated: unlike elsewhere in India, high literacy rates have been characteristic of the Malayalam-speaking areas since the early 20th century and these achievements have continued to flourish later. Early access to modern schooling also meant that a considerable number of women entered higher education earlier and became familiar with modern governmental and disciplinary institutions. No doubt, it is this historical trajectory of education that works to women’s tremendous advantage in local governance, which calls for handling a great amount of official paper work and decision-making according to the ever-changing rule and procedure. Some of the most interesting anecdotes we heard, retold by women leaders with a great deal of pride and pleasure, were about how they dealt with harassment from hostile bureaucrats and local politicians who were either envious or irritated by their uncorrupt and independent stance. For example, a Muslim woman president, serving a third term in local governance, told us about how a politically well-connected minor official had tried to bully her into approving a list of anganwadi workers:

These people think we do not know the rules. They are mistaken. We know procedure much better than them. This man [the auditor] was quite taken aback to see that I had kept the rules perfectly. He returned without a word. You can get a bill, a record here anytime, I told him The four per cent commission is appropriated not by an individual but a semi-government institution.. They think that these women from Malappuram [a northern Muslim majority district of Kerala, thought to be relatively ‘backward’ in social development] will pee in their sarees out of fear if they quote us a few rules. Well, he learned a good lesson-that women here are like rockets with fire in their tails!

This woman leader nevertheless insisted that she did not want to be known as a politician or even as a developmental worker, but as someone ‘capable of wiping the tears from the eyes of another’ Clearly, the combination of ‘gentle power’ and ‘knowledge of the rules’ worked well for her. However, we also found that where women have tried to combine the latter with political power—the political authority conferred upon the head of the panchayat as a Constitutional body—they have faced greater hostility. And a major limitation of women who prefer to stick to ‘gentle power’ is that while many of them have achieved considerable respect in their local community, very few have been able to significantly influence local developmental priorities. Some significant instances seemed to show that the support of senior women leaders in high politics is necessary for women leaders to intervene effectively in local developmental priorities, which are otherwise laid down by the male-dominated party local committee according to the entirely non-local priorities set by the State leadership of the party. Only when the woman leader exercised ‘gentle power’, knew the rules, and also became influential within her political party did significant synergies grow between her achievements, which made her appear indispensable to local development.

And there were other limitations that the combination imposed: ‘gentle power’ tends to trap women leaders in the role of welfare distributors and limit their ability to influence local developmental agendas. Indeed, one gets a distinct sense of a frustration at confinement in many interviews. A woman leader who had just waxed eloquent about how she was loved by welfare beneficiaries in her panchayat for being accessible, suddenly mentioned her fear that this did not really empower her:

The panchayat is always full of people. They are very free with me—they come right up to where I sit and speak to me, mole, makkale [daughter, child], I need this, I must have that … even if they see quite well that I’m hard at other work. I wonder, isn’t all this a bit too much? If it were a man sitting in that chair, this kind of behaviour wouldn’t happen … nobody would walk into the room without permission … men are identified mostly with the party, but we are identified with the panchayat and so people take this extra freedom with us.

Moreover, despite, their espousal of gentle power’ as the best way to deal with officials, many women were painfully aware of their sheer dependence upon them, especially when support from the local party was shaky. Also, some pointed out that if they knew the rules, male leaders and panchayat officials had ‘knowledge of bending the rules’! Women leaders are also painfully aware of the fact that for all their knowledge of the rules, they can hardly change any, as a woman leader pointed out humorously:

See, it is all a husband-wife affair, even now. The Department [of Local Self-Government] is like the husband. He hands over a certain sum for various expenses to the wife, the Panchayat, in this story. The wife must spend that money according to certain established ways. She isn’t free to change that way—even if things at home demand a change. She has to wait for his permission first. And that is hard to get! There is no consideration of whether the woman is capable, or is healthy, or has enough support. Uhuuh! At the end of the month the money must be spent in the right way. If not, she will be shouted at! We haven’t even got past the husband-wife system over here, and we are expected to behave like empowered women!

Dalit women leaders and The Dilemmas of empowerment

Interestingly, if expectedly, we found that the above combination was largely available to educated, middle-class women of Kerala’s powerful new elite communities, Ezhava, Nair and Syrian Christian. Dalit women leaders, who had less access to it, were clearly faced with an uphill climb decidedly steeper. Historically, they have been confined to the margins of political mobilisations until recent times and so the present opportunities are perceived as doubly valuable. However, they present a series of tough challenges as well. The design of decentralised governance structures is such that group interests are acknowledged in welfare distribution, but leadership positions, such as that of the panchayat president, are supposed to be ‘neutral’, representing ‘general’ interest. Since the claims and interests of different social groups are acknowledged in the norms of welfare distribution fixed by the state government, ‘neutrality’ means the proper adherence to these norms. However, as many of our interviewees, both Dalit and non-Dalit, pointed out, the norms are often too rigid and following them too strictly would result in losses

to the deserving poor. Thus, Dalit women presidents have to adhere to the neutrality mentioned earlier, but also try their best to ensure that their communities benefit most by bending (not breaking) the rules as far as possible—that is, by subverting the disciplinary apparatus to the greatest extent possible.

