Surviving a thousand cuts


IN 2021, Hathi Singh, a 45-year-old man in eastern Uttar Pradesh, broke his 25-year-old celibacy vow to get married.1 His reasons were not emotional, but political. Singh had been wanting to get elected as his village’s Sarpanch for over a decade but had not succeeded so far. And in 2021, the seat got reserved for women. Singh’s mother was too old to contest, he did not trust other women relatives, so he got married in haste, just in time so that whoever he married could contest the poll – while he could, apparently, run the show if she won.

As luck would have it, Singh’s wife lost. But the very idea that Singh could arrange a potential match (within a day) just to gain power by proxy is symptomatic of a range of issues that Indian women face in politics. And that range begins with what men like Singh think of women, of marriage, and of politics.

In deeply unequal democracies such as India, political power can be a means for individuals and groups to get better access to resources, rights and influence. Getting elected brings with it not just power, but also acts as a hedge against everyday struggles of ordinary citizens. But for women, political power is no insulator to their usual struggles against misogyny and patriarchal control. If anything, political power seems to sometimes amplify and exacerbate the kind of control and violence that women face in their households and the public sphere at large.

India’s politics included women right from its birth as a modern republic. From the constituent assembly to the first government, Indian women reached several milestone positions fairly early. Yet, the country’s politics continues to not just be predominantly occupied by men, it is also a very hostile space to women, and more so to women who have risen to power on their own without any familial ties, and those from marginalized communities ­ Dalit women, Adivasi women, Muslim women.

This hostility can take many forms – from outright violence to sexism and abuse, disinformation campaigns, attempts at character assassination, to subtler and more covert barriers including social and cultural norms, a patriarchal media gaze, expectations of ‘balancing’ politics with the household and family duties. These hurdles spare women at no level, from the village to the Chief Minister’s office or even a Member of Parliament, and at no stage. So much so that overcoming these barriers
often becomes akin to surviving a thousand battle cuts.



Misogynistic incidents and sexist comments about women politicians abound in India. Male politicians often lead the charge, be it on the floors of Parliament or state assemblies, in campaign rallies and speeches, inside party meetings, or on social media – with impunity and without any shame linked to it. They have called women colleagues all kinds of names – from a demon with ‘no values or characteristics of women’,2 a ‘prostitute’3 to a ‘jersey cow’.4 They have told women, ‘You are so beautiful. How can you say such things?’5 when the women raised an issue affecting people in their constituency. The youngest mayor in the country has been mocked for being an ‘LKG child’ by a male Opposition politician.6 Women have been dragged into a discussion about permission to enter a temple’s sanctum sanctorum, with a male politician wondering out loud ‘if the sanctum sanctorum was like the bedroom’ of a sitting woman MP ‘to be open for anybody to enter’?7 

‘There has been so much mud slung at me,’ J. Jayalalithaa, a former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu who died in 2016, told television host Simi Garewal in an interview8 in 1999. ‘I’ve had to face so many brickbats, I’ve had to face so much vilification and slander. If I had been an academician, if I had been a lawyer, no one would have said such nasty things about me. But when it comes to [being a] politician, the questions are so downright demeaning, insulting, humiliating. In the normal course, no one would put up with that kind of questioning, but as a politician, anyone can say anything about you [and] you have to take it.’

‘If you are a wife, automatically so much respect is given to you. People talk about you, refer to you with respect, but such wasn’t the case with me’, Jayalalithaa (who was not married) explained further. In that statement, Jayalalithaa captured a striking feature of India’s politics. As scholar Amrita Basu (2010) noted in her essay on Gender and Politics, ‘women’s access to power is still mediated by their relationship to male kin, and is often indirect and symbolic.’9 Further, wrote Basu, since many women politicians do not come from grassroots women’s movements in the country, ‘their connections to male family members assume paramount importance’.



Misogyny occurs at all stages of political journeys – starting from women aiming to enter politics, during the drafting of candidate lists, and election campaigns. But it does not go away even after women get elected or even reach the top. After Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the government’s budget in February 2022, an upper house MP alluded on Twitter10 that she was selected for the position because of her experience in the ‘sales’ department. In an interview, Sitharaman said11 she did not want to respond to that but told TV anchor Navika Kumar that these are comments other women politicians face too. ‘This is just this attitude, that I can do anything, say anything, and get away,’ she observed. ‘One thing is sure… for everything a man does, women will have to do [it] twice more harder, twice more apparently, and twice more with greater involvement to achieve the same level of appreciation, recognition.’

