People wait at a polling station to cast their votes during the elections in Aizawl. (PTI) It’s been nearly two decades that fiery debates on gender equity and political participation of women have done the rounds of colleges and universities in this region. Seminars and workshops on the theme happen with predictable frequency. But none of the seven states of the region have a state policy for women. That is why all policies crafted by governments are gender neutral or gender blind, instead of being gender nuanced. A gender sensitive policy might have been able to address the practical and strategic needs of women and enabled them to overcome the entrenched gender prejudices that are so visible and palpable in patriarchal societies.
From the results of the recent Mizoram polls we can safely conclude that all the literature produced and the discussions and seminars organised on the theme of gender equity and political participation of women have had no impact at all. This is yet another election in Mizoram where not a single woman candidate was elected. The Congress,which claims to be more woman-friendly and even feigned to pass the 33 per cent reservation for women’s bill in Assemblies and Parliament is interestingly very quiet about fielding more women candidates to the Mizoram Assembly. The Congress put up only one woman candidate out of 40. The Mizoram Democratic Alliance (MDA) and the BJP fielded one and three women respectively. Even the former chairperson of the Mizoram Public Service Commission, B. Sangkhumi, who contested as an Independent, failed to win the seat.
Not that the scenario has changed much in the rest of the country! However, considering that the Congress, the BJP and even the Aam Aadmi Party have women spokespersons who can wax eloquent about the party’s wins or losses and engage on several other issues on TV on a daily basis, women in Mizoram are more seen than heard. So what does this tell us about the status of women in Mizoram? Has education changed anything at all? What are the reasons behind the patriarchal biases? Yet it is not as if women are indifferent to politics. Mizoram is the only state from among the four others that went to the polls this time where women outnumbered men at the polling booths. Out of a total electorate of 690,860, women voters outnumbered men by 9,806. It, therefore, means that women themselves are active practitioners of the patriarchal roles that have conditioned them for centuries.
A book authored by Lalneihzovi of Mizoram University on Changing status of women in North East India gives an interesting dimension of the position of Mizo women. A chapter by Lianzela in the same book talks about the aphorisms in Mizo society that devalue women. Some of these sayings are: “A woman’s opinion is no opinion at all; crabs and women don’t have any religion; a wife and a rotten fence can always be changed; a woman’s wisdom does not cross the other side of the village well; a barking dog and a woman who yells should not be paid attention to.”
With such derogatory notions forming their worldview since childhood, it is but natural that women would lag behind. Above all, Mizo women do not inherit any property. Lianzela says that in early times, women were not even allowed to face the altar/pulpit from where the preacher preaches. They were instructed to face the side because it was felt that their looks were devilish and deceptive and could distract the preacher. Lianzela claims that the status of women changed with the coming of Christianity. But that is a claim that can be contested. The first woman MBBS doctor from Mizoram, Dr Lalengi, graduated only in 1964; the first woman MSc in 1961 and the first woman MCom in 1970. Interestingly, although Christianity in Mizoram is about 200 years old, the first woman to get a Bachelor’s degree in Divinity (BD) did so only in 1977. Another got her masters in theology only in 1985. These statistics tell us how difficult it is for women to claim their space within the Church.
Mizoram has not seen any woman legislator in the last two decades. In the recent Assembly elections, of the 142 candidates fielded, there were only six women aspirants of which not a single one was elected.
Tlangthanmawii, the state Mahila Congress president, and Lalmalsawmi of the MNF were both defeated. Even the women candidates put up by the BJP were badly defeated, having secured the minimum number of votes. What is ironic is that even the former president of the Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP) or Mizo Women’s Federation, B. Sangkhumi, was defeated. Ever since Mizoram became a Union Territory in 1973 and a full-fledged state in 1987, there have been only three women legislators. Among them, Lalhimpuii Hmar of the MNF was a minister in the government led by the late Laldenga in 1987. Although the Women’s Welfare Front which has grassroots presence and is constituted by women members of village councils across the state has been actively spearheading the campaign for women candidates before the Assembly polls, they could not ensure even a single win.
Sociologist Subhankar Goswami is quoted as saying, “The Mizo society in pre-modern times was based on what is known as an extreme patriarchy. This created ‘private’ and ‘public’ domains, where women were confined to the private sphere that further relegated their status in the social and religious life. Women, therefore, had no opportunities to go beyond the scope of the ‘domestic sphere’ and it was only men who controlled and dominated the entire ‘public sphere’. They were not supposed to have any independent religious loyalty, but were required to follow the religion of their husbands.”
In a statement that could well be self-contradictory, Goswami says, “Christianity, of course, is the harbinger of modernity as well as women’s liberation in Mizoram. The Christian missionaries are regarded as a symbol of modernisation that led to gradual changes in the conservative attitudes of men towards women.”
Lalneihzovi, a Mizo scholar, while looking at reasons why women have failed to make it to the state Assembly, says that people still look at men as natural leaders and the notion that women are not capable of holding responsible positions is still very strong in the minds of people. However, in the 2006 election to the village council, as many as 33 women candidates were elected, out of the 556 seats. Could this be the game changer starting at the grassroots? This remains to be seen but the fact of the matter is that while patriarchy is sought to be dismantled brick by brick in the larger Indian society, it seems to be a tall order in this tribal state which otherwise has all the makings of a modern, progressive state. At least it does to the casual onlooker.
But that is precisely the problem. While women dominate the economic space (Mizo women are visible in the marketplace), the legislature seems like a distant dream for them. So where does the fault lie? What is the game-changer here? Mizoram is termed as a Christian state but perhaps the Church has not done enough to empower women. Maybe this is where the problem lies since the influence of the Church is overwhelming. But does the Church believe in women’s empowerment?
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)