Promises of gender equality or women empowerment have been one of the most heated premises of the ongoing parliamentary elections. Different political parties have promised various schemes for the same. The most familiar of the myriad promises being made is passing the Women’s Reservation Bill (2008) in the Lok Sabha which will ensure 33% reservation for women in parliament as well as in the state legislative assemblies. The Congress manifesto claims that they will ensure this reservation if they come to power in 2019. The Bharatiya Janata Party also claims the same in their manifesto.
However, this is not the first time political parties have claimed to strive for passing this bill. The Congress stated this resolution in the UPA II manifesto as well, though it failed to keep its promise. The BJP too promised this in their 2014 manifesto, which remained as a promise and never saw the day of light. The issue again cropped up in the run up to this year’s election.
It is baffling to know that the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) is the longest pending legislations in Parliament. There has never been a bill in the history of Indian parliament that has been put forth so many times. There are also instances when a sitting MP once had snatched and torn the paper. It has been ten years since the Bill was drafted and yet, over the years an overwhelmingly male parliament has failed to enact the legislation that aims to boost the number of women in the Lower House.
As a result, out of the 543 MPs in the last adjourned Lok Sabha, only 62 were women.
The second wave of feminism gave the widely known outcry ‘personal is political’ which means that women’s oppression and subjugation in the supposedly insular domestic sphere is not to be studied in isolation. The public and domestic domains are not separate, they are overlapping. Public policies, debates, programmes influence our personal and domestic lives and what is done in the domestic sphere follows into the public arena.
Also, it is only by understanding and analyzing the oppression in our personal lives that we can move towards an understanding of our marginalization in the public and political sphere as well. Thus, there is an ardent need to validate personal experiences and subjective feelings. It is actually a part of a well defined structured system of oppressive gender hierarchy.
This structured hierarchy confirms total control of women’s labor both in the private and the public sphere. In what Sylvia Walby calls the ‘patriarchal mode of production,’ men benefit materially from patriarchy, they derive concrete economic gains from the subordination of women. Maybe this is precisely the reason why women representation is being vehemently opposed by nearly all political parties. Because, men control women’s productivity both within the household and in the paid work sphere. Within the household women are supposed to provide round the clock service to the members, throughout their lives, which is obviously unpaid. Thus, women’s labor is being expropriated by the male dominated private sphere.
The endless and repetitive labor put in by women is not considered work at all and thus huge amount of work is labelled ‘unproductive’ and hence remains unpaid. Precisely this is the vicious exploitative circle which engulfs women’s lives and gives rise to their systemic oppression.
Marking of women’s labor as unproductive, thus unpaid and confining it into the spheres of domesticity does one more crucial thing – the paid labor market is left only to the male. Full authority is bestowed upon them to gather profit from the public sphere and to control the mobility of the other gender. The Women’s Reservation Bill challenges this whole notion of segregation of spheres according to gender. It makes a probability for women to enter into uncharted territories for them which are generally masculine. The WRB invariably means more and more women in positions of power and decision-making which actively influences public life and thus a threat to the stable status quo.
An analysis of the main institutions in society shows that nearly all economic, political, religious, social and cultural institutions are patriarchal and are by and large controlled by men. Namely, the family, religion, media, law, educational institutions, army, and definitely the state are the pillars of a patriarchal system and structure. The concept of state has a hyper masculine connotation to it.
In the name of national security, the state can make use of violence, flex its muscle power and supercede the human rights of its citizens. This inherent so-called ‘masculine’ traits of the state has kept it out of the ambit of women for the longest time in history. Women are national treasures, they are to be kept in the vaults, never to be used as active agents in nation-building. This institutional set-up, as we know it today, when contextualised in history, reveals a deeply gendered and patriarchal structural setting within which sovereign states exist.
The state as an institution is highly masculine and in turn territorial, and also that human security and welfare is subsumed under territorial integrity, women are structurally excluded from this institution. But, just as gender roles are being routinely deconstructed outside these institutions, they must be done within too. We need women in positions of power, in decision making roles, in politically supreme positions. Almost all political institutions in society, at all levels, are male dominated, from village panchayats to parliament. In South Asia, this discrimination is even more stark and in-your-face.
Even when some women do assume important political positions, they do so, at least initially, because of their association with some strong male political personalities, and they function within the structures and principles laid down by men. They are mainly a result of political lineage, and have very little to do with actually opening up opportunities for women to enter into the political arena. This is the reason why women’s reservation is the need of the hour.
We need women politicians and ministers to bring up issues concerning women in the parliament and engage in active participation for their upliftment. All women living in this gendered world have lived experiences of being victims of structured aggression, and we all have a shared memory of trauma. The ‘personal is political’ idea basically implies is that only those sections of people who experience certain oppression personally can explain the politics around it.
These groups of people, in question, are often marginalized and not let to speak. They are spoken on behalf of. Women no longer want to be represented on behalf of, we want to represent ourselves. The entire second wave was predicated on women speaking about their oppressive experiences. If these gendered experiences are indeed political then it is only right that they voice their experiences that shape and get shaped by political structures.
But, hegemonic masculinity is heavier to move than Oedipus’ rock. Whoever comes to power, our gendered experiences signals that the WRB will be very very difficult to pass in the Lok Sabha. The history of mankind has shown that whoever benefits from the structured power dynamics, they will never ever let the oppressed dismantle it. Thus, a long battle awaits in front where women can finally represent themselves.
One of the main arguments against this Bill is that reserving a constituency for women would mean all men in the constituency lose out on the opportunity to represent it. It would essentially amount to denying someone their democratic right on the basis of gender. This argument lacks basic humanitarian approach.
When a section of society has been historically oppressed, ostracised and denied their basic human rights on account of gender, it is only imperative that retribution must be based on gender too. We must find out the cause of oppression, and then try to subvert the menace according to the cause. Where gender is the only reason for denying women representation, gender becomes the only tool to fight it. Also, the woman has to win from that constituency and become a member of parliament, she cannot be a MP just because of her gender. Thus in the words of activist Dr Ranjana Kumari, “it is a matter of right, and not a matter of favour.“
Since the passing of the WRB is still a distant dream, another effective way to increase women parliamentarians is to field more women candidates for contesting. The Trinamool Congress was one of the first political parties to announce their candidate list, and in a remarkable occurrence they have nominated 41% women in 17 of their 42 parliamentary seats.
In neighbouring Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal too has nominated women in a third of their seats. When more women are given candidature, automatically representation in parliament will be much higher. Maybe in the future more parties will be inspired to increase the number of women candidates. We hope this is just the beginning of a new era where this hegemony of political power will be dismantled.
The Women’s Reservation Bill is imperative for a more egalitarian and gender-just society, though we know that we have to walk many more miles before we dream of it. As a community who had to organise mass movements to ensure their political suffrage, we know that battle scars are just the predecessor of a new dawn. A new dawn, where states will not focus on territorial capture, but on the wellbeing of its citizens.