Among the cacophony of these deplorable remarks, no attention is paid to how they may impact the women who are spoken about. ‘Why should women be expected to have thick skin? Why can’t we expect men in politics to be more sensitive?’ Priyanka Chaturvedi, now a Rajya Sabha MP asked as she participated in a panel discussion12 in 2019 on whether Indian politics was still a man’s world. She said sexism was much worse within a political party than outside. ‘It happens first in your own party before others start talking about you.’

Over half (58%) of Indian respondents who were interviewed in a study by UN Women in 201413 on the prevalence of violence against women in politics in India, Nepal and Pakistan identified ‘members of the same political party’ as perpetrators of violence against women in politics. ‘One of the key barriers to women’s political participation and presence in public life is the profound patriarchal and autocratic nature of political parties,’ the study had noted. ‘We talk about #MeToo as a movement. No woman politician has [yet] had the guts to speak about how lecherous men in public life can be,’ observed Shaina NC, a politician in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the same panel14 that Chaturvedi was speaking in. ‘I think the time has come for us to speak about the occupational hazards of speaking in a meeting at 2 o’clock at night where there are 30 men and you are the only woman.’



The abuse and violence is not exclusive to politics but similar to how men in Indian society treat women in general, and especially women who attempt to claim their space or assert their rights as equal citizens. Within political parties too, women ­ few in numbers ­ are exceptions rather than norms, and their male colleagues often work to ensure that it stays this way.



Garewal asked15 Jayalalithaa if it was worse for women in politics or in the film industry (Jayalalithaa had been a popular actor in the Tamil film industry before she joined politics). ‘Both are equally bad, but in films, a woman is an essential commodity,’ Jayalalithaa answered. ‘Whether you like it or not, you need the glamor that women can provide. In films, you can’t do without them. In politics, [however], you can do without them, [and] they try very hard to do without them.’

March 8, 2010 was the 100th International Women’s Day. The Indian Parliament was in session, and in the Rajya Sabha was the Women’s Reservation Bill, which proposed to reserve 33% of the seats in Parliament and state legislatures for women. The stage was set for history to be made. Instead, pandemonium broke.16 Members from the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) argued that the bill would harm the interests of marginalized caste and religious communities. Mulayam Singh Yadav, then SP chief, claimed17 that the bill was a ‘conspiracy to prevent Muslims, Dalits, and backward classes from entering Parliament and state assemblies’. He even went on to say that if the bill were passed, it would ‘fill Parliament with the kind of women who invite catcalls and whistles.’18

Those opposing the bill entered the well of the house, tore the bill papers, broke a microphone, and created chaos to stop the bill from passing. Nand Kishore Yadav of SP even tried to attack Chairperson Hamid Ansari by attempting to climb the podium. He uprooted the mic and threw stationery placed on Ansari’s table, an NDTV report from the time said.19 Shabir Ali of LJP even said,20 ‘We will cross all limits of protest over this issue.’



In an interview in 2021,21 political leader Brinda Karat who was an MP at the time, recalled the day: ‘There were very ugly, physical attacks which were sought to be made on the [Speaker] and women of all parties stood as a sort of wall around him in that drama. The person just behind me stood on a table and smashed the glass and he had a bleeding arm which was dripping blood on the table next to me…’

The optics from 2010 form an apt metaphor for Indian politics to this day – a space predominantly occupied with men, and one that works in various ways to keep the numbers of women few and on the margins.

Speaking in an Instagram Live in March 2021, poet and politician from Tamil Nadu, Salma, shared that she had ‘lost an assembly election narrowly because the workers of her own party, the DMK – heavily dominated by men – were not supportive of a woman candidate.’22 In the UN Women study from 2014, Pramila Nesargi, an ex-MLA from Karnataka, said that women candidates ‘may be subjected to threats within her political party when a senior leader may decide against canvassing for her.’23



The attacks do not stop at verbal comments. In 1989, Jayalalithaa, then the Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly, was attacked24 in the house by Durai Murugan, then a minister in the DMK government. Jayalalithaa’s saree was torn and she was hit on her head. ‘Nothing really was worth the humiliation’ of that day, Jayalalithaa recalled25 in the interview with Garewal. The incident happened in the presence of then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. ‘All his MLAs and ministers physically assaulted me – one even tried to pull at my saree,’ she said. ‘They pulled at my hair, [even] tore out some of my hair. They threw chappals (slippers) at me, they threw papers and heavy books on me. That day I left the assembly in tears, but I was also angry.’ ‘I have never read any report of such a shameful incident happening anywhere else. I don’t think this has ever happened to any other woman in politics. That was a bad experience,’ Jayalalithaa added.

