On 11 December, the country’s eyes were on Madhya Pradesh as 51 polling centres crunched the numbers of votes cast in the state assembly elections. Incumbent party BJP and the Congress were in a head-to-head battle until the last minute; the seat-count in favour of each party see-sawing wildly throughout the day. Outside the vote counting centres, it was a nail-biting and hair-raising atmosphere — kind of a roller-coaster — that many locals experienced, until the final victory lap was firmly placed with the Congress. Crowds gathered of both young and old, from near and far, favouring different political parties — but the throng was a sea of men.
Where were the women?
“They must be busy with housework,” says Urmila, busy at work herself, barely audible over the din of the sewing machine she was operating.
“I’m busy with my work, when do we ever get a holiday?” asks Sadhna Pande, a Satna resident, jokingly. “I had gone there for some time, but now I have work at home to take care of,” says Satbhavana Soni, another Satna local. On her way to the grocery store, Anita from Panna says, “I know counting is happening, but I’ve come from home to run some errands.” When asked if she doesn’t want to listen to the vote count, she simply says, “I don’t have the time.” The statement might as well be preceded by ‘I wanted to but’— a fact apparently true for a lot many women in the state.
“I wanted to but got caught up in work, so couldn’t go to listen to the vote count,” says Chatarpur resident Siyarani. Sandhya from Panna expresses anxiety navigating through the male-dominated crowds, “Maybe if some women had gone together in a group I would have gone too. I couldn’t have gone alone, with these hordes of men.”
And hordes there were. Roads, public bus stops, and marketplaces around the speakers of counting booths were filled with men. There were groups of men engaging in loud discussions, laughter, rallying cries, and there were men just sitting around — but there were really only men.
While speaking to our reporter in Satna, these men expressed their concerns, predictions and aspirations for competing parties. Baijnath Patel says, “We need Congress because we need change. Just like you can cook one side of a roti only for some time before it burns, the government needs to be flipped as well.” A BJP supporter immediately dismisses that, “We don’t need change. All the good that has ever happened in this state was because of the BJP.” Many argue the merits of individual candidates. Others bring up issues that they care about — Ram Suruk Nayak is concerned about unemployment; a college student is worried about the status of sports players in their district; a man illustrates the dire state of healthcare in his district with no doctors available in public hospitals.
But markedly absent from all of these discussions are the voices of women — there is no way to gauge the issues they are interested in, nor any issues that specifically concern women are brought in the fold.
Though the women of Madhya Pradesh did get their presence felt when the state went to the polls on 28 November. The female voter turnout increased in the state from 70.11% in the 2013 assembly elections to 74.03% this year. Some districts saw female voter turnout as high as 83.72%. These elections even managed to bridge some of the worrying gap between male and female voter turnout — it came down from 3.84% in 2013 to 1.95% this year.
“Yes I voted,” says an under-the-weather Rajbai, from Panna, before adding, “But I don’t want to hear the results. What place do I have, as an uneducated woman, among those crowds?” Bharti is on her way to attend to her father who is admitted in the hospital, she says, “My husband and sons have gone to listen, that’s enough.”
This speaks volumes about the gendered perception of space. The realm of the domestic, the home, is the woman’s — but the world outside is the man’s. Women often venture out in public spaces only with some purpose — to go to the hospital, in Bharti’s case, or the shops in Anita’s. Their presence is constantly monitored and policed; they are curtailed in the name of safety and honour. The vote counting, which began at 8 in the morning, and was on for the rest of the day, required loitering; it required women to not only shirk the responsibility of the invisible labour of housework and family care, which is work without breaks and holidays, but to also unapologetically occupy public space.
“Presence of women at these events is not thought to be appropriate enough by many people,” Desh Rani minces no words as she speaks standing confidently in a crowd of men. It’s easy to see why some women believe that the absence of their gender outside the counting centres is due to the perception — of husbands not letting their wives go, or of the police restricting women’s access — about the potential of women's presence to unsettle socio-cultural norms.
Some women made a conscious decision to come anyway. Supma Sinha travelled more than 120 km to hear the counting. She says, “I am a party president, so I’ve developed more interest in these things.” She in fact dragged a party candidate along, “I also wanted one of my party’s candidates be a part of the assembly elections, so I brought him,” she adds.
Others followed the counting closely, despite proximity barriers. “I’m listening to the news on TV,” says Sadhana Pande. “I’m getting the information about the vote count, anyway, from what people are telling me,” says Soni. “Women are so busy taking care of their families, but they are still listening to the news through the men who are here. So, they may not come but they know what’s happening here,” says Seema Rani, the District Director of the BJP, who is present at the counting centre.
“Without the full context, I don’t know what’s really happening,” counters Siyarani. Her comment significantly indicates that the concerns about absent crowds of women during vote count are not frivolous. It is one of the many ways by which women can engage in the democratic framework of the state. Women are heavily outnumbered in Indian politics, in courts, in the police force, etc. It is easy to see just how disenfranchised a woman can feel in this country. Like Phulbati states: “Just because we elect someone to the seat of power doesn’t mean they listen to us.”
As Madhya Pradesh became the focus of national media due to the tight race, where every new vote counted was tipping the scales, Ram Kumari, buying vegetables nearby, and halfheartedly listening to the announcements, says, “To be frank, I don’t know anything about the elections.”
Women must prioritise — and family must always come first.
“Of course they should come to the centres,” says Seema Rani, before adding, “if they can spare some time.”
Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.
Updated Date: Dec 14, 2018 18:05:25 IST