2016 has been a rough year for women’s leadership. While this article slapped me (and hopefully enough people on the planet) in the face, I wasn’t left smarting: because reality had already left me red-cheeked. On November 8, many of the world’s people took a sock in the stomach when Hilary Clinton lost the race in the US Presidential Elections. A month later, many of the world’s people smarted under the news of the death of an iconic leader – the lone woman in South Indian politics, J Jayalalithaa – the (former?) Chief Minister of the State of Tamil Nadu, in India. Hillary Clinton, for me, always represented a woman who stood for a world beyond herself. Whether it was in her outspoken declaration in Beijing, that radical, radical notion that women’s rights are human rights, or in the way she held her own when the world she had known crumbled around her ears, or even in the way she held her own throughout all the allegations levelled against her. I may not have agreed with some of her political views – and to dissent is also a part of democracy – but I respect her candour, courage and capacity to stand up to the many challenges her career and opponents threw her way. I am a beneficiary of a program that Hillary Clinton founded – the Vital Voices VV Lead Fellowship – which taught me a good many things that I may never have been able to afford to pay for through a formal channel of education abroad. Hillary’s vision, ideology and cohesive approach to benefiting women in the world is something I have derived and benefited from even through World Pulse – just the very notion of women supporting women and encouraging one another is beautiful. Since my days as a toddler that could articulate ideas, my memories of Jayalalithaa involved the image of a woman with the most adorable cheeks that only mine were competition to. As I grew up, I considered her the lone woman who figured in the conversations surrounding politics in India, second only to the slain former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. When she was just sixteen, Jayalalithaa was swept up into the world of cinema at her mother’s behest. She harboured dreams of becoming a lawyer, but those dreams set sail, leaving her on the banks, looking misty eyed at them. Her audacious tenacity defined her: be it as the teenager that didn’t stand up for the veteran actor each time he entered a room, or as the feisty actress who built her cache of talents through hard work and training, or even as a leader. After the death of her mentor, many Decembers ago, she sat by his head, unflinching, only to be pushed, shoved and jostled, pinched, and eventually forced out of the way of the cortege in full public view. Jayalalithaa’s identity had many attributes that suggested why she would stick out like a sore thumb in the terrain she was swimming in, and in the terrain she was up against. She was a woman. She was unmarried. She was an upper-caste woman. She was an actress. As a woman, she was up against the patriarchy. As an unmarried woman, she had no ties to a man, enough to make her a sitting target for misogyny. As a member of the upper caste, her tag was an anomaly in a party that was anti-class and Dravidian in its affiliations. As an actress, well, she was an ambassador of fluff and wasn’t necessarily going to be given space where intellect thrived. And yet, she braved it all. In 1989, she raised her points in opposition to the erstwhile when he was putting the budget forward before the house. Without being intellectually debated, she was nearly disrobed – her saree pulled, her hair tugged and verbally assaulted. She fought it: wearing plain sarees, discarding all need for jewellery, and turning her childhood moniker “Ammu” into “Amma” – shedding all insignia that would inform the objectification and sexualization of her person, and becoming a mother – arguably her ticket to shutting misogyny down at that point in time. She set sail a slew of policies that put women back to the forefront: whether it was depositing Rs. 5000 in the account of every girl child born in the state to end foeticide and infanticide, or in promoting the education of young women and girls through her gifts of laptops, or putting food in the stomachs of the hungry through her Amma Canteens. Her administrative skill came to the forefront all the time: a day after the tsunami, the streets were clean, life back to normal. After the floods last year, the once feared epidemics were kept at bay. At the risk of sounding like I am beatifying her, I will hasten to offer a note that I was not blind to the downside, be it in the rampant corruption or in the self-endorsement in the name of giving aid. As a child and as a teenager, these were the only two women’s names in politics that I heard around me commonly. Although there were a few, just that the number was so frugal in comparison with the number of male leader shocked me at some level. Women have the power to give birth, and bring up whole families: but they’re shut out of leadership? It didn’t make sense, at all. When I became more discerning – I don’t claim any expertise and don’t believe I rightfully can, for politics befuddles me in such ways that I will always feel wet behind the ears where it goes – I came to understand that even if Hillary Clinton and Jayalalithaa had chinks in their political policies that I did not completely always agree with, these were still the lone women who questioned the patriarchy every single day of their careers. For Hillary, it was waging a constant battle to climb to the top and redefine the thought process of the average American to welcome a woman into the office of President. For Jayalithaa, it was a battle against misogyny as an actress – where men with 56” chests were the norm and the woman was an accessory to be seen through his narrative; and as a politician, where male leadership was the only option, forget norm. You might wonder why I share this post as part of the call for the 16 Days of Activism against Violence against women. This entire piece is exactly why. When a man comes to the forefront in politics, his policies are questioned and analysed – and sometimes, not. When a woman comes to the forefront in politics, she is questioned, she is analysed, her identity is in the line of fire, she is not given space or even serious attention, and her word seldom holds value because in a room filled with testosterone, she is perhaps a lone woman, or at the most, among a few women. Microaggressions are a massive part of the social fabric wherever in the world you are. Structural violence that stems from deep-seated ideas of patriarchy and masculinities of violence will continue to keep women out of the room whether it is health care or education, leadership positions or even a space in public discourse that they seek out. However long it takes: 16 days or 16 years, this is one battle we must and can fight. And we can do this: Per Aspera, Ad Astra (Through Hardships, Into the Stars)
This story was submitted in response to 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.