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Holding Up Half the Sky

Political representation is a necessary condition for a liberal democracy. Political quotas are meant to address the absence of those who are excluded because of the inegalitarian social structures in which political processes are enacted. This is accepted as a legitimate justification for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe quotas in legislatures and Parliament. Reserved quotas for women are a fair extension of that same principle. The Women's Reservation Bill must empower women to address their situation politically, not to serve the old hierarchies once again. An effective implementation of reserved quotas for women in legislatures and Parliament is a must to bring a more participative and inclusive, a more egalitarian and sensitive citizenship for all.


Holding Up Half the Sky

Reservations for Women in India

Rudolf C Heredia

Political representation is a necessary condition for a liberal democracy. Political quotas are meant to address the absence of those who are excluded because of the inegalitarian social structures in which political processes are enacted. This is accepted as a legitimate justification for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe quotas in legislatures and Parliament. Reserved quotas for women are a fair extension of that same principle. The Women’s Reservation Bill must empower women to address their situation politically, not to serve the old hierarchies once again. An effective implementation of reserved quotas for women in legislatures and Parliament is a must to bring a more participative and inclusive, a more egalitarian and sensitive citizenship for all.

Rudolf C Heredia ( is a Mumbai-based independent researcher and writer.

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Caste Hierarchy, Feudal Patriarchy

n favouring the old Chinese proverb: “Women hold up half the sky”, Mao Zedong was making a statement for gender equality. Yet revolutions have come and gone but patriarchy seems to go on forever. In every country patriarchy still prevails, the difference is only a matter of degree. On an index of life expectancy, wealth and education, the United Nation’s (UN) Human Development Report 1997 finds that no country treats its women as well as its men (United Nations 1997: 39). However, the more traditional and hierarchal a society is, the more patriarchal it is likely to be.

The UN Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW),1 1995, in the “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action” affirmed the link between gender equity and democracy:

Achieving the goal of equal participation of women and men in decision-making will provide a balance that more accurately reflects the composition of society and is needed in order to strengthen democracy and promote its proper functioning… Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.2

Under-representation of women is now a serious concern globally. An international study, including countries in Scandinavia, the Balkans, the Arab region, western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, south Asia, East Timor, A fghanistan and Iraq, found that

…around 40 countries have introduced gender quotas in elections to national parliaments, either by means of constitutional amendments or changing the electoral laws (legal quotas). In more than 50 other countries major political parties have voluntarily set quota provisions in their own statutes (party quotas). Even if quota provisions are often controversial, the use of the quota tool to make historical leaps or jumpstarts in women’s representation is becoming a global trend (Dahlerup 2006: 3).

Caste hierarchy and feudal patriarchy reproduce each other and the nexus is very difficult to break. But if any ground is to be gained, then both must be confronted together. The story of Bhanwari Devi is a strident indictment of how deep this nexus runs in our society, and how difficult it is to exorcise it (Narula 1999: 176). It typifies the extrajudicial retaliation used in hierarchical and feudal societies to punish and marginalise women who defy their writ, and how the response of the judicial process can be even more shocking.

Good Women, Bad Women

When women do attain a national leadership role it is often because they have inherited the mantle from their fathers or husbands, rather than as persons in their own right and are then projected as matriarchs, part of the joint family, complementary to the patriarchy rather than a challenge to it. However, we can also see in the violent defensiveness of patriarchs an indication of their control fraying at the edges.

Brutal atrocities against women who dare to cross traditional limits are but a desperate attempt to reassert their power by reinforcing boundaries. Caste and patriarchy are far from defunct in our society, and modernity by itself is no guarantee that they will cease to exist in the foreseeable future. Unless equality and equity in gender relations are vigorously pursued, patriarchy will adapt and transmute into new and more obfuscating forms.

The more subtle of these mutants, even in mature liberal societies, is paternalism, that is, the apparently benign fatherly care and protection that undermines the independence of people and controls them gently but firmly. It easily gives men a “certificate of conscience” for the responsibilities they so generously accept for their women, who are thus domesticated as idealised icons and guardians of their culture, the upholders of family honour and moral values. In effect, this idolises women, puts them on a pedestal and confines them to safe familial and supportive roles, from which tradition forbids them to break out. Mae West (1893-1980) the famous American actress, but less known as a playwright, hit this paternalism on the head with one of her famous one-liners: “Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can’t figure out what from.”

“Good women” must submit to the protection of “good men”, their fathers, husbands, and, in India when widowed, their sons. Or else they become “bad women” who want to rule their own lives, and so are vulnerable to despoliation by “bad men”. They lose their virtue, dishonour themselves and their families, and are a danger to society. If they will not allow men to protect them from themselves, then men must protect families and society from them. Mae West rejected such submissive protection. Not surprisingly, she was sentenced on 27 April 1927 to 10 days in jail for corrupting the morals of youth with her play, Sex, though she got two days remitted for good b ehaviour there!

