Reclaiming the Cabinet, one woman at a time

By Mythili Mishra

The promotion of Nirmala Sitharaman to the Defence Ministry is a turning point for the women’s movement. Debates about whether it is to be celebrated or condemned have sparked widespread disagreement in political and intellectual circles.

Where are the women in South Block

The Ministry of Defence and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), pillars of state power on the South Block, are deeply masculine spaces. Nirmala Sitharaman is India’s second female defence minister after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was known as the ‘only man in her Cabinet’. Currently, another woman, Sushma Swaraj is at the helm of the MEA. The powerful space is being reclaimed by women. International politics is traditionally seen as a “man’s game” as well. There are hardly any women in the areas of diplomacy, military and the academic discipline of International Relations. Even the women who break the glass ceiling and enter the field are not at the top, leadership positions.

Women and war

Women do exist in international politics, but they are made invisible. A statist bias (of seeing politics only as the action of states) prevents us from seeing them. Even when women are not participants in international decision-making, these deeply affect them. They are the chief victims of war. 90% of casualties in war are civilians, which usually consist of women and children. 80% of refugees who are displaced by war are women and children.

Use of rape as a political tool also victimises women. In Bosnia, Muslim women were raped as a means of ethnic cleansing. They were also put in concentration camps and impregnated with Serbian children. This was internationally recognised as genocide. Closer to home, the invisibility project can be seen in the experience of women in conflict-torn Kashmir, which is absent from our national discourse. There are several “half-widows” whose husbands have disappeared, presumed to be dead but they cannot avail benefits such as pensions since they cannot prove death and procure death certificates.

Not a win for feminism

Mere occupation of the defence portfolio by a woman, however, is not a radical win for gender justice. In historical continuation of the Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) tokenistic identity politics, Sitharaman is bound to be another Ram Nath Kovind—one that fulfils BJP’s “feminist credentials” and nothing more. Sushma Swaraj, for instance, takes up relatively apolitical issues via her Twitter activism of ensuring that Indians abroad can avail passports and other diplomatic aid. However, it is Prime Minister Modi who is seen as touring nati and cementing ties with them.

Moreover, a point about substantive change in foreign policy must also be made. A mere change of figurehead is nominal without a concurrent change in policy. Throughout history, women have usually had to ‘masculinise’ themselves and act ‘like men’ in order to gain respect. Examples of Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Jean Kirkpatrick and Indira Gandhi illustrate this point.

Small step forward

Yet, marginal change is the way of politics. A small change may spark a revolution. In what is termed as the “butterfly effect”, Sitharaman’s appointment is symbolic in itself. Considering that the Canadian Cabinet has 50% representation of women, even a marginal improvement in the sex ratio of the Indian Cabinet must be lauded. Moreover, women in the Cabinet were earlier restricted to ‘soft’ ministries such as Health, Social Welfare and Women and Child Development – traditionally seen as ‘feminine’ roles of caregiving. This appointment marks a departure from that approach. A woman in such an important political office is an inspiration to those girls and women who hope to one day penetrate Indian politics. But for now, we must be sceptical and hope cautiously.

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