Women and Political Power

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WOMEN AND POLITICAL POWER Indian women became politically active in 1889 when some elite women started to attend meetings of the Indian National Congress. Inspired by the task of social rejuvenation, they established girls' schools and raised consciousness against child marriage and purdah (the seclusion of women), while expressing solidarity with male nationalists. These social goals were expanded by the Women's Indian Association (1918) and the All-India Women's Conference (1927) to include a demand for women's suffrage and the right to hold elected office. Idealists like Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi introduced legal measures in the Madras Assembly to promote women's education and health care. Congress president Sarojini Naidu helped to pass a resolution in 1930 supporting female suffrage and equal rights. When thousands of women joined the satyagraha campaigns against colonial rule, they gained the respect of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the entire nation. After India's independence in 1947, several women held powerful administrative positions. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was appointed union minister for health; Sarojini Naidu was governor of Uttar Pradesh; Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, served as India's ambassador to the Soviet Union; and Shareefah Hamid Ali was a member of the United Nations commission on women's status.

Legislators and Administrators

In 1950 the Constitution of the Republic of India granted universal suffrage, allowing millions of women to vote without restrictions of any kind. While there have been many women cabinet ministers since 1947, women legislators have been seriously underrepresented in village councils (panchayats), state assemblies, and Parliament. In 1967 women constituted 5.9 percent of the Lok Sabha (Parliament's lower house); thirty years later, they held only 7 percent of the seats. In 1974 the Committee on the Status of Indian Women declared this underrepresentation to be undemocratic and conducive to further gender inequality. However, no remedial action was taken until 1992–1993, when Constitutional Amendments 73 and 74 reserved one-third of panchayat and town council seats for women. In June 1996, Prime Minister Deve Gowda's United Front government introduced a bill reserving 33 percent of the seats in Parliament to women. However, due to differences amongst his coalition allies, the bill was not passed. Meanwhile, a Women's Reservation Bill was introduced in Parliament, supported by leftist and regional Dravidian parties. Polls showed that 75 percent of Indian voters supported affirmative action for women. Yet, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allied parties, especially the Shiv Sena, blocked its enactment; their anxiety over the prospect of a contingent of 180 women in Parliament was evident when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called the bill "revolutionary legislation." Twenty-five women's organizations staged mass demonstrations in favor of the Reservation Bill in May 2003, but it remained in limbo. In February 2005, the new government led by the Congress Party and its socialist allies announced that a revised bill would be introduced giving women 33 percent of the seats in central and state legislatures. Within this quota, the socialist parties support a further reservation for Dalit, backward caste, and minority women. Women's associations have also focused on increasing female representation in village panchayats and other local bodies.

Despite women's comparative lack of leverage within India's state and central legislatures, they have been politically active through various parties, voluntary women's associations, a broad spectrum of nongovernmental organizations, as well as administrative services. Topranking women administrators have effected many reforms at the local level, and the number of mid-level female officials has increased steadily, with women scoring highly in the competitive examinations for the administrative services. As more talented women enter the bureaucratic "steel frame" that still governs India, they may provide fresh solutions to the country's ancient problems.

Gender in Politics

In December 1974 the United Nations Committee for the Status of Women published their report Towards Equality, revealing that although professional Indian women had made strides, the vast majority of Indian women lagged behind men in nutrition, education, and employment, and that the female-male ratio in the population was alarmingly low. Census records show a continuing decline in the number of Indian women: in 1991 there were 945 females to every 1,000 males; in 2001 the ratio had dropped to 927 females to 1,000 males. This decline can be attributed to regressive manifestations of patriarchy in a modernizing society, and not simply to ancient traditions. New technologies, such as amniocentesis through which the sex of a fetus is revealed, have increased female feticide; and although sex-discriminatory abortion is illegal and expensive, it is practiced often by the educated and affluent in large cities. Unfortunately, Towards Equality coincided with Indira Gandhi's "National Emergency" (1975–1977), an era when all civil rights were curtailed in the name of national security. Women activists mobilized against the Emergency's harsh "voluntary" sterilization programs, as well as other common offenses such as "custodial rape" by police officers, marital rape, and instances of "bride burning" by inlaws angered by insufficient dowries.

Although Indira Gandhi was admired for being a powerful woman leader, she gave scant attention to women's issues. After the 1970s, the new feminists charged politicians with ignoring women's rights in their preoccupation with economic development. They accused all political parties, including left-wing groups with progressive views, of subsuming gender under the umbrella of "minority" rights. While women's issues are often addressed through various bureaucracies, they rarely receive adequate attention from politicians. Especially after 1989, gender has become of secondary interest to a nation focused on religious and caste controversies. Yet, these issues are interrelated, since minority women are more likely to be exploited and sexually abused than women of the Hindu upper castes. In the 2002 Gujarat riots, thousands of Muslim women were raped; and the widespread sexual exploitation of working class and Dalit women has been documented by the All-India Democratic Women's Association. Despite the seriousness of these problems, Indira Gandhi's model of ungendered politics has become a blueprint for her male and female successors.

Women Politicians

Elite women have been elected to the highest positions, often carving out these spaces as chaste wives, widows, mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law. Female politicians of many parties embrace these domestic identities in the public arena for electoral advantages. Most offer to "cleanse" the body politic, like Rabri Devi (Rashtriya Janata Dal, wife of Lalu Prasad Yadav) of Bihar, whose speeches were laced with colorful, domestic imagery. Only a few, like chief minister Sheila Dixit of Delhi, have conveyed an active interest in women's issues while participating in India's patriarchal political game.

Thus, Indira Gandhi rose to power as Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter, and Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi achieved popularity as the assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's widow and the daughter-in-law (bahu) of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. The BJP's moral arbiter, Sushma Swaraj, is the wife of Swaraj Kaushal, governor of Mizoram; Vasundhara Raje is a dutiful bahu of former Jaipur rani Gayatri Devi. All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief minister Jayalalitaa advertises herself as "Amma," the loyal widow of the charismatic star and political Tamil Nadu idol M. G. Ramachandran. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharti is a self-styled ascetic (sadhvi) and "daughter" of Hindutva. The same phenomenon is visible in Pakistan, where Benazir Bhutto rose to power after her father's hanging; in Bangladesh where Sheikh Hasina Wajed entered politics after her husband, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated; and in Sri Lanka, where Chandrika Kumaratunga follows her parents' ministerial footsteps.

Scandals around corruption are common in India, and a few women politicians have been notorious for complicity in nefarious schemes; among these are Tamil Nadu's Jayalalitaa and Uttar Pradesh's former chief minister Mayavati. Like their male counterparts, not all women politicians have proven trustworthy, due to the pervasive climate of opportunism in politics. Perhaps the solution to gender equality lies not in the public, corruptible centers of political power, but rather in the idealism of anonymous women administrators who honestly strive to serve India. One such leader is Sheila Rani Chunkatt, who in her short stint in 1988 as the collector of Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, made her district 100 percent literate by working with the National Literacy Mission; retrained sex workers as diamond cutters; and organized unskilled women workers for higher wages. Indian women have learned to play the political game skillfully, but gender justice will be achieved only through the enduring work of honest women in political office.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoFeminism and Indian Nationalists ; Gandhi, Indira ; Gender and Human Rights ; Women's Education


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Women and Political Power