A big step for women, and for Indian democracy

BANGALORE, India — A new Indian law reserving a third of the parliamentary and state assembly seats for women is going through a tumultuous passing but could be a huge step toward gender parity in the male-dominated politics of this populous, 60-year-old democracy.

The Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, passed a bill on March 9 that amends the constitution to set aside 33 percent of the seats in both national and state legislatures for women. But the move left Manmohan Singh's government teetering close to a political precipice because some regional parties fervidly opposing the bill may withdraw from the ruling coalition.

Despite the muddiness of the bill’s passing, the move would revolutionize politics here by seating women at the decision makers’ table, said Yamini Atmavilas, an associate professor for human development at Administrative Staff College of India, a management training school in Hyderabad.

“It is a watershed moment, it signifies a big shift,” she said.

It is certainly a big step in a big country where girls are wronged even before they are born and then through their lives. In many parts of India, despite a ban on sex determination tests, female feticide is still widespread.

Girl children are either not sent to school or pulled out early and put to work. Dowry deaths, where new brides are killed for not bringing in enough cash and valuables, are quite common in many parts. The status of rural women in many parts of India remains wretched.

It is a tough being a woman in India, agrees Bangalore-based Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman of the country’s leading biotechnology firm, Biocon. She said she went through a challenging time, first as India’s first female brew master, and later as an entrepreneur.

“I could not get funding to start up my company, people did not want to work with me,” she recalled. She eventually overcame the odds to become successful.

The one-third reservation in state and national legislatures gives women an equal chance to partake in politics, Mazumdar-Shaw said. “Indian society suppresses women. Such reservation will correct some of the skews and inequalities in society,” she said.

Whether the reservation will fully secure women’s equality in politics, where women are grossly under-represented in numbers, is still a big question. As was obvious from the chaotic scenes in Parliament earlier this week, regional parties that dominate politics in central India tried to blockade the bill.

These male-dominated parties fear that a one-third reservation for women would weaken their political influence.

For this, the bill which was first introduced 14 years ago, must get passed in the Lower House of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, state legislatures and then get the president’s assent. A key champion of the legislation has been the Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, whose mother-in-law and husband were both prime ministers of India.

Besides Gandhi, several women have recently moved to the forefront of political leadership in India. India has, for the first time, a woman president in Pratibha Patil and a woman Lok Sabha Speaker in Meira Kumar.

Still, there is cynicism that the reservation system will end up making women stand-ins for their fathers or husbands who will wield all the power. This is already in evidence in the local city bodies where quotas are in place.

Here, elected women representatives are tauntingly referred to as the biwi (wife) brigade for serving as mere proxies for their powerful husbands.

There may be chaos in the short-term and even a backlash against women, admitted Atmavilas. But it is a powerful beginning toward sharing power and would eventually lead to a cultural shift, she predicted.

Many aspiring politicians saw in the bill a ray of hope. Bangalore-based Aruna Y.M. (she only has a given name and initials, as is common in south India) a team leader in the outsourcing unit of technology multinational Hewlett-Packard rejoiced.

“As more opportunities open up for women, it will smooth the way for hopefuls like me,” she said.