October 14, 2009

The Women’s Reservation Bill

THE INDIAN PARLIAMENT recently showed intense activity to promote women’s representation in decision-making bodies. Some months back, a bill was passed that reserves a staggering 50% of seats for women on the panchayat level. Currently under review and soon to be debated in the Lok Sabha is the Women’s Reservation Bill that promises 33% of seats in Parliament to women.

To give an international comparison: the current German Parliament has 32.1 % women in Parliament (1980: a mere 9 %). In Germany, a legal quota system does not exist. However, parties have internally introduced certain reservation systems for women (Green Party: 50 %, Socialist Party 40% etc.). Women however are still largely underrepresented in top ministries as well as top commercial jobs.

Therefore, I am surprised to notice that this new law that bears the potential of helping women into important positions within a culture that sees their role largely within the domain of household and family, does not get a lot of coverage in media and discussion forums. The exchanges that do take place are dominated by male politicians such as Lalu Prasad and Jaswant Singh (both of whom, fortunately, now have other problems to deal with). A somehow lukewarm statement came from the young MP Agatha Sangma: “Social and economic empowerment of women is “much more important” than the women’s reservation bill, which will only give political empowerment” (Indian Express, August 8, 2009).

In my opinion, the quota system in itself is certainly not enough to overcome a deeply chauvinistic tradition but it certainly is an important tool for Indian women towards getting more power. The current female MPs do not seem to be of the opinion that women’s empowerment is a big issue. They refrain from challenging old role models and belief systems about what women can and should do in Indian society. The Pink Chaddhi Campaign and the protests around Valentine’s Day were a rare example of women standing up for their rights as a group and a power to be reckoned with.

However, as long as women see themselves primarily as daughters, sisters and wives, they will lack the strength needed to facilitate changes in society. Lukewarm youngsters like Miss Sangma are a good example of such self-restricting behaviour.

So, I wonder where the women activists have gone since February 2009. Lauded in the West as a big step forward, the President Ms. Patil, is not an example of a modern woman. India clearly is not ready for women in leadership positions to challenge old habits of men head-on. Maybe the soon-to-be-founded Green Party of India will change that? In Germany, it was the Green Party that managed to empower women and got them important ministerial positions long before the Conservative Party was even dreaming about it.

The debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill now rages around how many of such seats should be reserved for scheduled tribes etc. Some are suggesting that more seats should be made available to provide for the “female seats”. All these arguments lead away from the topic: Indian women need a larger representation and a say in the decision-making process. They need to be educated and understand themselves as independent female members of society, not an extension of some household or other social group.

I remember a friend of mine, a single mom from Mumbai, cursing loudly while driving past a Manu temple that for her embodied all that was wrong with Indian society. Left alone by her husband, living on the fringe of society (even though we’re talking Middle Class here), has provided her with an intense resentment against any kind of chauvinism. That’s the type of strength needed to uproot deep-seated prejudices in men and women and create a society of real equal possibilities. It’s a long way, but the debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill should be reclaimed by the people whom it is all about: women.

6 comments to The Women’s Reservation Bill

  • Hmm, it’s interesting (and disturbing) that this post has elicited no comments. Whya re we so reluctant to talk about the bill? Is it because most of us are not sure what effect it will have on our personal lives? Or whether it will be more than a token and how it will really affect women’s issues? Personally, I agree with Kalpana Sharma’s take on this in India Together (http://www.indiatogether.org/2009/jun/ksh-wbill.htm) where she outlines the dangers of it becoming another empty symbol, much like having a woman president. And such empty symoblism can be dangerous because people tend to assume everything’s okay on that front. ‘But look, you have women politicians — how bad can the situation be?’

    Pointing out how the proposed rotation system will encourage men to field wives etc as temporary representatives for a term, the Lok Satta has suggested that the Bill should instead make it mandatory for every political party to field women in one-third of constituencies in every State, taken as a unit, for Lok Sabha elections. I think the Bill, if passed with flaws ironed out, would make a difference at multiple levels — by evening an important field for women, one which it is difficult for them to aspire towards, and hopefully bringing a greater sensitivity towards women’s issues into the political sphere. The hope is that women in power will pay more attention to the problems of women in their constituencies and address problems that men neglect or sweep under the carpet. Also, read this article, again by Kalpana Sharma, on women politicians in India’s small towns (http://www.indiatogether.org/2009/may/ksh-womenpol.htm).

    I’m still wondering though about the general silence on this. Any thoughts on this, anyone?

    I also feel that mainstream media does a terrible job of illuminating the issues behind something like this. Beyond reporting on what idiocy Sharad or Mulayam are spouting, they do little to explain what’s really happening. So it’s possible that man people (including me) feel a bit obfuscated in their understanding.

  • ak

    Hi,
    I dont understand the women of india. For everything they need support but still they will shout for equality.
    In bus you cant enter so you need reserved seats,you need tax relaxation in salary, you need separate queues since you cant stand longer (I know this is not the region).All the laws (thanks to feminist law makers) of land favours you whether it is rape/divorce/domestic violence/adultery and list is endless, you seek sympathy from society for every simple problem, exams you cant write so you cry for sympathy (ask any engineering student in lab). what else do you need.
    for every man’s success you want to take credit but yours only you take credit. when you fail it is mail dominated society (sania lost a match since it is a male dominated society!! how much stupid you could be???).Yes it is a male dominated society but it has not spoon-feeded us.
    I agree that men in the society gets upper hand but that is not an excuse for all spoon-feeding that you need from government of india.
    On top of that you need women reservation bill?

  • rohit anand

    Very nice view point mentioning the exact amount of
    empowerment recquired than a hand made reservation policy to facilitate the strength of women . untill n unless the aptitude towards women , being a weaker section is not changed, no vain of such reservation policies.

  • In my point of view, Every time it comes up for vote, some political party or the other scuttles it by finding some wrinkles in the proposed legislation. Nobody says it is perfect, but it is a good start. Make your voice count in support of Women’s reservation bill for Lok Sabha by posting your signature/vote through Chennaimoms.com

  • india is a male chauvinistic society and to participate in the decision making process one cannot resort to voilent measure.this is a good step to equalize the no of men and women in the decision making process.but this will not lead to the empowerment of a woman. to be empowered a woman should be self sufficint. she doesnt only needs political empowerment but she also needs economic empowermentand social empowerment. a woman has to take steps on her own to isolate right from wrong. she sholudnt bow before what is wrong and shouldnt either compromise for what is right . woman are to be treated equal;ly rather than giving equal rights.

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