In an effort not to be caught on the wrong side, most of India’s political parties are clambering to support the controversial Women’s Reservation Bill. It is unlikely that there will be any real opposition to the Bill with the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party both supporting it, as well as regional parties like the TDP, DMK, AIADMK, Akali Dal and National Conference. The Bill, as it stands, seeks to reserve 33% of the seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. In more ways than one, the Women’s Reservation Bill is a perversion of the Indian constitution and a purely political move which will only serve to create divisions where there are none and worsen them where they already exist.
The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution (passed in April 1992 and June 1993) created around a million slots for women representatives in India’s governing Houses. In 1996, the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced in Parliament. Faced with obvious manifestations of opposition, the Narasimha Rao government decided not to proceed to a vote. Reintroduced by the BJP as the 84th Amendment Bill in July 1998, it provoked a stormy session in the house, featuring unprecedented scenes of snatching of papers from the Speaker and the law minister and the virtual coming to blows of members. Discussion of the bill stalled without ever going to an initial vote. Presented next (as the 85th Amendment Bill) in December 2000, in a virtual replay of earlier scenes particular party leaders trooped into the well of the chamber. In its latest invocation, however, the Bill has faced almost total support as political leaders have realised the vote bank capacity of women. The Bill, which envisioned a reservation of seats of political office for women, was different from the already existing abhorrent reservations for Scheduled Castes, Tribes, and Other Backward Castes in that the other reservations were at places of education. Also curious was that there was no demand for such a Bill by any organisation until then (Karnataka and Maharashtra had laws in the late 1980s that reserved 25% and 30% of the local and rural seats for women already). Highlights of the Women’s Reservation Bill are: 1. As nearly as may be one-third of all seats in Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies shall be reserved for women, 2. Reservation shall apply in case of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) as well, and 3. Seats to be reserved in rotation will be determined by draw of lots in such a way that a seat shall be reserved only once in three consecutive general elections.
There are fundamental problems with the Bill as it stands as well as with the very principle of reserving seats for any group. One problems with the Bill is rotational reservation of one-third seats. The pre-election nursing of a Lok Sabha or State Assembly constituency involves a very heavy investment on the part of the political parties and individual aspirants. Rotational reservation of one-third of the seats exclusively for women would lead to a grave uncertainty for sitting male MPs eroding their meticulously developed political base. Secondly, the quick turnover will irredeemably damage the process of the development of national-level leaders. A further criticism of rotation is that it would diminish accountability, since representatives need not fear the electorate’s verdict at the next election. Another problem with the Bill is that it turns women’s quota into a zero sum game where women would get seats only if male MPs were removed from one-third of the constituencies. This pitts men against women in a society which is already struggling to maintain an image of equality between the genders. From a feminist perspective, the proposal encourages the ghettoization of women representatives by pitting women against women in reserved constituencies. And since reservations for women would be additional to existing seat reservations for scheduled castes and tribes, nearly half of all constituencies could end up reserved.
India is not the first country to contemplate gender quotas in government – originally adopted by parties in Norway in the 1970s and thereafter taken up in a succession of European countries, gender quotas have been seen as one potentially highly effective way of redressing gender imbalance in national legislatures. They have been justified on a range of grounds, including gender justice and equality, women’s greater propensity to represent women’s interests, and symbolic value. While India’s record on women’s political representation does not compare unfavorably with its South Asian neighbors, in comparison to all developing countries, India seems more obviously laggard. The contrast is greatest with Latin America, where through the 1990s no fewer than twelve countries adopted national quotas for women in parliament. Quotas for women have also been adopted in several African countries, most notably South Africa. The most dramatic case is Rwanda, where, following inclusion of parliamentary gender quotas in the new constitution, women won thirty-nine (out of eighty) seats in the 2003 general election. In East Asia, Taiwan’s DPP adopted a 25 percent quota of women candidates in 1995.
The question that arises with the issue of introduction of quotas for women is if we think that women are always the best spokespeople for women’s issues. If so, can it also be extrapolated from this that only doctors can adequately represent the interests of doctors? What about engineers, or historians? Perhaps handicapped people are also the best voices of their discontent. And who can speak for the mentally handicapped and comatose? I suppose the Indian Houses of Parliament would be best suited for that! Quotas do not achieve anything and are a purely political exercise. The practice was provided for in the Constitution in 1950 for SC/ST and OBCs and was supposed to expire in 1970 but was renewed indefinitely. The Mandal Commission raised the percentage of seats to be reserved for backward communities in 1980 and made a train wreck of India’s political scene and development. Today, after 60 years of state beneficence, the only achievement reservation of seats can boast of is the creation of a strong vote bank, the third rail of Indian politics. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that a reservation for women will increase gender equality in India. The political measures being presently contemplated are merely stop gaps and a quick fix pill, much like in American politics (particularly education policy). Through these means the government can appear as if they are trying to do something while not much actually materialises on the ground.
