Why we should junk the idea for 33 percent women’s quota
The brutal gangrape of, and what has turned out be fatal assault on, the young Delhi woman has given rise to a welter of demands relating to women’s safety and sexual violence – capital punishment for rapists, castration/chemical castration, emergency session of Parliament to pass tougher laws, fast-track courts, to name just a few. Some of these, like tougher laws and setting up of fast-track courts, are justified and have been brushed under the carpet till now. Some are clearly an over-reaction. Worryingly, the incident and the public outrage it evoked are being used to push through ideas that should be junked.
One such idea is reservation of 33 percent seats in legislatures for women. The Hindu in a front page editorial on 30 December, titled No Turning Back Now, argued that “the Indian political system would not have been so indifferent to the problem of sexual violence if half or even one-third of all legislators were women”. The early passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, the editorial noted, could be “Parliament’s way of honouring the death of the Unknown Citizen”. That same evening, the BJP’s Shaina NC was also making much the same point on news television.
I am worried that an emotionally charged atmosphere could well see the Bill being given the green signal by the Lok Sabha (it was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010).
Some ardent advocates of the Bill say it is flawed in its current form. I am not going into that. I am questioning the very concept of reservation of seats for women in legislatures on two counts.
One, that there needs to be a law to get more women into politics. Women have stormed male bastions in several professions and carved a niche for themselves without the benefit of gender-based reservations. In each, one generation of women has struggled and made a space for itself, thereby creating room for the next generation to struggle and make some more space. Sometimes this has been achieved with some noise, but mostly it has been done silently, away from the headlines. Why should women politicians have it easier?
Two, that getting more women into our legislatures will result in more women-sensitive laws and policies.
Yes, there is clout in numbers but do those who make up the numbers exercise the clout they have?
Is it the lack of a Women’s Reservation Act that prevented women politicians cutting across party lines from coming together and addressing the protestors at Raisina Hill, or promising the nation that they will ensure the passage of tougher laws against sexual assault?
Have we forgotten that some extremely insensitive statements about rape and rape victims have come from women – Mamata Bannerjee, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Rita Bahuguna Joshi (Joshi made a comment about Mayawati similar to the one Anisur Rahman made about Mamata last week)?
Who stood up to Rajiv Gandhi on the Muslim Women’s Bill? One man – Arif Mohammed Khan. What were all the women politicians in the Congress – many of them enjoying significant political clout – doing? If they had all come together and lodged some form of protest, would the party have gone ahead with the Bill?
The case for a Women’s Reservation Bill is based on certain assumptions that are, to my mind, flawed.
One is that women will vote as a homogenous mass. That is based on another flawed assumption – that women’s issues are devoid of ideology. Women from the extreme left and the extreme right of the political spectrum will have completely divergent views on the role of women in society. One set will want laws that make divorce easier. The other will say divorce should be made more difficult. How can these two opposite views be reconciled into one Woman-Friendly or Gender-Sensitive stand?
The third assumption is that women will act as women and not as members of a particular party (in cases where there is no ideological divide). When a party issues a whip asking its members to vote for a law that is detrimental to women, will the women MPs oppose the party whip, which will invite disqualification?
Besides, has the performance of women in Parliament given any hint of promise that they will do good by their gender, if elected in larger numbers? Have they done the utmost that their less than 10 percent presence lets them do? As a journalist, I once researched a story on the performance of women parliamentarians. The picture was not very encouraging. PRS Legislative Research worked out some figures for the newspaper I wrote for that showed that while attendance levels were more or less the same, the participation of women Lok Sabha MPs in legislative and non-legislative debates was less than men.
Women politicians have an answer to all this. Party leaders don’t give women a chance to speak. The party leadership doesn’t give tickets to women and that is why this Bill is needed.
I ask them and those who endorse their views – if you can’t fight for yourselves within your respective parties, how are you going to fight for all of us in state legislatures and Parliament?
Till they do that – fight for their voices to be heard within their parties – nothing will change for women regardless of the number of seats they occupy in our legislatures.