Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why be Afraid of Being called a ‘Feminist’?

The passage of the constitution amendment bill to introduce 33% reservation for women in parliament and state assemblies in the Rajya Sabha is a progressive and substantive step towards the political empowerment of women in India. The fact that it has taken nearly a decade and a half for this legislation, since its introduction, to be passed in the upper house of parliament stands testimony to the stubborn opposition against it from various quarters. There is no point singling out the “Yadav troika” or the “social justice lobby” for opposing this legislation. It is well known that a big section of male parliamentarians cutting across party lines; who have never held less than 87% seats in the parliament since the first general elections of independent India; have been all along providing covert (sometimes even overt) support to the prominent and vocal opponents of this bill. In essence, the opposition is from all those who want to preserve the status quo. Therefore the real roadblock before the bill is patriarchal ideology; not individual parties or leaders. It is important to underscore this point at this juncture, because the political battle to enact this progressive legislation has only been half won so far. It cannot become a law until the Lok Sabha passes it and at least 15 state assemblies endorse this constitutional amendment.

Idea Whose Time Has Come

Much has been said about the desirability of women’s reservation in Indian legislatures. It is undeniable that not only will it empower women by increasing their political representation but also open up substantial space for gender issues in the political sphere. This is very essential given the unequal status of women in our society. Almost six decades of overwhelming male domination in legislatures has ensured that gender equality, as envisaged in the Indian constitution, still remains a far cry. Not only have women continued to be denied equal rights in land, property, access to education and jobs, but violence against women in myriad forms, from female foeticide and domestic violence, to dowry and honour killings, to sexual harassment, continues to be a part of our daily existence. If we are serious about reversing these retrograde trends, we have to accept the centrality of women’s empowerment in all spheres – social, economic, cultural and political.

Among the myriad discrimination against and denial of equal rights to women, the political one is crucial. Patriarchy never had problems in accepting a woman as a political leader or even a head of the state; the history of India, indeed South Asia, is replete with such examples. But whether in intent or in action, that never really challenged the status quo. In contrast, 33% reservation for women in legislatures will not only amount to a trifle change in the status quo; it has the potential to fundamentally alter the political landscape and challenge existing power relations in society. That is why the patriarchal opposition to a constitutionally mandated floor of 33% representation in legislatures is so steep. But this is also the reason why this opposition has to be comprehensively defeated. The experience of women’s reservation in village panchayats and other local bodies have already shown the positive spin offs of greater public participation by women, not only in terms of advancing social justice but also in terms of greater efficacy of public policy. This process needs to be furthered, especially at the highest level of decision-making and governance. In the 15th Loksabha, out of 543 MPs, only 59 are women (10.8%). This status quo is unacceptable, not only from the point of view of women, but the society as a whole. Women’s reservation in legislatures is an idea whose time has surely come.

Political Opponents

The opposition to the women’s reservation bill today is couched in three distinct but inter-related threads. Let us consider them by turns. The most vocal and steadfast opponents of the bill within the political class have termed it as anti-OBC, anti-dalit and anti-Muslim. They have demanded sub-quotas for women from these categories. These demands, either raised together or in parts, amount to pitting one deprived section of society against another in order to jettison women’s reservations altogether. While there are perfectly just grounds for OBC reservations in education and jobs due to historical discrimination, there has not been any significant demand for OBC reservation in legislatures. Even the SP or the RJD have not demanded this so far because given their proportion in population, OBCs are fairly represented in the political sphere. In case the seats held by OBC MPs or MLAs get reserved for women, there is no reason why OBC women cannot get elected from those constituencies. In fact, the proportion of OBC women MPs in total women MPs in the 14th Lok Sabha was slightly higher than the proportion of OBC MPs in total MPs. While their socio-economic backwardness is undeniable, OBCs cannot be considered as politically or electorally marginalized communities in today’s context.

As far as dalits and adivasis are concerned, the constitutionally mandated SC/ST reservation in parliament and state assemblies already exists and 33% reservation for women will only amount to reserving one third of SC/ST reserved seats for SC/ST women. This will substantially increase the number of SC/ST women in legislatures from the current levels; for instance to at least 40 SC/ST women MPs in parliament from the current number of 17. The argument made by the BSP that this increase in the proportion of SC/ST women be brought about not by reserving one third of existing SC/ST seats but by increasing the SC/ST quota itself beyond the constitutionally mandated 22.5%, is not very convincing. If more women have to be adequately accommodated in parliament and assemblies, then men belonging to all castes and communities, including those belonging to the socially deprived sections, have to make some way for the women of their castes and communities. After all, gender discrimination and oppression cuts across all castes, communities and class. To suggest that the principle of positive discrimination in favour of women is acceptable for everybody else but not for my caste or community is neither a logically tenable nor an ethically sound position.