Women’s movements today are resisting such masculinist protectionism. Rather than equality as similarity, they are now demanding equality of life chances and freedom in life choices. Rather than a token presence in politics through male largesse, they want more effective political participation through preferential representation in political assemblies. Rather than confined domesticity, they seek an influential role in the public sphere. These, then, are the issues that an incisive understanding of gender justice in this country must address: gender equality, political representation, and civil liberties.

But first they must be situated in the history of the women’s movement. There are a “multiplicity of cultural, social and p olitical intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Naffine 1994: 11, nt 10) as a category. Hence “women” cannot be referred to by a single unified and coherent designation derived from some ahistoric and mythic archetype. It must be set in the concrete historical and cultural c ontext to which it refers, with all the ambiguities and ano malies found there.

Unresolved Questions

Except for subaltern leaders, most other nationalist ones gave political swaraj as a birthright a clear priority over social r eform as an urgent necessity. In spite of their unprecedented mass mobilisation by Gandhi in the independence movement that brought them into political life and the public domain, women’s liberation was never quite central to the movement’s agenda. The nationalist movement’s split between the cultural and the political did not make for the politicisation of women’s emancipation and hence “the seeming absence of any autonomous struggle by women themselves for equality and freedom” (Chatterjee 1989: 250). Though the issues of reform were raised by the early reformers of the 19th century, “the nationalist resolution of the women’s question” (ibid) failed to politicise women’s issues.

After independence, in spite of the promulgation of constitutional equality, universal suffrage and the path-breaking legislation that followed, that is, the Special Marriage Act of 1954 and the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and 1956, women returned to their traditional roles and familial domesticity. The high hopes and great expectations of India’s struggle for freedom were betrayed by “the postponement of the social and economic revolution” (Myrdal 1968: 273-80, vol I) that was necessary to fulfil them, and with this the emancipation of women as well. They had yet to realise that “the personal is the political”.

The “genesis of the new women’s liberation movement lay in the radicalisation of Indian politics in the late sixties” (Patel 2008: 3), which continued into the 1970s. The Naxalbari movement of leftist extremists in the communist strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala, the Navnirman movement of students in Gujarat, the Sampoorna Kranti of Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar and across the north, the Gandhian Chipko movement in the Himalayan foothills, all these and more posed a radical challenge to the politics-as-usual syndrome of established parties.

With the anti-price rise stir of the middle class in the 1970s, urban women too joined the demand for change. In 1974, the Stree Mukti Sanghatana in Bombay and the Progressive Organisation of Women in Hyderabad were formed, and between 1977-79 similar women’s organisations in Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Patna, and Madras were begun.

At the beginning of the UN’s International Women’s Year in 1974, which was followed by the International Decade of Women (1975-85), the National Committee on the Status of Women in India had released its report Towards Equality (1974) on the status of women in India (1971-74), underscoring the shocking reality of women in our society. In response, new o rganisations

– the Forum against Oppression of Women in Mumbai, Saheli in Delhi, Stree Shakti Sanghatana in Hyderabad, and Vimochana in Bangalore, for instance – were formed to demand action on specific issues like dowry and rape.

Academic departments and centres of women’s studies brought the necessary critical reflection to the activist movements. Antiquated legislation had to go; a new developmental

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and political agenda was to be put in place. By the 1980s, women had taken to the streets, as empowered agents of their own liberation, demanding their legitimate place in society as equal partners with men.

Certainly, the women’s movement in India has been influenced and inspired by movements abroad and especially those in the west, perhaps much more than vice versa. But women in India do have their own multicultural distinctiveness and their movements have followed their own historical trajectories in their encounters with Indian patriarchies and their social peculiarities. They do not pretend to have resolved the “women’s question”, but at least it is being energetically raised, and their impact is significant and irreversible. For women are now joining hands not just across barriers of caste and class, or region and language in our own society, they are crossing national boundaries on these as well, in south Asia and beyond.

However, since “women” are not a single “coherent and unified category” (Naffine 1994: 11, nt 10), such synergies need much fine-tuning. Without recourse to an essential stereotypical archetype, there is an existential commonality across all the subcategories into which women can be classified. For gender inequality is still so prevalent to a greater or lesser degree in all societies even today. It is further compounded and confused on other dimensions of social inequality, such as caste or ethnicity, class or race, to become cumulative inequalities.

Taken together this inflicts multiple and complex inequalities on women across the globe. These make them so much more vulnerable to not just domestic violence but also to social injustices in male dominated societies. Here men are the norm, women the deviant because of their biological difference from men. They are thus constituted as “outgroups”, “located outside positions of power and influence” (Bacchi 1996: 11).

Women’s movements have rightly claimed that this makes them “sisters” to other women across all other differences and boundaries. For wherever they are located, socially or geographically, whether dalit or black, upper or middle or lower class, in the west or the east, the north or the south, they have all experienced bias and suffered discrimination, even though there maybe variations in degree and kind.

Hence wherever women are vulnerable to such deprivation, affirmative action for them must be a demand for inclusive justice. Thus, as caste quotas are needed to counter the deprivation that caste hierarchies inflict, so too are women’s quotas necessary for gendered hierarchies; as minority rights are protective measures for minorities vulnerable to majoritarian domination, so too must women’s rights be privileged against entrenched patriarchies.

