Against reserving seats for women

Empowering women is not quite the same as creating powerful women

No nation can stand proud if it discriminates against any of its citizens. Certainly no society can claim to be part of the modern civilized world unless it treats its women on par with men. The time for genuine and full empowerment of women is here and now.” (the Indian prime minister) asserted. [IE]

Dr Manmohan Singh is on the money when he identifies discrimination against women as one of the biggest problems that India faces. Unfortunately, his government is not quite on the money as far as the solution goes — reserving a third of seats at the national and state legislatures does not sufficiently guarantee that India will change its attitude towards women. Worse, it may convey an impression that the problem is being addressed while not amounting to much in reality. But this may explain why Indian politicians are excited about the move in the first place.

Firstly, reservations and entitlements are not the best way for a democratic country to order its society. History has shown that once an entitlement or a reservation is put in place, it is impossible to revoke — regardless of whether the purpose for which it was intended has been achieved or not. Reservations create no incentives for those entitled to them to break away from them and enter the mainstream. Besides it is a fallacy to believe that women legislators solve women’s problems better. And the idea of free and fair elections is for the electorate to choose who, in its combined opinion, is the best person for the job. Interfering with the course of free and fair elections seriously undermines democracy.

Secondly, reservations for women are ineffective from another, practical, point of view. That is because while it will empower those women who make it to parliament, it will not do much for the majority of women who don’t. Creating powerful women is not quite the same as empowering women. And that is an important distinction. The streets of Chennai, New Delhi or Lucknow, all in states ruled by a powerful women, are no more safer from the streets of Bangalore or Kolkata which have male chief ministers.

Forget empowered women. In the worst case, reservations may not even create those powerful women. Packing parliament with 150 ‘Rabri Devis‘, elected as proxies for their male relatives will defeat the spirit and the purpose of the entire idea. Worse, it will also create 150 ‘Laloos‘ who can enjoy all the privileges of political power without being accountable to anyone. (Perhaps with the exception of their wives. But the jury is out on this.). Given the way electoral politics has come to be practised in India, this is a real possibility.

What then is the appropriate public policy response to what is arguably India’s single biggest challenge? Actually, Dr Manmohan Singh alluded to it further down his speech.

“We are pursuing legislation that will provide flexibility in working hours to women and encourage women’s employment in the industrial and services sector”, he said adding a Bill on protection of women from domestic violence has been passed and changes had been effected in the criminal procedure code and the Hindu Succession Act to empower women. [IE]

Indian women have been politically empowered (in law) since 26th January 1950. But economic and social empowerment has been elusive. Laws and regulations — sometimes introduced with the intention to protect them — have only led to their economic marginalisation. Other laws, like those allowing Muslims to follow a different civil code from people of other faiths, have led to cases like Shah Bano or Imrana.

For India to truly empower women, it does not need to have ‘gender sensitive legislation’ as Dr Manmohan Singh has proposed. It just needs to clean up the gender sensitivities in the existing body of legislation that distort the equality and undermine the empowerment that they already enjoy under Indian constitution.

12 thoughts on “Against reserving seats for women”

  1. Have to disagree with you on this, Nitin. The sheer volume of gender discrimination in our part of the world can only begin to be combated with activist steps like this one. Powerful women, empowered womanhood: trickle-down effect anyone?

  2. “Creating powerful women is not quite the same as empowering women.”

    Bravo for that quotable quote. And if any of your readers has any connection to Dr Singh, would he or she please convey this to him? Surely he is not an idiot and even he should realize that addressing consequences does not really have any effect on the cause? If women are not visible in high offices, it is a consequence of causes that are societal in nature and change has to be made there and not in forcing the electorate to vote more women into office.

    I also think that Dr Singh is smart enough to realize that what matters is equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome.

  3. [quote]Have to disagree with you on this, Nitin. The sheer volume of gender discrimination in our part of the world can only begin to be combated with activist steps like this one. Powerful women, empowered womanhood: trickle-down effect anyone?[/quote]

    Won’t happen. Nitin’s right when he says reservations merely result in lots of “powerful women” or proxies like Rabri Devi. I remember when in AP two years ago, I spoke to a cousin who was thinking of entering politics.

    “Why do you want to run for office?” said the naive American (me). “Well, there’s a quota for women so I really think someone needs to fill that seat,” said my cousin nonchalantly.

    I was horrified! Nothing in the way of ideology! No reason, no belief, no nothing to want to hold office. She saw holding office as an end in and of itself!! THOSE ARE THE TYPES WHO FALL PREY TO CORRUPTION!! They have no ideology to give them any sense of purpose either because they were elected as part of a quota/reservation or because they come from a large “big-tent” party like the Congress that lacks any identifiable ideology. Sooner or later, without anything that drives her, she’ll either occupy extra space there that would be better filled by someone else or happily accept bribes for voting one way or another.

    Reservations create a facade of women’s empowerment at best and more corruption at worst.