While it may have been an exceptional incident at the time, violence against women in politics has occurred time and again. When major constitutional amendments in 1992-93 paved the way for thousands of women to be elected to panchayats and municipalities, there was also backlash. And women from marginalized communities – especially Dalit women – have faced a rather severe brunt.26



Dalit women sarpanches have been prevented from hoisting the national flag, made to sit on the floor during Panchayat meetings27, and even attacked and murdered. In 2001, Menaka, President of the Urapakkam panchayat in Tamil Nadu, was hacked to death in front of her office.28 Menaka was a Dalit and was killed by real estate mafia for denying them land and instead redistributing it among the poor. Her own party men had colluded with the mafia. In December 2021, a Sarpanch in Maharashtra’s Raigad district was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered.29 The accused confessed to the crime, saying he had a grudge against her. In 2015, Geeta Prahlad, the sarpanch of Mohda village in Raipur district of Chhattisgarh, was killed by her own brother for lighting the funeral pyre of her mother, a wish her mother had.30



The violence is not limited to the local level. In the infamous ‘Guest House’ incident31 from 1995, members and elected leaders of the Samajwadi Party walked into a BSP meeting in an attempt to prevent them from withdrawing support from their coalition government in Uttar Pradesh. The meeting was being presided over by Mayawati, the general secretary of the BSP at the time. The BSP MLAs were attacked and detained and coerced into giving their support. Reports from the time suggest that Mayawati was attacked, her room was vandalized, she was abused using sexist and casteist slurs,32 and her clothes were torn – she had to lock herself up in a room to protect herself.33

Even though the news media should critically report on and question the misogyny, the Indian media – also dominated by men34 – often fails to do so. Instead, it ends up often reporting on politics and on women in politics from a patriarchal gaze. A dis-proportionate emphasis goes to appearances,35 women’s clothes,36 and their personal lives. Women politicians are routinely addressed by their first names in news articles and even during interviews, even as male leaders are addressed more formally.



An interview37 of Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra by anchor Karan Thapar for The Wire is representative of several of these challenges. Thapar told Moitra that he had ‘rarely seen a woman MP who is so well dressed’ as her. In her reply, Moitra did not mince her words. She said, ‘This is a question I get all the time, and sometimes it annoys me… It seems almost silly that I get asked about my clothes when there are so many in the country who have [just] three or four sets of clothes. So, it seems frivolous that we spend so much time discussing this.’

Thapar also questioned Moitra on her relationship with her party boss Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal: ‘Both you and Mamata (Banerjee) are strong-willed, determined women. Do you get along with each other? Or do you clash as well?’ The question reflects a popular stereotype that two strong women may not get along with each other.



The formal news media is not the only problem. As social media has become a critical site of political discussion, it has also become a site where outspoken women become targets of misogynistic disinformation campaigns. In 2020, a study by Amnesty International India38 found that one in every seven tweets that mentioned women politicians in India was ‘problematic’ or ‘abusive’. ‘People should know what women in politics endure, what they have to put up with and how unequal it becomes for them. It is such a tough battlefield, so to speak. Really I do believe that Twitter is my workplace,’ Shazia Ilmi, a member of the BJP told Amnesty. ‘But if my workplace were to be a battlefield, all the time, would I be able to contribute to the cause that I represent, easily and with fairness, if I am constantly being attacked for being a woman.’39

Despite all these, women carry on to carve their space. They persist with grit, but find tactics to help them survive the many challenges that are thrown their way. One of the ways that India’s politics can transform is if women build grassroots capacity within political parties, finds Tanushree Goyal. In her research, Goyal40 found that ‘in state constituencies with more women in local politics, local women politicians experience greater career progression, and state women politicians are more likely to get renominated.’

