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Zoya Hasan

Zoya Hasan is Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. and on the Board of Advisors of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She is presently a Member of the National Integration Council and of the National Monitoring Committee for Minorities Education. Hasan has published widely in the area of politics, state, democracy and development, and on issues of equity, social justice and minorities.

zhasan2008@gmail.com

Women in Politics

Towards a gender-just society

Zoya Hasan
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  • Members of women's organisations stage a protest in New Delhi to demand passage of the Women's reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha.
    Members of women's organisations stage a protest in New Delhi to demand passage of the Women's reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha.
  • Protests rocked the country in the wake of the Delhi gang rape case. Here, people light candles during a protest march in Mumbai.
    Protests rocked the country in the wake of the Delhi gang rape case. Here, people light candles during a protest march in Mumbai.
  • A candlelight march by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
    A candlelight march by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
  • Members of various social and students' organisations stage a protest against the government ordinance on sexual offences at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.
    Members of various social and students' organisations stage a protest against the government ordinance on sexual offences at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.
  • Students click photographs during a rally at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, demanding that Parliament enact a law against rape and sexual violence based on the Justice Verma Committee recomendations.
    Students click photographs during a rally at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, demanding that Parliament enact a law against rape and sexual violence based on the Justice Verma Committee recomendations.

The Justice Verma Committee report acts as a blueprint for the radical transformation of gender relations within the framework of constitutional guarantees and gender equality. However, the adoption of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 by Parliament on March 19, 2013, does not go beyond legal change. Prof. Hasan argues that if political parties are serious about the rights of women, the Women’s Representation Bill must be passed in Parliament without further delay, in order to ensure a critical mass of 33 percent women in legislatures to demand and push gender-just policies and laws.

The Justice J. S. Verma Committee was constituted to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law so as to provide for faster trials and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault against women. Formed in the wake of the horrific gang rape, brutalisation and subsequent death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student last December in one of Delhi’s busiest roads, the Committee’s report highlights the measures needed to address the safety and security of women in India and ways to strengthen laws and administrative functioning to curb sexual offences. It rightly indicts institutional apathy for endangering women’s safety, stresses the need to transform processes, structures and attitudes, and highlights the need for increased physical infrastructure, public amenities and services.

The report provides a blueprint for the radical transformation of gender relations to stop the unfair treatment of women. And it does so within the framework of constitutional guarantees and gender equality. India’s Constitution was a milestone for women’s advancement; the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sex is guaranteed in the list of justiciable fundamental rights, as also protection under the law and equal opportunity in public employment. The Constitution not only accorded equality to women but also empowered the state to adopt positive measures in their favour. But it is apparent that state and society do not change with the adoption of a radical Constitution or legislation or policies. There is a wide gap between the gradually broadening notion of women’s rights and the limited realisation of these. Patriarchal underpinnings of the state and society, and distinctions and discrimination based on these structures, persist. Though India is a vibrant democracy where women enjoy equal rights in theory, in practice, vast numbers of women lack essential support for the fundamental functions of human life.

The Verma Committee treats the issue of sexual violence in a wide-ranging manner, focusing on offences from voyeurism to sex crimes by security personnel enjoying legal immunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA). Rape is located within the multi-layered and multi-dimensional nature of discrimination that marks every stage of a woman’s life. This approach alters the public discourse on crimes against women by treating these offences as nothing less than a violation of the rights of all women to live with dignity. Conceived as a bill of rights for women, the report marks a big step forward in the struggle for women’s rights, more specifically the rights to sexual autonomy and bodily integrity. However, the government has largely ignored this focus on rights, and sought to address the issue of women’s safety mainly through changes in criminal law.

The adoption of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 by Parliament on March 19, 2013, demonstrates the government’s readiness to adopt an expanded definition of rape and enhanced punishment, which is welcome. However, the overall response is selective and limited to legal change. The government has simply not done enough in the face of unprecedented protests and public outrage against the increasing insecurity and violence faced by women all over India.

