Women in Pakistani politics: UNDP news report


Mehreen Saeed, Pakistan: breaking the glass ceiling, UNDP Pakistan, June 30, 2010.

“Pakistan has a high rate of women in Parliament compared to other countries in South Asia, with women accounting for 19 percent of representatives in the upper and lower houses. However, women in Pakistan still face many difficulties in accessing decision-making positions at the local, provincial and national levels, and are excluded from crucial political, social and economic processes in their country. Such under-representation has a direct – and negative – impact on the health and education of women across the board. In order to address this challenge, in 2006 UNDP supported the creation of a Women Parliamentary Caucus. Today, 93 women parliamentarian members from five mainstream political parties in Pakistan are working together to advocate for gender-sensitive legislation and amend discriminatory laws and practices. The results have been impressive. “

Read more here.

15 women chief executives: A slideshow


Matilda Battersby, The 15 women taking over the world,” The Independent, June 24, 2010.

“Women make up fewer than 8 per cent of the world’s country leaders. But with Julia Gillard’s election to prime minister of Australia things seem to be improving. She brings the tally of simultaneous female heads of state to a record 15.

“Four female leaders, including Gillard, have taken the highest office in countries around the world so far this year. In 2009, female leaders were elected in Iceland, Croatia and Lithuania.

“Elsewhere, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is Liberia’s president, and the only elected a female leader on the African continent. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a major player on the European political stage. While Iceland’s president, Johanna Sigurdardottir, is not only the country’s first female leader, but is also the world’s first openly gay head of state.

“Despite Britain’s progressive approach to most things, this country seems to have been stilted by Margeret Thatcher’s somewhat dubious legacy. The UK’s first and only female prime minister came to power over 30-years ago, and yet, just one female Labour MP, Dianne Abbot, is willing to stand for party leader in 2010. Even with ‘Blair’s babes’ and an affirmative action approach for women in politics, there are still only 143 women in parliament out of a total 650 MPs.

“So, in an effort to highlight the rarity, as well as the achievements, of female heads of state, The Independent Online has compiled a brief guide to the 15 women taking over the world.”

Report: Status of women in Zimbabwe


IDASA, ICTJ, RAU and WCofZ, “Women, Politics and the Zimbabwe Crisis,” May 2010. (pdf)

Jina Moore, “Zimbabwe’s Inclusive Government Forgot to Include Women,” Global Poverty, June 23, 2010.

“A coalition of local human rights NGOs in Zimbabwe, together with the International Center for Transitional Justice, recently put out a fascinating report that surveyed women on a range of issues. The entire report is a must-read, but notable to me were their findings about the country’s “inclusive government” — which, by the way, most respondents seem to feel marginalizes the opposition. In fact, fully 74% of them said Robert Mugabe has all the power in the arrangement.

“For example, 70% of women felt that women’s interests were not represented in Zimbabwe’s supposedly inclusive government. Another 80% of women declared that their lives had not changed much for the better since the the government was formed. What’s more, apart from questions of food security, health and education, a majority of women expressed little trust in the ability of Zimbabwe’s “inclusive government” to deliver on a wider range of issues.

“And finally, when asked about which political party they favored, 35% of women weren’t willing to respond, or said that they don’t actually support any party at all.

Continue reading

Kumar Selja in conversation: On honour killings, reservations, etc.


The Idea Exchange, “Where is the honour in honour killings? A killing is a killing,” Indian Express, June 6, 2010.


“…Most of us who come from villages subscribe to this concept of not marrying within the gotra. I do not think it is such an issue. We are Arya Samajis and the Arya Samaj has been at the forefront of social reformation. So we have always supported social change when it is for the better. We need to be forward-looking. Scientifically, you cannot dispute that marrying into the same gotra is not good. It is a complicated thing. But when these issues go to an extreme, it is wrong. Where is the honour in honour killings? A killing is a killing. You cannot take the law into your own hands, and I think the Congress is very clear on this matter: the Constitution is supreme.

…DK Singh: Do you think khap panchayats should be banned?

There are no simple answers or solutions. Khap panchayats have existed for a long time. I, too, belong to a khap. Traditionally, the khap panchayat intervened to help solve social issues. When there was marital discord, issues between families, between different villages, they would intervene to sort them out. Often, the police say, let the village elders decide such matters. On the other hand, as I said, you cannot be so drastic as to order honour killings. I do not think any right-minded khap panchayat will order that.

DK Singh: What about the demand for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act to ban same-gotra marriages?

 My opinion is what the Congress Party has said. There is a rule of the law in this country, there is a Constitution, and the Constitution is supreme. In the Hindu Marriage Act, they have given due space to the customary laws.

