The world’s largest democracy made history this week when Indian lawmakers approved a historic bill that would set aside one-third of all seats in India’s parliament for women. Only 59 women were elected to the current 545-member Lok Sabha (Lower House) of Parliament. The new law would raise that total to 181 in the next national election. The bill also includes a provision to increase the quota of women in local legislative bodies to 50%.
Personally, I’m usually a little uncomfortable with quotas, since they can be thinly-veiled tokenism, or a way of circumventing a merit-based system. But misogyny and discrimination are tremendously destructive, and to fight big institutional problems, you need big, institutional solutions. It’s heartening to see such powerful change taking place, particularly as meaningful change seems to be stalling out in my own country.
India’s distinguished and popular Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, lauded the Women’s Reservation Bill for “carrying forward the emancipation of women,” saying,
This is a momentous development in the long journey of empowering our women. Women are facing discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, unequal access to health and education. This has to end. [The Bill is] living proof that the heart of Indian democracy is sound and is in the right place.”
How fucking awesome is that? You’d never hear a US President push for such a bill in such uncompromising terms, even though women make up a paltry 16.8 percent of the US Congress and 22.9 percent of statewide executive offices. Nor would such a bill ever make it out of our Congress alive.
In India’s legislature, there is still significant opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill–in fact, seven members of Parliament were suspended after they “indulged in unprecedented unruly scenes” and even tried to physically attack Chairman Hamid Ansari in order to disrupt the presentation of the bill. The Times of India described a similar scene when the bill was presented in 2008:
As agitated SP member Abu Asim Azmi and his party colleagues tried to snatch the Bill copy from [elderly male Law Minister] HR Bhardwaj, Congress members intervened and Renuka Chaudhary, then the Women and Child Development Minister, repulsed the attempts by pushing Azmi away.
Expecting trouble, Bharadwaj was seated in the middle row of the treasury benches flanked by two women ministers – Kumari Selja and Ambika Soni. On top of it, Congress women Parliamentarians Jayanti Natarajan and Alka Balram Kshatriya guarded Bharadwaj from SP members who had taken the position for the go.
Massive respect to Indian female legislators! They were literally putting their bodies between the opposition and the bill, and physically defending a male ally. President of the majority Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, told the Hindustan Times that the government took “a huge risk” bringing the bill to the floor again, but that “politics is always full of risks. There will be impact one side or the other but the larger picture of women empowerment has to be taken in mind.” (Sonia Gandhi is the Italian-born widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and daughter-in-law of Prime Minister Indira Nehru Gandhi).
This is not the first time things have gotten physical–or ridiculous–during repeated previous attempts to pass the bill. In a recent article “The 14 Year Journey of Women“, the Times of India noted:
Snatching of papers from presiding officers and Ministers and scuffles became a familiar scene each time the Bill made its way to Parliament before it was aborted.
The opposition to the Bill had its own share of lows when JD(U) veteran Sharad Yadav, a critic of the legislation asked in June 1997, “Do you think these women with short hair can speak for women, for our women…”
It looks like all women, regardless of hairstyle, will have their day, though. Having passed through the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament), chances are good that the Women’s Reservation Bill will now be passed in the lower house, the Lok Sabha.
The opposition argues that allocating more seats to women means taking them away from minorities like Muslims and Dalits, who have quotas of their own. They also argue that the Women’s Reservation Bill would only give more seats to India’s elite, as the wives and daughters of upper-class politicians would probably be the first to fill them:
“We are being unfairly defamed as anti-women. All we want is that the women from real India, like those toiling in the farms and villages, are brought forward,” said one opponent, Laloo Prasad Yadav, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party.
Prime Minister Singh was quick to assure Indians that: “This is not an anti-minority bill or anti-OBC bill” and India’s President Pratibha Devisingh Patil–the first woman to hold that office–said that: “It would be graceful if this bill is passed by all political parties, as far as possible, with consultation and consensus.”
President Patil acknowledged that while reserving Parliamentary seats for women was necessary and important, it was only a start: “We also need a fundamental change in our mindsets. We need a new social reform movement, for gender equality and empowerment of our women — a movement that changes society’s attitude towards women,” she said.
Obviously, you can’t legislate an attitude adjustment for society, and the Washington Post pointed out that:
Experts warn that the mere presence of women in parliament might not automatically lead to empowerment.
An analysis of the performance of women members of the current parliament by PRS Legislative Research, an independent research group, says that women asked fewer questions, moved fewer bills and participated in fewer debates than their male counterparts.
Well, yeah. A couple thousand years of marginalization won’t be overturned by a few trifling years of partial participation. It’s going to take time and experience for women to establish themselves–and for their male counterparts to view them as equals (do you think maybe women participated in fewer debates because the men wouldn’t yield the damn floor?) But those few years and those pioneering women are the thin end of the wedge, and I’m optimistic that they can use it to crack the Patriarchy open. This bill is a tremendous step forward for women. Seeing its momentum and its support from the highest levels of government absolutely thrills me.