Constitutionally and legally, women’s rights’ legislation has been progressive and liberal, and yet the statistics of crimes against women are stark evidence that their implementation is not really effective. The proportion of women in public life and government, in select educational institutions and professional occupations, further corroborates that equal opportunity for women is in fact neither equal nor considered opportune. Drastically falling sex ratios are threatening to turn them into a d eclining gender minority in many states in north India.

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Regrettably, religious minorities often vigorously affirm their minority rights in defence of their personal law code and their educational institutions, but then use these to resist g ender equality and justice in their communities in the name of religious tradition. Larson (2001) suggests an ominous collision course between minority rights and women’s rights, which plays into the hands of majoritarian chauvinists, even as it frustrates human rights activists.

Reserved quotas for women too are now increasingly contentious. Interestingly, these were not contested at the lower levels of local self-government in panchayati raj institutions, as promulgated with the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments Acts in 1992. They have even been expanded from a third to a half in some states, and that too in some of the most patriarchal ones. But at the higher legislative levels of Parliament and state legislatures, quotas for women have been fiercely resisted and endlessly postponed. Complicated intricacies are involved, with real possibilities of patriarchs and m atriarchs of various ideologies and persuasions hijacking it to their own agendas.

A refusal to face these issues, of gender equality and personal law, political representation and women’s quotas will mean a further postponement in addressing the “women’s question”, as also that of the social and political revolution and a betrayal of the promise of our struggle for freedom. They must be faced with a critical sensitivity and an integral justice towards the women’s question. For women’s liberation is not just for women, its promise is to liberate society as a whole, men from their patriarchies and all of us from our hierarchies, bringing us closer to a more egalitarian society, a more representative democracy, and a more inclusive citizenship.

The Law and the Lady

The fundamental right to non-discrimination in our Constitution remains a formal and legal declaration of equality, far from the reality on the ground, especially with respect to gender relations in this country. Much of the legislation for gender justice meant to protect women against atrocities and violence, and from harassment and outrage, is at times quite e xemplary, but it is stymied by those entrusted with enforcing these laws, whether in the executive or the judiciary. The statistics on crimes against women show an increasingly upward trend: dowry deaths, bride burning, female foeticide and even infanticide, rape and sexual harassment. Moreover, the conviction rate on these crimes makes a mockery of the law. Patriarchy prevails, the status quo triumphs.

One of the most complex and contentious areas of gender equality is the impasse on personal law, which so starkly illustrates much else in gender relations. The origins of our present personal law code are found in the gender legislation and p atriarchy of colonial India which still casts its long dark shadow on the quest for gender justice and equality even today.

The British sought to govern in accordance with existing practices and traditions. Though a uniform criminal law code was imposed, in civil matters that pertained to the family, that is, marriage, inheritance, divorce, a personal law code particular to a community was formalised on the basis of textual sources, rather than an unreliable oral tradition. Eleanor Newbigin, a Cambridge historian, “argues that the systems of personal law in operation in India today are the outcome of the late colonial attempts by Hindu and Muslim male reformers to alter the legal system in ways that served their own interests” (Newbigin 2009: 83). Once these traditions acquired the legitimacy and force of the codified law, they became far more rigid for being formalised than the precolonial judiciary’s reliance on oral tradition in its specific context. Instead of “bringing the order of modernity to forms of social organisations… English law works to strengthen them into forms of control” (Viswanathan 2001: 77).

A dispatch from the legislative department summed it up thus: “If the law is against her, I don’t see how we can sacrifice the ‘Law to the ‘Lady’’ ”.3 The collusion between two patriarchies here, both British and Indian, is appalling.

A Common Civil Code

Article 44 in the Directive Principles of State set the cat among the pigeons: “The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”. There was bitter opposition from the Muslim members in the Constituent Assembly to this, so rather than abruptly abolishing personal law, it seemed better to begin with reform and with the progressive advance of secularism in the country hoping these would eventually converge towards a uniform civil code. An uneasy beginning was to be made with the Hindu majority rather than the Muslim minority. It was a concession made then, but now it seems impossible to move forward from there.

On the right, the opposition was led by the Hindu traditionalists represented by the Jana Sangh, the earlier political avatar of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) before its present reincarnation in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But there was resistance even within the Congress Party itself. Outlawing bigamy and giving women property rights posed a threat to these patriarchs, one they bitterly resisted. How could an outcaste “untouchable” law minister, like Ambedkar, have any authority or mandate to interpret and override the sacred scriptures? On the left, the socialists and communists, liberals and secularists, pressed for speedy reform of all personal laws. In a Parliament dominated by his party, in spite of Prime Minister Nehru’s personal backing, the Hindu Code Bill was rejected in 1954 and Ambedkar resigned in protest. Eventually, a modified version was passed in 1955. With the Hindu Marriage Act of 1956, Hindu women were given the right to choose or divorce their marriage partners, polygamy was abolished, and daughters and wives given rights in their fathers’ and husbands’ property.