…Swaraj Thapa: In a place like Goa, you have the chief minister coming up with the most shocking statements. He said rape incidents occur because women dress in a certain manner and that they should not. He also said they should not go out too late at night. What is your message as the tourism minister and as a woman?My concern is with giving travel advisories to the tourists. Often they come from a different cultural background. This is not just for Goa but for any place. It is alright for them to dress up in a bikini and go to the hotel swimming pool. But in our cultural context, while we welcome tourists from abroad, I think we need to advise them.

Vandita Mishra: You have been in politics for nearly 20 years and this Lok Sabha has the maximum number of women. In your opinion, is there such a thing as a woman politician? Does she practise politics differently?

Personally, I have never viewed myself as a woman politician, just as a politician or as a political activist. But you do see things and do things differently. Women, I think, deal with things in a much more sensitive way.

Trinidad and Tobago gets first woman PM!


Indian-origin grandmother is Trinidad and Tobago’s first woman PM, Indo Asian News Service/ NDTV, Wednesday May 26, 2010, Port-of-Spain.

“Kamla Persad-Bissessar, whose forefather came here from India as an indentured labourer, has been elected the first woman prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago after the political alliance led by her emerged victorious and ended the ruling party’s 43 years in power.

Persad-Bissessar’s People’s Partnership won 29 out of the 41 parliamentary seats in the elections held Monday. She is expected to be sworn in as Prime Minister on Tuesday evening by President George Maxwell Richards.”

Contextualising Reservations for Women: Article on women’s quotas



Tinkering with reservations has become our substitute for building a social infrastructure and enlarging the pie so everyone has more, writes Swarna Rajagopalan. But if accompanied by sincere efforts to deal with gender violence, education and healthcare for girls, the Women’s Reservation Bill could be a termination notice for gender inequality in India.

Fourteen years is a magic period in Indian mythology; it is the period of exile served by both Rama and Sita as well as the Pandavas. And in both instances, it ended in a landmark battle. Maybe this makes it inevitable that 14 years in the pipeline, the Women’s Reservation Bill in India will not see the light of day without a political battle of similar proportions and historical significance.

This article is written in five parts. The first part reviews different concepts and phrases used freely in any quota debate. The second part briefly reviews the history of reservations and quotas in India. In the third part, an overview of the different kinds of quotas in effect for women around the world, as well as the working of 33% reservation for women in the Indian panchayats is undertaken. The views articulated by different sections of the Indian women’s movement are summarised in the fourth part. Finally, the article looks at the Bill under review, identifies potential issues and speculates about the amendment’s impact.

The lexicon

Reservations. Quotas. Positive discrimination. Affirmative action. In the debate on how to make the right to equality a reality, these terms are used somewhat interchangeably. All the terms refer to policy measures that are intended to redress discriminatory practices or inequitable structures, both in the economy and the political system.

Positive discrimination is the broadest of these terms, used to describe measures that enable those who have faced discrimination in the past. It could mean differential entrance requirements or reserved seats. It differs from affirmative action which encourages disadvantaged groups to enter the mainstream by mandating equal opportunity and equal consideration. Affirmative action does not usually involve quotas. Reservations is the Indian term for quota systems, which work in different ways to set aside or assure a minimum availability of access to disadvantaged groups.

A word about proportional representation in electoral systems is relevant here. One way of avoiding quotas and assuring representation is through a variety of electoral processes designed to ensure that Parliament or Cabinet reflect the diversity of society as much as possible. These are extensively used as measures to accommodate ethnic diversity. The idea of proportionate representation itself goes beyond the institutions of political democracy to the economic and social sectors.

The right to equality and the right against discrimination are two sides of the same coin. They are related in that discrimination violates the right to equality, but a strong critique of positive discrimination and affirmative action is that they manipulate the playing field and its entrance requirements, thereby violating the right to equality. Both measures intended to discriminate and measures intended to reverse or redress discrimination reinforce difference and are potentially divisive. Moreover, the philosophical and political tug-of-war between freedom and equality also finds a place in the debate on reservations.

The Indian historical context

Taxonomy and hierarchy have long been the warp and weft of the Indian social fabric. Work and social responsibility were divided among members of a community, first fluidly, then rigidly. The caste system created the first set of quotas, privileging some, placing others at a disadvantage and simply choosing not to see large numbers of community members in its ‘place for everyone, everyone in their place’ arrangements. This does not mean that inclusivity, fairness or even-handedness were not Indian political values. They were, but these values were interpreted to mean different things to different rulers at different historical moments.

In modern Indian political history, quotas have been used to assure representation for many categories of people.

During the first phase of British colonialism in India, the East India Company and its representatives made decisions for Indians, including decisions about Indian customs and traditions. The 1857 revolt expressed the ferment and anger of the Indian elite which had been dispossessed by the actions of East India Company officers like Dalhousie. A growing class of Indians educated in English and familiar with European political thinking of the time began to press for inclusion in government, even as in 1858, the Crown took over the administration of India, promising that, “…it is our further will that, so far as maybe, our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to office in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified by their education, ability, and integrity duly to discharge,” (Queen’s Proclamation, 1858).