Pointing to the interlinked nature of politics in India, where political leaders at one level can support or sabotage politicians at other levels, Goyal (2021) observed:41 “[W]e see male dominance across levels, which sustains a ‘bad equilibrium’ that keeps women out of politics… [and] this bad equilibrium breaks through female-led party building, that is, when women organize successfully inside political parties, inside the structures of power.’

India has seen some women politicians taking the initiative to widen the space for other women to enter and rise in politics. Under Jayalalithaa’s leadership, her party All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) became the first to reserve a third of organizational positions for women. While women are nowhere close to having parity within the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee, they occupy a relatively larger space as compared to the norm otherwise. The party also put forth over 40% women as candidates for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.



Writing in Article 14, Gilles Verniers and Maya Mirchandani (2021) observed:42 ‘Unlike other women chief ministers who work in a quasi-exclusively male environment, Mamata has surrounded herself over time with women contributing to party work or to the cabinet. Five of her 42 ministers are women, some holding several important portfolios or portfolios not immediately connected to women’s issues, like agriculture, fisheries, SMEs or land reforms. Her party’s organization includes large numbers of women office holders, and many women play a prominent role in campaigns.’

As this piece is being written, the state of Uttar Pradesh is holding polls for its legislative assembly. The share of women contesting the 2022 polls is better this time, than previously, because the Congress announced that 40% of its candidates would be women. Led by Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress is fighting the election under the slogan of ‘Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ (I am a girl, I can fight).

Women leaders have also called for greater unity across partisan lines to be able to change the way politics is for them. In the panel discussion mentioned earlier, Shaina NC lamented how often senior women leaders are not the most supportive of other women, especially younger women just starting out. Indian National Congress politician Shama Mohammad shared43 that male members of the party often try to pit woman against woman, and recounted that when Chaturvedi was also in the Congress, they made a pact that if and when any male colleague would try to instigate either of them against the other, they would share what was said with each other.



For India’s women politicians to be able to claim their full space, a lot needs to change, and not all of this can be driven by the women themselves. Being a political leader requires an individual to lead a very public life – to care for issues beyond the household, and to be constantly in public gaze and scrutiny. For women, who are socialized very early to prioritize their roles as mothers, wives and as caretakers, being in politics means deviating from established cultural and social norms – and the deviation exposes them to added scrutiny, judgment, and even the burden of guilt. Women politicians continue to bear the burden of managing household responsibilities along with their duties as elected legislators.



If social norms continue to perpetuate a gendered division of labour in the household, they also continue to contribute to the stereotype of a political leader being a man. While large-scale research is missing, there is some evidence to indicate that this stereotype gets internalized fairly early in life, leading to a gender gap in political aspiration and ambition.44 

Social and cultural norms often change over longer periods of time, but having a more sensitized media and popular culture can accelerate that process. What can change sooner is political parties’ exclusion of women. Quotas for women in legislatures can push parties to field more women. Internal policies of parties to put forth more women candidates can improve representation even otherwise. Similarly, sensitization of male leaders, internal codes of conduct, no tolerance of misogynistic comments in political institutions and during campaigns can all contribute to making our politics truly democratic and representative.



1. R. Dikhsit, ‘UP Man Gives up celibacy vow, marries to field wife in election’, The Times of India, 31 March 2021.

2. Press Trust of India, ‘UP BJP MLA: Mamata Banerjee is like a demon, has no values of a woman’, The Indian Express, 14 January 2020.

3. Express Web Desk, ‘Mayawati remark: uproar in Rajya Sabha over UP BJP leader Dayashankar Singh’s comments; Jaitley says he is personally hurt’, The Indian Express, 21 July 2016.

4. ET Bureau, ‘Congress recalls Modi’s “Jersey cow”, hybrid calf remarks while condemning Mani Shankar Aiyar’, The Economic Times. 15 May 2019.

5. A. Tewary, ‘Nitish Kumar should address issues I raised at NDA meeting: Nikki Hembrom’, The Hindu, 4 December 2021.

6. TNM Staff, ‘BJP leader calls T’puram mayor Arya Rajendran “LKG student”, her reply is viral’, The News Minute, 18 June 2021.

