By many measures, India is a tough place to be a woman.
It ranks 108 out of 149 countries in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. Its female workforce participation isn’t just low at 28.9%, it’s also declining. And its gender ratio is skewed towards males, because of female infanticide and selective abortions.
Yet, before prime minister Narendra Modi became India’s favourite strongman, only one leader had ever managed the same kind of power and charisma: Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister and standard of comparison for all leaders in the country. She isn’t alone: India’s political history counts several powerful women, and two female heads of state (Gandhi, and former president Pratibha Devisingh Patil). That’s two more women holding the country’s highest positions of power than in the United States.
Then there is Sonia Gandhi, who for years was the president of the Congress party. Observers believed she was the puppeteer behind its every move. Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was elected to six terms and died while in office. Voters elected Mayawati four times as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state and one of the worst for women’s rights. Mamata Banerjee has been chief minister of West Bengal since 2011. The country welcomed Priyanka Gandhi—heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty alongside her brother—into the world of high-powered politics with much more enthusiasm than her brother ever was. In the latest election, in fact, he lost his seat to a woman, Smriti Irani.
These aren’t women who necessarily adhere to female stereotypes. They are strong figures who don’t seem to worry much about being disliked, or try to soften their ways to appear more feminine. Although they are not completely safe from sexist stereotypes and treatment, Indian female politicians aren’t judged as much as they may be in other countries by their appearance, or by social roles such as being a good wife, or mother.
This is especially true of the ones who rise to prominent positions, where people seem to accept their power more than they would elsewhere. They are just fierce leaders, and more often than not, controversial ones who don’t hesitate to test the limits of legality and democracy.
How can a country that is routinely dismissive of its women, diminishing and threatening them in the private sphere, be so comfortable with this kind of female power? A clue may be in its mythology.
“India is one of the last surviving ancient pagan cultures,” Amish Tripathi, the bestselling author of six books on Indian mythology, told Quartz. Unlike other cultures, he said, Indians still carry the memories of the country’s ancient ways.
“We are one of the last surviving Goddess-worshipping cultures,” he said, noting that India used to be a lot more progressive when it comes to women’s place in society than it is now, maybe even more-so than in the West these days. As evidence he points to a small, telling detail: in English, God is often spelled with a capital ‘G,’ but goddess never is. In Vedic Sanskrit, the language of the ancient Indians, he said, “there is no grammatical difference in the status of Gods and Goddesses.”
Women and men had equivalent religious status thousands of years ago as well. Both men and women in contact with divine leaders translated their message and wrote the Rig Veda, India’s oldest scripture. Power, too, was more evenly spread. Women rulers and army leaders, like Rudramadevi (13th Century) and Abbakka Rani (16th Century), were role models that continue to influence the understanding of power in India.
This history is reflected in the many examples of “strong women political leaders that predate and outnumber those in Western society,” Tripathi said, adding that it’s very common for such women to be unmarried, too, and for that not to be an obstacle.
However, Tripathi added, this attitude (which extended to LGBTQ people as well as women), was lost as a consequence of the many invasions India endured in medieval times.
“Whenever any society suffers repeated invasions and random acts of violence for long periods of time, it tends to become defensive, rigid and, yes, patriarchal,” he said. “Parts of India which suffered the most invasions, like North and Northwest India, are the most patriarchal to this day; while those that suffered less invasions, like South India, are less patriarchal.”
Female power—traditionally known as mahila shakti—may find its roots in Hindu mythology. But then again, so does, in many ways, a patriarchal rule.
So thinks Asha Mukherjee, a professor of philosophy and religion and former director of women’s studies at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, whose view of the influence of mythology on the social roles of women in India differs from Tripathi.
In traditional Hindu mythology, she says, a woman is typically confined to two roles: She is either a dasi (mistress) or a devi (goddess). This dichotomy can help explain the contradiction experienced in seeing powerful women in politics, in a country that doesn’t otherwise prioritize women’s rights.
When it comes to the domestic realm, Mukherjee said, “women are supposed to be like Sita,” the devout wife of Lord Ram. She sacrificed herself to prove her virtue and chastity. She is the paragon of conjugal behaviour and an embodiment of the secondary role of a woman, whose value is determined on the basis of how she behaves for her man.
Even in the rare exceptions in which the role of a woman is instead informed by the idea of female goddesses, there is a form of discrimination. The avatars of the female goddesses—such as Parvati, Laxmi, Saraswati—embody certain virtues and values, such as power, wealth, knowledge. But they are not depicted as having real, human-like lives in the way Ram does.
These goddesses’ existences operate on an entirely different level, so the narratives that pertain to them don’t actually influence the way the role of a woman is perceived in day to day life. “Kali or Durga hardly have a human side, but Sita does,” Mukherjee said.
Mukherjee also rejects that female political power is more easily accepted in India these days. She argues that prominent female politicians in India today are an aberration in a system that otherwise does not recognise female agency.
Milan Vaishnav, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in South Asia, also noted that while it’s easy to embrace the narrative of the powerful Indian female politician, the optics may be better than the substance.
“These women have been able to develop a sort of cult of personality, becoming goddess-like figures,” he said of the high-powered female politicians of India. “They are taken out of the day-to-day dynamics, almost like deities.” Yet, he said, these are rather infrequent cases. These are all women who came to power in unusual circumstances and, by and large, deriving their power from the men in their lives.
Indira Gandhi, he noted, was the daughter of the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Sonia and Priyanka Ghandi are respectively the wife and daughter of the Nehru dynasty heir Rajiv. Jayalalithaa was inducted into politics thanks to her personal relationship with fellow actor-turned-politician MG Ramachandran. Mayawati was the protégée of Dalit leader Kanshi Ram.
The organic rise through political parties is much more infrequent. Female representation in the Lok Sabha not only shows a lack of equality, but stands as evidence that—even with laws reserving 33% of seats to women in local assemblies—it isn’t as easy for female politicians to emerge on the national scene. With 78 newly elected female Lok Sabha members, significantly up from 62 in the previous election and the highest in Indian history, the women’s representation in the Indian parliament is still only 14%.