The growing Indian demand for inclusion was accommodated through a growing representation in the legislative councils and by allowing Indians to enter the civil service. The back and forth on this took almost a century, culminating in Indian independence and the partition of the subcontinent. Demands for more representation, and to be able to write the Indian civil service examination in India were accommodated gradually, grudgingly. The size of the councils was expanded to accommodate more Indians. Experimental arrangements like ‘dyarchy’ were introduced. The Government of India Act (1919) which implemented the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms, introduced a bifurcation of responsibilities in the legislatures where some portfolios were reserved for British administrators in the governor’s office, and some were delegated to Indian ministers chosen from the legislative council. The delegated portfolios depended on disbursements from departments overseen by the governor. Dyarchy did not work, and, strangely, this prompted its adoption at the Centre even as it was withdrawn at the provincial level by the Government of India Act (1935). In any event, the demand for inclusion had transformed by 1920 into the Home Rule movement and then for complete independence. Merely including representatives, creating a council for princes or delegating portfolios had long become inadequate.

This is one thread of the representation and quota story. Two parallel threads were evolving that would remain important to subcontinental politics.

The first emerged as the demand for separate electorates by Muslims. The partition of Bengal along communal lines, dividing the Muslim majority East from the Hindu majority West, was strongly protested by the Congress, rallying support for an overarching Bengali identity. The protests and subsequent reversal of the partition in 1911 motivated the formation of the All-India Muslim League in 1906 and the demand by a deputation of Muslim leaders for separate electorates. Seats would be reserved for Muslim candidates for whom only Muslims would be eligible to vote. In addition, Muslims would also vote as part of the general electorate. In 1916, the Congress and the Muslim League signed the Lucknow Pact, whereby the principle of separate electorates for all communities was accepted. In 1919, the Government of India Act extended separate electorates to include other communities.

The second thread emerged in the following decade: the demand for separate electorates for the depressed classes. Gandhi opposed the demand saying it would divide Indian society and went on an indefinite hunger strike. Ambedkar was left with no option but to meet him for discussions. The Poona Pact was a compromise whereby a joint electorate would vote in depressed class candidates in specially reserved constituencies — a system that still obtains, except that they are now called scheduled castes in the Constitution.

By the mid-1930s, the great centrifuge of Indian politics was almost fully operational and large and small assertions of identity arose that were all oriented towards better representation and more of a say in their own affairs. Some, like the Pakistan Movement, ended in partition; some like the Dravidian Movement made space for themselves within a post-colonial Indian mainstream. After 1947, in India, this has taken the form of state re-organisation; reservations in public sector jobs; reservations for entrance into educational institutions; reserved constituencies for scheduled castes, among others.

Positive discrimination is intended always to be a remedial measure; it is meant to become redundant as a result of its own working. However, in India, the scale of the problem that has to be corrected, the half-hearted investment in social development and the short-sighted leadership of the political elite have combined to make quotas a desirable, even fungible, political good.

In 1979, the Morarji Desai government set up the Mandal Commission with a mandate to consider the extension of quotas and identify appropriate beneficiaries. The Mandal Commission recommended extending reservations to other backward classes (OBCs) to the order of 49.5%. Every party committed to implementing the recommendations, but when the V P Singh government announced its intention of doing so, north India witnessed student protests on an entirely unexpected scale, including several incidents of self-immolation. This was in contrast to states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra where social reform movements fought to open up social, economic and political access to previously excluded castes and classes. If Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj and B R Ambedkar pushed back the barriers in Maharashtra, the Justice Party leadership, Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement and its successors, the Dravida parties, did the same in Tamil Nadu.

Reservations based on caste have acquired the accordion quality of the caste system itself, with castes fighting to prove their backwardness as a way of gaining exclusive access to jobs and political opportunities. There is a push towards expanding the quota system to include more and more groups. On the other hand, in parts of India where social movements have not already brought about attitudinal and power shifts, each push to expand is countered by resistance which is sometimes violent. Tinkering with reservations has become our substitute for building a social infrastructure and enlarging the pie so everyone has more.

Gender hardly blends in with the other flammable ingredients in this cauldron — caste and religious identity, particularly. It cuts across all the other categories for which there are reservations in India, from the children of freedom fighters to army veterans. Little wonder that even in a polity used to an endless stream of demands for inclusion in quota lists, the reservation of seats for women in Parliament touches an especially raw nerve.

Global perspectives

India is far from being the first country in the world, or even South Asia, to adopt quotas. In the interest of bringing more women into mainstream democratic politics, almost 60 countries around the world have experimented with quotas. There are as many permutations of quota systems as there are contexts in which they work — from Angola to South Korea to Slovenia to Uzbekistan (1).