If equality between the genders is to be truly fostered, it requires a change in mindset. This cannot be achieved through legislation but through education reinforced by the social pressure of shame for being a party to discrimination. Equality can occur when a girl child is not seen as a burden, when dowry is no longer an issue, or when it is not seen as a waste of resources to educate a girl. When Indian men become comfortable with their daughters and sisters, mothers and wives having careers of their own, there will be greater equality. Voting in a million women through a quota will not achieve this. The law in India may allow Indian women free social movement but that does not mean that the clerk at the rations office will take a woman as seriously as a man. A nation of hyper-prude, holier-than-thou, no-sex-please-we-are-Indian people have created enormous pressure on gender relations in the name of Indian culture, whatever that may be. No amount of legislation can change that, and it is foolish to think that women are the only people who understand this and can address it. In effect, the Women’s Reservation Bill fits well into the paternalistic mindset of Indians – women leaders can address women’s issues, while the men can handle the rest. It is curious that no one has realised this covert slap in the face of the Women’s Movement. In their blind desire to compete with their western counterparts, the Women’s Liberation Movement in India has really dropped the ball. With this Bill, they stand for a legislative division of society by gender. Even though women in power can address other issues, they are being brought on to handle “women’s issues.” Trapped in a medievally-stunted frame of mind, no one has paused to think that domestic violence is not a women’s issue but a national issue.
India is no stranger to domestic violence. Domestic Violence isn’t just hitting, or fighting, or an occasional argument. It’s an abuse of power. The abuser tortures and controls the victim by calculated threats, intimidation, and physical violence. Although both men and women can be abused, in most cases, the victims are women. Children in homes where there is domestic violence are also abused or neglected. Although the woman is usually the primary target, violence is sometimes directed toward children, and sometimes towards other family members. In a recent report by the United Nations Population Fund, it emerged that as many as 70% married women in India between the age of 15 and 49 are victims of beating, rape or coerced sex. Despite a series of laws that have been enacted to tackle this problem, the only result has been a slight decrease in domestic violence and a large number of cases in which the law has been abused by women.
Dowry is not merely a Hindu problem anymore – dowry practice plagues the Christian and Muslim communities in India as well. In fact, despite a high literacy rate, Kerala continues to be one of the epicenters of dowry practice in the country. While the Church is aware of this practice, its leaders say there is little they can do about it. Far from being a solemn ceremony, marriages have now become an occasion to flaunt wealth and social status. And in a consumer state like Kerala it seems just everyone wants to shell out as much as he can on marriages. The Muslim case was made very clearly to the world in the Shah Bano case in 1986.
Recently, with sati and dowry coming to the fore, much research has gone into the phenomena and it is quite widely agreed that neither have anything to do with religion or culture but are yet other ugly faces of greed and power. The election of more women to legislative bodies cannot cure this disease which is prevalent not just in India but the world over. The statistics for wife-beating are about the same in the developed and the developing world. It is fallacious to think that there is a link between democracy, prosperity, education levels and domestic violence,” counters Elizabeth Rod-Grangé, a Swiss sociologist and activist with Solidarité Femme, a women’s rights group that runs shelters for battered women in Geneva. According to the report, one in every three women suffers violence in her lifetime. The United States also has a dismal record in this: the number of women murdered by their close relatives are 15 per million per year. The statistics in Europe are as appalling as anywhere else. In Britain, one woman is killed by her partner every three days, one woman in four experiences domestic violence and attacks on partners account for a quarter of all violent crime. In France, six women die each month at the hands of men who profess to love them. Women earn less than men in all 27 European Union countries, according to a recent European Commission report. In 2005, the pay gap was 15% across the European Union.
The Gender Development Index, sponsored by the UN, paints a reprehensible image of India. In last five years, that is from year 2000 to 2005, position of India dipped from 105 to 113. The sex ratio in India is the nastiest in South Asia and comes to worst from bad in the Census report of 1901 to 2001. As per the Census of 1901, the sex ratio in India was 972 women to 1,000 men, which in 2001 Census came down to 933 women, per 1000 men. The girl child is looked upon as a burden by our society and people apply all possible methods to stop the birth of a girl child. The girl child is slaughtered mercilessly in the mother’s womb and according to reports, around 50 million women are missing because of female foeticide in India. Apart from this, women are also subject to mental and physical torture for giving birth to a girl child. The Shri Ram Sena is a recent example of the intolerance and Wahabbist attitudes towards women’s freedom in India. No amount of quotas can stop this unless education is coupled with legislation and opportunities.
