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How equal are women as citizens?

By Neera Chandhoke

Women got formal citizenship with the dawn of independence in India. But it was only after the struggles of the women’s movement since the ’70s that background inequalities were considered and these formal rights expanded into more substantive rights, including the right to property, representation in local governance, the right to life and free movement and the right to health and social protection

Civic citizenship and organic citizenship

Citizenship is intrinsically bound up with the idea of the nation-state. The first time in modern history the notion of citizen as ‘citoyen’ became important was during the French Revolution of 1789. The French Revolution also generated the idea of ‘the nation’. The nation is a unit in which residents participate according to their status, and according to certain rights and obligations. So this whole notion of ‘civic’ citizenship is associated with civic nationalism. Oddly enough, in 1789, whereas men in France got citizenship, women did not -- until the 1950s.   

The second notion of citizenship came to us from an alternative model of the nation-state in the 19th century, with the big multinational empires such as the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Russian empire. Within these empires, in the 19th century, a whole lot of ethno-nationalist movements came about and they in turn gave rise to what is known as the ‘organic’ notion of citizenship. This held that you are a citizen not because you have certain rights but because you are a member of a community that has a certain history, language, and so on -- the notion of belonging is very important here.   

These two notions of citizenship -- the civic and the organic -- have been theorised by western scholars. In India in the 1930s you had, on the one hand, Jawaharlal Nehru articulating the notion of civic nation and civic citizenship, and on the other you had V D Savarkar espousing organic citizenship, talking about how only the Hindus belong and it is they who should have citizenship. His idea of the citizen is intrinsically tied up with the idea of the nation and is based on the foundational question: Who belongs?  

The civic notion of a citizen is more inclusive because it invests all those who reside within the boundaries of the country with certain rights, which come from a Constitution. But even within civic citizenship there have been inequalities. Women didn’t get the vote until the 20th century. It was only in the 1920s that American women got the vote, and that only after a long and protracted struggle. In India, women got the vote in 1950. This was largely because the country had witnessed a mass national movement. Once you have invited everyone to participate in this struggle, you can hardly sit back and deliberate on who should have the vote and who should not be given the formal status of citizenship.  

Formal citizenship and substantive citizenship

That brings us to the second set of dichotomies -- between formal citizenship and substantive citizenship. A formal citizenship is when you have the right to vote and rights under a Constitution, but it doesn’t take into cognisance what is termed ‘background inequalities’. Substantive citizenship would mean that such inequalities are addressed. Unfortunately, none of this came up in the Constituent Assembly debates. Social and economic rights were relegated to the Directive Principles and therefore these concerns remained unarticulated. If women figured in the debates at all it was with regard to Articles 14 and 15 which said that the state shall look after the ‘weaker sections’, with women being seen as part of the ‘weaker sections’.   

But inequalities of gender actually highlighted a basic problem in the construction of the citizen in a civic nation. The citizen had traditionally been deemed to be a property-owning male because until the early-20th century, citizenship rights were tied up with property rights. Since women never held property in their own name, they obviously did not fit the definition of a rights-bearing subject. This meant that women were doubly discriminated -- in the private sphere because they did not hold property and were subordinated to their husbands (or fathers or brothers, whoever were the property owners) -- and in the public space, where they were barred from exercising their full rights of citizenship by the fact that they did not have any status in the private sphere.   

As the women’s movement gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, there was more public articulation of the notion of substantive rights, including property ownership. It was only in 2005, with the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, that Hindu women in India got equal rights to ancestral property, although a number of women still hesitate to exercise that right because of stereotypes and expectations of how women should behave.   

So you have a very interesting development here. Inherent inequalities within society spark off a number of struggles which basically say: “Alright, now give us what you have promised.” This is why formal rights are important; they create imaginations that lead to struggles, and history tells us that there is no expansion of citizenship rights without struggle.  

There are a number of gender-based struggles which are demanding full citizenship rights, not only in the public domain but in the private one. There are all kinds of problems that gender struggles have illustrated. For example, when census operations are conducted, how is the head of the household categorised? It is invariably a male. Even if his mother is alive but happens to be a widow, she doesn’t get counted as head of the household.    