First, we can differentiate quotas on the basis of whether they are mandated by law, either in the constitution or through simple legislation, or whether they have been adopted voluntarily by political parties.

Second, the circumstances of their adoption vary. In the Scandinavian countries which have long been the exemplars for women’s participation in public affairs, quotas were adopted voluntarily following political work by women’s organisations that wanted to consolidate a growing presence of women in public life. In Rwanda, they were part of the post-genocide dispensation that women played a major part in creating. In Afghanistan, too, quotas for women are a post-conflict introduction. India however, introduced reservations for women at the local government level by constitutional amendment in 1992.

Third, quotas can operate at different levels of the political system, from local government to sub-national units to the national parliament.

Fourth, at each of these levels, quotas usually take the form either of reserved seats or of legislated candidate quotas. Reserved seats guarantee an “equality of result” where candidate quotas focus on getting women an “equality of opportunity”. “Reserved seats” are parliamentary membership slots (they may or may not be territorial) which may only be filled by women. Candidate quotas mandate that a fixed percentage of those who contest elections should be women; they may or may not win. Voluntary adoption of quotas by political parties usually pertains to candidate lists. Candidate list quotas may either be phrased as a minimum or a ceiling. Mexico, for instance, considered capping at 70% the number of candidates from either sex; it has since rephrased that to a minimum guarantee of 30% for each. In addition, there may be stipulations to assure that women candidates are not positioned to lose the election, especially in ranking or list systems.

Finally, while quotas typically seek to ensure the presence of a critical mass of women in the electoral fray or in the legislature, it is also possible for quotas to be gender-neutral, either 50-50 or 60-40, essentially limiting the domination or under-representation of one gender.

Do quotas work?

Have quotas worked? This is the really important question. The first disclaimer has to be that quotas are not always implemented as designed. Second, they have to be appropriate to the electoral system in which they operate. Finally, they are not meant to be a final fix or permanent measure.

Having said this, what quotas do is to quickly bring a lot of women into the political arena for whom there may have been no space earlier. The introduction of the 33.3% quota in India’s panchayats is a really good example of this. Many of the women may have been related to the men they displaced, but they too gained confidence and the evidence is that social relationships within the village began shifting as a result. Even if women come in as token women, they are still likely to make a difference simply because they form a critical mass in any legislative or executive body.

Quotas work best when they reflect social momentum towards greater empowerment and participation on the part of women across all sectors of society. They consolidate those social gains, and enable it to be reflected in law-making and governance. Sweden is a really good example. There are no legislated quotas, but all four major parties have chosen to make equal representation part of their process. The voluntary party quota is a reflection of changed social attitudes, a guarantee of inclusivity.

Rwanda suggests that when the very foundations of a society are shaken, gender roles and expectations change and it is possible to write in a more equitable dispensation. Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution requires 30% of all government posts to be filled by women. The 2008 elections returned a majority of women members to the lower house, well above the mandated 30%. The quota in this case is likely to become redundant before long — precisely as it should.

Quotas that are imposed on a system where women’s participation is below the prescribed level can take time taking hold. Parties have to ease sitting members out to accommodate women, a process that can be contentious.

Quotas are also limited in impact unless the incumbent women law-makers have the capacity to carry out their functions. It is another matter that no one thinks it essential to train men to be legislators, but where training programmes and support services have been available to new political entrants, the investment has paid off both in the political and social spheres. Again, it is an Indian example that comes to mind: several NGOs have invested time and resources to work with panchayat leaders, and the results have been positive.

Finally, quotas for women in politics, in the absence of good social infrastructure, livelihood security and a no-tolerance mindset for gender violence, remain cosmetic. As other experiments with affirmative action and quotas have shown, treating quotas as a panacea in the absence of other enabling social investments leads to quota addiction, not empowerment or access.

The Indian women’s movement and the question of quotas

The women’s movement in India is large, diverse and vocal. Because the social and political movements of the colonial period were mass movements, women took part in protests, rallies, political programmes and underground activities in large numbers.

Women in the nationalist movement did not ask for reservations in 1917 when they met Montagu to ask for the vote. For decades, the idea of equal citizenship in a free India was considered enough guarantee. For decades, the number of women in Indian legislatures has remained pathetic, with 10% or 12% being considered a breakthrough (these are the same decades in which the sex ratio in India has been falling).

Even as late as 1975, when the Committee on the Status of Women was constituted, the majority of its members placed on record their view that reservations for women would be a retrograde step from the right to equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution. They were also concerned about contagion — if women got reservations, others would demand them — and about the “privilege” becoming permanent. The committee also stated: “Women are not a community, they are a category and share with men the problems of their groups, locality and community” (2). However, two of the committee’s members disagreed — Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar. So did many of the people that the committee interviewed across the country. Moreover, the committee rejected statutory reservation of seats in the legislature but urged political parties to agree that some percentage of their election candidates should be female.

