Unveiling the Veiled Face of Assam

With the second phase of industrial revolution during late nineteenth century, significant progress was witnessed towards equality in education, property rights, equality in industry and the right to enter the professions and public life leading to the rise of two social movements – one for democracy and equality and the other for socialism and natural justice. Western Europe and North America were the first to have stemmed the idea of equality between the sexes with New Zealand initiating the enfranchisement of women in 1893. By the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the waves of universal suffrage had spread throughout the world. International conventions between 1902 and 1910 dealt with problems affecting women and The Commission on Human Rights, UN Commission on the status of women in the year 1946 as a permanent body of Economic and Social Council was consequently established. The UN Convention on the Political Rights of Women adopted by General Assembly in 1952 affirmed “women shall be entitled to vote in all elections on equal terms with men, without any discrimination.”

As the impact of this revolution transcended boundaries, India noticed the unshackling of bondage that the women section was trapped into since the Vedic period with Congress electing Annie Besant as its woman President in 1917 and the allowance of limited franchise to women by the Madras Province in 1921. The Government of India Act, 1919, symbolized equality by empowering provincial legislatures to remove the sex barriers at their discretion. Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s effort to find the Arya Samaj, Universal compulsory education bill by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, promotion of women education by Pandita Ramabai, among others, sowed the seeds of inspiration for women participation in the political movements of Indian Freedom Struggle.

The women of Assam played a significant role in the freedom struggle of India reflecting their interest and the capability to represent themselves on a political front which has always been perceived to be inferior to men. During the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-1921), the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930) and the Quit India Movement (1942), the participation of these women became a remarkable phenomenon. To assert themselves politically, participation in the political movements paralleled with the foundation of various socio-political women organizations.

This active political participation of women can be rooted to certain sociological factors which set apart the women of Assam from the rest of India. In Assam, practices of Sati and Purdah system were not spotted and there was hardly any instance of female infanticide discovered. Shihabuddin Talish in his ‘Fathiya-1 Ibriyah’, stated,” The wives of Rajas and peasants alike never veil their faces before anybody and they move about in the market places with bare-heads.” Child marriage, restriction on widow remarriage and the practices of dowry were limited to the aristocratic Brahmin section and were non-existent amongst the Tribal and the Assamese people, who formed the base of the Assam societal framework. Assam, based on the primary sector of the economy, observed heavy involvement of women in the agricultural sector except ploughing. They were small-scale artists and performed activities like spinning and weaving, hence, catering to the demand for garments towels and bed-sheets. Women, irrespective of their caste background engaged themselves in such small scale activities.

Since 1937, an increase has been observed with every Assembly Elections in the number of women participants, reflecting an impulse of substantive political participation. In comparison to the male contestants, participation of women has been very less. However, attributing to the social, economic and financial deprivation women have always faced, an increase is an indication of the feeling of empowerment amongst them. Although, the number of women contestants accelerated, the rate of acceleration differed. As women actively participated in the Assam political movements, the environment of politics was always prevalent. Coupling with this, women were also involved in handicraft activities which made them financially empowered as compared to the political and financial status of women of other states. Also, the rate of participation in the initial years somehow depended on the rate by which women were getting elected. With few contestants in early election, number of women getting elected was minimal and hence didn’t encourage many to participate. As the number of contestants increased after 1985, the rate of increase in the number of women getting elected was not in proportion to the number contesting. This highlighted that even if the urge to participate in politics grew amongst the women section, the society was reluctant to confer women with power as the remnants of “Politics of Masculinity” pervaded.

A huge difference has also been observed between the women contesting independently and those having an affiliation to the political parties in the early years of Assam election. Women contesting independently couldn’t muster much support due to the prejudices attached to the role of the women community and those contesting under the dominating party could manage to wield influence and come to power. The determination with which women contested was reflected in their persistent efforts. In spite of not being elected once, they contested several times until they could win the seat from their respective constituencies. Along with their continued attempts and the subsequent polling of absolute majority votes, repeated representation was a spearheading factor in an observance of increasing women representation on the political front. When women contestants could be elected consecutively, it emanated their performance in their respective constituencies through which they were able to gather the conviction of the common masses unanimously. By bringing a revolution in the way women’s role was discerned in politics (having thought of dealing with soft power), they left an impression of not just representing the women community in the Assembly but also getting repeatedly elected from their constituencies by defeating their male counterparts.
The trend of participation, hence, has always been impressive as the numbers have always heightened. Their active participation in politics since the Assam Movement intertwined with some legal demarcations, will to bring about societal reforms in terms of acceptance and a change in perspective by constantly fighting against the male candidates have attributed to this acceleration. However, comparing the number of male and female contestants and those elected out of them, male candidates have always dominated the numbers. The reason behind the same is not less women participation but less votes polled by them. Although they were not being able to mobilize support at par with men, this never hindered their participation in politics.

By defeating their male counterparts through a ballot of majority votes and being elected repeatedly for consecutive terms, women of Assam have distinctively delineated their resoluteness, grit and unfathomable valor.

-Bishakha Jajodia (Freelancer)

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