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Women in retreat after Independence

By Zoya Hasan

Why does India present the paradox of at least four major political parties headed by women, and yet have so little representation of women in Parliament? And why is there so much opposition to reservations for women in Parliament and state legislatures when there is no opposition to reservation at the panchayat level?

Two things need to be flagged at the very beginning. First, there has been significant improvement in the status of women over the last two decades, but the majority of women lack opportunities. We need to note the structured inequality of Indian society -- its economic inequality, social inequality, and the other entrenched inequalities that persist along caste lines.

Second, when we compare India with many of its neighbours, we may find that there is a much greater visibility of women in the public space, including in employment. But the opportunities for employment for a majority of women in India are in the informal sector and these women are working in extremely low-paying jobs at the lower end of the economic spectrum. So, while there is an increase in women’s employment, the kind of employment that women have been able to secure will not substantially improve their status or standard of living. 

We see a very significant increase in the number of women now in higher education, to the extent that in the social sciences and humanities, and even in many professional courses, the proportion of women to men could be almost fifty-fifty. Yet, when you actually look at the women in decision-making positions you find there are very few at the top. This is true in both the public and private sectors. While the corporate sector keeps talking about a few iconic women CEOs, we can count them on our fingers. However, there can be no denying that there are many more women in corporate jobs at present. In the public sector, while there are a large number of women, they are mostly relegated to the lower echelons -- in clerical positions. Of course, the number of women getting into the Indian Administrative Service, the Foreign Service and, to an extent, even the Indian Police Service, is much higher than it was two decades ago. Every now and then, women top the civil services examinations and much is made of that. However, the fact is that the overall percentage of women in what are called the ‘elite civil services’ is not very high. You don’t see many women at the secretary level, for instance.

This is the backdrop, a very important backdrop, to considering the status of women in India’s mainstream politics today.

Everybody talks about India’s first woman president, that the leader of the United Progressive Alliance is a woman, that the leader of the opposition is a woman, that the speaker of the Lower House in Parliament is a woman. But the reality is quite different, as some perceptive feminist scholars have pointed out. Twenty years ago, Maria Mies observed that the ‘large’ number of women in positions of power in India is actually quite small in relative terms. Mies’s point assumes significance when we come to the central issue: formal representation in the public sphere. Women’s representation in politics is even less than women’s representation in employment, whether in the public or private sectors.

One of the major reasons for this is that politics in India is now a profession like any other, and it is largely a ‘male’ profession in the same way as teaching has become a ‘female’ profession. Politics in India has been a male monopoly for a very long time, thanks to patriarchy, conservatism, and the fact that men have always acted as gate-keepers in a traditional society like India. Other factors include two separate but overlapping phenomena -- the criminalisation of Indian politics that has only been accentuated over the last two decades, and the huge amounts of money involved in contesting elections today.

It is often believed that it is difficult for women to mobilise the kind of resources that are needed in politics, and for women to deal with the criminality that marks Indian politics. But in the ultimate analysis, it is the two cardinal realities -- conservatism and the fact that politics is seen as a male monopoly -- that are the more important factors in discouraging women from entering mainstream politics. And there is another aspect -- the reluctance of women themselves to enter the field.

The 73rd and 74th amendments could be considered game-changers even though we have not fully realised their impact. Until these amendments came along about two decades ago, women themselves were reluctant to enter local politics. Now they are quite enthusiastic about participating in politics, thanks to the panchayati raj experience and social and political changes taking place in India through the democratisation process, which has seen an opening up of politics. However, women find their enthusiasm dampened by many barriers.

Women and the nationalist agenda

There are three major moments from the past that impacted women’s participation in politics. The first is the social reform movement of the 19th and early-20th centuries. In some parts of India, especially Bengal and Maharashtra, and parts of south India, for the first time we saw women coming out into the public space and participating in social movements, such as the anti-sati movement, as well as the age of consent and child marriage debates. But the real change came with the Gandhian movement. Gandhi played a critical role in bringing women, hitherto relegated largely to the home, into the outside world during the period of the Congress-led struggles in several parts of the country. Women responded enthusiastically to the political mobilisation of the national movement.

But there were limits to that mobilisation. There was a certain instrumentalisation in the way women were used to make the argument against colonial rule. Significantly, after Independence, the expectation that women would continue to play an important role in the politics of post-Independence India was quickly belied. The Congress Party had some very important women leaders -- Sarojini Naidu, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and other legendary women who played an active role in the struggle for independence. Some of them were also very active in the Constituent Assembly debates and played an extremely important role in framing the Constitution and enshrining gender equality in that document. They were our founding mothers, so to speak. Yet, the fact remains that women’s rights in India, for all practical purposes, were formal.

Women more or less went into retreat after Independence, in part because of the nationalist ideology and in part because the Congress Party, in the first two decades, focused on the role of the state, believing that state intervention would bring about social change and contribute to the overall improvement of all vulnerable and disadvantaged groups within the country, including women. The Congress was reluctant to recognise women as a category separate from ‘the people’. The argument that there should be anything specific for women was therefore out-of-sync with the nationalist ideology.

Some leading women were themselves very comfortable with this approach and couldn’t countenance the idea of treating women as a separate and special constituency that was inherently disadvantaged. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s -- with the report of the Committee on the Status of Women -- that we have a counter-narrative. While drafting this report, leading women academics of the day argued that women had not progressed as expected after Independence, that they were particularly under-represented in politics, and therefore there should be some special measures such as affirmative action and reservations for women. However, Phulrenu Guha, who headed the committee, disagreed because her thinking was shaped by the nationalist movement and politics of the 1950s, which held that the poor included both men and women, and something needed to be done for both categories rather than just women.