The situation vis-à-vis Muslims does merit a more sympathetic consideration. The number of Muslim MPs in the 15th Loksabha is a mere 28 (5%), down from 34 in the 14th Loksabha. This is certainly way below the proportion of Muslims in Indian population (13.4%). There is no doubt that this gross under-representation of Muslims in parliament and several state assemblies, needs to be redressed. However, reservation for Muslims on a religious basis is still an unsettled question within the framework of the Indian constitution. The Ranganath Mishra Commission recommendations have surely opened the issue, as far as minority reservations in education and jobs are concerned. Given the past interpretations of secularism by the judiciary, the implementation of the Ranganath Mishra Commission may well require a constitutional amendment. In fact, the existing socio-economic condition of the Muslim minorities, as brought out clearly by the Sachar Committee findings, merits a serious reconsideration of the received notions of secularism and social justice. Can the secular basis of the state remain secure if the largest religious minority continues to remain a victim of systemic discrimination and socio-economic deprivation after sixty years of independence? It is imperative that the Congress led Government at the Centre initiates a result-oriented debate on this vital issue without any further delay. It is inexplicable why the Central Government took over two years to table the Ranganath Commission report in parliament after its submission and that too without any action taken report.

Having said so, however, it makes little sense for those genuinely fighting to ensure social justice for the Muslims to oppose the constitution amendment for women’s reservation because it does not reserve seats for Muslim women. That amounts to pitting the legitimate demand for greater Muslim representation against another equally legitimate step to enhance women’s participation. This will only work towards narrowing the support for greater Muslim representation in legislatures. India’s neighbouring countries with a majority of Muslim population, like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, already have constitutionally mandated quota for women in their national legislatures. In fact the positive experience of those countries following greater women’s participation in legislatures, especially for their women, have strengthened and inspired the forces in favour of women’s reservation in India.

While women’s reservation in the present form may or may not increase the participation of Muslim women in legislatures, it is certainly not going to make matters any worse for the Muslim minorities. Opposing the women’s reservation bill in the name of Muslim quota would be entirely unwarranted, since it amounts to postponing the issue of women’s reservation on which there is a political consensus today – after 14 years of debate no political party says they are opposed to women’s reservation per se – till a consensus emerges on the issue of Muslim reservation, which will obviously take more time. If anything, a broad based consensus on a constitution amendment in favour of the women’s reservation bill today can only facilitate a similar consensus on Muslim reservation tomorrow. And when that happens, 33% of those seats will also get reserved for Muslim women.

Liberal Cynics

Apart from the political opposition to the constitution amendment, there are opponents in the liberal intelligentsia, who are berating the bill in televised discussions and news columns. Some are of course conceptually on the same page as far as women’s reservation is concerned, but are opposed to the specific provisions of the bill, like reserving 33% of the existing 543 seats rather than applying quota on an increased number of constituencies in the Loksabha so as to protect the existing seats of male MPs. Some continue to maintain that mandated quotas in the candidate lists of political parties would have been a better and non-controversial option. What has particularly miffed some commentators is the provision that the 33% women’s quota seats would change every five years so that in fifteen years every constituency in the country is covered. This, it has been argued, would imply existing male MPs losing their right to contest in constituencies, which they have “nurtured” for years.

In its long and arduous journey through the two parliamentary committees – the first one a joint select committee chaired by the late Communist leader Geeta Mukherjee and second time the parliamentary standing committee on law and justice – the merits and demerits of all these options and suggestions were thoroughly debated. In fact, very few legislations in the history of independent India have been scrutinized so meticulously for fourteen long years. All options other than what is contained in the present legislation were found to be inferior. For instance, reserving candidate lists of political parties would never guarantee a minimum threshold of elected women MPs in the first past the post system; it would merely ensure a minimum number of contestants. International experience shows that the countries which have opted for women’s quota in candidate lists under the first past the post system, continue to have much lower representation of women in their legislatures; the situation does not change much because it is difficult for female candidates to win against their male counterparts. Increasing the number of seats of parliament, to the extent of protecting all the existing seats of male MPs would amount to increasing the number of seats to over 720. An increase of such magnitude in the number of constituencies for the parliament and state assemblies, would not only make the elections and the democratic process logistically unwieldy and prohibitively expensive, it would also lead to the construction of new buildings for parliament and state assemblies in order to accommodate more women!

