Why Women, What Politics
by Kanwaljit Soin

Founding Member
Association of Women for Action and Research, Singapore

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Dear sisters and friends. First l feel very excited to see the earnest faces of all my sisters, who like me, are wanting to transform politics in this part of the world. I feel very privileged to be a Board Member of the Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics, because I hope that this Center will be a catalyst in this transformation process. I’m hopeful that, with the winds of change, both economic and political, in this part of the world, we are on the threshold of making this a less gendered, a more peaceful and sustainable world.

Coming after two distinguished sisters, I feel a little humbled, but, in my presentation, I shall try to address four questions. Many of these have already been touched by the two previous speakers, but, I think repetition in this area, where there are so few women in politics will help us to strengthen ourselves to get into politics.

The 4 questions that I would like to address are:

1. Why don’t women have public and political power?

2. What type of politics do we want?

3. Why do we need women in politics?

4. How can we get more women into public and political life?

Masculinism pervades politics. Wendy Brown wrote: "More than any other kind of human activity, politics has historically borne an explicitly masculine identity. It has been more exclusively limited to men than any other realm of endeavor and has been more intensely self-consciously masculine than most other social practices."

Women comprise half of the world’s population and carry out two-thirds of the world’s work but in every country we are poorly represented in positions of public and political power.

We have won the battle for the vote but our access to power in the public sphere is circumscribed by a variety of indirect means. Most obvious are the continued effects of dividing life into the public and private spheres. Women’s main role is deemed to be in the private sphere where activities are undertaken to meet the daily needs of household members and perpetuate human life. This domestic work is the pre-condition of all other human activities as it includes both material and psychological dimensions. However, this sphere of activity is denied its rightful centrality and value. This has various consequences for society and the lives of both women and men. The reality is that women spend more time working than men, are accorded less status for what they do while men increasingly accumulate control over power and cash resources in the public sphere. Advantage accrues upon advantage so that today most of the world’s power and wealth is on the side of men. Politics is in a broad sense about differential access to power - both material and symbolic - about who gets what and how. Thus the social construction of gender, i.e., what constitutes masculine qualities and what constitutes feminine qualities is actually a system of power that assigns greater value to the activities associated with masculinity.

And gender ideology, i.e. concepts of what constitutes masculinity or femininity although socially determined, is often couched in terms of biological determinism (inborn or genetic or natural); this is used as an explanation for complex social behavior, e.g. it is taken as natural that men’s testosterone explains male homicide rates or that since some women during part of their life bear children, all women are born to take on nurturing responsibilities and this makes them unfit for political power.

To deem as natural or inborn the qualities or values that are actually socially and culturally constructed, is a very effective strategy for keeping the present balance of power between men and women in society. More than 2000 years ago, Plato recognized that the most effective way to maintain a system of rule was not through direct violence but by persuading those who are subordinated that social hierarchy is natural, therefore inevitable and even desirable. In the Asia and Pacific region, it is the Confucian ideology that dictates the social hierarchy relations between men and women. And keeps us in our place, i.e., not in politics. When women believe that differences in status are part of the "natural order of things," they are less likely to challenge how society is organized to benefit men more than women.

In fact, these stereotypes can in effect "excuse" discrimination, e.g., the under-representation of women in political office is often "explained" by the stereotype of their being uninterested in power and politics. The reality that is often overlooked is that the struggle by women to provide for themselves and their families on a day-to-day basis limits women’s time and energy for political activism. The other reason that women are absent is because gender stereotypes establish leadership as a masculine activity.

An example of this is a campaign which was used by President Marcos during the 1986 election campaign which said,

The Filipino woman should be intelligent but demure. She can run her husband, but she should run him through the bedroom."

We women have internalized the gender ideology that women are emotional, "soft-headed," passive and weak. We have thus lowered our expectations about our leadership capability and roles. To redress this imbalance of power and the human cost of global inequities, we have to raise deeper questions about the nature of power and we have to address politics through a gender sensitive lens. This is the type of politics that we want.

When we are gender-sensitive, we learn about both men and women, because of the inter-dependent nature of masculine and feminine characteristics. When we look at activities associated with masculinity (i.e. military, politics, team sports) it appears simply on the surface that men are present and women are absent. Gender analysis (i.e., gender sensitive lens) helps us understand how this presence-absence dynamic occurs and offers a more comprehensive explanation: it enables us to "see" how women are in fact an important part of the picture even though they are obscured when we focus on the men. In a sense, the presence of men depends on the absence of women. Because of this interdependence, a gender analysis of women’s lives and experiences does not simply add something about women but transforms what we know about men and the activities they undertake.

Keeping in mind the consequences of gender ideology and gender structures which discriminate against women, we must assert that where women (or men) are absent, principles of gender are at work. That is, the absence or invisibility of women does not suggest gender neutrality but in fact demonstrates the personal, political, systematic and structural effects of gender differentiation.

Therefore, gender-sensitive politics enables new insights to emerge, thus making transformation possible. Furthermore, the global community is discovering that if we continue to work within the traditional frameworks, then we will be unable to address the new global crises that have arisen.

To improve our understanding of these global crises, their interaction and the possibilities of moving beyond them, we need new paradigms - we need gender-sensitive politics so that we can ensure the objectives of participatory politics, security based on minimization of violence, equitable economic systems and sustainable ecology. For all this, we need a world less burdened by the dilemma of gender and other inequalities.

How are the systematic and structural inequalities between men and women relevant to politics?

1. Democracy and Legitimacy

Democracy requires parity of representation and there cannot be true democracy if women are virtually excluded from positions of power. Also the validity of all-male decision-making comes under question in a democratic system. There cannot be equitable resource allocation without the participation of women in politics in representative numbers.

