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Amit Varma over at India Uncut blogged his disapproval of the women’s reservation bill in India recently citing biological differences between men and women as the reason why there are “naturally” few women in politics all over the world and concluding that therefore reservation of political seats for women will do nothing more than put unqualified people into leadership positions while subverting the democratic process.
This of course raised my hackles immediately.
See, this is why evolutionary psychology is such a pile of crap: it’s used by every Tom, Dick and Harry (seldom Jane, Juanita or Jaswanti) to justify doing nothing to correct the vast and virulently harmful systems of oppression the world over. It’s BIOLOGY, is the war cry. Unfixable by definition. Why try?
I called Amit on his bullshit. I asked him to please point me to this new groundbreaking research he apparently has access to which has proved the existence of the “POLITICS YAY” gene in men and “POLITICS NAY” gene in women. In a shameless but unsurprising shyster move, Amit pointed to the weasel words he had used to cover his ass – “I’m sure there is some discrimination, but it is not the sole factor…” – and claimed that he only meant biology was part of the equation, though it was by far the bigger part, the deciding factor.
I’m dying to talk about this biology crap. I’ve even written what can only be called a treatise on evolutionary psychology, which only needs some awesome linkage dug up and tacked on to be posted up here in all its kickass glory: it will be done by the weekend. But for now here’s another treatise I wrote that’s more on point to rebut, dismantle and shatter the myth that cultural discrimination plays little or no role in oppressing women/minorities.
Unlike Amit who has yet to show any evidence whatsoever for his OMG BIOLOGY position, I actually have support for my case – that the overwhelmingly larger role in keeping Indian women out of politics is played by culture. It’s ridiculously easy to find.
How about some evidence that Indian people truly are not open to the idea of female leaders? Here’s an MIT study conducted in West Bengal’s villages which shows exactly that.
Villagers [in the study] are not shy about admitting explicit preferences for males. [W]e see that men rank male villagers [69%] higher than female villagers. Women exhibit a much smaller, but signiﬁcant, bias in favor of male villagers ([39%]). For both genders, this bias is magniﬁed in the case of leaders. Male villagers rate male leaders [144%] higher than female leaders. For female villagers the diﬀerence, while smaller ([56%]),remains signiﬁcant.
The same study shows that villagers were 150% less likely to agree with statements biased against female leaders when the village was forced to have female leaders for two consecutive terms because of quotas and reservations. They were also 300% less likely to agree with statements biased against women in general.
Here’s a Stanford University study of constituencies Greater Bombay whose top political seats were reserved for women; the study shows that after the reservation system ended, constituencies which had previously been governed by women were 500% more likely to freely elect women again than constituencies which had never been exposed to female leadership.
This is hard data that directly supports the cultural-bias hypothesis and flies in the face of the biology hypothesis.
But this isn’t surprising data, it isn’t something that contradicts our experience. It’s just that the OMG BIOLOGY crowd loves to assume away ground realities that mar their idealised depictions of how fair and good and just we are as a society. The first thing any of those people will tell you is “equal rights are already enshrined in law, discrimination is no longer a big deal.” But honestly, don’t we all know how far we have yet to go to achieve truly equal rights and equal opportunities and the end of gender/race/sexuality/disability-based discrimination? Don’t we all see the ground realities all around us every single day?
For instance, let’s consider the actual realities of life for Indian women. Let’s even tilt the playing field in favour of the biology hypothesis by talking only about young women, urban women, educated women, women from middle-class-or-richer backgrounds and “liberal” families. Here’s the story of these women’s lives:
She is born. If she is the firstborn or the second/third/nth girl of the family, neighbours and friends show up to commiserate with the mother. (Rural mothers from exceedingly oppressive backgrounds may well be forced to kill the child at this point, end of story. Good thing we’re only talking about urbanites, a demograohic less likely to commit female infanticide.)
She grows into a child. Her brothers play cricket outside while she helps her mother cook and clean to prepare for her future. Because after all, “Indira Gandhi may be Prime Minister, but when she comes home in the evening she is still a woman” who needs to fulfil her domestic duties. (Poor female children very frequently become maids in other people’s houses. Good thing we’re only thinking about middle-class-or-richer girls.)
She goes to school. It is a golden part of her life, where she is held to the same standard as boys are, expected to do the same things as boys are, and for once is treated as if she is a person who matters, not “just a no-account woman”. (Women who are in their 50s or 60s today did not enjoy this luxury. Good thing we’re only considering 20-or-30-somethings.)
She steps out of school. She walks home as quickly as possible to avoid being sexually harassed by strangers who lie in wait on the streets. Her parents expect her to come straight home for her own safety. Her brothers play cricket, build radios, hang out at street corners, hoot at girls, smoke, meet people, go for joyrides, hang out with their friends while she stays in helping mother with the cooking.
