As we dumbly soldier on towards the scheduled village and municipal elections, political parties are bragging about fielding more women than required by the new Local Government Act 2011. This is being marketed as the epitome of modernity and progress. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Women do not break the shackles of tradition and patriarchy by having leftovers thrown at them in some sort of spirit akin to charity. The changes brought to the law to allow more women participation in local government will not have any impact whatsoever on the condition of women in this society. And yes, this is one aspect of women participation in politics about which one can make large and useful generalisations.
First, let's put things into perspective. The village and municipal elections have little impact on our democracy.
The parties who cruise home to an electoral victory will beat their chests for a while to the total indifference of the majority of the population. Then we will go back to our business as usual. The men and women elected to the positions of councillors will soon feel that they have no way of making any changes even for themselves, let alone for other women.
But we would like to go further and suggest that the frantic chase for women candidates which preceded nomination day, to fi ll in the requirements of the new Act, is likely not only not to help women but to play against them in the long run. Far from creating a revolution of the gender regime in this country where social, cultural and political barriers for women's equal representation persist, it, in fact, may offset the struggle of women in a very substantial way. It is one thing changing laws and legislating.
It is quite another changing the state of things.
Forget about the controversial nature of quotas and the fact that they are unfair to men and undermine 'merit' as a criterion for candidate selection. What is more relevant is that there are not enough women interested to stand as candidates. The quotas introduced and welcomed with such fervour by some women's associations have already shown their limitations. When not enough women are interested in standing as candidates; when women's attention is otherwise diverted; when women do not have the possibility to be on equal footing with men, the choice of female candidates is likely to be very limited.
Quotas in such a situation will likely facilitate access for 'unqualified' women, which will reinforce the stereotypes and misconceptions prevalent in the country about women's inability to be competent political actors, which in itself will deter ordinary women from participating in political life.
Our women councillors, once elected, will not be in a position to draw attention to women's issues and shape policies which would change the gendered nature of the public and political sphere in this country.
They will not be able, even if they wanted to, to inspire other women to become more politically involved. Many of them were chosen simply because they are women. This is a long downhill slide to mediocrity.
If fielding women for village and municipal elections is all our political parties have to show as proof of modernism and forward-looking vision, then we are not out of the woods yet. Rarely have we seen an elephant labour so long to give birth to such a small mouse.