Quotas are only ever a beginning
The Women’s Reservation Bill has dragged through the decades, everyone supporting it in principle but somehow unable to get it through Parliament. Meanwhile, years of activist advocacy seem to have finally borne fruit. In November, in a new effort, women got together to push for 33% reservations, holding meetings, calling MPs and MLAs, and pushing for the Women’s Reservation Bill.
More critically, the Election Commission of India’s concerted, if clichéd efforts to get women voters to polling booths have underscored the importance of women voters to outcomes.
Recently, we saw what is hopefully the beginning of a good competition — which party will go further to increase women’s representation in the legislatures? The Biju Janata Dal promised 33% reservations for women in their nomination list (7 out of 21) and the Trinamool Congress has topped that by actually nominating women to 41% of the seats they are contesting.
In a meeting with students, Rahul Gandhi promised to get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed — a quota commitment within the party would be a great way to show the Congress too is serious.
This may not mean ‘achhe din’ for women, but it may suggest that their ‘invisible’ days are done. The big triumph may actually be that the quotas negate the old argument that there are no women who could be nominated. If parties are creating quotas, they are saying they can now find those women.
Not so much, it appears, with the general public. A few weeks ago, following an online conversation we created a Google Form (#myMP) inviting people to suggest the names of women they thought should be in Parliament. The women could be anywhere in India and all we wanted was their name, state and a link to some online profile that could serve as an introduction.
In three weeks we have barely received twenty names. People were willing to respond to us with names they threw out, but the minimal effort of telling us a little about these women they considered worthy representatives, was too much.
Many of our efforts at getting people to identify women as achievers and leaders in the community have been met with a lacklustre response. Successive calls by the Prajnya Archives for photos and stories of women who contribute to their communities in some way yield a paltry 5-6 responses in contrast to other calls — for instance, those seeking a photo of the first female graduate in the family.
It seems that when we set out to assess whether women have contributed in any way to their neighbourhood, community or society, they never quite measure up.
Indeed, the truth is we seem to always search for ‘qualified’ women, whereas there is really no such bar for male candidates. We expect women to be educated, have professional experience, and community mobilisation experience, to understand policy, and have political positions we can back.
Most of the time we find out the names of male candidates only when we are in the polling booth.
We also mock women for being related to men who have been in politics — the widow-orphan syndrome, political scientists write — and we think they will be bound first by these relationships and their patriarchal rules.
We might criticise dynastic politics but we do not really think that sons and husbands will yield first to their parents or spouses.
Some feminists caution against quotas saying that simply having women in office is no guarantee that they will show gender sensitivity. This is true, of course. But simply having men in Parliament is no guarantee of anything either — even allegiance to the Constitution and its values.
In short, the standards to which we hold potential and actual women candidates are different and unfair. They contribute to the erasure of women as competent candidates.
If we cannot see women at all, and if we hold them to unfair standards that we do not expect of male candidates, support from their party becomes critical. Will political parties back their quotas with on-the-ground support, namely money, logistical support, volunteers and visits by star campaigners?
In the last Assembly election, one party nominated a woman professional with a sound political pedigree in our constituency, but they campaigned so little that on election day we had neither seen nor heard from her. She lost.
Similarly, in the previous election the Aam Aadmi Party had a slate of wonderful candidates that included women like Ruth Manorama, Soni Sori and Medha Patkar. The party did not have the wherewithal to support the candidates to the extent they needed, however, and most of them lost.
The point is, having nominated women, parties need to support them with material and human resources. Even if you open the gates, women’s participation in electoral politics is limited by several factors that impact their campaigning. A few examples follow.
First, women are largely unable to raise the same resources that men are. Their relatively limited access to the public and market spheres is partly responsible for this, as is patrilineal marriage, which means that at critical stages they move away from their childhood and family support networks, and depend on the goodwill of in-laws and spouses who might place their networks at women’s disposal.
Second, there are physical limits to their mobility — like other women, they need to have assured and safe transport and also, access to toilets.
These limits are easily surmounted if parties make reasonable allocations to accommodate women’s needs — rest spaces, toilets, and travel budgets that allow them to travel with infants and care support.
Third, caregiving responsibilities also need to be accommodated. Women might need to hire someone to take over caring for children, the sick or the elderly. Men are free to travel and wander largely because they have support at home. Women do not. Parties cannot make this a disqualification.
If a party quota is met by nominating women to lost-cause seats, and then neglecting them in the allocation of campaign resources, then the quota and public commitment are meaningless.
Finally, a showpiece quota on one hand, and on the other a continued indulgence towards those who make misogynistic statements, and those accused or chargesheeted for sexual violence and harassment, suggests that no party is serious about gender justice.
Voters are not stupid and can spot the hypocrisy.
Beyond the 33-41-50% nominations quotas, we need to see that parties do not rehabilitate, renominate and sanitise the reputations of those whose actions should place them beyond the political pale. We should not see them in party office, on posters or television, or on the election dais.
Will quotas make a difference? Quotas are only ever intended to be a beginning. What really shows a serious commitment to inclusion is to support women nominees as much as men, and to bar those whose speech and actions constitute gender-based violence.
What we know from the experience of the reservations in local government, is that once the doors are opened and institutional support is made available, women leaders find a way to rise above social and cultural obstacles.