There is another aspect of citizenship which is not confined to the vote. It has to do with the basic democratic right of participation and representation. Here you find that in the modalities of representation, only a minority of women make it to Parliament -- a little over 10% at the moment. This illustrates a fundamental dichotomy between formal rights of citizenship and background inequalities because obviously political parties are hesitant to put up women -- except when it is for strategic reasons -- because the transfer of power to women in the public sphere is not palatable to them. Now this denial of the basic right of participation and representation raises the question: Who represents whom? Can a majority of men represent the needs and opinions of women?   

There are problems, of course, with group notions of representation. If you have women’s representation, it is likely to be commandeered or monopolised by elite women, or elite interests, as happened during the first generation of panchayati raj when men put up their wives for the various reserved posts. The question then likely to come up is: Can the upper caste woman represent the interests of the triply disadvantaged poor dalit woman?

But with all these challenges, I still think women’s representation at the panchayat level has proved effective. A survey carried out by the Government of India’s rural development ministry a few years ago showed that the first generation of women panchayati leaders tended to be diffident and tended to focus on women-oriented issues like lack of water, but that when the second generation of women took over, they started articulating issues of general public concern. There is, therefore, something to be said about reservations. But to have reservations as a permanent solution might be a problem because you could then see the makings of an elite class.   

Right to life and free movement

Citizenship also entails the right to life and right to free movement. In 2002, we studied post-riots Ahmedabad, which was seen as the most conflict-prone city in India. One of the aspects that emerged was that Muslims in that city, who were formal citizens, were finding themselves more or less excluded from their rights of citizenship. Women, in particular, were very adversely affected. Not only had they been subjected to the most horrific sexual violence during the riots, they were also the victims of a backlash from within the community itself after the riots. Community leaders insisted that women go into purdah, and instead of arguing for proper schools they wanted girls to attend local madrasas. In fact, most families stopped sending their girl-children out to study after Class 8, so you had a generation of girls growing up who were less educated than their mothers. We noticed a lot of Muslim young women in agarbatti factories -- many of them owned by Hindus -- who were being paid pathetic wages. But these women had no option; they couldn’t take part in the competitive job market because spatially they were restricted, education-wise they were restricted, in terms of employment opportunities they were restricted, and of course within the home they were restricted.   

Then again, after the rape cases that occurred in cities like Delhi, the attitude of the police and politicians stood exposed. Many among them argued that women should not be out after 7 o’clock, that women should dress appropriately, and so on. Women are made to feel that they are in some way responsible for the atrocities they face. But, as citizens, they have the right to go where they wish, dress the way they want. It is the state’s job to provide them with security. If society is so uncivilised that it will attack someone just because she is a woman, there is something wrong with that society and the notion of citizenship it possesses. To prevent women from participating equally in the public space is in fact to deny them opportunities and life chances. 

The Constitution of India gives women certain rights, and these rights are meant to be inalienable. If these rights are unfulfilled, or violated, then obviously there is injustice -- because justice is the realisation of rights. If women have a right to civil liberties then their civil liberty to protest against, say, domestic abuse is a basic right, and the state must listen to them and offer redress. If women have the right not to be mauled in a public space, or be ill-treated in a police station, then when such incidents occur they must be able to access justice. 

But there is an even more fundamental aspect to rights. A right is never just a right, but a right to do something. Clearly, women can only be truly free when they have access to certain basic freedoms in terms of health, education, and basic income. But if you look at the human development data for India -- take just the four states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa where the Maoists have a presence -- female malnutrition is above 50%. If a woman is not healthy, how is she going to be free? How are women supposed to exercise agency when they are not equipped with education, health, a minimum of social protection, an income, shelter?

So it is time to ask: What are the preconditions for citizenship? Basically it is about a woman being in a position to take advantage of the opportunities society offers her. I once did a project on people’s rights where I compared the Narmada movement with the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha of Shankar Guha Niyogi. In the course of my research, I asked a group of tribal women who had been relocated what they missed about their old lives, and they said they missed drinking, they missed smoking, they missed changing their husbands. So I asked them whether they perceived these as their rights as citizens of India, and they said: “Yes, this is our haq (right) given by Bharat sarkar.” It struck me then how familiar they were with the notion of rights and how much the language of rights has come to occupy their collective imagination. 

(Neera Chandhoke is former Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012