Today the roles are reversed: the very political parties that so stridently protested the reform of Hindu personal law have now become champions of a uniform civil code. It would seem that having lost their battle then, they are now determined to inflict the same defeat on others. They denigrate Muslim r esistance to reform as being anti-secular, and any accommodation to their personal law as appeasement.

On the other side, the more secular liberals and the left have become more sensitive to the Muslim community now on the defensive, and also the limitations of a uniform civil code. They are no longer so precipitate in demanding change in their personal law, settling for its reform rather than abolition, seeking gender justice rather than a common civil code for s ociety. As yet the real issues of gender equity and equality must be resolved.

The Parsi Succession Act of 1864 was followed by the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act 1865, which was updated in 1936. The reform of personal law for other communities has been piecemeal and at snail’s pace. The Christian Marriage Bill in 2000 proposed amendments to make the extremely biased Christian Marriage Act of 1872 more gender equitable. It met with some official resistance from clerical and lay leaders in the churches, but was eventually passed with the Indian D ivorce Act of 2001.

However, Muslim personal law has followed a rather unfortunate trajectory, complicated by the communal tensions provoked by extremist leaders. In their defensiveness the Muslim community now vehemently opposes any change in their personal law. They perceive this as a threat to their religious traditions, even though many of the changes envisaged have been introduced in other Muslim countries and have long been accepted by traditional religious leaders there, for example, more gender equity in divorce laws, and a prohibition of the triple talaq.

But as long as Muslims in India perceive in their personal law a symbol of their identity and a guarantor of their rights as a minority, this is unlikely to change; and as long as they r emain on the defensive, their perception will only be further confirmed. If prejudice towards a community is from the outside, then it can only be addressed from there. However, r eforming an already defensive community from the outside only seals it off further from reform. If resistance is from within, then this must be countered from within. Outsiders can at most play a secondary supportive role. But when the political stakes at the hustings are high, then even so-called secular leaders and their parties, on all sides and of all colours, choose to consolidate their vote banks rather than risk reform. This was strikingly epitomised in the fate of Shah Bano, when identity trumped justice.

Convergence Not Uniformity

Joining the debate on the religious communities and their p ersonal laws, Kumkum Sangari, a women’s rights scholar and activist, makes an extensive review of the “politics of d iversity” in the context of “religious communities and multiple patriarchies” (Sangari 1995). Because all communities are d iversified on multiple axes, their patriarchies will vary from each other in degree and kind. Ethnic cultures and political ideologies have as much to do with the disempowerment of women as religion. Hence a uniform civil code will not be able to address these multiple hierarchies. Moreover, a legitimate apprehension is that it would inevitably reflect the majority Hindu traditions and thus compromise those of other religious communities and of different secular persuasions.

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Even in those western societies that do have such a uniform code, some informal recognition must be made, or the law could go against women in tight knit conservative ethnic or religious communities in those societies. Thus a woman may win a court decision in her favour but find that it is not recognised as legitimate in her own community and lose their support and even be ostracised there. For long this had been done in some western countries, like England, for orthodox Jews who follow a strict rabbinic law code. In a foundation lecture to the Royal Courts of Justice on 7 February 2008, Williams Rowan, the Archbishop of Canterbury and primate of the A nglican Church, had mooted similar consideration for conservative Muslim communities following their shariat law, but in the prevailing Islamophobia, it has been loudly opposed.

Sangari argues for a two-pronged approach: empower women to affirm their fundamental rights common to all women in society, and at the same time protect them from the particular patriarchies peculiar to their communities. Hence, an effective civil code must have a “double purpose: to protect women, here and now, from existing patriarchies…while they also seek to project, simultaneously, an ideal horizon of women empowered as agents and citizens” (ibid: 387). Necessarily it implies a common core of gender rights across all communities as well as provisions specific to different communities. This would not be a uniform civil code, but an agenda for reforming the personal laws to make gender relations more equitable in the concrete context of different communities.

If women must be agents and equal citizens in society, we must recognise they are made victims in society as well. A g ender just and culturally sensitive civil code would be required to “encourage religious diversity, establish inalienable rights for all women, as well as find ways of dealing with the diversity of patriarchies” (ibid: 3386). This provides a point of convergence for a more nuanced and culturally sensitive civil code that can more effectively empower and protect women as needed in their real social contexts. It would not be a uniform civil code, but a more effective one, both common to all communities and specific to each.

Reformative change becomes necessary where social customs and religious traditions do not measure up to the constitutional demands of justice and equity. The constitutional r equirement of a uniform civil code was meant to integrate r eligious communities into a united national society. But given the bewildering plurality of communities in India and how c ollective identities effectively subsume individual ones, forcing a uniform civil code on these communities will be neither just nor viable. Legislating optional personal and civil codes and giving support in civil society is a practical beginning that could hardly be opposed and so would command the widest consensus.

