An oasis of feminism

After you have spent some time in relatively conservative northern India, the state of Goa can give the impression of a feminist paradise — especially this year, when women have been unusually successful in running for key posts in the powerful local village councils.

By Nilanjana S. Roy (Society)

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Published: Sun 24 Jun 2012, 10:16 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:42 PM

Goa’s location on the west coast of India and its laid-back beach culture have made it a magnet for tourists. Farther inland, the inroads of mining into forest areas have given rise to environmental disputes. The state’s village councils are active and engaged, and to have so many female “sarpanches,” or council heads, elected in one year is, to many, a very encouraging sign.

In some areas, like the popular resort towns of Calangute and Candolim, women have become council heads this year through the application of affirmative action policies. But in Salcete, 42 per cent of the successful candidates were women — including many who won their seats in general wards, not just in constituencies reserved for women.

Walking up the main road in Aldona toward the bus stand, with rain-washed emerald fields on one side and a line of gracious houses on the other, Infanta Maria was happy to discuss the recent achievements of female council heads. She reiterated a complaint common across India: that too many female council heads are fronts for male members of their families. But, she added: “that’s only the first-timers. Halfway through their term, they realise they could do more if they stopped listening to the men.” Like many of the women in Goa, she feels that the visibility of the female council heads is crucial. It encourages more women to take part in active political life.

Her views were echoed by Fermina Menezes, who was taking her daughter and a young cousin out for a daylong excursion from Panjim around North Goa, stopping to meet relatives and friends. “This one is thinking that maybe she wants to be a hotel receptionist, or maybe run for election. Her friend’s aunt ran in Margao last year and won,” Menezes said, pointing to the cousin.

In their view, the reservation of seats for women has worked unexpectedly well. Menezes said that it had encouraged women to enter careers that, while not closed to them in previous years, were less obvious choices. As an example of how well reservations can work at the grass-roots level, she cited the formation of a special council to discuss the implementation of the Right to Education Act, which took effect in 2010 and guarantees the right of free schooling for children up to 14 years old. The Goa State government had just announced that women would make up 50 per cent of the council.

“They will have a different perspective from the men,” Menezes said. “Not better, not worse, just different.”

Travelling around Goa, especially in the inland villages away from the more well-visited areas, the contrast between the lives of women in rural northern India and here is stark. Except for a few high-crime areas, most women here can expect a much higher level of personal safety than women in Haryana or Uttar Pradesh, two of the north’s largest states. That sense of security is evident in the number of women on the roads and other public spaces in Goa, even after dark — and in the freedom with which they live and work.

Women have significantly greater land rights in Goa, thanks to the Common Civil Code dating back to the days of Portuguese colonial rule. Under the code, elements of which survived the Indian annexation of Goa in 1961, women are entitled to a share in both parental and marital property.

Still, even Goa is not quite a feminist paradise. Property disputes still occur, and in practice, many women have to fight hard to retain their rights to parental property after marriage.

Women’s organisations like Bailancho Saad often point out that, while Goa may be better than many Indian states in its treatment of women, it isn’t perfect. Goan women are often pinned with negative stereotypes —much as their equally confident counterparts from matrilineal pockets of northeastern India are. The relative freedom and self-assertiveness of these women can be held against them, especially by Indians in more conservative parts of the country, as “loose behaviour,” a phrase that hints at a multitude of sins.

And the advance of women hardly eliminates other, more universal, problems.

The Goan Observer reported that three of the four women who ran against each other in a council election in the village of Colva had demanded that the results be overturned. They say that the winner, Zarina Blanca Alberto Fernandes, illegally manipulated the final recounting of the votes.

Once women make their way into politics, it appears that they face the same drama and, as one candidate said darkly, “skullduggery”, that men do.

© 2012 The International Herald Tribune

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