These protests obviously call for multi-pronged action by state and non-state actors. By all accounts, the government does not have the political will to push ahead with the most substantive points in the report. Especially, changes in the Representation of the People Act, 1950, which calls for barring from elections candidates accused of offences taken cognizance of by a magistrate. In view of this, parties should deny tickets to those accused of serious crimes against women. But there is no indication that parties are willing to signal zero tolerance towards gender violence, which should begin at home by denying tickets to men accused of sex crimes. This reluctance is not surprising as so many of the framers and implementers of the law are themselves complicit in the very culture of patriarchy that discriminates against women.

Women’s political participation is of great importance in this scenario of impunity and inequality. Different kinds of inequalities are serious impediments in opening up the capabilities and participation of women in economy and polity. In point of fact, one of the major hurdles to gender equality is the attitude of political parties, which is responsible for the under-representation of women in legislatures in particular and decision-making in general.

This is a good moment to explore the role of party politics which has been loath to provide women institutional access, whereas women are very visible in social movements and outside the formal corridors of power. Increasing the legislative representation of women is of the essence because political parties have done a pretty bad job of representing women’s interests and addressing questions of gender equality. They have essentially made use of women for the purpose of political campaigning and mobilization of constituencies during elections. But when it comes to helping women attain political office they act as gatekeepers to stop them from breaking the barriers of patriarchy and the male monopoly of politics.

On the other hand, women are quite important in Indian politics today. India, at this moment, has more key politicians who are women than any other country in the world. Four major political parties are headed by women. Even though women hold leadership positions in parties, this has not resulted in large-scale women’s participation in party politics, and so they remain an ineffective minority. Influential women leaders have rarely taken up women’s issues, as they don’t want to be labeled women’s leaders; rather, they want to be known as leaders of people. Besides, when it comes to ticket distribution, the absence of internal democracy and transparency adversely affects women. This means the party system, dominated by political patronage and money power, actually works against the political participation of women.

Consequently, the number of women candidates fielded by parties has remained almost stagnant. It is difficult for women to get nominated as candidates because important political offices which take decisions are traditionally held by men. Very few parties care to give important assignments to women even after they get elected. Once elected, there is a tendency to give them ‘soft portfolios’ and these women are rarely found in leadership positions in their parties. Most often, they are relegated to the women’s wing of the party and are made to concentrate on specifically women’s issues, and occasionally on more general concerns such as the price rise, which is seen to primarily affect housewives.

The larger number of women in local government institutions is an area where very significant advances have occurred. This has played an important role in encouraging women’s political participation and leadership more generally. In addition, having women as at least one-third of all local elected representatives has begun to transform gender relations and call into question the deeply entrenched patriarchal system. But women are not well-represented in the higher echelons of political life. They hold a mere 10 percent of seats in Parliament and even less in several state Assemblies, which also reflects their lack of participation in decision-making processes. Yet, an important arena that is crucial for women’s rights and gender equality to grow is that of national politics where no progress has been registered.

Nothing symbolizes political patriarchy more than the controversies surrounding the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), seeking to reserve 33 percent of seats in Parliament and the state Assemblies, into law. Nearly every political party has endorsed the Bill in their election manifestos and yet all governments have failed to pass it. Almost all parties claim to be strong advocates of women’s participation through legislative reservation, but in practice have resisted it. Politicians cutting across parties oppose women’s quota because they recognize that the Bill, if it becomes the law of the land, would shake the ground beneath their feet. The most strident opposition has come from so-called caste parties who are demanding a sub-quota for backward castes and minorities, but their opposition serves to obscure the unspoken and behind-the-scenes hostility that is at work in most parties. The greatest fear among male MPs is that they will lose their seats. This fear is particularly strong among first-time MPs. This apprehension was not there when the panchayat reservations was enacted because sitting MPs were not going to lose their seats. This is why the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution were passed without much dissent. In fact, women’s reservation in local government has gone up to 50 percent, which has gone unnoticed.

In a major step forward, the Rajya Sabha passed the Women’s Reservation Bill on March 9, 2010, which is the furthest the Bill has ever got. But its fate in the Lok Sabha is unsure. If political parties are serious about the rights of women they should pass the Bill without further delay. A critical mass of 33 percent women in legislatures can demand and push gender-just policies and laws. It will catalyze change in state and society, challenge patriarchy and unleash a broader process of social change. What is more, it can change the character of Indian politics with a greater focus on common interests.

