NEW DELHI: “A better democracy is a democracy where women do not only have the right to vote, and to elect but to be elected.” – Michelle Bachelet, Head of United Nations Women

The early death of charismatic AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa returns the focus to women leaders in politics, their rise and the challenges they face.

The dichotomy of the women in power being perceived as mascots of feminism lies in the manner in which they first gained entry into politics. With the remarkable exception of Mamata Banerjee, most women have risen with a determined push from male relatives or mentors. While Indira Gandhi profited from the legacy of her father, Rabri Devi is cushioned by the popularity of her husband. Similarly, we have instances of Jayalalithaa's association with M.G. Ramachandran and Mayawati's affinity with Kanshi Ram.

Despite the inequality of women’s entry into politics, once in they all face similar challenges arising from a deep rooted patriarchal mind set. For instance their appearance replaces substance, with the media leading a disproportionate interest in their appearance over substance. As feminist and social scientist, Kamla Bhasin said, “ Female politicians are judged by what they wear,’’ an issue men rarely face.

While their unmarried status will raise eyebrows and be portrayed often as a character deficit, their married status will instigate questions of balancing work with household affairs.

The women political leaders can never get away from rampant sexism. Jayalalithaa faced the humiliation of physical assault by a DMK member. More recently BJP leader Dilip Ghosh went on the record with, “when Mamata (Banerjee) was doing her theatrics in Delhi, we could have dragged her away by her hair .” Both scenarios depict how the non -consensual sexualizing of women is a traditionally acceptable way of expressing male dominance.

The Journal of Experimental Psychology conducted a study to successfully prove that “objectification causes women to be perceived as less competent and less fully human.’’

In order to avoid the vicious attacks by opponents that may lead to them being perceived as less moral or less competent, women politicians often willingly undergo and propagate their desexualisation by not only dressing in simple, modest and traditional attire but also adopt titles of ‘’motherhood’’ or ‘’sisterhood’’.

Jayalalithaa became the “Amma” of Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee the “Didi’ of West Bengal, Mayawati is known as “behenji’’, Mehbooba Mufti “Bhaaji’’ (A Kashmiri term for elder sister).

Are “Amma” and “Didi’’ truly innocent terms of affection to convey a sense of close association with the Chief Ministers ; a uniquely South-Asian manner of honoring our leaders? Or are they carefully chosen titles, fueled by misogynistic propaganda, to desexualize women in order for them to reach to the top? Is playing it safe the most convenient option ? Do they compromise with patriarchy yet claim empowerment? Perhaps this is the cost women pay to participate in politics.

The patriarchy of politics incorporates intersectionality. While the subordination of women remains a relatively universal societal ill, it varies depending on religion, community, caste and class. Mayawati is fighting a double disadvantage, as she faces an interlinking of oppression with her gender and caste, whereas a convent-educated, English-speaking Jayalalithaa won the hearts of people. The battle for all women is not the same.

Last but definitely not the least, the question remains: Are these women doing anything for women?

While it comes as no surprise that female politicians are expected to be more than just pro-women to secure the female vote, for a male politician being pro-women is a bonus. But it is difficult to accept sexist comments from women politicians, that represent a denial of their gender and subjugation to the essentially patriarchal system that dominates politics.

Mamta Banerjee’s statement “Rape occurs because men and women interact freely.” Or Sheila Dixit’s “One should not be adventurous” directed at women, are cringe-worthy if not appalling.

With the rare exception of Jayalalithaa who actively passed progressive bills on issues affecting women, and the transgender community, it’s rather shocking that women-led states like West Bengal and Rajasthan rank high in crimes against women.

Kamla Bhasin explains, “ The biology of a politician does not necessarily make her more sensitive to the issues of women. Women are just as capable of sexism and misogyny as men.” The selective allegiance of these politicians lies with their political party and not their gender identity. There is a burning need for patriarchy in politics to be done away with, and be replaced with a gender-sensitive and responsive political order.