When asked what changed between 1975 and 1996 when the Women’s Reservation Bill was first introduced in Parliament and supported by most of the same feminists, Nivedita Menon identifies two factors: first, the emergence of identity politics as a counterpoint to the politics of national identity, and second, the emergence of the women’s movement as a visible and vocal force (3).

In the same article, she explicates feminist or pro-women arguments for and against reservations. Reservations are seen as an imperfect but essential way of making sure the right to equality is a reality, because it creates equality of opportunity in a playing field that is not level. However, reservations are opposed by some activists like Madhu Kishwar and Gail Omvedt as likely to benefit the already-privileged — whether that refers to female relatives of men in power or upper caste groups.

In 1993, the 73rd constitutional amendment provided that 33% of positions in panchayati raj institutions should be reserved for women. In the last two decades, notwithstanding scepticism about how this would work, studies from various Indian states have shown that this measure made a very positive difference. Tens of thousands of women have had the experience of holding office, making decisions for their communities, leaving their homes to interact with officials, with other panchayat officials and with people from the social and development sectors.


This is a moment of rare consensus in mainstream Indian politics, with the Congress, BJP and the Left all agreed that reservations for women in Parliament is an idea whose time has come.

Opposition to the Bill has come from those who are opposed to any reservations and those who are anxious that the women’s quota will dilute their own quotas. Others look regretfully at how entrenched the idea of quotas has become in Indian political culture; they would like to see more women in politics, but they really wish that we did not live in a quota raj, with people competing to seek entitlement on the basis of victimhood. One political leader warns that those who enter Parliament under this scheme are those who receive cat-calls and get harassed in public spaces — he doesn’t realise that accounts for most Indian women, of all ages and classes!

But, the Indian political class is as diverse as the rest of India. There are also those like Swami Ramdev who asked on a recent TV talk show: Why 33%, why not 50%?

What will happen if the Bill passes through both houses of Parliament?

“If the Women’s Reservation Bill becomes law, then 181 out of 543 national legislators and 1,370 out the 4,109 state legislators will be women, significantly altering the (paltry) number of elected women in the world,” wrote Rohini Pande and Esther Duflo in a recent Indian Express op-ed (4). Multiply these numbers by three, and that makes just under 5,000 women, many of whom are likely to be first-time entrants into politics. Consider the ripple effect in their cohorts, communities and families and that makes for a very large short-term expansion of the political class. Even if many of the women come from political families — the biwi-beti-bahu brigade as it is pejoratively called — they will still displace, to a greater or lesser extent, the sons, brothers and sons-in-law who now find lateral entry into the system. Even nepotism should be an equal opportunity enterprise!

As the panchayat quota experience has shown, it’s not just the numbers that change, but the entire web of social and familial relationships. The new women leaders that have emerged in the panchayats could, should form a substantial part of the candidate pool for reserved seats. This would remove an important glass ceiling and also bring into Parliament the grassroots insights and governance experience of women who have become a part of local government in the last two decades.

The requirement for seat rotation is another concern specific to this Bill. The new women MPs will not get a chance to nurse their constituencies over a couple of terms. On the other hand, it could be a make-or-break term — if they perform very well, the argument for not nominating them in an open election is flimsy. Thus, high-achieving women MPs from initially reserved seats could actually weed out non-performing politicians over time. One reads time and again in academic literature a Norwegian observation that it takes three terms for a quota system to become effective. Those are the three terms this Bill offers.

There are two far more critical concerns, and concerns that extend to other groups for whom quotas exist or have been demanded.

This quota is intended to be operational for three parliamentary terms, ie 15 years. What else will we — the Indian state and civil society — do in those 15 years? If this is a time in which we work with renewed vigour on other gender justice issues and ensure more girls and women are educated and have livelihood security, then at the end of the quota period there will be more women able to engage with issues in the public sphere and to gradually enter the political mainstream. However, if the quota operates in isolation, with no efforts towards social transformation outside of its operation, then its purpose will be limited and its existence likely to become a routine, indefinite item for renewal — like other quotas in India.

If this period is used by state and civil society to make a sincere effort to deal with at least gender violence, education for girls, and healthcare issues, there is a chance that the idea of gender equity will become an instinct at least in the political class. We will then be able to move from legislated quotas of reserved seats to voluntarily adopted quotas or formulae where political parties automatically ensure gender parity, from 33% to 50% even perhaps!

Fifteen years is not a long time for the scaffolding of social change to be standing. It is a long enough time to make the scaffolding redundant if we want. As with all other quotas, the measure of this one’s efficacy is going to be in the speed with which it becomes redundant. If the Bill serves to bring more women into Parliament, it is not just or even primarily to further women’s issues but to give women a chance to engage with all governance and policy matters — foreign policy, finance, infrastructure and, yes, social welfare too. Simultaneously, it sets a time limit within which we can bring a sense of urgency to the work outside Parliament of making this quota redundant as soon as possible. That would be 15 years well spent, and the Women’s Reservation Bill will come to be read by historians as a termination notice for gender inequality in India.


