Although the Lyngdoh Committee report on University elections across India attempts to remove gender inequalities by prohibiting discrimination based on sex and class, women still have only de jure rather than de facto access to these rights in the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) elections.
Indeed, while the DUSU elections champions itself as a beacon of democracy, it clocks in behind other universities like JNU and Guwahati University with regard to women’s participation as representatives in elected student unions. With the exception of ABVP’s Priyanka Chhawri, who served as the Vice-President of the union in 2016-17, the role of women in DUSU in the last six years has been limited to the positions of General Secretary and Joint Secretary.
However, a member of the feminist collective Pinjra Tod, Subhashini Shreya took a rather optimistic view about the current state of women in the University, and mentioned some important statistical data, “We need to acknowledge that we have come a long way from the movement in the 1980s. Earlier, the student population of the Varsity consisted of only 12% women. The rest were men. Today, women consist of 48% of the student community of the University of Delhi.” While women’s increasing presence in DU has subsequently led to their increased participation in DU student politics, their enthusiastic participation in elections does not ostensibly translate into proportionate electoral power for women. In contrast to the encouraging figures pertaining to women voters, the statistics on women’s participation in DUSU or even in high positions of the party organisations presents a grim picture.
Women perform just as well as men in elections when they have to vote, but not when they have to contest in elections themeselves. Pragya Tomar, current General Secretary of the National Students’ Union of India, Delhi State, made an intriguing observation, “Due to anticipated failure or perceived discrimination, women often hesitate from contesting in the student unions. Sometimes, the lack of family support can also discourage them. Kami society mein hai, politics mein nahi. (the fault is in our society, not in politics, that lesser women are contesting elections)”
When asked about the dynamics of DUSU elections 2018, she hinted, “I am planning to stand for elections this year.”
Besides the traditional family arrangements that limit a woman’s career choices, formal and informal requirements such as party service, concerns about campaign funding inequities, wealth gaps and the high costs of a political career, and the experienced who influence who decides to run for office, makes women underestimate their abilities and chances for success.
During the conversation with the DU Beat correspondent, leaders of two political units – NSUI and ABVP – expressed a desire to address the stubborn gender imbalance that pervades DUSU.
Rocky Tuseed, President of DUSU, remarked, “NSUI is a firm believer of inclusiveness, equality of opportunities and maximum representation of women. Women are in positions of leadership in our Gender Cell, Legal Cell, and also the committee for our magazine.”
Adding to that, he mentioned, “In fact, the National in-charge of NSUI is a woman.”
Mahamedhaa Nagar, General Secretary of DUSU, observed, “When we organised the women’s marathon in January, the sight the people witnessed there broke all stereotypes about the ABVP (Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad) as a conservative unit which refrains from talking about certain issues when it comes to women’s freedom.” She went on to describe the sight, “Men who had never discussed issues such as menstruation with their mothers were seen distributing sanitary napkins. This was a heartwarming sight which re-established women’s issues in political affairs of DU.” Speaking further on the expected gender dynamics of DUSU elections of 2018, Mahamedhaa commented optimistically, “Three-fourth women from ABVP are expected to contest in DUSU this year.”
The dearth of women contesting elections can be traced back to history, and to the formation of DUSU and the number of colleges that are affiliated to it. The election culture in DU is highly laced with violence. Right from threatening opposition candidates with physical violence to pressurising potential candidates to withdraw nominations through hooliganism and slut-shaming, the political culture of DU is precarious for women.
And this is one of the major reasons why out of 22 women’s colleges affiliated to DU, only five colleges i.e Miranda House, Aditi Mahavidyalaya, Bhagini Nivedita College, Lakshmibai College, and S.P. Mukherji College for Women take part in the DUSU elections.
As a result, most women studying in the various women’s colleges in DU do not have any political participation in the students’ union elections of their own university. While DU might have more women students than other universities, this population is considered politically irrelevant by people contesting the elections.
All of this suggests that the prospect of equal representation in DUSU politics cannot rest solely on political will and individual party champions. Stronger equality measures such as quotas are needed. This is not to suggest that quotas are a ‘cure-all’ for women’s under-representation; as already highlighted, they need to be appropriately designed and effectively implemented in order to make a difference, otherwise parties will find ways to get around them. They need to be situated within a wider strategy aimed at targeting sexist attitudes, and changing institutional cultures and processes