‘Towards Equality’, the report of the Committee on the Status of Women, changed perceptions considerably, and with the Eighth Five-Year Plan the government began to think differently, as evidenced by the National Perspective Plan released in the late-’80s when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. The National Perspective Plan was a marker, but there was still a mismatch between the re-thinking on what needed to be done for the position and status of women and the views within the political establishment.

Women as a political category

Meanwhile, there was the emergence of the women’s movement which in different ways has focused, quite rightly, on questions of politics because its leaders could see that politics is crucial to bringing about transformation within different sections of the economy. The constraint was that the women’s movement did not speak with one voice on the issue. There are differences between what were traditionally termed the ‘autonomous women’s groups’ and those affiliated to political parties, in terms of perceptions of the state and the relationship between patriarchy and class, as well as caste. While there was consensus that women were hugely under-represented in politics, that politics is extremely important to bring about change, and therefore we need more women in politics, there were also serious differences on how these issues were to be addressed.

By the late-1980s and early-’90s, some of these differences had been overcome and there was much greater unity of purpose on the part of women’s groups pushing for greater representation. That was how the Women’s Reservations Bill came about, with women members of Parliament like Geeta Sen and Promila Dandavate getting it presented in Parliament. However, as we know, it has not been easy to get the Bill passed and it has continued to face major problems ever since.

There are three issues here. One is the issue of category: do women constitute a separate political category in the way, for example, that scheduled castes, OBCs and minorities constitute a category? Clearly, opinion is divided on this. The fact of the matter is that women belong to all these categories -- they are from upper castes, lower castes, they are Hindu and Muslim. So women as a category is a complex construct, but complexity does not mean that women do not have distinctive concerns and interests. They do have distinctive concerns and interests that in some sense may not fully define them but nonetheless informs their identity.

The second issue is that of women’s participation in politics, both electoral participation as well as involvement in social movements. Such participation has gained ground dramatically and around the same time as several other political and social movements such as the rising articulation among Muslims about being marginalised, the backward caste movement, and many other new social movements. It was this larger democratisation of society, especially the democratisation of caste, which brought hitherto marginalised groups into the public domain in a very major way.

But this, in a sense, has also pitted caste against gender. This counterposing of caste and gender is extremely important as a lot of women think of themselves principally as belonging to a caste category rather than to a gender category. This may change over time and women may come to terms with both their caste and gender identities, but at the moment it is one of the factors that make for women’s absence in the public space. It is also one of the reasons why they have been taken for granted by parties. Parties that otherwise lay so much emphasis on social marginalisation on the basis of caste seldom think in terms of women from their caste having also been excluded. These parties do not believe, as yet, that as they fight for the greater empowerment of OBCs or SCs or minorities, they must also work towards the promotion of the women of these castes.

Take the mandatory 22% reservations for scheduled castes/scheduled tribes. The number of women who get elected through these reserved seats is proportionately much lower than those who make it in through the general category. If you take the 14th Lok Sabha, only 11 women SC and ST members made it to Parliament although the total seats reserved for these two groups were 120 and 79 respectively. In the 15th Lok Sabha, this marginally increased to 17 women. So there’s certainly something in the argument about caste having subsumed gender as a category.

Historically, just when backward classes and lower castes were being included in mainstream politics, and just as they were making careers within politics, there came this challenge from women demanding representation of 33% in Parliament and state assemblies. This made for the widespread perception that women’s reservation would be at the expense of many of the first-time MPs from these various categories.

The third important aspect to consider is the nature of political parties. In our party-based democracy, political parties are usually male-dominated and have shown themselves to be reluctant towards providing women positions within important committees and decision-making bodies that lay down ticket distribution norms and the like. This is quite paradoxical because there are few countries in the world like India that have four major political parties -- the Congress Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Trinamool Congress and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam -- headed by women. The BJP is not headed by a woman but its leader of the opposition is a woman. So we have five major parties with women at the top, but they have few women in decision-making positions within their parties and this is one major reason why so few women are given tickets. Even though they may have made public commitments on providing equal representation to women and have not hesitated to mobilise women for purposes of day-to-day campaigning in elections, when it comes to giving them tickets even these women-led parties have shown great reluctance.

Political parties are therefore a major roadblock in women’s political representation and could be regarded as the villains of the piece. This is true of parties across the board. The Congress has given slightly more tickets to women, but in terms of women getting elected on a Congress ticket it’s no higher in percentage terms than any other party. So at the end of the day, you have this odd situation of women heading political parties but still being hugely under-represented within them.

Is there a way out? Given the many difficulties women experience in getting ahead in politics, clearly some kind of affirmative action is called for. Look at the experience of other countries that have significantly increased women’s representation in legislatures. They have done this either through affirmative action within parties or through mandatory reservations -- as in the case of the Scandinavian countries. Some countries like Pakistan, where women make up 20% of parliament, have resorted to the nomination route, but this precludes the experience of actually contesting elections which is an important aspect of women’s representation. This makes the Pakistan example an unhelpful one.

It is also interesting to consider here why there is so much opposition to women’s reservation in Parliament and state legislatures when there has been little or no opposition to such reservation at the panchayat level. The reason is obvious. Panchayati raj, brought about by constitutional amendments, did not affect the political careers of those male MPs who voted it in.

Ultimately, the poor political representation of women in India only goes to show how Indian politics has become a major source of patronage and wealth-creation.

(Zoya Hasan is Professor, Centre for Political Studies School, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has written several books on Indian politics. The latest looks at the Congress Party after Indira Gandhi)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012