The Zenana Ministries
“Why not give women to handle portfolios dealing with Commerce and Trade. They have proved, over years, to be the most successful and bankable entrepreneurs. Why not make the most of their abilities to set up businesses from scratch. I need not quote figures to tell you that girls generally perform better in education than boys do. Why then, are they not trusted with the most important ‘dynamo’ of the government’s machinery? Why are ministries of Finance, Tourism or Foreign Affairs not given to women?”
Why such a bizarre title to this piece of writing, you may ask. No, I am not talking about our colloquial Mauritian zanana but of Zenana, that is the section of the house reserved in some countries solely to women. Call me a feminist, a cantankerous woman who takes to heart the proverbial equal opportunity or simply a rebel. Whatever tag you may attach to me, I shall proclaim loud and clear my discontent with the ‘ghettoisation’ of women in our country’s politics. As I write, I find my pungent thoughts and sentiments being fuelled by the recent debate concerning the Women Reservation Bill in India. A 14 year-long stretched attempt to reserve one third of the Lok Sabha and assemblies’ seats for women was again met by strong rejection, only to be finally ratified amongst a brouhaha of shouting MPs. Some have considered opposition to this Bill as preposterous and some saw the proposition as ostentatious. Let me tell you at the outset that I support the latter stance. I shall briefly explain why.
Let me borrow the words of Sagarika Ghose, Senior Editor, CNN-IBN who scripted an article titled ‘Ladies Compartment’ denouncing the inconsistencies of such a legislative measure. She deprecates this step as being one securing the foundations of dynasty politics. It clearly is a legislative coverage to allow wives and daughters of deceased or ousted male candidates to step in as proxy politicians. Otherwise, having secured their positions in the assembly by mere virtue of their sex, female MPs may not feel the need to devote themselves with entirety to their assigned constituencies. There is also the problem that this one-third delineated section for women in politics will establish a tangible space for competition. These women will restrict competition to within their one-third population of female political species instead of going out and compete with men in the greater arena. This situation in India is a mere prototype of the global gender imbalance in politics. However, what exists in Mauritius is quite a distinct form of gender discrimination. While our parties do provide women with opportunities for participation in politics, it is the subsequent role assigned to these ladies that I have a problem with.
The Zenana metaphor of my title is sound and obvious. What I am alluding to here is the similarity between how the Indian and Middle Eastern women are contained within a specific space of the house and how, in the Mauritian political infrastructure, women are correspondingly restricted to administering selective portfolios. The Ministry of Women, Family Welfare and Child Development and the Ministry of Social Security – these two ministries can almost be considered as ‘given’ to the numbered elected women. The allocation process of these two ministerial portfolios can even be seen as the equivalent of the traditional handing-over of house keys and ancestral ornaments from saas to bahu generation after generation — except here, it is election after election.
Since Independence, over the alternating Rajs of the Ramgoolams, the Jugunaths and Bérenger on the Mauritian Kingdom, there have been constant efforts to engage women in the country’s affairs. From a scarce appearance at the political altar in the early years post-independence, the number increased as time progressed. In 2005, only 5.4% of women were in Parliament. By 2006, it came to 17%. Though it is nowhere near the set legislative target of 30% or the SADC proposed quota of 50%, there are today 12 female MPs; two of whom have ministerial offices. Mrs Sheilabai Bappoo and Mrs Indranee Seebun are respectively Minister of Social Security and National Solidarity and Minister of Women and Family Welfare. These designations of the two respected ladies urge me to rewind and identify the positions preceding female politicians have held.
In 1975, Mrs Radhamanay Roonoosarny was the first woman minister and occupied the post of Minister of Women’s Affairs, Prices and Consumer Affairs. She was followed by Mrs Sheila Bappoo who took over the same responsibilities in 1983-1986. The section was then named Ministry of Women’s Rights and Family Welfare. Mrs Bappoo again assumed office in 1987-91 as Minister for Labour and Industrial Relations and Women’s Rights, Child Development and Family Welfare and in 1991-95 as Minister of Women’s Rights, Child Development and Family Welfare. Thereafter, the next female minister to join was Mrs Indira Thacoor Sidaya who took the reign of the Ministry of Women, Family Welfare and Child Development from 1995 to 2000. It was also in 1995 that Mrs Marie Therese Joceline Minerve became Minister of Social Security and National Solidarity. The elections thereafter had Mrs Arianne Navarre Marie as the only female entrusted a ministerial portfolio and yet again, it was the Ministry of Women and Family Welfare from 2000 to 2005. In December 2004, Mrs Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun had a short stint as the Minster of Arts and Culture, ending in July 2005. And from 2005 till date, it is Mrs Sheila Bappoo as the holder of the Social Security portfolio and the only other elected woman, Mrs Seebun, as the obvious in-charge of the Ministry of Women.