7. TNM Staff, ‘Khushboo condemns BJP leader’s obscene comments about Kanimozhi’, The News Minute, 30 January 2021.

8. Full interview available on the Youtube Channel ‘SimiGarewalOfficial’ here:

9. A. Basu, (2004) ‘Gender and Politics’, in N.G. Jayal and P.B. Mehta (ed), The Oxford Companion to Politics in India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2010.

10. S. Singh, ‘MP Jawhar Sircar apologises for mocking Nirmala Sitharaman’s past over govt disinvestments’, Republic World, 2 February 2022.

11. Times Now, ‘FM Nirmala Sitharaman: Does Rahul Gandhi even know the definition of poor?’ Times Now (Frankly Speaking), 3 February 2022.

12. MoJo Story, ‘Is politics still a man’s world: Priyanka Chaturvedi, Shaina NC, Shama Mohamed’, MoJo Story, 3 December 2019.

13. UN Women, Violence against women in politics. 2014.

14. MoJo Story, ‘Is politics still a man’s world’, op. cit.

15. Full interview on the Youtube Channel ‘SimiGarewalOfficial, op.cit.

16. NDTV, ‘Unruly MPs hold up women’s bill’, NDTV, 8 March 2010.

17. Press Trust of India, ‘Women’s reservation bill dangerous: Mulayam Singh Yadav’, DNA, 7 March 2010.

18. Asian News International, ‘Mulayam draws flak for his “sexist” remark on women’, The Indian Express, 24 March 2010.

19. NDTV, ‘Unruly MPs hold up women’s bill’, NDTV, 8 March 2010.

20. Ibid.

21. Hindustan Times, ‘Women’s reservation bill: 25 years later’, Hindustan Times (On the record), 10 September 2021.

22. A. Chawla, ‘What the dismal number of women elected this time tells us’, The Indian Express, 6 May 2021.

23. UN Women, Violence against women in politics, 2014, op. cit.

24. S. Rajendran, ‘The iconic image of Jayalalithaa looking through her torn saree, photographer remembers’, The News Minute, 6 December 2016.

25. Full interview on the Youtube Channel ‘SimiGarewalOfficial’, op. cit.

26. B. Rao, ‘Tamil Nadu’s women leaders live, work in the shadows of violence’, IndiaSpend, 21 April 2018.

27. A. Nagaraj, ‘Denied a chair, Dalit women confront discrimination on Indian village councils’, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 4 January 2021.

28. B. Rao, ‘Tamil Nadu’s women leaders live, work in the shadows of violence’, op. cit.

29. G. Mendonca, ‘Maharashtra: Man held for raping, killing woman sarpanch in Raigad’, The Times of India, 30 December 2021.

30. P. Dahat, ‘Woman sarpanch killed for lighting mother’s pyre’, The Hindu, 4 April 2015.

31. R. Tiwari, ‘The story of the guest house’, The Indian Express, 16 January 2019.

32. The Quint, ‘1995 guest house scandal: How Mayawati, Mulayam turned arch-rivals’, The Quint, 19 April 2019.

33. R. Tiwari, ‘The story of the guest house’, op. cit.

34. UN Women, Gender representation in Indian newsrooms. Full report 2021.

35. India TV News Desk, ‘Most beautiful women in Indian Parliament’, India TV, 5 January 2015.

36. Asian News International, ‘Sitharaman goes bright yellow for budget presentatio’, ANI, 1 February 2020.

37. The Wire, Mahua Moitra, the 1st time MP taking India by storm, reveals the woman behind the politician’, The Wire, 25 September 2020.

38. Amnesty International India, Troll Patrol India: Exposing online abuse faced by women politicians in India. 2020. Available at:

39. Ibid.

40. T. Goyal, ‘Local Female Representation as a Pathway to Power: A Natural Experiment in India’. 1 May 2020. or

41. A. Chawla, ‘Why women’s presence in political parties is crucial to closing the political gender gap’, #WomenLead, 13 April 2021.

42. G. Verniers and M. Mirchandani, ‘How Mamata’s Trinamool broke the glass ceiling for women in politics’, Article 14, 22 March 2021.

43. MoJo Story, ‘Is politics still a man’s world’, op. cit.

44. M. Shevika, ‘Why isn’t a career in politics aspirational for girls and women?’ India Development Review’, 28 January 2022.