(Zoya Hasan is Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. and on the Board of Advisors of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She is presently a Member of the National Integration Council and of the National Monitoring Committee for Minorities Education. Hasan has published widely in the area of politics, state, democracy and development, and on issues of equity, social justice and minorities.)

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It is only institutional mechanisms that can strengthen women's participation in politics at all levels, particularly in the representative institutions. Once empowered, women can play a better and more effective role in all fields of life. Over a period of time, the community can become more confident and face challenges from any quarter. The article written by Prof. Hasan is timely and welcome.

from:  K. Vidyasagar
Posted on: Apr 11, 2013 at 13:49 IST

India is changing in its own way but it never changes its habit of politicizing issues to benefit a few groups. When the topic comes to women's empowerment, nobody talks about empowering women, but instead they focus on being anti-men and adopt isolating policies with some analytic arguments. Women's empowerment has nothing to do with isolating or adopting a sectarian law. I believe discrimination against women begins with the family. More than adopting policies that segregate, we would do better to educate conservative men and women.

from:  Shant Singh
Posted on: Apr 9, 2013 at 23:33 IST

The Women's Reservation Bill, once passed, will give numerical strength to women in Parliament. But they will be from different political parties with different views. It is wishful thinking that women will cut across party lines and vote for a cause. Making tougher laws will not solve crimes. Laws will help if justice is given within a short time, not after 20 years as in the Mumbai blast case.

from:  Sarath
Posted on: Apr 9, 2013 at 11:47 IST

The Women's Reservation Bill being passed will give women a moral boost. It is true that mere reservation will not solve the problem of discrimination. On the other hand, the danger of women's exploitation by political parties for granting them tickets may grow. This will be more prominent in family controlled parties.

from:  Anil Gupta
Posted on: Apr 9, 2013 at 08:40 IST

Day by day,year by year, women are still unsafe. The government should bring in stringent laws for the protection of women.

from:  Deepak Sasmal
Posted on: Apr 5, 2013 at 12:30 IST

It is common thinking that if we make tougher laws against crimes, it will improve the condition of women. It may merely help women to survive in this so-called democratic but patriarchal society; on one side all have equal rights but and on the other side women are beaten for dowry or discriminated against if they don't give birth to boys. For this scenario to change youth have to take a step forward. It may be difficult to change society at once, but we can do one thing - start in our homes.

from:  Sudarshan
Posted on: Apr 5, 2013 at 00:28 IST

Reservation has not solved the problem of inequality, hence I personally don't agree that mere representation in Parliament/Assemblies will solve the problem of gender-bias. In fact after Reservations Dalits and backward classes have been alienated from society. After Reservations for women in Panchayats, many women leaders won seats but their work is being managed by their husbands. Changing the mindset of men, emphasis on education should be the focus for the betterment of women.

from:  Sarvesh
Posted on: Apr 4, 2013 at 16:51 IST

I totally disagree with the article.There is no way to relate to the crime against women and women's empowerment in politics. Even though the Chief Minister of Delhi is a lady, she is unable to handle the crimes that take place there. Improving education is the only way that India can handle these crimes.People are dying because of hunger. We cannot call ourselves a developed country if we are unable to feed our citizens. India is divided in so many ways. Let us not divide ourselves on gender.

from:  Litu
Posted on: Apr 4, 2013 at 12:39 IST

Again a misplaced notion that reservation would bring about a change in society. By now we have had a woman Prime Minister, and many women Chief Ministers. Did they become what they are because of reservation? Look at any successful woman, none of them succeeded because of reservation. Instead of reservation, which is a false solution to address inequality, the government should ensure that laws are equally applied to all Indian citizens irrespective of caste, religion and gender. It is an injustice to provide advantages to one section over the other on false, untenable ideology. Socialism has destroyed India. I am not advocating capitalism either. There should be a middle path, a balanced approach to social inequality.