She gets her first period. Her parents promptly pull her out of all physical-fitness-type activities, forbid her from playing lagori or any other game with too much running involved, throw out her entire wardrobe and buy her a bunch of “modest” “womanly” traditional clothes instead. From this moment on her interactions with any male person, be it relative or classmate or friend or neighbour, is supervised, scrutinised for transgressions, and discouraged altogether. Her brothers reach puberty, and their mother only mutters under her breath that she cannot handle these young men any more. Their behaviour or movements are not curtailed in any way.
She grows into a young woman. In addition to her tertiary education, she regularly manages at least half of all domestic work and often does much more. Her mother is beginning to take life easy and “enjoy the help while she can”. Even though she is 20 years old she has a strict 7 PM curfew. Her brothers do not, and often party late or even stay out all night. Her parents tell her what a good girl she is, and how out-of-hand her brothers have gotten. But somehow, it is her brothers’ favourite dishes which are always being cooked for dinner, it is for her brothers’ business that the family savings are spent, and it is increasingly her brothers who seem to have taken over from their dad as the family decision makers.
She finishes college. Within one month of her final year exams, regardless of her wishes, she is engaged to be married to a suitable boy of her parents’ choice. She is forced to change her name, wear a mangalsultra, dress much more traditionally than when she was unmarried, and cease all contact with remaining male friends. Within one month of receiving her graduation certificate, she is married to him. Within one year of her wedding she gives birth to her first child, and even if she wasn’t before she is now a full time housewife and mother. Her brothers, meanwhile, are unencumbered by family pressures in any way and are busy building their careers and enjoying a lot of free time. If they do get married, they keep their own names, don’t dress any differently after marriage, do not move into their wife’s parents’ homes, and do not wear any outward symbol of couplehood (rings don’t count in India, since they don’t particularly symbolise anything, and unmarried people wear rings all the time).
She accepts her domestic-and-maternal role. She works just as hard as her husband but recieves no wages for her labour, and thus remains financially dependent on him. If she is very, very lucky, her husband gives her a little pocket-money to spend as she pleases, as if she has no real claim over “his” earnings. If she is moderately lucky, she is denied nothing but must specifically ask for money and permission from her in-laws or husband to buy every little thing she needs, be it sanitary pads or a movie ticket. If she is unlucky, she gets nothing other than the most basic sustenance and clothing as decided by her in-laws or husband. Her brothers, though, are given every form of assistance and opportunity to stand on their own two feet: they are automatically favoured by every employer, client and investor on the basis of their gender, their parents are willing to invest their life savings in their businesses, they are not expected to work without pay, they are not expected to even care for their own children… all that matters is that they earn a good income and thus retain their dignity by not having to depend on others for their needs and wants. Her dignity isn’t important, his is.
She raises children to school age. If she is lucky, she is allowed to get a job at this point, but she still has to work a second shift of domestic duties when she comes home and a third shift of childcare as she is expected to feed the kids, check their homework, and put them to bed. By necessity her job must not require late hours – which curtails her opportunities for advancement and higher pay. She cannot even consider taking a job that requires travel or worse, frequent transfers, because which husband would be willing to quit his job and move just because his wife got a job in a different city? Her brothers, meanwhile, have jobs that require travel 20 days a month. They switch jobs every few years and grab opportunities to move to new cities or even overseas, and their wives willingly move with them at the expense of their own careers. What kind of wife doesn’t move with her husband?
She wants to enter politics. Her husband laughs at her. She says she wants to make women’s lives better. Nobody understands what she means. “Everything is provided for you,” people tell her. “Your life is easy. You have a good husband and good children. He is not drinking or beating you. You live in this big house because of the money HE earns. He allows you to work and be independent. What are you complaining about?” Her in-laws flat-out forbid it. Emergency phone calls are made to her parents, and her parents talk to her as if she is a child and tell her she is being foolish. What sort of work is politics for a woman? No, no, that cannot be allowed. Better stick to her secretary job. Her brothers on the other hand deal with politicians and politics every day in the course of business. If they want to go into politics, the parents grumble but what can they do? By now they are retired and dependent on their son. And after all a man must do what he must do to earn a living… and after all, politics needs bright young people like their son.
She begins canvassing for her candidacy at the grassroots level, begins to build her network of supporters, begins to work hard and long to pursue her dream in spite of family opposition. This is when her inlaws and her husband throw her out of her home. How can a man tolerate a wife who neglects her chores, her inlaws and her kids, and is not at home to cook and serve his dinner on time? Even one as virtuous and tolerant as Lord Rama abandoned his chaste wife because she was kidnapped by a man and forced to spend weeks in the same palace as him. She intentionally goes out and has meetings with and works with so many strange men, staying out late with them, having lunch and dinner and tea with them! No man can tolerate this from his wife. Her brothers, ha, her brothers don’t even need to do any grassrots activism because they have a readymade network of boyhood friends and business contacts already among the rich and powerful. But even if they do go door to door at some point, they are never questioned – it’s part of their work! Why would parents and wives try to stop them from doing it?