  4. Yes indeed I agree with you on this one. The very notion of reservation is anti democratic.

    Ah, how abt creating many W-IIT’s or W-IIM’s just for women 🙂 That would be some step towards education front.

    But issues like violence against women amd gender descrimination are global.

  5. Reservation may not be an ideal way to empower women but very few practical alternatives seem to be available.Political power with women representatives may help in creating awareness among women in general.It is worth giving a try in India.

  6. Those people who do want empowerment of women will not support any legislation (including reservations) that aims to do just that. Those who want empowerment of women can surely don’t need government legislation to force themselves to take steps towards that.

    So, how does a democratically elected government gets enough support to entact such legislations as reservations for women? I think our democracy has given equal voting rights to all citizens while in other walks of life many of them are routinely discriminated! So, these citizens are going to use their votes to raise their voice. Practicality of the solutions be damned!

    I think that should serve a powerful incentive for people to stop discrimination.

    There are other problems far severe than mere discrimination. I don’t think mere absense of discrimination would somehow give dalits and women equal opportunity. That requires a much more radical changes in the structure of our society, such as removal of caste system. The reservation system is likely to entrench these societal structures. And that is the real danger!

  7. Anand Sharma, of course practical alternatives exist! And besides, since when did someone like Rabri Devi inspire any girls that you know of?

    Providing more women with education is one thing that comes to mind. Perhaps setup a matching fund system where the gov’t will match donations by private donors up to a certain amount to create scholarships for rural women below a certain income level to attend college. Free meals for students with good class attendance would also help women (as well as men) become educated. Education is the best route to empowerment, not violating the democratic process by “reserving” seats.

    I’m surprised people don’t get pissed off about reservations and quotas in India as they are completely undemocratic. What business does a gov’t have favoring one group over another?

  8. People do get pissed about reservations and quotas in India. Just that the politicians don’t care for their votes so their opinions don’t count. And the same people, leave when they can because ultimately those reservations work against you.

    The SC/ST example makes it blatantly obvious. The upper caste feel discriminated against because they have to compete for fewer seats while their SC/ST counterparts do not necessarily score the required 90’s but get seats regardless.

    The SC/ST in turn feel discriminated against because really, nobody wants an SC/ST doctor to treat them incl politicians. If the govt. doesn’t set minimum requirements then the general impression will persist. That being that SC/ST docs are not qualified to be good docs. This quota doesn’t help empower them it provides further basis to discriminate against them. It creates the impression SC/ST cannot compete at the same level as those outside the quota and need to be offered seats. It would benefit them more if the govt set up minimum grades/marks requirements and/or provided financial support instead of this.

    Ditto for the women’s quota. If the likes of Sheela Dixit can make it on her own then so can other women albeit through difficulties. But who said the road to reform wasn’t tough?
    Infact it is arguably a higher achievement to have secured a spot the fair democratic way vs having it offered it to you and perpetuating the bias that the group being offered the quota is not deserving of it ( since they needed reservations).

  9. Just two points, Nitin.

    First, Indian women have been politically empowered (in law) since 26th January 1952.

    Do you mean 1950? If not, what happened in 1952?

    Second, since when did someone like Rabri Devi inspire any girls that you know of?

    One more classic example of a theme I think we discussed on these pages some months ago: underestimating Lalu and Rabri. People who read and react here have simply no idea of the appeal that couple has in their constituency: get used to it. By extrapolating their experience (“girls that you know of”) to that constituency, they play Lalu’s game, which he is demonstrably better at playing. Scorn them all you like, he laughs it off and persuades his voters to vote for him next time.

    The longer guys like RahulBR like to fool themselves into thinking that the entire world shares their contempt for Lalu and Rabri, the longer L&R will remain popular.

  10. Dilip,

    Thanks for pointing that one out. It should be 1950.

    Interestingly, while universal adult suffrage come into force with the Constitution of India, women (at least some of them) had already received voting rights during British colonial rule.

    With the support of two national political parties, the Government of India Act was passed in 1919, which granted voting rights to the provincial assemblies, albeit based on wifehood, property and education. In 1935, the Act was extended to allow women to participate in elections to the Central Assembly (Mies, 1980). These rights were not donated to women by male leaders, but arose spontaneously as demands from the women themselves.

    Women’s advocacy came mainly from the upper echelons of society, from those who had a close rapport with the leaders of the Indian national movement.
    The urban and class bias of the Act that granted women suffrage was evident even a decade later. Women in modern Bangladesh first gained the right to vote in the Calcutta municipal elections. In the 1946 election, under the Government of India Act (1936), special enfranchisement provisions were made. Around 6,600,000 women voted under this arrangement. To vote, a woman had to have one of these attributes: be a tax payer; an owner of property worth Rs 5,000; be at least 21 years old; be literate enough to be able to write her own application for registration; or be the wife of a voter [Farah Kabir (doc)]

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