If the BJP is to remain close to the problems that plague the average Indian, it must not support this Bill – it will probably become law anyway, but let the taint not fall on them. Instead, it needs to foster special programmes for education of the girl child. The Party needs to ensure the implementation of the most basic laws pertaining to domestic violence and ensure that it is not abused and real victims get redressal from the government. The BJP must support initiatives that give tax relief to women in the workplace and rewards those who employ women with wages equal to men. Furthermore, since the Party has already chosen to get in bed with the Saffron Brigade, it might want to highlight the fact that women have had a much higher status in Hindu society than in Christian or Islamic societies. Thus, equality of women is not only a human right but also an issue of Hindu culture.
The role of women in Hinduism is often disputed, and positions range from privileged to intolerant. Hinduism is based on numerous texts, some of which date back to 2000 BCE or earlier. The variety of texts available makes it difficult to specify clearly the Hindu view on any issue. For example, the epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) depict women with strong character and with equal legal status as men. However, the Manu Smriti suggests a curtailment of women’s rights but still dictates that be treated well in all manners. In modern times the Hindu wife has traditionally been regarded as someone who must at all costs remain chaste or pure. This is in contrast with the very different traditions that have prevailed at earlier times in Hindu kingdoms, which included highly respected professional courtesans (such as Amrapali of Vesali), sacred devadasis, mathematicians and female magicians (the basavis, the Tantric kulikas). Hinduism recognises female depictions of the Universal Soul and there are many textual references in the scriptures of this. Seventeen of authors of the Rig Veda were women — rishikas and brahmavadinis (Romasa, Lopamudra, Apata, Kadru, Vishvavara, Ghosha, Juhu, Vagambhrini, Paulomi, Jarita, Shraddha-Kamayani, Urvashi, Sharnga, Yami, Indrani, Savitri and Devayani). The Sama Veda mentions another four: Nodha (or Purvarchchika), Akrishtabhasha, Shikatanivavari (or Utararchchika) and Ganpayana. There were shaktikis or female spear bearers according to Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, and women soldiers armed with bows and arrows in the Mauryan army, according to Kautilya’s Arthashastra. The Greek Ambassador Megasthenes mentions Chandragupta Maurya’s armed female bodyguard.
Despite what seems like a glowing record on gender equality, it is a sad fact that India is today just like any other country when it comes to discrimination against women. The gender pay differential in India, though shrinking, is still hovering in the teens (18% in 1983, 13% in 1999). India still has one of the lowest female literacy rates in Asia. In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means today there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.  Compared to boys, far fewer girls are enrolled in the schools, and many of them drop out. According to the 2001 census, while the male literacy rate stood at 76.64%, female literacy still languished at 54.16%.
There are several reasons for the low levels of literacy in India, not the least of which is the high level of poverty. Over one-third of the population is estimated to be living below the poverty line. Although school attendance is free, the costs of books, uniforms, and transportation to school can be too much for poor families. Poor families are also more likely to keep girls at home to care for younger siblings or to work in family enterprises. If a family has to choose between educating a son or a daughter because of financial restrictions, typically the son will be chosen. Negative parental attitudes toward educating daughters can also be a barrier to a girl’s education. Many parents view educating sons as an investment because the sons will be responsible for caring for aging parents. On the other hand, parents may see the education of daughters a waste of money because daughters will eventually live with their husbands’ families, and the parents will not benefit directly from their education. Also, daughters with higher levels of education will likely have higher dowry expenses as they will want a comparably educated husband. This is also not a problem that can be solved by having a larger number of female MPs and MLAs. A strong economy, supported by prudent government policies is the safest haven for women and India in general.
Sexual discrimination against women stems from the notion that one’s sex determines one’s identity. The outlook is that a man is superior to a woman, not because of considerations of merit of thought, but by anatomical considerations. And the enforcement of such belief-systems upon women is carried out by persuasion, blackmail, threat of physical violence and sometimes direct bodily or psychological injury. So fighting such stupid beliefs should form the core of those want to uplift conditions of women.
At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that legislating inane laws is not what Indians will note, nor the world. Phoolan Devi and Rabri devi have not – cannot – contribute to raising the level of national debate. It is the actual improvement of society and living conditions that will put India on the map. The Women’s Reservation Bill serves to only create yet another vote bank and a hot button issue that politicians can later milk for support in elections. Politicians and those who vote for them should only ask themselves this: In the next UN poll on gender equality, does India want to be grouped with Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Palestine, or with Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden (top four in UNPF poll)? In which direction do our leaders want to take us?