Tokenism and Reality

The reform of personal law represents a direct threat to the control that patriarchies exercise in their communities, legitimised on multiple dimensions, by religious beliefs and cultural traditions, economic practices and political ideologies. Hence

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they are difficult to dislodge. The same is true of caste. As with caste, reserved quotas for women in the public arena are a transparent and unambiguous expression of affirmative a ction. As caste quotas are a threat to caste hierarchies, so too are women’s quotas for dominant patriarchies.

The closer to the centres of power such quotas are allocated, the greater the threat and the fiercer the opposition. On the periphery of status and power they are hardly contested b ecause there is little competitive demand for opportunities at this level, whether of employment or offices, in education or welfare. At the village and district levels of panchayati raj i nstitutions, reserved quotas for women were easily accepted and even extended from a third to a half in some states, but for Parliament and state legislatures they are still stubbornly r esisted by these same politicians, sometimes in open debate, at others in backroom deals.

However, caste quotas too are most vehemently resisted by the upper castes and classes at the higher levels of opportunity in education and employment, where increasing demand

o utruns scarce opportunities. Reserved political quotas for women would not be an issue if adequate numbers of them were already represented in governance. But their present p athetic and still declining numbers tell an alarming story of their growing marginalisation in elective political processes, especially in legislatures and Parliament.

Democratic representation is necessary to legislate just state policies, deliver fair executive action and protect due judicial process. The adequate representation of women in these democratic processes and elected roles of real consequence and leadership is necessary if all this is to reach them effectively. Women have long demanded affirmative policies in all three areas: women judges to try cases of rape and atrocities against women, special women’s cells in local police stations, and the protective presence of policewomen when dealing with women suspects or offenders.

A major study across six countries made a disturbing discovery: “when the category ‘women’ appears to gain recognition, this is often part of a political manoeuvre to limit political change for women” (Bacchi 1996: 10). Hence “despite commitments to ‘women’ in the form of affirmative action policies, women rate little ‘political attention’ and as ‘a political category rate little importance’ ” (ibid). Consequently, what women “are confronted with is not a state that represents ‘men’s interests’ as against women’s, but government conducted as if men’s interests are the only ones that exist” (Pringle and Watson 1992: 68).

Hence “‘man’ remains the ‘unremarked standard’ in discussions about the ‘woman problem/question’” (Bacchi 1996: 12). Defining the gender issues in terms of “woman” and then a ddressing them in terms of such a standard, puts women on the defensive and leaves unexamined the problem/question of how male identity is constructed and how patriarchal values and norms are embedded in it. It allows men as the standard to represent women who are the problem, effectively depriving them of voice and agency in their own cause, making them dependent on male wisdom and benevolence.

Too Much? Too Little?

The legislation implementing and extending the Mandal Commission recommendations in the last two decades was passed by an overwhelming majority in Parliament, even with the necessary constitutional amendments. Opposition was expressed in public protests on the streets, at times even violently. With regard to women’s reservations, the contestation in Parliament is endless, and more recently evenly violent. Ugly unprecedented scenes were witnessed in the Rajya Sabha when the Bill was tabled with some violently protesting, stubborn male Members of Parliament (MPs) having to be physically removed by the house marshals.

Finally, the Bill was passed in their absence with the r equired three-fourths majority on 9 March 2010. Before its promulgation it still has to be passed in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies, where the same trouble from the same parties is anticipated. But as happens with so much public debate and protest, the real issues are lost in transit from conception to delivery. Sound and fury rules the day.

Once affirmative action for women is legislated, “the courts in India have demonstrated an inclination to uphold sex discrimination where the classification was not unreasonable and where it was motivated by a legislative and executive solicitude for the moral and physical well-being of women” (Anand 1987: 305). Protective legislation for women is rather readily granted (Agnes 1992: WS-19), especially when the support of women’s movements that make these demands is anticipated at the hustings. The alternative

proposals which sought to accommodate the concerns of women’s representation while keeping the status quo of overwhelming male domination intact, were debated threadbare and found to be either ineffective or infeasible… The fact that this legislation will break the status quo, if implemented, does not amount to any argument against the legislation. The problem is with the status quo itself, since it has been unfair to women, who comprise half of our population and electorate. (Bose 2010: 12).

The Women’s Reservation Bill, mandating a quota of a third of the seats for women in state legislatures and Parliament, was a logical extension of what had been achieved relatively easily at the level of local representative bodies after the adoption of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992. The positive experience of women and recognition of their interventions in the panchayats presaged this, especially

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in the states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal and K erala, where panchayati raj was taken more seriously.

The need and urgency for greater representation of women at higher levels of governance is strikingly apparent from their sparse numbers there. From a dismal 4.4% in the first Lok Sabha (1952-57), women members reached their lowest proportion in the sixth Lok Sabha (1977-80) with 3.8%. Things did improve by the 13th Lok Sabha (1999-2004) with women constituting 9.2%, but then declined marginally to 8.28% in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-09), and again rose a bit to 10.9% in the 15th Lok Sabh (2009). The All India Democratic Women’s Association reported to the parliamentary standing committee in 2008, the proportion of Other Backward Class (OBC) women MPs in total number of women MPs in the 14th Lok Sabha as 30%, slightly higher than the 28% for the total number of OBC MPs in the house. This is not an indication of their electoral marginalisation vis-à-vis the men in their communities. With a onethird quota for women, scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) women members together would increase from 17 to 40 within their present 22.5% reservations as constitutionally mandated. What the actual percentage of OBC women will be with the one-third quota for all women remains to be seen.

The Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in 1996 as the 81st Constitutional Amendment Bill by the Janata Party government then in power. During the 14 long years of its chequered history, many amendments have been proposed and discussed by political parties, women’s groups, parliamentary commissions, but most of these were meant to soften the impact of the change they would bring, and none really measured up to women’s demand for adequate representation in these bodies. Political parties had long accepted increasing women’s representation by voluntarily nominating more women candidates, but this has had little or no effect, at least on the number of women in Parliament. Parties were unwilling to risk women candidates where they had safer seats, and so nominated them mostly to ones where they had little chance of winning.

A proposal was made to increase the strength of the assemblies with dual member constituencies for half of the seats, with women contesting one and men the other (Narayan et al 2000). This would bring in a third more women MPs without disturbing the status quo of males MPs. But it would make these already unwieldy bodies even more so by increasing the total number of seats by half.

A more complicated suggestion was made earlier in 1997 by the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi of the Shetkari Sanghatana (Farmers’ Union Women’s Platform). It was to pool three constituencies with three contesting candidates, of which one would mandatorily be a woman, and then give voters three votes, one of which would have to be cast for the woman candidate (Communalism Combat 1997: 6). This would meet the requirement of the overall numbers, but also multiply the demands on the candidates’ campaigning, and extend the successful representatives’ obligations to unfeasible proportions, blur accountability and hinder implementation of governmental programmes in the extended constituency, especially if it had a divided electorate.

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A rotation of reserved seats would mean that a third of the constituencies would have to be vacated by the sitting candidates. This has been seen as an injustice to the candidates who have nurtured their constituencies after earlier elections. But such nurturing representatives have also used their position to stymie any opposition and secure the seat for themselves and their party. All too often such secure seats have become feudal fiefdoms. Rotation could provide the opportunity of liberating such constituencies at least every third election.

Reserved quotas for women do pose a direct threat to the prevailing patriarchies in our society. Politicians and parties, those openly opposed and even those apparently supportive, obfuscate their patriarchal agenda, by demanding amendments, or making alternative proposals to ensure that the Bill will rock their boat as little as possible. But no single piece of legislation, even a path-breaking one like this, can by itself f ulfil all the expectations or assuage all the fears that will i nevitably arise.

For this Bill is situated in the endless complexities and contradictions of gender relations in a traditional society undergoing rapid, even drastic change. It can at best be a first step and at worst the last one, but at the least it should not be a step backwards, as some opponents hold. The pertinent question is really this: Do “political parties resist the Bill because they fear it will empower women too much or too little?” (Menon 2004: 170). For some opponents it is too much too soon, for other proponents it is already too little too late.

Multiple Hierarchies, Unequal Patriarchies

This precisely is the debate about sub-quotas within the w omen’s quota for the OBCs who are leading the charge against its present formulation and which some of the Muslim minority have now joined. This divisive issue has become a dangerous sticking point, threatening the final outcome of the Bill. The dividing lines here are rather apparent. The OBC apprehension is that upper caste/class women, already better prepared and positioned in public life than OBC women, will c orner a majority of the reserved seats and consolidate their gains, increasing the overall proportion of upper castes and classes in elected assemblies, where the OBCs as a demographic majority are now a dominant group. Hence the OBC demand for sub-quotas for their women.

In our caste hierarchies, besides the inequalities between and within castes, there are gender inequalities peculiar to each caste, so that within these caste hierarchies and across castes, there are unequal patriarchies (John 2008: 54) as well. Ideally, the Bill should address both, the inequalities between men and women in society at large and the inequalities b etween upper caste and OBC women. This is the justification for the OBC demand for quotas within the quota.

But then again the demand for sub-quotas does not address apprehensions about the bibi-beti syndrome, i e, that men will ventriloquise through their elected wives and daughters. This syndrome might just be further compounded, where p atriarchy is stronger and women more submissive. No community can pretend to gender equality; it is always a matter of degree, though it is generally associated with the more traditional and less urban communities, than with more modern urban ones. The caste panchayats in north Indian village communities are at times shocking testimony to this. There’s an anomaly here that needs to be confronted:

Could it be that enhanced representation of women in the national parliament spells a far greater and immediate challenge to the gendered status quo within the political party system? ...Is it that the pattern of quota systems in India has shown that elite based strategies of empowerment are less helpful to groups seeking recognition than those based on grassroots institutions? (Rai and Sharma 2000: 159).

Where the male access to power is of greater consequence and easier access, there women reservations would be a real and greater threat. This could explain why women’s reservations in panchayati raj institutions were accepted and the quota even enhanced. State and national level leaders and aspirants to these roles are not in the competition here. Moreover, the devolution of State powers to local self-government has been rather limited.

