The parliament of a representative democracy is essentially a mirror of the democracy’s society. Naturally, societies still entrenched in patriarchal constructs have male-dominated legislatures. While women are still globally underrepresented in decision-making roles, the Indian Parliament in particular continues to rank among the lowest in the world in women’s representation.
At the time of India’s independence in 1947, the share of women in parliament was 4 per cent. Today, after almost seven decades of independence, it has increased to the dismal figure of about 12 per cent. According to data released by the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU), India ranks 105th in the world for female representation, with 65 female representatives out of 543 seats in the lower house, and 31 female members of parliament out of 243 seats in the upper house.
But things are changing in India. In the last few years, there have been massive changes, both at the policy level as well as in attitudes towards women. The invasive two-finger virginity test has been removed, the anti-rape law has been made more stringent and sexual harassment at the workplace is now a punishable offence. More significantly, since a brutal and globally-publicised incident of sexual assault and murder on 16 December 2012 and the subsequent outrage it sparked, there has been a noticeable shift in perception. Now, gender equality is not just the domain of ‘angry feminists’. It is recognised as a prerequisite for a sustainable society, and its absence is seen as a very real threat to everyone — men and women alike.
While these developments are heartening, India’s commitment to increasing the proportion of women in its parliament seems to be losing momentum. This is despite a general consensus that the underrepresentation of almost half (49 per cent) the country’s population is against the very idea of a representative democracy. In recent years, all major national parties and their respective electoral manifestoes have repeatedly established the aim of passing the Women’s Reservation Bill, a proposal that would set aside 33 per cent of seats in the national parliament for women.
Further, in 2000, when India ratified the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it agreed to increase the proportion of women in the national legislature as one of the MDG targets. The goals expire this year, but sadly discussion on the Women’s Reservation Bill has stagnated. Perhaps now is the perfect time to revive the discussion. Globally, perspectives on women’s representation in leadership are evolving. Following a European Union directive, Germany recently committed to improving the representation of women on corporate boards by passing a law that requires some of Europe’s biggest companies to give 30 per cent of supervisory seats to women starting next year. Needless to say, in terms of gender equality, Germany fares much better than most countries. On the gender inequality index produced by the UNDP, it ranks 6th, indicating a high level of gender equality. India, by contrast, stands at 135th.
Considering even some of the most developed countries are prioritising affirmative action to close gender gaps, it is important to view the Women’s Reservation Bill not as the ‘noble’ thing to do, but the ‘ progressive’ thing to do. France adopted a ‘parity’ law in 1999, which mandated the equal distribution of party tickets between men and women.
The last few months have been particularly arduous for some of India’s most prominent women leaders. Recent headlines have broadcasted the alleged transgressions of Sushma Swaraj, Union Minister of External Affairs, and Vasundhara Raje, Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Corruption charges have been laid against Pankaja Munde, Minister for Women and Child Development in Maharashtra state. Jayalalithaa Jayaram, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, stood trial but was later acquitted of corruption charges. Meanwhile, Smriti Irani, a federal government minister, has been surrounded by perpetual controversy regarding her credentials and abilities.
Following these controversies, social media and popular media have been flooded with claims that these women are the reason for the decline in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. These reactions stem from sexism and the hegemonic, masculine thought-process that systematically functions to keep women out of power. Given the minuscule number of women present in Indian politics, and with those who are present being embroiled in controversy, it becomes more important to push the cause of greater representation of women, not less.
Since it was first introduced in 1996, the Women’s Reservation Bill has been hotly debated. But it now seems as though the debate has also died down. It is important to remember that the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Indian constitution, which became effective in 1994, were able to usher approximately a million women into top positions in local self-governing bodies and panchayats (village-level administrations). It is argued that many of these women remained ‘rubber stamps’ to their husbands while in office; yet, there is also irrefutable evidence that many of these women displayed commendable decision-making-prowess and brought their varied life experiences to contribute valuably to political mechanisms.
The loopholes and technicalities of the Women’s Reservation Bill should be open to scrutiny, but the Bill and its purpose must not be forgotten. Modi has demonstrated the ruling party’s focus on gender equality in his speeches at the Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations. Perhaps the revival of the debate over this bill could be an opportunity to do the same.
Vidisha Mishra is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
This article has been republished from EastAsiaForum.org.