This leads to two kinds of dilemmas. Firstly, Dalit women have to both protect the interests of their communities and represent the panchayat generally. Secondly, the norms of welfare distribution have to be respected—indeed, defended as absolutely necessary-but stretched to the utmost so that the communities are served the maximum. Of these, the second dilemma is more pervasive. All interviewees agreed that, very often, welfare distribution did require them to bend the rules, especially when it came to spending funds earmarked for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Here, however, there was frequent conflict between the president and the officials. In the case of a young Dalit woman president, a very assertive person, her office staff complained bitterly about how she had harassed them because they had refused to bend the rules for her regarding the distribution of funds to Dalit families for toilets. ‘She locked the ladies toilet and walked away,’ said one of the female staff. ‘When we asked her for the keys, she refused to give them and said, “why don’t you try the bushes outside?” Is she a woman at all?’ The speaker of these words obviously did not see the point that the president was trying to make; all she could see was that the president lacked ‘proper gender qualities’ and hence the latter was presented to us as a ‘rapacious, power-hungry, mannish woman’.

Interestingly, Dalit women perceived ‘gentle power’ quite differently: for them it was neither ‘feminine’ nor empowering but a strategic position to assume when the odds were stacked against you heavily. Secondly, they had to often openly state that welfare entitlements and reservations for the SC/ST groups were no favour done to them by the rest of society but an entitlement guaranteed by the State. In other words, they could hardly depend on love, sentiment, or affective techniques to secure these entitlements-they had to quote the rule straight. These women hardly evoke ‘femininity’; they evoke more frequently their education. Another young Dalit president, of the Congress, told us that her education gave her the confidence to take on the vice-president of her panchayat, her senior in the party:

Don’t try to control me because I am an SC woman, I said He threatened to remove my whip. Ok, I said, please do.’ But there’s an MA degree that the university has conferred upon me. You can’t remove that, however you try!…. Senior women leaders know that I’m putting up a constant fight with this man. They of course value me as an educated Dalit woman.

Dalit women also have to directly confront those who may try to harass them; they often do not have powerful supporters in the party who may try to mediate and resolve issues. This, as one Dalit woman president put it, makes them ‘not nice all the time’. An anecdote related to us by a young and rather inexperienced Dalit woman president carried an important insight: if new elite women can afford not to highlight the power conferred upon them as the head of the panchayat, it appears that Dalit women can scarcely do so:

There was a Secretary here, a very vulgar man. He knew that I was inexperienced, my husband was not powerful in the party, we are poor, and I had become president only by chance. So he thought he could [sexually] harass me as much as he pleased. I had felt uneasy right from the beginning—his behaviour was quite sickening. He would try to touch me, poke me here and there. Initially I tried to keep quiet; it was such a disgusting thing to reveal! But one day he came in as if to give me a piece of paper-and crossed the limit. He tried to grab my hand, even as people were watching. That REALLY was the limit. I became president for the first time! I slapped him hard on his cheek. The man was stunned. He fell into the chair for a second, holding his cheek. Tcchii! How dare you sit down without my permission, you scoundrel!’ I shouted. ‘I am the president in this panchayat! Get up right now!’ The man jumped up and left. He went on leave immediately and got himself a transfer. After that the members have been quite respectful, and some old sharks who had their eyes on me became quite disciplined.

‘Rockets with fire in their tails’

The ideological roots of ‘gentle power’ are indeed very much in 20th-century social reform, which legitimated the social dominance of the communities that drew advantage from the massive social

upheavals from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. But, even if one were to imagine that it grew beyond its new elite moorings it would still limit women leaders. It may make them more accessible to welfare beneficiaries, but this may not translate into greater acceptance of their rightful place in the political public. The ‘peaceful’ atmosphere that they seem to precipitate in the panchayat may look like a positive gain, but it may also help to entrench the idea that women are non-political, and thus help perpetuate their confinement in domestic norms and values. But it is clear that women leaders of local governance, even those who claimed that they were uninterested in politics, do recognise themselves as located within fields of political power, albeit reluctantly, and even as they proclaim themselves to be disinterested in political power. Part of their disaffection with ‘polities’ was precisely their perception that the public-political realm had deteriorated to the extent to which it was no longer shaped by political communities, but by various predatory interests. But many who voiced such views also perceived their entry into local governance as offering a degree of relief from confinement in the private, even as they pointed to its narrow focus and its distance from the political public. It is fascinating to note how the hope of entering a truly political community continues to glimmer, despite many negative experiences, in many of these narratives.

But also, it is no wonder that women leaders, even of the new elite, find ’empowerment’ an ambiguous deal, something that enables and confines simultaneously. When asked about the notion of shaakteckaranam (empowerment), a dynamic Muslim woman president of the Muslim League from northern Kerala responded with a ‘story’:

One day, a rocket and an airplane met in the skies high above. The plane was impressed by the rocket’s fantastic speed, and told her, ‘How fast you fly! What is your secret?’ The rocket threw her a glance and said, ‘Didn’t you notice, my tail is on fire! You too would fly like me if your tail were on fire!’ And then she continued, ‘Well, I’m flying very fast, but I have no clue where I am going and whether I will come back home safe! You are flying slow, yes, but aren’t you relieved that you know where you are going, and will get home in time, too?’ Well, I think ’empowerment’ is what the rocket is experiencing!

In putting it thus, she was expressing a wariness explicitly voiced by many Muslim League women leaders (who often remark how they are indispensable now, after the reservations, but are still denied formal full presence in their party), and implicitly, by a great many others. Yet, interestingly enough, the same woman who had vowed that she would never fight an election again, contested the panchayat elections of 2010 and is presently an elected member of the district panchayat! Empowerment—not to mention liberation-can never be linear. Kerala’s women leaders of local governance live that complexity in their everyday lives.

Rockets with fire in their tails?
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