Those more generally opposed to all reserved quotas would be opposed to this Bill as well. These are outside the present debate on this Bill. Those who oppose women’s quotas as inadequate and even counterproductive to the cause of gender e quity are likely to be muted in their opposition in the present climate of political correctness, but one cannot miss the subterranean tremors below the fault lines of the gender divide. Even political parties that support this Bill had to issue a whip to get their members to tow their line when the Bill was voted in the Rajya Sabha in March 2010. However, the issue of castebased sub-quotas, and now minority-based ones, does need to be further unravelled.

The obvious purpose of greater representation for women is for greater gender equity in society, not to protect or promote any caste/class advantage. The greater the gender inequalities in a society and the fewer the women in public life, the more urgent are mandatory quotas for women. However, women are not a uniform category in any society and inequalities between women arise from the inequality between the communities they belong to. The inequalities here impact much more than the women. This was the justification for caste-based quotas in education and employment that are a lready in place.

However, because of the severe discrimination and deprivation they still experience, political reservations to elected assemblies were written into our Constitution only for SCs and STs. The OBCs till now do not have quotas even in panchayati raj institutions. Giving it to OBC women now might open a new can of worms.

The Constituent Assembly had discussed and dismissed such political reservations based on religion and caste when it dismantled the colonial allocation of seats in representative a ssemblies. Now we seem to have reached a historical disconnect with the constitutional projection that caste would be less and less relevant in the new free India. The Mandal Commission had not recommended political reservations for OBCs, nor has the Sachar Commission done so for Muslims.

Some would see the quota within a quota demand as bringing caste and religion back into the political arena; others a rgue they are already there. Better to bring the issue into the open than ignore it while it plays out in the background in hidden and unaccounted ways. But once we let the genie out of the bottle will we be able to put it back again?

The logical extension of sub-quotas for OBC women would be parliamentary and legislative quotas for the OBC category. But then, as with women, neither are the OBCs a uniform category. An endless subdivision of reservations would eventually lead to completely proportional quotas to reflect society. This would perpetuate these categories rather than transcend them. For quotas once politicised cease being temporary as they were in fact intended to be. They tend to become permanent and rescinding them becomes politically unfeasible, at least in our contemporary political scenario.

Women, by and large, celebrated publicly when the Bill in its present form was passed in the Rajya Sabha in March 2010. However, there are apprehensions that the unresolved controversies surrounding the Bill will be hyped to stymie it, which still has many hurdles in its path. Yet it could very well be a first step in targeting patriarchy in society as a whole and could be further amended to target specific community patriarchies in their particular caste hierarchies. The opponents to the Bill are determined not to allow even this, fearful that it might be the last fatal step. Some of these opponents to the present Bill have made an all or nothing issue: amend or die.

Through the 14 long years of parliamentary debates and public discussions, referrals to expert committees and parliamentary commissions, the divisions have become more strident and aggressive. Any extended discussion seems only to politicise the issues even further. On both sides of the divide, patriarchal mindsets seem to rule the roost, and whether sub-quotas will affect patriarchy or caste hierarchy more effectively remains uncertain.

The OBC leadership seems more concerned in protecting their male dominance than in advancing their women, and the proponents more with increasing their upper caste representation than promoting that of women. The unparliamentary behaviour of male MPs each time the Bill is debated has m arginalised the real issues of gender equality and equity. Women’s voices on the Bill and the amendments are heard less and less. This only serves the status quo of male domination.

All this is stark evidence that the liberation of women in this country is so bound with, and dependent on, liberating their men. Perhaps the hundreds of thousands of village women leaders elected in panchayati raj institutions will prepare themselves for higher levels of political leadership. Once they reach critical numbers they could be the vanguard that will one day storm the bastions of male domination, but until then some form of affirmative action must fill in. But for this a critical minimum of proportional representation, labour force p articipation, and the general social autonomy and cultural standing of women must be crossed. Roop Kanwar’s

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sati is a shocking revelation of how far our society still is for that threshold.

Gendered Citizenship

In Indian society, gender equity goes against the grain of our patriarchal traditions, which overtly or covertly resist any change that challenges them. Only a vigorous politics for gender equity can challenge our male dominated electoral politics. The Women’s Reservation Bill is largely being pushed by women MPs. If there were more of them in the house there would surely have been a very different debate from the one that stymied it in caste and patriarchal politics. Male MPs have not been very vocal in their support in the house or very forthcoming outside it, even those in parties that formally supported the bill. Silence here is far from consent.

The strident OBC opposition to the Bill is a comment on their own patriarchies that have controlled their women and kept them more backward than upper caste women. They demand sub-quotas for OBC women so that more of their women in the elected bodies will assure their caste representation in the house. Upper castes are more inclined to support the bill in its present form, similarly expecting a better representation of their women in the reserved quota, and thus to preserve their own caste representation on these bodies.

