Towards Equal Terms

The way forward for the Dravidian parties is through increased women’s representation

Women supporters of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam hold up placards of MK Stalin. The representation of women in the Dravidian parties today does not reflect the legacy of women’s assertion in the Dravidian movement. Babu / Reuters

As the results of the Tamil Nadu election were announced in early May, the strides achieved by the Dravidian politics of representation became apparent. The new state assembly, headed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, is perhaps the most representative in terms of caste and religion in all of India, and stands in stark contrast to legislative assemblies in many other parts of the country.

However, akin to other progressive states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu’s diverse and otherwise representative legislature is yet to encompass a representative share of women. The rival alliances led by the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam both fielded considerably fewer female candidates compared to the last state elections. The AIADMK went from 30 to 17 female candidates (nine of whom contested seats reserved for Scheduled Castes), and the DMK from 18 to 11 (six of whom contested in SC constituencies). The total number of women elected also fell—only three secured seats for the AIADMK and six for the DMK, in the 234-member assembly.

To say the least, the representation of women in the Dravidian parties does not reflect the legacy of women’s assertion in the Dravidian movement. Women played an active role in the Self-Respect Movement and the Justice Party, precursors to the Dravidian parties, and female leadership was a significant component of both. Observers of Tamil politics have long tried to understand how a movement that prioritised women’s representation and foregrounded gender inequality for much of its early history has progressively disenfranchised women from its own upper echelons. Scholars such as S Anandhi argue that this can largely be attributed to the growth of Tamil nationalism within the Dravidian movement. This shift within sections of the movement bypassed the emancipatory tropes and began typecasting women as mothers or sisters, thereby alienating them from political agency. Now, as the notion of grave threats to Tamil culture is being articulated more and more in the Tamil public domain, a pertinent question is whether the Dravidian parties will further exclude women from positions of power.

Two paradoxes present themselves. First, while Tamil Nadu has one of the highest rates of women’s participation in the workforce among all the states, their prevalence in economic life is not reflected in political representation. Second, despite efforts by both major Dravidian parties to implement schemes for women’s empowerment and welfare under their respective regimes, politics in Tamil Nadu continues to be a male-dominated affair.