Malhari Devi Paswan, 60, looks anxiously at the crowd. She takes a deep breath, and closes her eyes to recollect herself.
The audience greets her with thunderous claps, she acknowledges their greeting, and starts her speech on the need for an Open Defecation Free Zone. She confidently puts forward evidences, and weaves logic in perfect articulation. “If you have a toilet in your house, it will not only ensure a healthy and happy family, but will also fetch you public trust, confidence, and social prestige.”
The public confidence towards Paswan is unprecedented, and there’s no denial of her stature as a leader in Siraha – the eastern region of Nepal where women’s leadership is often questioned, and challenged. “There’s a problem for women being taken seriously as leaders in my community.
I need to change that!” explains, Paswan. There was a point when she gave up active politics because of political mudslinging, and limited role for women in her party. But the realization that women can never be leaders if they bow down to preeminence of socially constructed behaviors.
A recent study conducted by Search for Common Ground (Search) provides evidences that women leadership in Terai is still considered a ‘western manifesto’, and the society still views politics from a masculine lens.
The series of interviews being conducted echoes the fact that people still believe that “Politics is a man’s world,” and stereotypes such as: women are weak and emotional, they cannot take rational decisions, and they are best suited for cultural roles denies women leaders the chance to prove their competence.
A Key Informant Interview (KII) chapter reveals that, ‘women who are active in politics are considered ‘bad women’, and their character is always questioned.’ On the other hand, outspoken and critical women are considered bad influence to the society, but the treatment varies for outspoken and critical men – as these attributes are considered manly, and essentials for leadership.
Mobility of women in these regions also poses a challenge, as suggested in an interview, “we need to travel to places to attend meetings, take part in discussions and dialogues, and collaborate with our male counter-parts.
This is a taboo. Women who speak to men who are not related to them, and travel a lot are considered lewd.” These statements echo that the society is still reluctant to accept women leadership that harps about textbook equality and empowerment.
Well known Women Rights Activist, Mona Sherpa believes that many women leaders still crumble in the influence of the patriarchal leadership, and many lose their individual leadership style. Sherpa, explains: “To be a leader means not to be driven by societal and patriarchal dictations.
Leadership should have a profound vision and defined politics – and women leaders should be the flag bearers of equality, and realize their own politics which is crafted with a vision to serve the society, break stereotypes, and always represent the systematically discarded.
This is what leaders should do.” It is not an easy task to defy the glass ceiling, but if these ceilings bound, control, and makes one powerless – there’s a greater need to shun it. “Those who defy that ‘glass ceiling’ in politics have to face manifold social scrutiny.
But there’s a huge alliance of vocal women leaders who work collaboratively, and are creating positive ripples without fearing the scrutiny. Therefore, one should not fear branding of women in politics.”
Critical thinkers also feel that there’s a need to celebrate women role models in politics, and the media should focus on women leaders as well. Leaders such as, Malhari Paswan, Krishni Tharu, Uma Badi, Najbool, Sukhdaiya, Kalawati Paswan, and many others are role models for women leaders, and they have taken that meaningful step to challenge the patriarchal mind-set.
‘Nepotism’ is also one the reason for lack luster attitude of women towards joining politics. Many strongly believe, that women in the forefront representing them, and their issues are ‘tokens’ and a result of nepotism – that endorses camp culture, and appointment of leaders who are not competent.
A quick review of women leaders proves that most of the women leaders are someone’s wives and daughters. But then, what about the women leaders who are not related to political lineage and camps?
Development practitioners suggest that these discussions related to women’s leadership should not be conducted in a silo effect, and the media should report on women leaders to make their mandate and contribution visible. There’s also a need for Leader to Leader mentoring and sharing platforms to discuss challenges, strategies, and way forward.
Understanding this gap in terms of skills and knowledge of collaborative leadership, Search trained 24 women leaders of Siraha under project, ‘Netritwa’.
The women leaders were provided with skills on collaborative leadership, gender-sensitivity classes, public speaking skills, and were involved in discussions related to collaborating with male counterparts to herald desired change in the society. “Women leaders should not be shy to accept their weakness, and should have the confidence to work on improving their leadership skills.
If people are not listening to you, then make sure to revisit and generate support from like-minded people,” explained, Paswan.t
Joshi is a development communicator
A version of this article appears in print on April 19, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.
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