1 The best resource on quotas is Quota Project: A Global Database of Quotas for Women, http://www.quotaproject.org/index.cfm, which is a project of the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the University of Stockholm and the Inter-Parliamentary Union

2 The Committee on the Status of Women in India report cited by Kumud Sharma, ‘Transformative Politics: Dimensions of Women’s Participation in Panchayati Raj’, in Mala Khullar, ed, Writing the Women’s Movement: A Reader, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2005, 184

3 This article is now available online: Nivedita Menon, Reservations for Women: ‘Am I That Name?’ kafila.org, June 12, 2009, at http://kafila.org/2009/06/12/reservations-for-women-am-i-that-name/

4 Rohini Pande and Esther Duflo, ‘Leading by example’, The Indian Express, March 18, 2010, at http://www.indianexpress.com/news/leading-by-example/592400/0

Infochange News & Features, April 2010

Women politicians in India: Madam Pompadour’s Chessboard


The January 18, 2010 issue of Outlook magazine is essentially about workplace sexual harassment, however differently it is packaged.

Sheela Reddy, Madam Pompadour’s Chessboard, Outlookindia.com, January 18, 2010

Everyone knows how Noor Jahan, the twentieth wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir, used her sexual powers to virtually become one of India’s most powerful women. But post feminism, have women developed more scruples and disdain to use their charms to get ahead? Breaking the silence on a subject that’s now considered politically most incorrect, women politicians confess not much has changed in politics since Mughal times. “Everyone has to give something to get into power. Men give money and women usually give their bodies,” says Ramnika Gupta matter-of-factly. In her seventies, Ramnika is a member of the CPI(M), a tribal rights champion, former trade union leader and politician who—to use her own phrase—has “passed through the hands” of several men in her quest for political power.

Ramnika’s “initiation” into politics began with the late K.B. Sahay, when he was chief minister of Bihar. Wanting some government land for a women’s training centre, she approached Sahay at a public meeting. He asked her to meet him at his office at 4 am. Young and handsome, she probably knew what that meant. When the office door closed behind her, Sahay stood up and said, “Here is the chief minister standing before you. Ask for whatever you want.” Ramnika says Sahay embraced and kissed her, but she didn’t mind because he immediately signed the paper she held out for sanctioning the land. “I was also flattered by his attention,” she recalls. “I was thrilled to have a man as powerful as him kissing me; it felt as if some of his power was transferred to me.”

That cuddle won her another reward: Sahay invited her to join the Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee, one of the most powerful posts at that time, which any man seeking political power would vie for. Which is probably why she agreed to visit the state Congress chief, Raju Mishra, in his home to put forward Sahay’s recommendation. This time, she says, she had to pay a higher price. She let him have his way and did not complain. “The only choice for a woman starting in politics is to either quit or accept the fact that she has to sleep with some of them at least,” she says. “You have to compromise until you are in a position to reject them.” What she could do, however, was to try and avoid being anywhere alone with the BPCC chief. For her compliance, he nominated her as Bihar’s representative at the Jaipur AICC meet in 1966.

Some of these “compromises” were not voluntary, Ramnika recounts. Like the time she approached Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, then Union finance minister, about nationalising the Dhanbad mines. He asked her to meet him in the Circuit House after the AICC session and invited her to drive down there with him in the buggy that was provided for the party’s bigwigs. When they got to his suite, the finance minister bolted the door from inside. Taken aback, Ramnika said: “But I haven’t even had lunch yet.” Reddy’s response was to go into his bedroom and reappear before her, stark naked. He overpowered her so she couldn’t escape, Ramnika says. But later she complained to the president of the Congress women’s wing and her friend Yashpal Kapoor, who was then Indira Gandhi’s secretary. But she was told to shut up and put up with it if she wanted to be in politics.

Fed up with what she calls the “creeper culture”—women using sex to get a toehold in politics, or for easing the way for their husbands, fathers and brothers—Ramnika quit the Congress and joined the Socialist Party. “Thanks to Ram Manohar Lohia, the culture in the Socialist Party was very different,” reminisces Ramnika. “You were free to choose who you slept with. Nobody could force a woman to sleep with him if she didn’t want to.” But even so, she says, men you rejected sexually could make your political life a hell. Ramnika did not quite reject Shri Babu, a minister in the Socialist government in Bihar, but she dared to break off with him, leading to a bitter political conflict. She then sought asylum in the arms of the Congress chief minister Kedar Pande, even rejoining the Congress at his urging. “He wasn’t very charismatic, but at least I got protection from sexual assault, and he made me an MLC and later an INTUC leader.”