The upshot is that all these proposals which are being parroted today, 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 infeasible. Those who are shedding tears about existing male MPs/candidates losing their “nurtured” constituencies, are of course being quite candid. But they are missing the whole point about this legislation. 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. Therefore this legislation explicitly seeks to break that status quo; but does so in a fair manner, where all existing male MPs/candidates have to make way for a woman MP sometime or the other over the next three elections. And any male MP/candidate can return to contest in his “nurtured” constituency after a gap of one election. Thus, on the one hand it does not take away the right from any male MP/candidate to contest in his preferred constituency in perpetuity. On the other hand, it creates concrete possibilities for the growth of political activism of women across all constituencies of the country. Anyone who sincerely wishes to see greater participation of women in politics and enhanced number of women elected representatives will easily see that the present legislation is the best among all the options available.

Then of course, there are the skeptics, who consider greater women’s participation or representation in politics to be at best symbolic, and perhaps entirely meaningless. Not surprisingly, this opinion is not openly articulated in the political circles. Some successful women in the media and the corporate world have, however, become the most articulate proponents of this view. Their arguments amount to saying the following: ‘Look at us. We have succeeded in the men’s world without any quota. So why do women need quota to be successful in politics?’

This sounds typical of all those who are opposed to any positive discrimination, particularly reservations. There exists, for instance, a number of successful dalit or OBC professionals, who either out of conviction or compulsion, oppose reservations, confusing their own subjective experience which may have been marked by certain privileges or sheer good fortune for the objective social conditions of the large majority of SCs or OBCs. But in the case of those successful women opposing reservation for women in legislatures, there is a specificity. They seem to believe that a display of cynicism towards the political process and insensitivity towards gender discrimination in particular, reflects virtuosity. Being a professionally successful woman in a world dominated by men is certainly commendable; but that does not automatically make someone gender sensitive or alive to the problems and concerns of women. In fact women in politics, almost without exception and cutting across political lines, are supporters of women’s reservation because their own experience, however brief, must have shown them the enormous difficulty to sustain activism and compete successfully in a patriarchal setting.

Afraid of ‘Feminist’ Tag?

Why are some of the more successful women not sympathetic to the aspirations of the women in politics for some positive discrimination in their favour? Patriarchy, after all, is an ideology and it operates at complex levels. This indeed makes life difficult for women, even for those who have become successful in a world dominated by men. This difficulty is best captured in the Union Railway Minister’s comment made on the day the women’s reservation bill was passed in the upper house: “Though I am supporting the bill, I am not a feminist”. It can be assumed safely that nobody asked the Minister whether she is a feminist. Yet she asserts that she is not one. Are all the other parties and individuals supporting the bill feminists? Surely not.

The BJP, which provided crucial support to the bill and whose suave leader in the upper house forcefully argued in favour of women’s rights during the debate, has never disowned the manuvadi ideology of the RSS, which considers women as naturally inferior to men. We have not forgotten the glorification of Sati under the BJP rule in Rajasthan, the rape of innocent Muslim women during the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat or the continued hooliganism of the Sangh Parivar outfits on Valentine’s day. The Congress President has been rightly hailed for her determined role in pushing the legislation within her Party and cajoling the Central Government to take a firm stand. Yet, why she preferred her son to be the heir apparent over her daughter, without any tested basis of political acumen, organisational performance or mass acceptance, is anybody’s guess. Even the Communists, with an enviable record in fighting for women’s rights since the days of freedom struggle, took well over six decades of existence to elect the first woman into their central leadership. The biggest contingent of the Left, the CPI (M), took longer. And even today, misogynist critics have not got tired of shamelessly alleging how women are promoted within the Left because of influential husbands rather than their own capabilities and contributions.

The long and the short of it is that no political party functioning within the Indian political system or elsewhere, can claim to be totally immune from the vestiges of patriarchy. Their ideological standpoint, however, in terms of whether they are programmatically committed to women’s empowerment and emancipation or not, is what counts, along with their political positions and day to day practice. And if a political party, or any individual for that matter, is committed to gender equality and women’s empowerment, why prevaricate on the women’s reservation bill for the fear of being called a ‘feminist’?


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1 comment:

വര്‍ക്കേഴ്സ് ഫോറം said...

Prasenjit Bose writes on 'Feminism' and the landmark Women's Reservation Bill, passed in the Rajya Sabha on 9th March 2010.

“Though I am supporting the bill, I am not a feminist”: Union Railway Minister (Economic Times, 10th march 2010)