2. Differences of Interest

Political participation involves articulating, providing and defending interests. It is reasonable to believe that women are more aware of their own needs and are therefore better able to press for them. Recent studies have shown that women parliamentarians in Finland have initiated legislation which benefits women and other disadvantaged groups more frequently than men. Recent studies in USA also indicate that female legislators tend to focus on such issues more than male legislators. And this is how we will transform politics when we get into the arena. We cannot just depend on men to put women’s rights, child care, women’s health, reproductive rights, sexual harassment, equal employment benefits, discriminatory laws and practices against women, violence against women and other family issues as top priority for men. They have not done so in the past. Today, even supportive men do not attend to women’s issues with the same zeal and understanding as women.

The entry of women into politics therefore broadens and redefines the political agenda, and it transforms the very nature of politics.

3. Efficient Use of Human Resources

Women comprise half the potential talent and ability of humanity and their under-representation in decision-making is a loss for society as a whole.

4. Reform of Politics

A balanced participation by women and men in decision making would produce different ideas, values and styles of behavior suited to a fairer and more balanced world for all, both women and men. Also empowerment will help to liberate men from their rigid roles.

In many countries there is a growing lack of respect for traditional adversarial parliamentary style of politics and the entry of women into politics in sizeable numbers may improve politics. This belief is substantiated by a survey done in Australia in 1991. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed believed men enter politics out of personal ambitions and desire for money and only 11% believed women have the same motive. Thirteen percent believed men were motivated by altruism and concern for community welfare but 54% believed this of women.

Instead of using political power as power over people (coercive power), there could be a transformation to the more feminist concept of empowerment or enabling power to power of the people. If this model is used, the world order would look less like a pyramid where a few are at the top and many are at the bottom, most of who are, unfortunately, women. But if we transform politics, what we could see is a rotating circle in which no one is always at the top and no one is always at the bottom. Instead, all participate in complex webs of interdependence. Interests, rather than being defined in opposition to each other, are developed through relationships with others. Conflicts are resolved not by force or its threat but in non-violent interaction and mutual learning.

Let me now outline some of the strategies for change to have more women in public and political life. The situation cannot change overnight and we must be prepared for an incremental approach.

1. The first essential tool for change is the availability of statistics documenting the participation of men and women in public and political life. Statistics are an ideal way to illustrate women’s unequal representation, whether in private companies, parliament, trade unions or statutory bodies. At the national level, government could make an inventory of public appointments, disaggregated by the gender and the appointing authority, so that it can be clearly seen in which areas the shortfalls lie. Published routinely, such information would permit women’s NGOs and legislators to put pressure on the right points.

I believe that we cannot just catapult women into politics straight away. We need to go into an intermediate step of putting women into positions of power in public life and once we have a critical number of women in these positions, then the tradition will be much easier for us.

2. We can try to change reality by changing mentality. One way to change mentality is by disseminating information - enlist the help of media, look into school textbooks, and see how women are portrayed. Awareness is needed among women themselves and the population at large as well as throughout organizations.

3. Creating women’s networks in business, professions, government, trade unions and women’s organizations to share experiences and create solidarity as well as a knowledge base. Women in senior positions can reach out to women lower down and promote them to powerful colleagues. Also women already in powerful positions can influence policy output to benefit women. They can also "head hunt" for women to be brought up the ladder, e.g., Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway, used her power to bring almost 50% women to Cabinet level. This was then followed by other leaders.

4. Women’s organizations can become a major route for entry of women into public life and for advancing women’s interests. Member-ship in women’s organizations, whether or not they are feminist, does have an effect in raising gender and political consciousness among women. Women derive leadership, advocacy and administrative skills from participating in women’s organizations and such women should not be overlooked when appointments are made in public life. Data banks with details of suitable women who are willing to be appointed can be compiled by women’s organizations.

5. The paths to power must change. Given the global problems now confronting us, a legal career and a military service cannot remain the major pre-requisites for public service. In many countries in the Asia-Pacific, the military is the path through which men get into political power. And that is another reason why there are so few of us because we are denied that path to power. Why then, are human relation skills not deemed crucial for public positions and politicians?

6. Planning mechanisms such as quotas or reserved seats must be considered as a short-term strategy to hasten the natural but slow evolution of women into power, to level the playing field. It is crucial to remember that the central struggle is over power, which is never easily yielded to outside contestants by the incumbents who are nearly all men.

7. We must have legislation for equality. Various countries will have to look at it in their own cultural and political context.

This may be accompanied by sanctions or enacted without sanctions. Examples are:

a. Contract compliance. In the USA industries acquiring government contracts are required to maintain a certain percentage of women represented within these sectors. If industry fails to comply, then the government can refuse contracts.

b. An Equal Status Act. In Denmark and Norway, action plans are demanded from all public agencies to implement equality measures. No sanctions are involved, but public praise or perhaps chastisement is a strong tool and a powerful informal pressure.

c. Legislation to increase the number of women on government advisory committees or public boards, i.e., that these would not be allowed to be set up until a certain quota of women are nominated.

Examples of such initiatives can be currently found:

  • In the Netherlands, where this approach is being implemented with 50% women included.

  • In Germany, legislation regarding women in the public sector is being discussed.

8. It is also vital that all states ratify the U.N. Conventions relevant to the status of women (e.g. CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women], Convention on the Political Rights of Women, etc.).

9. Legislation to limit election expenses. One of the main reasons that has been cited is that women cannot get into politics because we do not have access to money. Of course, we could try to raise money, but another way of doing it is to ask the political parties of our countries to put this legislation policy into force.

In Singapore, we have an election rule which says that a candidate can only spend S$ 12,000 or an amount equal to S$ 1 for each voter on the register (whichever amount is the greater). So in Singapore, you do not need more than S$ 12,000 to spend for elections.

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Updated: February 18, 2008