A new bill would mandate that one-third of Indian lawmakers be women, but how much would India’s female population actually benefit?
Affirmative action always tends to be a tricky issue, but it tends to be even more complicated when it comes to the higher echelons of politics. So it is with the case of India and the proposed amendment to its constitution, the “Women’s Reservation Bill”, which was passed by the upper house of the Indian parliament earlier this month.
Approved by an impressive but somewhat misleading majority of 186 to 1, it reserves one-third of all legislative seats for women at both national and state levels. The bill follows several failed attempts at similar legislation that have been made since the 1990s.
It is in many respects a highly encouraging and laudable step forward and will put countries such as Ireland, languishing with a Dáil that is a meagre 13% female, to shame. For India itself, which currently has female representation of less than 11%, it will in certain respects be a tremendous change. What’s more, the bill enjoys broad support and is favoured not only by the governing Congress Party but also by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and may well soon achieve the support needed from the lower house and state assemblies to become law.
However, this is not necessarily quite the breakthrough for women’s rights or social development implied at first glance. To start with, the impression one may get from the legislation on first appearances — of a developing country’s surprising propulsion into a world of liberal values — is not entirely accurate. India itself has a long history of reserving seats in parliament for particular groups, such as those for tribal and “lower caste” Indians and for religious minorities. Additionally, while the parliaments India will join in the elite club of countries with over 30% female parliamentary members include many progressive countries that one would expect, such as Scandinavian countries, they also incorporate a surprising number of underdeveloped African countries. These include not only the famous and highly anomalous case of Rwanda, but also countries such as Mozambique and Angola.
Part of the reason for these anomalies is that the figures for the representation of social groups in politics have a tendency to be highly deceptive, and doubly so when they are a consequence of quotas enforced from above. In situations such as these, political representation is often a very thin pasting-over of a reality that is much messier and grimmer than the numbers suggest. Consider two different ways in which the statistics can be misleading in this regard.
The first difficulty arises upon closer examination of the nature of cause and consequence in these situations; in other words look behind the headlines and the basic numbers. Apparent progress is often not the result of a triumphant march towards the light of modernity but an offshoot of other processes, often less permanent ones. For example take the peculiar case of Rwanda. Rwanda appears to be a model among all nations for gender equality, with its parliament consisting of an actual majority of women, the first time in history that this has happened anywhere. Advocates of gender equality routinely cite this case with approval. Yet the fact is that Rwanda’s female participation rate is to a significant degree a consequence of the disproportionate number of men killed in the genocide in 1994. In other African countries, the high rate of female political participation exists in spite of their highly egregious social situation, as a result of admittedly forward-thinking post-conflict political settlements made in those countries in the 1990s.
Just as the cause of something may not be what it seems, the consequences of a development like this are often different from those which were intended or at least alleged. The Indian bill would certainly mean more female faces in politics, but the amendment omits a reservation for women from “lower castes” or from religious minorities; hence parties representing dalit (“untouchable”) or Muslim interests have vigorously opposed the bill, saying that it will lead to a more elitist and exclusionary politics, and threatening to withdraw support for the government over it. Additionally many analysts fear that it will exacerbate the already serious problem of nepotism in Indian politics, in which local powerholders simply pass on their political “estates” to their wives or daughters.
Moreover, India’s progress in this area does not primarily arise from the enlightened goodwill of India’s politicians; the genuine initiative of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi deserves much credit for the bill’s passage, but the proto-fascist BJP’s support of it should arouse scrutiny.
The second problem is much more important and one which the feminist movement is very often in danger of forgetting; the severe disconnection that exists between superficial political progress and meaningful change in the lives of ordinary women. This can be illustrated by what may seem to be a rather silly argument: that women have been in leadership positions for thousands of years, but that this fact has not contributed to the material improvement of women’s lives for much of that time. I doubt the reign of Cleopatra meant much for every other woman in Ptolemaic Egypt. The Indian subcontinent is a more recent example of this problem. For half a century women have risen to powerful roles with surprising frequency in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Way back in 1965 Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the world’s first female Prime Minister. The two leading political figures in Bangladesh for the last two decades have been women. In India itself politicians such as Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Kumari Mayawati have been highly prominent. But all of this has meant little for a region which remains rife with misogyny. Much of Indian society suffers atrociously from a culture of sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, domestic violence and dowry deaths. Perhaps, in the long-run, developments such as this bill will help, but for the moment these paper improvements do little to change that reality.
So let us welcome this possibly forthcoming amendment, and hope that it progresses further. We should, indeed, regard it as wonderful news and over time it may not only improve the prospects of individual women and India’s global image, but may also percolate into Indian life more broadly. We should, however, be very careful to maintain perspective. Perhaps the greatest contribution of this bill will be, through the contrasting worlds India will then provide, to show that tremendous political progress in this area in itself means little to the everyday lived reality, and may redirect attention further in that more important area.