Print Edition - 2017-02-18  |  Women Power Up

A ‘competent’ woman politician —a rhetorical excuse?

  • High time we asked whether all men maintain the highest degree of competence

Feb 18, 2017-

In November 2013, Nepal was going for second Constituent Assembly elections. The political parties made their candidates for both First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR) systems. This astounded and enraged women rights activists and women rights professionals because it was clearly against the spirit of Article 13 (b) and 21 of the Interim Constitution that called for the right to equal participation of marginalised/ disadvantaged groups including women in the state mechanism on the basis of principles of proportional inclusion, and Election Commission requiring the political parties to allocate at least 50 percent of the seats to women under the PR system. These provisions were not binding enough and no amount of lobbying, critique, protest made the Election Commission or political parties to backtrack this move. “Vote for women, because you can” campaigners provided a platform for 101 women politicians, contesting from Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur districts, to address public regarding their candidacy. In that event, media personnel repeatedly asked the organisers whether or not the women candidates were competent.

Competence in general

Since our childhood we are taught how we should be ahead of others, better than others be it manners, studies or career.  This even extends to the choice of your romantic partner.  Since early days of life, we learn to compete, we aspire to excel; but in other people’s terms.  Our aspirations, our successes, our thoughts and our possessions et al are always measured by the yardstick set by others in the grounds they deem fit.  The grass is always greener on the other side of the pasture. And if one fails to see this green test of bigger, better, one, to name a few, is labelled dumb, good-for-nothing, laidback. In polite terms, this spells incompetency—that you are incompetent. So, this word incompetence, of being unable to match the fast pace of the dynamics around you; this state of being incompetent, where does this fit in a gendered world of party politics? I have always wondered about this since the first time I heard of a phrase, “of course, we will vote for a woman but she has to be competent.”



Contesting context of male politicians

As in previous elections, in 2013 too, senior male leaders of the party were contesting from two constituencies.  One went to become the prime minister. Why are these senior male leaders contesting from two constituencies?  Is it a show of super confidence or an insecurity of possible loss that provides them with this unique opportunity to contest from more than one constituency, ignoring the fact that if elected from both then a by-election has to be conducted. Why did these male leaders/ political parties ignore that by-elections are equally expensive?  

The other question is related to the opponents of these male leaders in the election.  

We must not forget that these leaders are always racing against each other to be the next prime minister and publicly engage in one-upmanship. However, in the elections, they do not contest the other male leaders of “their stature”.  This was no different in 2013 elections.  

What does this trend say of the senior male leaders in Nepal? 

Are we just going to be happy with the rhetoric justification stating it is done a) to prove the popularity, and/or b) to prevent their opposition from benefiting from their no-contest?  

I guess this particular psyche needs to be discussed further with “competent politicians” as a reference point.

Two of the high profile male leaders of two political parties were not contesting the election under the FPTP.  Both of them were the candidates listed under the PR system.  One of them had fielded his wife from his home district. This way, this male leader became one of the CA members, leader of his party, and foreign minister in 2015.  It was possible only because he had opted out of the FPTP to be the candidate for the PR system. Does this strategy adopted by someone like him, with a strong political history since the Panchayat days, point towards what competent men in party politics mean? 

Contesting context of women politicians

In Nepali party politics, women by the virtue of being related to male party leaders—wife, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, protégée—are the chosen candidates and again the CA elections in November 2014 were no exception.  

The present Speaker of the House, a proven woman leader during the 10-year-old conflict is also the wife of an influential male leader in her party. She, however, is an elected Member of Parliament.  Some of the supposedly influential women politicians reportedly chose not to contest through the FPTP and opted to be listed under the PR system. 

One of them not only became the CA member but also went on to become the first woman President of Nepal. She, on the other hand, had lost in the first CA elections in 2008. 

One woman politician with an impressive political career since her student union days got (in)famously sidelined by the party both as an FPTP and PR system candidate.  The party chose an industrialist’s wife over this young woman politician. Months later, this business woman-turned-CA member claimed to have made huge financial donation to the party.  Another senior woman leader of the party had to contest independently once her constituency was officially given to the young aspiring male politician who is now the health minister in the incumbent government. 

Not to entirely discredit the political parties, we do have 172 women CA members out of which one is President and another is House Speaker. One of them is a Kamlari activist.  So, how did these 172 women succeed in being parliamentarians either through FPTP or PR? Most importantly, what were the criteria for them to be fielded under FPTP and chosen through PR system list? Keeping our disenchantment aside, their candidacy/ nomination needs to be studied why and how they succeeded when others failed.

In simple words, why did the party choose them over others, ie both of their male and female political colleagues? This is the reality of women politicians in Nepal across all of the political parties, irrespective of their ideology. 

Virtues/vices defining a party politician’s competence 

These days, our male political leaders have shown exceptional attachment towards corruption, flamboyance, nationalism and conservative stance on the rights of marginalised groups, ie, indigenous, Dalits, including women. They also have acquired a taste for contempt of court. Some of them openly flaunt their love for women which actually is a sexual harassment. Some of them have denied citizenship to their proven offspring. Then there are humorous ones—only some of us miss the laughter. There are thoughtful ones who curb the rights to mobility, rights to employment for Nepali females to go abroad and work, stating that it is for their own safety. The same sensitive souls are completely blind to the plights of male migrant workers. However, most of them hold top positions in their party, or are successors in making.  

Female politicians are no exception to these vices. 

To put it more bluntly, they are equally patriotic, neurotic, orthodox and corrupt. They not only have ties with conmen and killers but also have wow oratory skills. The argument here is that women politicians can match their male counterparts.  So, is this the quality that party seeks in their women politicians?  If not, then why the male politicians with these streaks are holding higher positions and being prioritised for the candidacy but the same is not for their female colleagues? Political parties have to come clean with their competence criteria so that no contribution is blatantly conniving and disrespectful.

Perhaps, this is the reality of all politicians in Nepal, but the joke is nevertheless more on women politicians. The meaning that “competent” entails is not as contemptuous, judgmental and vague subjected to each one’s interpretation is not as stark for male politicians as it is for their female counterparts. Therefore, the rhetoric around women politicians’ competence needs to be subject of public discussion especially when it undermines their contribution as an equal political being. 

Worth remembering here also is the fact that the party whip cripples the women politicians more because they cannot go against the endorsement of women rights being curtailed—for example, citizenship by descent through mothers. 

When ahead of second CA elections, “Vote For Woman—because you CAN” campaign started as a response to the minimal nomination of women politicians, we started to hear more of “woman needs to be competent” refrain.  This writer was even asked by an English national daily: “Are women competent?” My answer was simple: “Are all men?” 


Pranika Koyu is a published poet and founding member of Chaukath—a network of young feminists in Nepal that attempts to create a space to examine edia, literature, politics, society and culture through feminist lens

Published: 18-02-2017 09:37

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