The word “reservation” is back in news, following the judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court that the provision of quotas for minorities in education and jobs under the “backward category” is illegal. I do not want to go into the detail since in this issue of our magazine, one of India’s most respected columnists has dealt with the subject. My point is that with “vote-bank politics” getting more entrenched in Indian polity, there is now no politician daring enough to argue against the superficialities inherent in the provisions for reservations. That explains why even the hitherto considered forward communities now want to be declared backward!
We have a Women’s Reservation Bill (the Constitution 108th Amendment Bill), providing thirty three per cent of all seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies reserved for women, which is waiting for the Lok Sabha’s approval. The Rajya Sabha passed it on 9 March, 2010. In fact, the other day, the leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, described its speedy passage as the most pressing issue facing India! I would like to deal with this issue in this column as I have just come across some interesting literature on “the women’s movement” in the United States.
Of course, this debate on women’ reservations is not something new. The proposal for their fixed presence in legislators has been hanging fire since 1990s, but it has been deferred from time to time for want of a political consensus. Some parties would like reservation within reservation for the most backward women. Some parties do not want any such division. But one positive outcome it has resulted in is the unity among various women’s groups outside the Parliament demanding such reservations. What, however, one cannot be sure of is the duration of this unity. The experience of the United States is instructive in this regard.
From the late 1960s into the 1980s there was a vibrant women’s movement in the US. Culturally influential and politically powerful organisations campaigned for issues such as reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other reforms. They drew their strength from various professions, unions, government bureaucracies and other institutions. The movement brought about major changes in the lives of many women. It opened to women professions and blue-collar jobs that previously had been reserved for men. It transformed the portrayal of women by the media. It introduced the demand for women’s equality into politics, organised religion, sports, and innumerable other arenas and institutions, and as a result the gender balance of participation and leadership began to change.
However, now, a mass women’s movement in the US is virtually non-existent. Though there are many organisations working for women’s equality in the public arena and in private institutions, these are no longer organisations with large participatory memberships. On the contrary, these are now mostly bureaucratic structures run by paid staff. Feminist theory, once provocative and freewheeling, has lost concern with the conditions of women’s lives and has become pretentious and tired. From a “movement”, the women’s issues now constitute, as noted social scientist Barbara Epstein beautifully argues, an “idea”. And, this is the situation despite the fact that gender equality has not yet been achieved fully in the US The American women are mostly concentrated in low-paying jobs. Women in the US earn, on average, considerably less than men. Violence against them is still quite widespread.
Why is such a decline of the Women’s movement in the US? There are many reasons, if one goes through famous publications like Ruth Rosen’s survey of the women’s movement, “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America” and Christopher Lasch’s collection of essays, “Women and the Common Life Culture, and the Rise of the Suburbs”. But the dominant reason is the changing profile of the leaders of the Women’s Movement and the environment or backgrounds they come from. In essence, the point is that contemporary feminism has over time tended to absorb the perspective of the middle class from which it is largely drawn. There are still some radicals within the feminist movement in the US believing in an egalitarian society (in fact, some of them, in their fight against man-dominated world, go to the perverse extent of living and behaving like men), but they are in a distinct minority.
On the other hand, a majority of the feminists has been affected by a broader trend. In a period of sharpening economic and social divisions, characterised by corporate demand for greater and greater profits and the canonising of greed, a whole generation has been seized by the desire to rise to the top. Feminists, in other words, are becoming careerists. The US has become increasingly individualistic, cold, and selfish. And the feminist there has not noticeably challenged this. Her sense of “community engagement” has weakened in the process.
If we apply the American example in India, the scenario becomes equally disconcerting. Who are our feminist or women leaders? Almost all of them come from the middle or upper middle class, high-caste and elite backgrounds. No wonder why most of the organisations that these leaders are associated with are more preoccupied with things related to politics like combating communalism and toppling governments or issues concerning them such as dowry, rape, domestic violence, eve-teasing and divorce. In fact, the most vocal women organisations are those affiliated to political parties and certain ideologies. Czech feminist Jana Hardilikova’s comment that “feminism smells like an ideology” is equally apt for India.
This is not to belittle the Women reservation bill. All told, it is a worthy cause, given the fact that Indian women’s parliamentary strength is negligible, despite our polity today boasting of having a woman President, a woman Speaker, a woman leader of Opposition and a woman who is the supreme leader of the ruling coalition, even towering over the Prime Minister. What substantial benefits an average Indian woman will get by more women representatives from a narrow social base without increasing the level of female literacy, eradicating the problems of drinking water and fuel-wood(for collection of which rural women spend hours every day) and enhancing the women’s ages in the countryside? Unfortunately, these are the issues the vocal women organisations in the country do not seem to be highlighting properly. Works, if at all, in these areas are being done by the high-salaried staff of the mostly foreign funded Non-Governmental Organisations!
At the moment, the reservation bill may have united various women groups. But this unity may not be sustained on a long-term basis without broadening the base of the Women’s Movement in the country. Because, elements of ambition, selfishness and competition always prove suicidal among the leaders of a narrow-based movement.
One striking aspect of the demand for reservations of women in legislators is coming essentially from those women activists who some way or other are related to established political families or centers. This explains why one does not witness more interests among women in joining politics in states where women are more educated and better off than in states where they are poorly off in every sense of the term. No wonder why in India we do not see many women politicians in states like Kerala or in the North-East where women have a much larger autonomy and movement. In contrast, states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar where women are really at the social bottom send more women politicians, the likes of Sonia and Menaka Gandhi, Uma Bharati, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Rabri Devi and Mayawati. But then since these states happen to be centres of deep political divisions and competitions, the women leaders and their respective parties have little in common.
There are understandable apprehensions that in the existing social, economic and political situation, the main beneficiaries of the proposed reservations for women will be those sections which are already doing well in politics. More reservations for women means more seats for the already dominating political sections. That is why I personally would favour an alternative to the present approach. The better way to increase representation of women in legislatures is to make it mandatory by law for every recognized political party to field women to the extent of 33 per cent of its total candidates in every election. This approach is more scientific, less divisive and would ensure that every political formation would better represent its support bases. Under this approach, no political party would like to be seen as a party that promotes women of a particular background. Even if it does (which is quite possible for small regional parties dominated by particular sections of society), in the final analysis things would even out since there are other formations that will promote women of the rival sections. That will be a level -playing field.
By Prakash Nanda