For Ramnika, who in her heyday could conjure up a hundred truckloads of people for political rallies, her sexual power was a secondary asset, a “friendly power” to be used whenever the going got too tough. But to depend solely on it to build a political career would be unwise, according to her: “If you don’t have power at the roots or pull at the top, it’s pointless just using your body—you’ll lose.”

Former president of the Samata Party, Jaya Jaitly, agrees: “You have to earn your spurs in politics. You are undermining your own potential by relying on your good looks to get you places.” Things have changed quite a bit since the ’60s and ’70s, when Ramnika was trying to negotiate her own space in the political arena, but not that much. “It’s not quite the casting couch system of Bollywood, but yes, most women do need to use their sexual power, however mildly—batting their eyelids, flattery, beautification—to survive in politics. To get into the race, you need money. And women don’t have money.”

As sociologist Shoma Munshi puts it: “Men use money and success as power; women in turn use sex to gain power. How else would she negotiate in the very system which restricts her?” According to Shoma, sex and sexuality can be parlayed into power, but it’s a fleeting advantage and offers diminishing returns in comparison to other advantages.

And then there’s the general disdain to contend with, which is why many women reject anything they get as women so as not to seem as if they are exercising their sexual power. As Jaitly says, everyone needs a mentor in politics but when she chose George Fernandes, she ended up being labelled his “sidekick”. Jaya says she worked hard and sincerely in all the posts thrust upon her, but she was still resented as someone who had enormous influence over George. “In fact, it was the other way around. I admired his grit, integrity and fearlessness, that’s why I chose him as my mentor.” And although George never undermined her as a woman by helping her get into positions she didn’t deserve, others attributed it to their relationship. “It’s the easiest thing to say about a woman. George has male admirers who do more for him than I do—buy him kurtas, banians, get him his favourite fish curry from Calcutta—but if I do the same thing, it’s perceived as something else.”

Similarly, dancer Pratibha Prahlad says her relationship with the late Ramakrishna Hegde was often misinterpreted. “Far from opening doors for me, my relationship with him shut many doors. What I am as a dancer is because of my own abilities and hard work and nothing to do with him.”

As a young woman, Pratibha recalls, her attractiveness caused her endless trouble. As a journalism student in Bangalore, her professor failed her, declaring that “attractive young women like her would use their sexual power to rise to the top in her career”. When she went to Chennai to learn dance, young men started following her. When she had some of them arrested, their defence was: “She dressed in pants, was learning dance, so we thought she was available.” Even the police found it hard to believe that someone who learns dance could be an educated girl who didn’t aspire to be a film extra, says Pratibha. For years after that, she says, she oiled her hair, braided it, wore nylex saris, a bindi and a mangalsutra, in order to escape unwanted male attention. It’s only when she went public about the sexual molestation by her dance guru that Pratibha was able to kill her inner demons. “God made me a woman, so I may as well be comfortable with it—as long as I don’t overtly use it to get something.”

“A woman is rarely condemned for using any of her other assets,whether it’s family background, fancy education or wealth, to her advantage,” points out Shoma. “Yet she is widely condemned if she uses sex. Can a woman not play hard, and play to win, by any rules necessary, like men do?” For Ramnika, the answer is clear: “Either do it without guilt or don’t.”

Empowering women in politics: Article by Pamela Philipose


Pamela Philipose, Women are from Mars, Hindustan Times, September 16, 2009

The story of Fatima Bi — an illiterate woman from Andhra Pradesh who found herself married at 14 and went on to transform the face of her small village as its ‘sarpanch’ — is often told. The United Nations Development Programme recognised her achievements by bestowing upon her its Race Against Poverty award for the Asia-Pacific region.

If it were not for the 73rd amendment of 1993, which mandated that there be 33 per cent reservations for women in local government, the commitment of a woman like Fatima Bi would have been lost on her community. According to a study by the Panchayati Raj Ministry, in August 2008, of the 27.8 lakh panchayat representatives, around 10.41 lakh were women. About 80 per cent of them did not have a political background.

Today, the movement has reached another milestone. The government has increased the percentage of reservations for women at the panchayati raj level to 50 per cent. It’s a formal recognition of women’s equal representation in the public space and a validation of their good work. We will now have two million women leaders at the local level, with the number of women at chairman-level rising from the present 80,000 to 120,000.

But numerical representation alone is an insufficient condition for women’s political participation at the grassroots. It needs to be accompanied by at least three major changes. The first involves the creation of a public sphere that enhances women’s participation. Political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in an essay on gender and governance, made the prescient observation that effective political participation would require “material and institutional empowerment”. Laws and customs must be such that “a woman really can go out and participate, her efforts to participate will not be thwarted by unequal, legal, or financial, or physical obstacles”.

