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.