Amma Mia! India To New Zealand, The Women In Politics Paradox

Portrait of 'Amma' in Chennai, India
Portrait of "Amma" in Chennai, India
Sadia Rao


Long before Angela Merkel or even Margaret Thatcher, Indian politics has produced some fearsome female leaders. Indira Gandhi, also known as the "Iron Lady" of India, took office as the first female prime minister of the country in 1966 and returned for another term in 1980. Years after Gandhi's assassination in 1984, her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, carried forward both the family and female legacy, and still stands as longstanding president of the Indian National Congress party.

Lesser known abroad, but in some ways perhaps even more influential, was Jayalalithaa, fondly known as Amma ("Mother"), who ruled the huge southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for nearly two decades until her death in December.

And yet, while these handful of prominent female figures continue to command headlines, the full picture of gender parity in Indian politics is very different. A new global tally of female representation in national parliaments found that only 11.8% of the total number of parliamentarians in India are women. That number is well below the 22% world average, and is topped by such countries as Rwanda, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia. Similar results were found at the state level in India, with only 364 of the 4,128 legislative seats are taken by women.

With a relatively long history of strong female leaders, as well as a law reserving at least one-third of local government seats for women, India should by all measures be doing better on this front. Yet, as The Wire reports, the power of nepotism in Indian politics skews the reality. "Ironically, most of the tickets given to women candidates in reserved constituencies were prompted not by their personal stature, but for their husbands or other male relatives," the Delhi-based news website writes. The situation is even bleaker at national and state levels, where there is no reservation for women.

The final hurdle may be the highest: changing a sexist mentality that persists even when women are in charge.

There are several hurdles to gender parity in Indian politics, "ranging from socio-historic reasons and the inherent masculinity of popular politics to institutional hurdles like family and marriage and the current socio-economic and political policies," write Haris Jamil and Anmolam in The Wire.

India can learn from the different systems developed worldwide to increase female policy makers, such as the "soft quota" system used in New Zealand. France's new ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron imposed gender parity in its list of parliamentary candidates and cabinet ministers.

But the final hurdle may be the highest: changing a sexist mentality that persists even when women are in charge. Only 24 hours after she assumed the New Zealand Labour party's leadership, Jacinda Ardern was asked how she would juggle her career and motherhood. It is the kind of seemingly benign question that undermines the very idea of progress on gender parity.

Better instead to talk about "motherhood" and politics by returning to Jayalalithaa, whose death late last year was the occasion for mass mourning in Tamil Nadu. The people wept for their Amma, who had no children of her own, but was a different kind of mother to 68 million citizens.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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