The politics of negative power
As we dumbly soldier on towards the scheduled village and municipal elections, political parties are bragging about fielding more women than required by the new Local Government Act 2011. This is being marketed as the epitome of modernity and progress. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Women do not break the shackles of tradition and patriarchy by having leftovers thrown at them in some sort of spirit akin to charity. The changes brought to the law to allow more women participation in local government will not have any impact whatsoever on the condition of women in this society. And yes, this is one aspect of women participation in politics about which one can make large and useful generalisations.
First, let’s put things into perspective. The village and municipal elections have little impact on our democracy.
The parties who cruise home to an electoral victory will beat their chests for a while to the total indifference of the majority of the population. Then we will go back to our business as usual. The men and women elected to the positions of councillors will soon feel that they have no way of making any changes even for themselves, let alone for other women.
But we would like to go further and suggest that the frantic chase for women candidates which preceded nomination day, to fi ll in the requirements of the new Act, is likely not only not to help women but to play against them in the long run. Far from creating a revolution of the gender regime in this country where social, cultural and political barriers for women’s equal representation persist, it, in fact, may offset the struggle of women in a very substantial way. It is one thing changing laws and legislating.
It is quite another changing the state of things.
Forget about the controversial nature of quotas and the fact that they are unfair to men and undermine ‘merit’ as a criterion for candidate selection. What is more relevant is that there are not enough women interested to stand as candidates. The quotas introduced and welcomed with such fervour by some women’s associations have already shown their limitations. When not enough women are interested in standing as candidates; when women’s attention is otherwise diverted; when women do not have the possibility to be on equal footing with men, the choice of female candidates is likely to be very limited.
Quotas in such a situation will likely facilitate access for ‘unqualified’ women, which will reinforce the stereotypes and misconceptions prevalent in the country about women’s inability to be competent political actors, which in itself will deter ordinary women from participating in political life.
Our women councillors, once elected, will not be in a position to draw attention to women’s issues and shape policies which would change the gendered nature of the public and political sphere in this country.
They will not be able, even if they wanted to, to inspire other women to become more politically involved. Many of them were chosen simply because they are women. This is a long downhill slide to mediocrity.
If fielding women for village and municipal elections is all our political parties have to show as proof of modernism and forward-looking vision, then we are not out of the woods yet. Rarely have we seen an elephant labour so long to give birth to such a small mouse.
See you next year
Now that the budget has been flogged to death by fi nancial analysts, media professionals and laymen alike, do me a favour: ask your friends the world over in how many of their countries the government budget is such a big deal. In how many of these countries does the shopkeeper ask you what your expectations of the budget are days before budget day? The answer your laudable search will yield is: three or four. Out of these very few countries, in how many is it a two-hour (some years three) folkloric stage play, complete with photo shoot and herd-like behaviour, what with supportive thumping of tables by government MNAs intended to taunt opposition members, and the latter heckling, booing
and deriding in return? No prizes for the correct answer.
Two hours of monotonous reading to an exhausted audience after it has had to squeeze its work in three-quarters of a day to be able to run back home and listen to the minister announce that he has reduced taxes on shower gels, cinema tickets and vintage cars. And Xavier Duval is not the fi rst one. We have had ministers announce, with solemn seriousness, a reduction in the tax on kiwi, which translated in the fruit costing Rs4 instead of Rs5 at the time!
If the traditional folklore of tapping the Chamber counter-tops is a reliable barometer to go by, there were 15 good measures announced. Those of us who have ever made a living talking to audiences know that if you can’t drive a point across in one minute or two, you have lost your audience. So, the budget could have taken all in all a generous half an hour, no more. And, as a result, we would not have needed experts of
all descriptions and callings to unravel and explicate all the other measures, the strategic ones which are likely to make a real difference to the national lot and those not meriting loud applause.
That being said, the budget leaves a good after taste, for it contains much to look forward to, assuring us of continuity in terms of economic and fi nancial governance. And, there were no unwelcome taxes. For the taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, I think the usual debate as to whether they are increased for health reasons or for increasing tax revenue is rather sterile. Research has shown that the biggest contributingfactor in reducing consumption of these items is increasing their prices and making it harder
for people to afford them. And, even if it were just to fi ll the state coffers, people who deliberately and compulsively endanger their health cannot expect other taxpayers to continue to subsidize the consequences of their harmful habits.
All in all, the minister of finance takes home a good report card. The measures announced have a strategic purport, are forward-looking and sound, particularly those which are business enabling and geared
towards technology, encouraging production and the focus on Africa, our saving grace. But they are only statements of good intentions. Implementing them takes much more than just the two hours we
spent dozing in front of our television screens. Their implementation depends on a host of public and private sector policies, ranging from air access, upgrading of our port facilities and the willingness to take risks, to investing in new technologies and training.
To what extent will the government mobilise all its resources to coordinate the efforts needed to translate some of these good intentions into tangible results? Book two hours of your time to find out next year.
God knows that we have always promoted secularism and been opposed to any religious tyranny and blind dogmas.
We hold that, since we live in a multi-religious, “secular” society, no religion should be allowed to prescribe how we conduct our lives in all and sundry respects. We have, in the name of tolerance and freedom, stood for
the principle of keeping religion outside the public domain.
It is in the name of this tolerance that we deem the fuss created around the school pupils of the Islamic faith wearing a headscarf unnecessary, avoidable and disproportionate. The headmaster who objected to his pupils
wearing a headscarf has exemplifi ed a form of fanatical intolerance similar to some religious dogmas we have systematically stood against.
This one is worse because it comes wrapped up in the guise of secularism. In asecular state, or in a rights-based culture, there is no room for such behaviour which verges on oppression and religious persecution. It tramples on civil liberties and is contrary to all kinds of freedoms.
People dress according to their culture, habits, beliefs and, as long as they observe the basic requirements of decency, which is necessary in any civilized society, they should be free to dress as they choose. The Muslim scarf is merely an article of clothing, symbolising modesty and/or respect, just as the fl owing end of saris is wrapped over the heads of traditional Hindu women.
The ruckus around it is diffi cult to understand. Yes, it is an item of clothing with a symbolism but so what? We should not make the mistake, however, of amalgamating the headscarf issue with that of the niqab (full veil) which may raise security concerns and which, at any rate the Quran does not call
for and is not a requirement of Islam as we understand it.
The argument that school should be a place where all children are equal and not distinguishable by religious symbols of any kind looks nice on paper. In reality, it is diffi cult to talk about uniformity in our schools with the way
kids are streamed in their ancestral language/catechism classes. A pluralistic and free society does not require conformity, even for the sake of the “secular and free state” itself.
What should or should not be allowed in a multi-religious society should be guided by common sense and sensitivity rather than by blind intolerance. Is the item of clothing offending anyone and/or is it illegal? Does it require
additional state resources?
Headscarves are neither inappropriate, impractical or socially harmful. Nor are they a sign that we have renounced our secularism. According to Human Rights Watch, “accommodating different forms of religious
headgear does not suggest that state authorities endorse any particular religion.” Sikh police, for example, are allowed to wear their turbans in far less traditional societies such as the UK, Australia and some US states.
Having said that, allowing people to dress as they wish within the limits of decency is a different issue to caving in to religious pressure to postpone exams. It is one thing to be allowed to dress according to the principles of one’s religion. It is quite another to ask for concessions in the name of one’s religion. Last week’s decision to postpone exams, quite apart from being an illegitimate interference in the day-to-day running of our public institutions,
sets a dangerous precedent. It is a mistake.
A state does not jeopardize its secularism by allowing headgear of any kind. By postponing exams for religious reasons, it does.