from:  Ram
Posted on: Apr 4, 2013 at 02:00 IST

Though I agree that mere reservation is insufficient, the comments arguing against Hasan's views made me ruminate over a few questions. In a deeply patriarchal, structurally unequal society, how does one reduce the dependency of women on men merely through education and sensitization of both the sexes? For example, is it possible to reduce dependency when there is lack of property, inheritance rights for women? Also, once women are equipped with skills and knowledge to become efficient leaders how do we guarantee that the gender-based structural inequalities will not restrict their entry in the political arena? Hasan aptly points out there are women in genuine leadership roles but they have restricted institutional access. Education undoubtedly is the means through which we can transform societal attitudes and prejudices towards women, but something that is so ingrained will take time. Hence, we need concrete institutional measures such as the Women's Reservation Bill to pave the way and strengthen the women's base in the political sphere.

from:  Sriti
Posted on: Apr 3, 2013 at 22:50 IST

Women representatives are there in all State Assemblies as well as in Parliament too. Are these numbers not enough to protect their own gender? The mindset of many of them is no different from that of men. Though 33% is welcome, a mere increase in numbers would not solve the problems. The present laws are sufficient to protect women if they are properly implemented. Every mother comes to the rescue of her son if implicated in a crime against women. The protectors of the law should have the ethics to protect women against crime without yielding to politics.

from:  C.Satyamurthy
Posted on: Apr 3, 2013 at 14:32 IST

Crimes against women and women being treated unfairly are totally different matters that need to be handled very differently. A gender-just society is never one where there are reservations made for one half. What self-respect and independence will our women have if they are just handed these opportunities? And how do we expect them to carry out their responsibilities if they are not trained for these positions? We have no framework in our education system to create and train leaders. If we do, it is not implemented properly. Clearly this is evident from the way our men (who we keep claiming have it easy) keep failing at running the country well. Dear Ms. Hasan, I don't agree with your statements that reservations are going to solve our gender inequality problems. We should dedicate time and energy towards training and equipping people (whether male or female) with skills that will make them better representatives and leaders. Don't try to make a case for equality if you want to favour one half.

from:  Shruti
Posted on: Apr 3, 2013 at 14:24 IST

Increasing the number of women representatives in Parliament is a step in the right direction. But it's not going to address all the dangers that women face in Indian society today. A lot of women representatives selected to the local governing bodies are acting as puppets to their husbands or the male dominated political class of those areas. The foremost step to revive the status of Indian women and make them an integral part of the nation's development would be to ensure their education and reduce their dependency on men.

from:  Sarath K.S.
Posted on: Apr 3, 2013 at 14:09 IST

Increasing political participation of women will not do any good since most women in our patriarchal society are uneducated. Crimes happen due to the faults in policy making. In the long-run, fast track courts and amendments in criminal law are also not enough, since many crimes do not even reach the judiciary. To achieve these aims, the government should reform its basic educational policy to be inclusive and qualitative.

from:  Praseetha P.
Posted on: Apr 3, 2013 at 11:12 IST

The Indian Parliament has few, but highly articulate, women MPs. They come from well-to-do families and have made a mark for themselves. But why do they accept such soft portfolios? The fact of the matter is that women hunger for power as much as men. These women politicians are interested in status, power and influence rather than making a difference to the people. One would have expected these rich, talented, financially independent women, who have left behind their careers in highly visible work places, and who have family support as well as security nets, to go for broke and fight for these causes. However, they take up the cudgels for their political superiors.

from:  Mimi
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 19:48 IST

It is high time for major political parties to introspect. When political leaders are accused in criminal cases, keeping them out of office must become an inherent law within parties. The accused may be allowed to re-enter when the law completes its process and if they are found innocent. A case like the Suryanelli gang rape in Kerala is a shame on our country.

from:  S. Naduthodi
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 13:55 IST

As long as we're treating the "women's rights issue" as a separate add-on, it is going to suffer from an inherent fallacy of exclusion from policy-making and administration. We need to diffuse their participation across the board. Every ministry whether "soft" or "hard" must include women at all levels. Gender-based budgeting has had a positive response in the attainment of a gender neutral environment. But as we know, the budget is compiled out of data provided from different ministries and the gender neutral budget trickles down to a heavy gender biased budget. So rather than legitimizing the distinctiveness of the issue, we need to give a thrust by incorporating it at every level of governance and administration.

from:  Tushar Chaturvedi
Posted on: Apr 2, 2013 at 09:45 IST
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