Except for Mrs Marie France Roussety, Minister of Civil Service and Employment 1988-90 and Mrs Marie Claude Arouff Parfait, Minister of Youth and Sports 1998-2000, no other women have been allocated portfolios other than the expected Social Security and Women’s Affairs. Why so? It is undeniable that the most probable reason behind is that women are seen as compassionate creatures, most able to deal with issues requiring the warmth and love of their gender. It is by pure virtue of their soft characteristics that they are given these particular ministries to handle. Old people, family, children and women are considered as their domain. Is it not what is happening here only a spatial shift of the role of the woman? The role that she performed within the perimeters of the household she is now being called upon to undertake in politics. The only difference is that the territory concerned is being extended to include all households of the country. Is this what is called women emancipation and empowerment? In such a case I would rather say that the everyday working woman – the sugarcane worker, the factory machinist, the tabagie owner, the entrepreneur – are far more empowered and emancipated that our women ministers. While the former women have been given opportunities and assistance to grow beyond the conventional female role boundaries, our women ministers seemed to be doomed to carrying the stereotype.
This is not to say that the Social Security and Women’s Affairs portfolios hinder the women leaders to participate more grandly at the national forefront. But it remains a fact that they are relegated to an isolated section of no-competition which may often lead to a certain monotony or stagnation; a ‘ghettoisation’ à la Zenana. Knowing that they will perform suitably in the domain and that they have a priority on such portfolios, elected female members may lack enthusiasm and interest to give their best over time. There may be a saturation of ideas to bring change. However, if they are given another portfolio, these same women, most certainly, will go to large extents to prove their ability. There will inevitably be a positive sense of competition to do better than their (probably!) male predecessor. But if year after year, they get elected to perform the same duties and undertake the same responsibilities, there is no drive to outdo themselves.
Why not give women to handle portfolios dealing with Commerce and Trade. They have proved, over years, to be the most successful and bankable entrepreneurs. Why not make the most of their abilities to set up businesses from scratch. I need not quote figures to tell you that girls generally perform better in education than boys do. Why then, are they not trusted with the most important ‘dynamo’ of the government’s machinery? Why are ministries of Finance, Tourism or Foreign Affairs not given to women? Have Condoleezza Rice, Angela Merkel, Sonia Gandhi and Hilary Clinton not proved the worth of women in dealing with ‘tough issues’? Let us not go very far, in our own civil service, the number of women Permanent Secretaries and Permanent Assistant Secretaries is remarkable. So, why give them the charge of administering the functioning of different ministries but not altogether hand to them the reign of the ministries themselves? Surely, if women are good at handling the everyday running of the ministry, guide the minister and deal with the different issues coming along, why are they not good enough to be the minister themselves?
We may parade the developed state of our nation: the sprawling of malls on our landscape, the emergence of new sectors like Research and Development, an entrepreneurship culture, the coming of age of new skills and professions — from mehendi art to sustainable development — increasing educational opportunities for all, high employment rates of both genders… Nevertheless, the fact remains that, in our mind, we still are from the old, tried and over-applied school of patriarchal thoughts. Be it our men or women, we have, some consciously, others unconsciously and maybe even subconsciously, built perceptions and expectations of segregated male and female domains in society. But now is the time to bring the much-needed change to our stereotyped thoughts. Will the men and women parents of today accept to have their daughters treated as alternatives or ‘instruments-to-shut-criticism’ when it comes to participatory politics? No. Let us then open our minds to acknowledge women’s diverse capacities right now and, on the eve of the elections, push for a diversion from the strictly set paths leading to ministries of Social Security and Women’s Affairs.