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Home > Women’s Rights > India: No reservations about women’s reservations

India: No reservations about women’s reservations

by Anuradha Chenoy, 9 March 2010

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Mail Today, March 9, 2010

The Bill giving 33 per cent reservation to women will empower not only women but change the social structure of India in many ways. This Bill is unprecedented and is softly a revolution in the making. We must welcome this as an Act.

Despite long years of democratic politics, women remain largely outside the national public space. Their presence here is largely token and ‘happens’ despite the natural barriers that facilitate men while debarring women. This is because consciously and subconsciously women’s roles continue to be assigned to the private sphere, as men are given public roles. Thus despite being increasingly part of the workforce, women are still seen as extensions of the household, in charge of childcare, nurturing and caring. The argument that women are ‘apolitical’ and not suited to the devious game of politics stands refuted by women’s leadership in the Panchayati Raj Institutions in India where women’s reservation has been practised for over two decades. Here women have changed the name of the game.

Studies have shown that women in these far flung rural areas advocated collective and grassroots solutions to local problems. They have been sensitive to the excluded, having been excluded themselves for so long. The choices they have made help the community as a whole rather than just the dominant male elite.


The argument that women’s reservation will benefit just ‘ wives and daughters’ and that the elected women will be just proxies is also flawed in two ways. First, our political system has been largely dynastic in any case and sons, nephews, et al have been the beneficiaries favoured over daughters and wives. But second and more importantly, biases against the woman, starting with the girl child, begins in the family. So it is here that patriarchy has to be challenged. It is here that it remains.

Another argument is that reservation for women will go against the Muslims, and the Other Backward Classes and thus leaders of these communities are opposing this. Here again, the reality is different.

OBC representation has been increasing especially in the State Assemblies because of their collective assertion and their numbers in many constituencies.

It is true that Muslim representation is low. But if including the excluded is the agenda, women’s reservation should encourage more Muslim women to be an integral part of this inclusive agenda.

The group that has historically supported reservations and the Mandal Commission should be the first to support women’s reservations and make sure that within this they spontaneously include the most excluded women in the chosen constituencies, instead of their wives and daughters! What impact will this have on the social structure you might ask? It will change how women are valued.

Women’s value in our society is generally rated as negative and there is a marked male preference.

This is evident in the large scale foeticide where in Northern India over a million girl children are just ‘ missing’— aborted before birth. Now called ‘ gendercide’ these numbers, as the latest Economist magazine states, exceed many genocides that have taken place in history.

Even if the girl child does survive, negative stereotypes follow her like a shadow at dusk. She is seen as burden that will produce no monetary value for her family, but will have to be married out at great expense. Parents believe that she will not look after them in their old age. Even the most liberated middle class holds many of these views, behind the new ‘ modernised’ lifestyle that they have adopted. But these beliefs are based on a false gendered consciousness.

And women impose this consciousness on themselves as do men.

They support structures that reinforce such beliefs and strengthen them. The reality is that women’s work in the domestic sphere is uncalculated and impossible to calculate.

What value would you put on the love, care and nurturing you got from your mother? Is it part of the GDP? Once women are in Parliament, they will be forced to take more decisions that favour not only women but social change.

Thus for example it is possible that social sector spending as opposed to military spending will increase. The budget can have a gender component.

Banning dowry legislation will be more strictly implemented.

There will be more child care facilities, making public spaces more favourable to women.

This is not to say that women will not follow their political party ideology and will suddenly turn feminist and support all women’s issues. Not at all. But a gradual process will begin, which will bring the issue of women’s empowerment into public discourse. It will encourage more women to get their rights. There will be more demands from excluded communities for their rights. Thus the very ‘ value’ we give to women can gradually change.


Will this change just affect women and will the men suffer the consequences? After all women in places of power have been known to be as corrupt, factional, sectarian, hierarchical and oppressive as men? Meaning, we the ordinary citizen who suffered men in high places will now have to suffer both men and women in high places? This is also true. But just as we collectively fought for women’s rights, for legislation like the right to information, for the right to food security, similarly we will have to struggle that public life be transparent, just and free of cronyism and the other ills that plague it. We cannot link these problems to the necessity of affirmative actions for women and others.

It has been established that when you give women rights, it helps not just women but the family and the community, as women being engaged in family and community negotiations think in a more collective manner. Even if they don’t society will question them. Women who have got their rights after long struggles will empathise with other struggles. Women in Parliament will be mentors to those outside and will lend courage and inspiration to others— both men and women in society. This is the only way to challenge entrenched patriarchal social structures.


Men too will have to change. Besides giving more political space to women they too will have to question their ‘ singular’ and dominating roles and actions. They have to share the private and domestic space more equally and change their form of negotiation.

Similarly this will have an impact on economic and commercial structures, where the commoditisation of women will be discussed and challenged.

The belief that democracy ( like the market) gives everyone equal opportunity is as untrue as the belief that majorities are more important in democracies.

Equal opportunities for the weak have to be ensured, as there is no such thing as a level playing field. In societies marked with a grid like grip of caste, class, religious, community inequality, affirmative actions ( reservations) are necessary to bring those who have been unequal as long as history can remember to some level of equity. Otherwise justice that has already been so long denied will continue to be denied.

Clearly, the task of democratisation and justice does not end with just giving reservation to women. This agenda has to continue so that women and society itself become more sensitive to ideas such as justice and empowerment for all and that both genders at all levels of society work for this. The challenge for women and feminist men is thus to effect such transformation.

The writer is professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University