The second change deals with the nature of the intervention itself. It’s known that the devolution that panchayati raj was supposed to have ushered in has proved largely elusive. It’s because panchayats are still seen as only the implementers of schemes and programmes designed either by the central or state governments.

The reality is that financial and administrative powers are still controlled by the higher tiers of government and mostly by men. In fact, of the 29 subjects the panchayats are responsible for under the Eleventh Schedule, only a few have actually devolved to the panchayats.

At the village level, the Eleventh Schedule expects the panchayats to list out the felt needs of the village, prioritise local needs on the basis of available resources and prepare plans. At the Block level, they should aggregate all village plans, among other responsibilities. At the district level, they have to consolidate all Block plans, estimate costs and prepare final plans to be presented before the district planning committee.

Subjects that come under the purview of panchayats include measures as far-reaching  as land reforms and important sectors like minor irrigation, education, roads and bridges, rural electrification etc. But in reality, the sphere of influence of panchayats — especially those headed by women — has been consciously narrowed.

Experts like Bidyut Mohanty from the Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi, believe that women panchayat leaders should be given complete control over all 29 subjects under the Eleventh Schedule. This would, in turn, demand a third important change: Capacity and awareness building. Today, many women sarpanchs and pradhans don’t realise their real powers. Even if they do, they remain ignorant about how to exercise them. If women leaders at the grassroots are to fulfil their constitutional role, this area of darkness must be addressed.

Unless numbers translate into actual participation equality in numerical representation would remain a hollow thing.

Pamela Philipose is Director, Women’s Feature Service

Increased reservation for women in Panchayats


Quota for women in panchayats to be raised to 50%, Times News Network, Times of India, August 28, 2009.

NEW DELHI: The country seems set to have an army of women politicians. UPA-2 may have failed to deliver
on its promise of 33% reservation for women in legislatures within 100 days but it has kept its word on
empowerment at the grassroots with the Union Cabinet on Thursday clearing a proposal to increase
reservation for women to 50% in panchayats.

The proposal, reported by TOI earlier, aims to amend Article 243D of the Constitution that currently
provides for 33% reservation for women in panchayats. This is proposed to be increased to 50%.
The “women only” seats in panchayats are rotated.

States where 50% women’s quota is already in force has boosted their status. In Bihar, it has seen the
spouses of women heads of panchayats styling themselves as `mukhiyapatis’ in a sybolic
yet significant role reversal.

Panchayats are expected to serve as nurseries for women leaders, preparing them for tasks they
may have to shoulder in case the addiction for politics endures.

It was during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as PM that the idea of decentralising power and empowering women
at the grassroots was mooted. The one-third reservation for women in panchayats came through the
73rd constitutional amendment during PV Narasimha Rao’s tenure as PM.

The move will at one stroke boost the number of women politicians at the grassroots as the experience
of Bihar — the first state to reserve half of the panchayat seats for women — shows — making the a
dministration more gender-sensitive.

Taking the lead in women empowerment, five states — Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh
and Chhattisgarh — already have 50% reservation for women as states have the power to bring in
amendments in their state laws to increase women’s representation up to 50%.

Rajasthan has also announced 50% reservation that will be implemented in the next panchayat
election in early 2010. Kerala, too, has announced 50% reservation for women in panchayats and
other local bodies.

In Uttarakhand, women have an overwhelming 55% representation in panchayats as many of them
contested even from non-reserved seats and won. But the state works through the UP Panchayat Act
and is yet to have its own law.

With the proposed constitutional amendment, the number of elected women’s representatives at the grassroot l
evel is expected to rise to more than 14 lakh. At present, women account for 36.87% of the
total 28.1 lakh elected panchayat representatives.

I&B minister Ambika Soni said after the Union Cabinet meeting that a proposal to have 50% quota for
women in urban local bodies is likely to be taken up later.

Panchayati raj minister CP Joshi called Thursday’s decision as historic saying it would take
empowerment of women to another level.

All India Democratic Women Association general secretary Sudha Sundararaman said,
“This will facilitate increased participation of women in decision making and strenghten the d
emocratic process. But this measure must be followed up with the passage of the women’s reservation Bill
in Parliament.”

Aruna Asaf Ali: EPW article abstract


Biswamoy Pati, From the Parlour to the Streets: A Short Note on Aruna Asaf Ali, Economic and Political Weekly, Volume XLIV Number 28, July 11, 2009.

Aruna Asaf Ali’s life and career were conditioned by her exposure to a political context which reflected diversity, secularism and anti-colonialism.

Her political
activism as a freedom fighter and
a woman activist encompassed
these strands of anti-colonialism
and radicalism. It finally
culminated in a clear support
for socialism – marking her
transition from being a member
of the Congress to joining the
Communist Party of India after

[EPW articles are accessible in the first week and thereafter only to subscribers.]