This article discusses the status of women in politics, focusing specifically on Indian politics.
In a society where men have dominated for almost all of history, it is extremely difficult for women to penetrate the political space. In India, even after more than 70 years of independence, our women have not made a significant impact in political decision-making. Representation of women in Parliament has been far less than the global average, with women making up only 11.8 per cent of the Lok Sabha and 11 per cent of the Rajya Sabha.
But why is women’s participation so limited in India? Let us look at some of the barriers that challenge gender equality in Indian politics.
Politics as a Male Space
Politics in India has been seen as a man’s field and women have never been perceived as equal competitors. This patriarchal mindset and gender discrimination in our country are widespread in all public and private spaces, and therefore, is also a barrier to women’s political participation and representation. Women’s position in electoral politics is far below the desired levels. According to a Hindustan Times report, In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, about 14 per cent of those elected to Parliament were women, but only 9 per cent of all candidates were women.
Even in cases where women do want to step into a “man’s world”, they face a variety of social challenges including backlash from family members, not being taken seriously by the public and political parties, gender stereotypes, character assault, etc.
Overcoming these problems to make a difference in society is often very strenuous and slow. Thus, effective change in the gender organization of our political institutions is not visible.
Lack of Inclusion at Policy Level
Historically, it has been seen that disenfranchised groups need an initial push to be at a level with the rest of society. In India, post Independence, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward classes got this opportunity through reservation. However, when it comes to the inclusion of women in political processes in India, women’s reservation bills are consistently opposed. Bills to secure a third of the seats in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha for women candidates have been introduced and failed to pass in 1996, and again in 1998, 1999, and 2002. The current version of this, the 108th Amendment, was pushed through the Rajya Sabha but it did not make it past the Lok Sabha and lapsed yet again. However, this has not broken women’s spirits and has only motivated them to aim higher. In 2007, the United Women Front party was created and has advocated for increasing the reservation of seats for women in the parliament to 50 per cent.
Violence and the threat of violence affect many women’s ability to participate actively in many forms of social and political arenas. The manifestation of violence takes place in different forms, including harassment, intimidation, physical harm or coercion, threats, and financial pressures. Violence against women is used to maintain the subordinate position of women in society and shun them away from political decision-making. For example, Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, has been a victim of violence while being in political office several times. In 1990, she was brutally beaten on the head by a CPI(M) leader and was in the hospital for more than a month. In 1993 and again in 2003, she was severely physically assaulted by the state police during protests.
India has one of the largest illiterate populations. Literacy among Indian women is 53.7 per cent, which is much lower than literacy among men, reported at 75.3 per cent. Illiteracy limits the ability of women to understand the political system and issues. This issue is most prevalent in the Panchayati Raj institutions. Women need to be given access to basic education and media in order to raise their awareness about their rights and increase their political participation. However, at the level of representation, Panchayati Raj systems seem to be doing better than Lok Sabha. One-third of seats and leadership positions have already been reserved for women in Panchayati Raj institutions. The national government has also proposed to raise the level of reservations in Panchayati Raj to 50 per cent.
Indian Women in Politics
Despite numerous challenges, there have been some exceptionally strong and influential women who have immensely contributed to the political arena of our country.
Indira Gandhi: She was the first and only female prime minister of India. She gained enormous popularity for her successful measures taken like the Green Revolution, nationalising 14 private-sector banks, the liberation of Bangladesh, ending privy purse given to royalty, etc. She is one of the most controversial figures in Indian politics due to her declaration of the Emergency (1975–7) and her alienation of the Sikh community. However, no one can deny that she was an effective leader and a force to be reckoned with.
Pratibha Patil: Pratibha Patil served as the 12th president of India and is the only woman to have held office. Patil had held various cabinet portfolios during her period in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly and she had also held official positions in both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. During her term as president, she commuted the death sentences of 35 petitioners to life and set a record. She has also worked towards abolishing practices like child marriage, addiction, and the social suppression of women. Over the years, she had made various investments in the education sector. Additionally, she set up a cooperative sugar factory and a cooperative bank.
Mayawati: She has served four separate terms as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and is the national president of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Her major achievements include the introduction of Uttar Pradesh Land Acquisition Act 2011, Ambedkar Gramin Samagra Vikas Yojana, 30 per cent reservations in the private sector, Mahamaya Gareeb Arthik Madad Yojana, the Allahabad Solar Power Project, and building of Yamuna Expressway.
Sheila Dikshit: She was the longest-serving chief minister of Delhi, as well as the longest-serving female chief minister of any Indian state. Dikshit led the Congress party to three consecutive electoral victories in Delhi. Her achievements as chief minister include strengthened public transport system, new and improved roads and pedestrian bridges, Delhi Metro, excellent academic results in its schools, launching the Bhagidari System, which enabled the citizens to partner with the government on matters of civic amenities and hosting the Commonwealth Games.
Mahua Moitra: She was the vice-president of JPMorgan in London. In 2009, she quit her job to enter Indian politics. Currently, she is a member of Parliament from West Bengal and is known widely for her famous speech in the Lok Sabha where she pointed out the ‘seven danger signs of early fascism in this country. She has also filed three petitions filed by her in the Supreme Court against the Modi government’s social media and surveillance efforts.
India has a long way to go before politics can be a space where gender equality is the norm. Our progress is slow, but every woman who enters politics to make a difference is a milestone by which we can measure our success.
For more on gender politics, read Climate Change and Gender Inequality.