‘Mind-set’, ‘change’, ‘society’, ‘hope’- these or some variation of these words are often repeated in Nagaland when discussions about the role of women in politics (or the lack of it) are held. With the stage set for the state legislative assembly elections scheduled for February 27, those words have begun resurfacing.
Come February 27, a total of 195 candidates will be hoping to secure a place in the 60-seat assembly. Amongst the 195 candidates, there are just five women who will be hoping that this time a woman will be voted into the state legislative assembly.
Home to 16 recognized tribes, the role of women in Nagaland’s political history can be difficult to understand viewing it from an outsider’s perspective. As in several tribal and indigenous communities in the Northeast, women in Naga society have a lot of freedom and are not systematically suppressed by men (or at least it’s not evident at first glance). However, freedom does not necessarily translate into rights, especially property rights where a father cannot pass on his ancestral land to a daughter. That is just how it has been for ages.
Another aspect of life in Nagaland where women seem to have little to say is in politics.
Ever since the first legislative assembly was formed in February 1964, no woman has ever been elected to the House. The only time a woman was elected to office was when Rano M Shaiza became a Lok Sabha MP back in 1977. Since the state’s creation in 1963, just 30 women have contested the state elections and never once managed to win.
This time around though, there is ‘hope’ among some.
Making up just a little over two percent of candidates going to poll, five from a pool of 195 hardly seems like a number to get excited about. And yet, there is an air of excitement, especially among women (unsurprisingly) that this time may be different from earlier years.
Rosemary Dzivuchu, advisor to the Naga Mothers’ Association, said, “we are following the five women candidates with great interest and hope to see women legislators this time”.
Dzivuchu, a vocal women’s rights activist, said that women contesting elections will make a difference, “more so because of being educated and sensitive to issues”.
Tasugntela Longkumer, the assistant manager of the Dimapur-based English language-daily, Nagaland Page, is also optimistic.
“Will Nagaland ever have a woman MLA? Definitely and hopefully by these elections,” she said when asked about the chances of seeing a woman inside the legislative assembly building in Kohima as an elected member.
Hope and optimism aside, why has success in electoral politics remained so elusive for women in Nagaland?
Dr Hewasa Lorin, vice-principal of Tetso College in Dimapur, said that people’s ‘mind-set’ needs to change if women are to ever think of being voted into power.
“Ours is a society where elders are always respected and so during village council meetings the voice of the elders overpower those of the younger ones,” she said during a conversation following an academic event at the college recently, adding that such is the norm that men’s voices end up suppressing those of the women’s. Like many others, Lorin also said that times are changing and is hopeful for the future.
Dzivuchu, who is hopeful too, said that women in Nagaland are “not treated at par” with men, clear from the fact that they are “not visible in decision-making bodies or tribe councils or, village councils”.
This, she said, is one of the main reasons no woman has ever won an assembly election and that they are “not given party tickets by political parties or discouraged” from contesting.
This election’s tally of five women candidates is an improvement from the last elections when only two women contested. They are: the BJP’s Rakhila; independent candidate, Rekha Rose Dukru; Awan Konyak of the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party and; the National People’s Party candidates Wedie-ü Kronu and Dr K Mangyangpula Chang.
Their candidacy has been widely reported in the state media since the nominations were cleared. But it still begs the question why there has never been a woman in the legislative assembly.
Rita Krocha, a Kohima-based writer, recently wrote that while a woman in Nagaland “may be allowed to pursue education, follow her dreams, to even marry the man of her choice, we all know with absolute certainty that when it comes to politics (or even the apex tribal organisations for that matter), a woman’s place is never, ever given, or considered with seriousness”.
She wrote that patriarchy is “deeply rooted” in Naga society and the low participation of women in politics is a “sheer reflection of this sad reality”.
Krocha’s take on deep-seated patriarchy within Naga society isn’t something a lot of men tend to agree with. The general discourse being that women in Nagaland are much more ‘free’ than their counterparts in ‘mainland’ India.
One incumbent MLA while appreciating the fact there are more women contesting this time around, said what is an oft-repeated line: that women in Nagaland are not suppressed.
“They run the home but the old thinking was that running the village council is a man’s job. Our forefathers did that but we are not following them blindly,” he said at his campaign office run out of his house.
“Our Naga women are very capable. We have deep-rooted customs and we feel for them,” he said, adding that women in Nagaland are “catching up” when it came to electoral politics. But here too, he is quick to add that they are not discriminated against and that men by nature are proud.
“Mind-set,” he said, “takes time to change”.
While there are those who say that women are given same standing as men, not everyone agrees.
“The reality is that it’s a strong patriarchy deep inside,” said Dzivuchu, adding that “times and mind-set (there’s that word again) need to change with the rest of the world in terms of gender equity”.
One (male) journalist referenced last year’s violence that was allegedly triggered after the government’s decision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women in urban local bodies as an example of the patriarchal ‘mind-set’.
While activists such as Dzivuchu are blunt and direct in their criticism of patriarchy within society, the women in question take a more measured approach.
Awan Konyak, who is marking her début in electoral politics following in the footsteps of her late father Nyiewang Konyak, said that ‘change’ requires time.
“Nagaland is a state that is deeply defined by its traditional culture and roots and traditionally the role of village leader or elder was mostly held by men because in olden days it meant being responsible for the safety and security of the village and the people,” said the 38-year old.
Now though, she said, security comes “through economic stability, development, and accessibility to services”.
Konyak said that women in Nagaland do not have anything to prove to themselves and that “it’s now for the people to realise this paradigm shift and to embrace gender equality even in politics”.
For a functional democracy she said, women politicians “can and must be a part of the system to ensure that it is a healthy democracy where all sectors and genders of society have a voice”.
Wedie-ü Kronu, an activist associated with the Nagaland Public Rights Awareness and Action Forum contesting the Dimapur-III seat, chooses not want to blame anyone for the low participation of women in politics and is careful with her words.
“Women have been looked as housewives who should take care of the husband and children. Even those ‘lucky ones’ who are in government services are expected to do the same,” she said over the phone while taking out time from hectic campaigning.
Kronu said that not encouraging women to venture outside family matters has become a tradition and a way of life for women who never complained about it.
“These days the mind-set of our women has changed,” she said, using that keyword.
But does she blame men or society at large for the current state of affairs?
“No, no, no. It’s not about blaming society or tradition. Maybe somewhere, somehow we have not encouraged women to come out,” she quickly added.
While she is optimistic about her chances, Kronu said that even if it isn’t her who wins perhaps one of the other four will and that will be a start. She exercised caution here too though, and said that “it’s easier said than done”.
The five women candidates are, in a manner of speaking, creating a new path for themselves and the role of women in politics in Nagaland. However, they aren’t relying on their gender alone to win the elections. The greater common emphasis seems to be, for these women, on bringing change – change in gender equity or otherwise.
This article first appeared in The Citizen.