Against reserving seats for women

Empowering women is not quite the same as creating powerful women

(From this blog’s archives, a post first published on August 23rd, 2005.)

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.

18 thoughts on “Against reserving seats for women”

  1. the next thing which the country is gonna watch is… “Quota in the Women’s Reservation Bill” quota’s for Muslims,Dalits etc.. … BSP,SP,RJ(D) and MIM will support it,Congress has to support it for its vote bank and the biggest joker will be the BJP.

  2. Spot on Nitin…a concise summing up of why this move will cause more harm by giving people a false sense of accomplishment..

  3. “The streets of Chennai, New Delhi or Lucknow, all in states ruled by a powerful women..”

    Karunanidhi has been called a few names, but no one called him a woman yet, I suppose

  4. In other words, the Bill creates opportunities only for approximately 180 women as compared to the 500 million out there.

    The real women’s bill will be passed when police and judicial reforms are initiated.

  5. Totally agree. The WR Bill simply does not address the root causes of gender disparity in India – prejudicial attitudes, women being confined to a narrow set of social roles and economic backwardness. It may help break the glass ceiling as far as becoming an MP or MLA is concerned but it does not address the attitudes that sustain the glass ceiling. It is bound to be ineffective.

  6. Sweden, which has implemented women’s reservations in the parliament, has one of the best success stories. Women account now for 42% of the parliamentarians, going beyond their stipulated quota, and more towards their rightful proportion according to their numbers in population. Other Scandinavian countries are also well ahead in this game.

    Not so much other developed countries in the first world. Women’s representation in politics don’t come automatically through economic development, though women’s rights get better. It is necessary to have a proportional share of women in the parliament because their input is necessary in topics concerned to the nation, and they bring in a unique perspective as they are more touched by these issues : in education, health, child development, caring for the elderly etc..

    Creating a few top women politicians doesn’t mean the same. So your argument doesn’t cut the issue. We need a LOT of women in politics, from grounds up.. in the villages, towns and in legislative assemblies. In the beginning, these women will probably be just wives of known politicians. But soon we shall see independent woman politicians of their own volition. It will only be for the good of the country.

  7. I am not a fan of social reservations though. And I should explain the difference between these issues. The difference between men and women is biological : it is given and it stays with us. The differences induced by castes / religions and other social systems are artificial. Creating reservations on those lines will amount to recognizing these differences as permanent, and defeats the very purpose of eradicating these social evils.

    Ambedkar’s original aim was a lofty one, and the position of the socially backward classes has improved a lot because of his initiative. Neither of us have lived 60 years ago (I presume) and the social stigma based on caste was very strong at that time. Issues like untouchability were rampant. Though these haven’t been eradicated completely, we’ve come a long way from there. We should now look for better and faster ways to eradicate these social evils, and I feel perpetuating the social reservation system endlessly is not the answer.

  8. Apparently, the way they implemented the reservation system in Sweden was at the party-level, where each political party ensured a minimum share of women in the list of candidates.

    But I don’t know if we Indians can compete with the Swedes in manners of civic sense, at least today 🙂 I am not sure if the current crop of political parties would do anything like ensuring a proportional representation of women candidates voluntarily.

  9. @vakibs,
    Your last post pretty much invalidates your other two. There is no need for a constitutional amendment reserving seats for women if political parties themselves commited to having more women represent them – do you want to take a guess at how many women were given tickets to contest for Lok Sabha by their parties ? If it was anything beyond 3% in EACH party, i would die of shock.

    There is a reason why there are very few women in politics today in India – it has become a life long obsession for power, influence and fame – it stopped being “public service” decades ago. It takes a certain hunger for power and fame to even get into the political arena.

    It is no surprise that most women in politics today whether you like them or not are all very opinionated and strong willed characters who crave for power – Jayalalitha, Mayawati, that saffron “saint” from the BJP whose name i have long forgotten – in other words, they are no different or better than male politicos.

    There are worse things that happen to women in India on a daily basis than having such pathetic representation in Parliament – Indian society has only “progressed” that much… we still have a long way to go.

    I am not saying that this will be a total dud – there will be some benefits that come out of this, but the costs of constitutionally mandated discrimination will be higher. ( You cannot run for Paliament in district XYZ in election year 2XXX because you have XY chromosomes is what the Constitution will say if this law is passed in Lok Sabha.)

    India once again reminds us of how fundamentally illiberal it is – and all this is done in the name of “Progress”… The irony.

  10. I cannot wait for all the MPs whose “lives” are on the line to vote for this constitutional amendment – just to see the look on their faces knowing that they are jeopardizing their own future is priceless 🙂

    Btw, does any one know who is on the chopping block.. i.e. which 180 seats will be reserved for women in 2014 elections ?

  11. The Madhu Kishwar article does not inspire much hope in this legislation. It is a flawed bill rushed in to create a change that might never come.

    What is worse is a possible backdoor entry of a sub quota. Just the thought of an entire gang of hooded penguins sitting in our parliament is terrifying.

  12. I dont completely agree with the article. I would like to take a wait-n-watch stand. I believe, instead of just speaking superficially about solving inequality by empowering, bla bla…, I think such concrete measures at least brings the issue to the foreground – thus serving its purpose.. and hopefully inspiring and creating success stories..

  13. Doesn’t India already have a higher proportion of women in parliament than Canada/US does? At the very least, India has elected two female PMs! They did nothing for women’s rights.
    I think the women are less valued in Indian society largely because the primary economic activity is based on physical Labour. So without proper education for women, the current condition of India’s women is likely to stay the same.

  14. We need a broad-based anti-discrimination bill. This will take care of all excuses that politicians mouth, for increasingly impractical reservations.
    Guarantee discrimination-free housing, pricing, education, economic incentives, development and in 20 years, we will have an equitable society. Reservations haven’t actually accelerated any social program.

    Alongside, we also need a something that I will call “a mobility guarantee bill”. It should guarantee social, economic, religious and geographical mobility upwards,downwards or sideways.

    If the consensus is to maintain the caste system, there should be a practical mechanism for a person to move up and down the caste hierarchy. I.e. how does a Dalit become a Brahmin? If it is not possible, then the system is discriminatory and should be abolished.

    If religious conversion is allowed one way, it is also allowed in the reverse direction. Either it is allowed, or that discriminatory religion should be banned.

    People should be allowed to move between locations without restriction. No if’s and but’s.

    It should be possible for any worker to become CEO of the company according to well laid out non-discriminatory criteria. No more bosses son is the new boss nonsense.

  15. Apologies for the comment on karunandhi. I missed the fact that the post is from the archives.

  16. Another disadvantage of the woman’s reservation bill is that the constituencies will get rotated once every 3 years.

    So an MP will not work in his constituency when he would know that he does hot have to stand for election next time there. The little work that the MP’s do at the moment will also dwindle to zero.

  17. @rishi,
    Actually this could be a feature and not a bug – the less power an MP has, lesser will be his influence. There are very few MPs who actually do anything useful for their constituents.

    OTOH, this does give them incentive to be even more corrupt – knowing that their seats may be up for reservation, they will double their bribery going rates..

    dang.. we are screwed either way.

  18. I don’t think I quite agree with you on this one–the bill will help women, of that there is no doubt in my mind. Distributing power on the basis of a female identity will, sooner or later, help other women, even if only a few hundred actually get to legislate. The question is whether this empowerment is worth the cost?

    What I’m seriously concerned about is how this is going to cripple parliament and the system of representative legislators that we have. Already the anti-defection law seems to have given that concept a good shake-down and now this.

    A Very Costly Bill

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