She gets divorced. She loses her home. She is awarded no alimony even though her husband and inlaws forced her to give up her career long ago. She has no claim on any of her “husband’s money”, or even her own dowry, perhaps not even her personal jewellery which were handed over to her husband’s family the moment she became part of their family. She loses custody of her kids even though she has always been their primary caregiver, because the judge thinks they will be better off with the rich father than the poor hussy of a mother. She is ordered by a judge to change her name back to her maiden name, because her husband doesn’t want people to think they are still married. He owns the name, he gets to force it on her and strip her of it. Her parents will not admit her back into their homes because she is a disgrace to the family. She has nothing and no one. Her brothers may get divorced, but they will not lose their home or property or name or family as a result of it.
She goes on the campaign trail, against all odds. Her support for anti-gender-discrimination laws, women’s emancipation, maternity leave guarantees in private companies, and other women’s issues earns the ridicule of the male dominated progressive media. She is branded a narrow, irrelevant “special interests” politician, someone who wants “special rights” for women, in spite of the fact that she is representing the long-ignored interests of fully 50% of the population, and asking for human rights to be extended to them rather than special rights to be created for them. In the male dominated conservative media she is branded a hussy, a slut, an affront to womanhood, a woman of loose morals, an immodest woman, an uppity woman, too emotional, too frigid, not a woman at all, a ball-breaker, an unattractive she-male whore, a bitch, a dyke, a disgrace to the rich cultural heritage of India… etc etc. Notice that on both sides of the fence she is primarily attacked FOR BEING A WOMAN, and not at all on her actual policies or credentials or promises. When her brothers enter politics, they are critiqued on the content of their campaigns and character rather than the contents of their pants.
She is given her polling results. Most people who don’t want to vote for her say, “I don’t care if she is a woman or a man, but I just somehow find her unlikeable”. Or else they say, “I don’t care if she is a woman or a man, but I don’t agree with her policies”. Some people admit they are not sure if a woman can be as good a leader as a man: isn’t it a biological fact that women just don’t have the GOOD LEADER gene? Her brothers poll better with the public. Nobody in their polls ever utters the words “I don’t care if he is a man or a woman”.
She wants to raise more funds for her campaign. Backers, financers and donors are hard to come by, because few people believe in her chances of winning this. Her brothers throw gala fundraising dinners, and all their inside connections in business and politics fork out lakhs of rupees at a time. They stand a good chance of winning, so it’s good to start the process of trading favours already.
She realises that what she needs is an entourage of men. Having men surround her on the stage when she makes speeches, or when she does a photo op, or when she meets with the rich and powerful seems to get her better results than if she is alone or surrounded by a group of women. People take her more seriously when they see that MEN are on her side, not just no-account women. Her brothers do not need to surround themselves with women to be taken seriously. They do not face any negative consequences from having an all-male team as staff. In fact, having women on their team is dangerous. It could make them look as if they are womanisers, because everyone knows that the only reason why women would be there is for sex.
She goes on TV to give interviews. She must be careful what she says, and she must also be careful what emotions she shows. She should smile, or people will say she is a ball breaking bitch. She should not smile too much, or else people will say she does not have the gravitas of a true politician. She should not show anger, or people will she is hysterical. She should not cry, or people will write her off as “just another emotional woman trying to gain sympathy”. She should dress modestly in a saree or salwaar kameez, never a pantsuit or any type of western dress. She should cover her head with her pallu or dupatta. She should expect to mainly be quizzed on her family life, her divorce, her children, and stuff like “Why are today’s women like this or that”. Her brothers go on TV to be interviewed. They can smile just as much as they always have all their lives – their habits of facial expression are considered normal and people don’t read too much into them. They can show anger, they will be thought strong and passionate for it. They can cry, they will be thought sensitive, sincere and “deep” for it. They can dress in western or in traditional clothes, and wear what they normally wear without being thought immodest. They will be quizzed on their policies, promises and the content of their campaign, and any questions about their families is nothing more than a side note. They will never be asked to speak for their gender.
She has lost the election. People will use her failure as a case in point for why women should not enter politics (look how she ruined her life!) or why women are just not biologically suited for it (that’s why women always lose elections!). Amit Varma will proclaim that women are not in politics because they don’t want to be there. Amit Varma proclaims that this woman must not have been qualified to run, so the will of the people is done. Her brothers also lose the election. People do not draw conclusions about the irresponsibility of men towards their families or the incapacity of the whole male gender from their failure. Her brothers’ teams start preparing for the next election season.