To judge by our present politics the bibi-beti syndrome is equally prominent with both groups, so their patriarchal control over their women is likely to reduce the women’s presence to a non-threatening tokenism. For neither group is committed to the autonomy of women themselves. Their ambiguity over, and even covert support to, the patriarchal panchayats, even in some of their murderous dictates, only c onfirms this.

The real point at issue is not a token representation of women but an empowering one. If this is not to get lost in the melee of caste and patriarchal politics, it is women in the p ublic domain who must liberate themselves and their men. Women’s movements have done this in civil society. To them we owe much of our gender sensitivity. The Women’s Reservation Bill, even in its present form, could be a first step to bring them into the political arena and then help towards a more equal and participative, a more gender inclusive and gender sensitive, citizenship for all.

This demands an active citizenship not just a passive one (Walzer 1970: 203-25). The first is a more republican ideal of active participation in consequential decisions in a vibrant public space in pursuit of the common good. Active citizens are partners in the governance of society. The second satisfies the liberal concern for individual rights and private interests. P assive citizens are content to be recipients of a benevolent State.

Taking both aspects together implies that “citizenship is not just a certain status, defined by a set of rights and responsibilities, but also as an identity” (Kymlicka and Norman 1994: 369). In other words, the resources and rewards, the obligations and burdens of citizenship must be actively negotiated within a democratic State, for even though its entitlements are formally available to all equally, the citizens’ position in

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society, as defined by the social structures of class, caste, gender, all condition access to them.

This is an ongoing process and who negotiates with whom and on whose behalf is crucial to any equitable outcome. These are processes in the public culture of a society which then get reflected in its institutions, from the familial to the political. Without an independent and empowered presence of women in these processes they will not be gender just and equitable. The historical testimony for this is overwhelming. The effective exclusion of women from these processes of negotiation in the public domain is how traditional patriarchies have reproduced themselves, and why they are so threatened by autonomous women storming their preserved male bastions.

A gendered citizenship (Roy 2005) must not only reject women’s domestication to the private domain, it must contest the oppressive structures of caste and class, and especially the multiple patriarchies running across these. Effective representation and equitable negotiation are prerequisites for an active g endered citizenship, or else they would be merely passive d ependents of patriarchal largesse. How best to do this must be in terms of women’s needs articulated by their own voice and not the patriarchies that pretend to ventriloquise this, but serve their own not-so-hidden agenda of protecting their own caste/class dominance.

Women’s movements in this country have struggled to negotiate gender sensitive citizenship rights and what gains they have achieved are largely in civil society, outside the male hegemony of political power, which will have the decisive say. In the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s movement in India focused on preventing atrocities against women and negotiating their rights. By the 1980s it had moved on to challenge structured gender inequalities that are becoming increasingly pertinent as our present neoliberal policies make women particularly vulnerable.

However, “groups of women who have tried to broaden the political space available for ‘women’ have had to choose whether to use ‘women’s’ traditional status as carers and nurturers” (Naffine 1994: 12), a choice particularly difficult in a traditional culture like ours. But these characteristics must be brought to bear in the political arena and not left restricted within the family. For the familial, like the personal, is the p olitical too. The “dichotomy assumed between ‘public’ (nondomestic) and ‘private’ (domestic) has enabled the family to be excluded from the values of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’” (Nussbaum 2000: 10). In spite of our idealising the family in our society, the gender inequities there “bring us closer to the starkness of the inegalitarian and oppressive relationship between men and women” (Gandhi and Shah 1992: 271). Thus invisible to the public gaze, “the family both fosters and undermines h uman capabilities” (Nussbaum 2000: 270).

Beyond the Stalemate

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), established in 1889, at its meeting in October 2004 debated women’s representation, and quotas were the central issue. This worldwide body in 2005 had 15.7 women members, and of the ministers 14.3% were women.4 A rather radical resolution from the council of the IPU, as early as 1992, stated: “The concept of democracy will only assume true and dynamic significance when political policies and national legislation are decided upon jointly by men and women with equitable regard for the interests and aptitudes of both halves of the population”.5

Political representation is a necessary condition for a liberal democracy. Political quotas are meant to address the absence of those who are excluded because of the inegalitarian social structures in which political process are enacted. It is accepted as a legitimate justification for SC and ST quotas in legislatures and Parliament. Reserved quotas for women are a fair extension of that same principle. For diverse as the category of women may be, all women suffer discrimination and deprivation in their families and in society, and as such their right to representation can no more be gainsaid. The Women’s Reservation Bill must empower women to address their situation politically, not to serve the old hierarchies once again.

However, as with caste, here too reserved quotas are not a sufficient condition for equity and equality for women, though given the present circumstances, they are a necessary one. It is not just the quantity, but the quality of representation that makes it effective. Reserved quotas must just match the electoral system, and be accompanied by other initiatives: conscientisation, capacity building, gender-sensitive environments,


1 FWCW, Art 181.

2 See Last accessed on 17 February 2005.

3 National Archives India, New Delhi, Home Department, 1876, Letter from the Foreign Department to the Legislative Department, p 3.

4, accessed 15 February 2005.

5 IPU in 1994.


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