Fauzia Khan

Politics has long been a male bastion in which women have yet to gain an equal footing. Even when women leaders overcome significant obstacles to enter electoral politics, they are continuously discouraged by misogynistic attitudes and character assassination.

Women are routinely demotivated by being told that they do not belong here, and are systematically kept out of politics and decision making.

For instance, just last month, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Chandrakant Patil told Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MP Supriya Sule to “go home and cook” instead of being in politics, highlighting the existence of a structured system of oppressive gender hierarchy in politics and a patriarchal attitude that politics is a profession for ‘men’.  

Empirical studies confirm women’s skewed gender representation in politics and legislation. According to an Inter-Parliamentary Union study, India ranks 149th out of 193 countries in terms of female representation in the lower or single house of Parliament. It is inexcusable that in a country where women account for half of the population, they have an abysmally low 14% representation in the Lok Sabha and 11% in the Rajya Sabha.

Is this what we mean when we say India is a ‘representative  democracy’? Why are their voices still marginalised, even though they constitute a sizeable proportion of the population? It is high time that we stop representing women and speaking on their behalf and give them every opportunity to speak for and represent themselves.

Because of the prevalence of patriarchal tendencies and rampant sexism in political parties and institutions, an institutional process for ensuring the representation of women in legislation is critical. The lack of women’s active participation in politics not only undermines the spirit and idea of a representative democracy, but also denies women equal status and opportunity, as guaranteed by our Constitution.

To bridge this gap, we should do away with women’s ‘ornamental’ presence in politics and implement the pending action – the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill (Women’s Reservation Bill) – to level the playing field for women entering politics. We should fulfil our obligation to ensure equality as guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution, which establishes the right to equality as a fundamental right.

Women’s Reservation Bill  

The disproportionately low number of women in the positions of power reflects the inherent patriarchal tendencies in the Indian power structure. This was evident in the latest ‘Gender Gap Report’ by the World Economic Forum, where India ranked 135th in gender parity out of 156 countries. This indicates that the inequality between sexes that is inherently unfair.

Women’s representation in the Lok Sabha has grown at a snail’s pace since Independence. Women comprised only 4.4% of the first Lok Sabha, constituted in 1952, which was risen to merely 12.15% after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Democracy has not been able to provide justice to its women because it has not given them a voice.  

The Women’s Reservation Bill, which aims to represent women, has been rotting at the table of Lok Sabha since 2008 and continues to do so, having lapsed several times. This Bill seeks to reserve one-third of all seats in the Lok Sabha and  state legislative assemblies for women.

There is not only a lack of political will or consensus on the Bill; there’s strong opposition to it by lawmakers and various stakeholders, demonstrating how male-dominated Parliament’s role, authority, and rights are.

Parliament’s failure to pass this Bill is a result of various factors, the main reason being a social mindset that refuses to acknowledge women as leaders, as well as a popular perception of women’s reluctance to run alongside male candidates.

The numbers, on the other hand, tell a different story. The total number of female contestants increased from 45 in 1957 to 668 in 2015; that’s a 15-fold increase in the number of female contestants. When we look at the data for male  contestants from the same years, the number has increased five-fold; from 1,474 to 7,583.

The 15-fold increase in female candidates indicates a growing desire for women to enter politics and be a part of political decision-making.

There is a perceptible preferential bias among voters in favour of male candidates compared to female candidates. Even though voters show initial biases against female politicians, with enough exposure and awareness, they are more likely to view women in leadership roles to be as effective as men.

Another factor for the failure of the Bill is the assertion that gender-based seat reservation is unfair because it is discriminatory to men and also denies their democratic right to compete based on gender. However, in light of the discrimination, systematic exclusion, and injustices women have faced on account of their gender, this line of argument is untenable.

Where gender has been the cause of a variety of problems women face, it is justifiable to use gender as a tool to combat a society that has historically favoured men while oppressing, ostracising, and denying basic human rights to women.  Furthermore, preserving seats for women just guarantees equal opportunity, as is enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Need for effective legislation for women’s reservation  

When we dissect the arguments against the Bill, we see that all of the opposition is nothing more than hollow statements arising from our society’s patriarchal and misogynistic culture. When compared to our neighbours in the Gender Gap Report, Bangladesh ranks 71st, China 102nd and Sri Lanka 111th. Pakistan (145th) and Afghanistan (146th) are among only 11 countries which rank worse than India (135th), as of the 2022 edition of the report.

This not only reflects the country’s dismally low levels of female participation, but also the country’s larger picture of gender inequality. In recent years, when there has been a rise in voter turnout among women – which can impact electoral politics in a myriad of ways – it is disheartening that there’s no proportional rise in women’s representation in the legislative and decision-making bodies. That is not to argued that women have no representation in India, but the progress of women in elected bodies has been incredibly slow, as evidenced by the fact that even in the current and best phase (2002-2019), the percentage of women MPs in the Lok Sabha remains appallingly low.

Although there are no legal barriers to women being represented in elected bodies, impediments make it more difficult for women to have a voice in legislation. As a result, proactive affirmative action on the part of the government is critically needed. Even though reservation is not a panacea for ending India’s deeply rooted gender bias, it is a necessary step toward making a difference and ensuring equality.

Studies have shown that the gender quota introduced in local administration through the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts has increased the presence of women and enabled them to enter mainstream politics. Hence, effective representation can help in equal participation by men and women, which is a prerequisite for a just and representative democracy.

When one looks at the Nordic countries with the most female parliamentarians, it is clear that their national policies are more inclusive and gender-sensitive as female politicians are more likely to prioritise gender equality, safety and security, elderly care, children’s welfare, women’s health care issues, and so on. They’ve had a remarkable amount of success in enacting policies that promote social inclusion and equality. It is high time that we do the same in our country as well.  

Equal representation of women in legislation can significantly improve the quality of decision-making and empower both women and the nation. We cannot achieve social development with equity and justice without equal representation of women in Parliament, which is why the Women’s Reservation Bill is the need of the hour.

It is high time we stop the mere tokenism extended in the name of politics of representation and inclusion and ensure the actual and equal representation of women.

Fauzia Khan is Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha from the Nationalist Congress Party. She also heads the women’s wing of the NCP.
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