The seven states of northeast India present a truly contrasting picture when it comes to its women. On the one hand the region is home to all-powerful women's groups like the Meira Paibis of Manipur, the Naga Mothers Association and the Mizo Women's Federation, which have effectively tackled issues like alcoholism, gender rights and conflict. Moreover, women's participation in the life of the community is not just visible but is in fact one of the most distinctive features of the region. Yet, when it comes to their participation in mainstream politics, very few find a place in the government.
The Northeast collectively sends 24 members to the 545-member Lok Sabha, while the 250 member-strong Rajya Sabha has 13 members from the region. How many women figure in this list? At last count, one member from Meghalaya and two from Assam in the Lower House and one member each from Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam in the Upper House.
Their numbers in the state legislative assemblies are equally dismal, if not worse. Sample this: Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland have no women in the state assembly. Of the 60-member assembly in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, the former has two female legislators, while the latter has three. Given the size of the state and the higher number of constituencies, Assam has 14 women MLAs among 126 elected representatives.
Clearly, women standing for elections and making their presence felt in the corridors of power, be it at the state or national levels, face tough resistance. So the question that arises is: what is it that is fuelling this regressive trend? "Blame it on deep-rooted patriarchy," says Tiplut Nongbri, Professor at the Centre for Study of Social System at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi. "Like elsewhere in India strong traditional practices in northeastern societies, too, hold women back from exploring their potential in new spheres," she observes.
Nongbri, who has done extensive work on gender, family and identity in the Northeast, cites the case of the Khasi society in Meghalaya to prove her point. She elaborates, "Earlier, women were not allowed to enter the customary 'durbars' in villages and this continues to this day. That women are being kept away from fighting elections is therefore not a surprise."
According to her, the socialisation process under patriarchy is so internalised that women can't seem to "find the courage to come out and stand for elections as it will be perceived as challenging the system and being disloyal to traditional practices".
But if women are being kept away from political participation on the pretext of social convention, how does this explain the pioneering work done by various women-led rights groups present in all the seven states? Shreema Ningombam, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Nambol College in Manipur, points out that the focus of women's organisations such as the Meira Paibis is mainly on issues like conflict and militarisation and their impact on the lives of the locals, including women. "Their energy and resources are all trained towards protesting against the consequences emanating from this situation, which affects their lives collectively," feels Ningombam.
There is validity to Ningombam's observations. If one takes a look at the trajectory of the Meira Paibis, they initially came together for the 'nisha bandh' (anti-alcoholism) movement, and then later evolved into a more political outfit that launched a consolidated fight against the continued enforcement of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). "This women group is very political," comments Ningombam, "and if you go deeper then it becomes fairly evident that their leaders do take a clear stand when it comes to self-determination."
Yet, argues Papori Bora, Professor, Centre for Women's Studies, JNU, what holds them from becoming overtly political is the fact that "in the context of nationalism, there is a general understanding that there is no reason for women to have a separate identity. This concept strengthens patriarchy and discourages women from joining politics". Adds Bora, "The attitude adopted is - why do women need to have a separate political agenda? In fact, for women too their identity as an Assamese or Naga or Mizo is more important; the fact that they are a minority in the legislature becomes secondary."
The good news, however, is that in the Northeast women are as much at the forefront of exercising their franchise as the men. And in the last few years some of them have stood for elections as well.
First, a look at the number of women who cast their votes at the state level: in the Mizoram state elections held in February 2014, more women (3,49,506) than men turned up at the polling booths. It was similar in Arunachal Pradesh in 2009. In Nagaland, where the total of female voters is pegged at 5,38,968, 91 per cent voted in the 2013 election.
In terms of leadership representation, two women candidates out of 188 stood for elections for the 60 seat Nagaland assembly in 2013. The number was a little higher in Tripura that saw 15 women out of 249 contesting the last Assembly election in early 2013. The same year Meghalaya had 25 women candidates out of 345 in the fray, while the 2009 election in Arunachal saw nine women contesting and two women emerging victorious.
"These are indeed positive developments," remarks Joy Pachuau, Associate Professor at the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU, "today, while many women are being elected to panchayat, at least a start has been made with women contesting assembly polls. It will take time though. Traditions make it difficult for women to take to public life. The stronghold of the Church as well as other religious bodies also has an impact."
The role that northeastern women play in the democratic process cannot be overlooked. In fact, it is their overwhelming participation at the local self government level that is strengthening the basic foundations of democracy in the region today. Moreover, they never shy away from fulfilling their duty as responsible voters. Yet, notably, their contribution is still limited to the lowest levels of power. While many scholars and experts are of the opinion that it is not the numbers that matter but the quality of involvement, it is also important to make sure that there is equal participation.
General Election 2014, however, may not see much of a change although major parties are talking about women's empowerment. For instance, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has included it in their election agenda, while recently BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi focused his Women's Day Chai pe Charcha discussion on this issue inviting northeast women to share their insights. But despite this, parties have failed to field women in adequate numbers. The Congress has fielded two female candidates in Assam and one in Tripura, the Trinamool Congress has one woman candidate from Manipur and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not given a ticket to any woman in the region. New entrant, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), had approached AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila to stand on its ticket from Manipur but she has turned them down. Change, going by these trends, is still a distant prospect.