Political Reservation and Empowerment of Women

Abstract: Usha K. B., in her “Political Reservation and Empowerment of Women” discusses the participation of women in Politics, the gender-bias of Political Science, and how the caste system and patriarchy has successfully managed to marginalise women in Indian society. After examining the relevance political reservation has in relation to the empowerment of women, she concludes that what is needed now is a policy that takes into consideration the prevailing situation in India.

 Keywords: social/political/economic empowerment, gender bias, gender roles’ construct, gender politics, propagated tradition, reservation strategy, patriarchy

The new millennium has ushered in an era of empowerment of women of different cultures, nationalities and religions across the world. In India also, the last one and a half decade witnessed serious debates and public discussions on the idea of empowerment. The concept appeared as an end, a process and a strategy for the development of the backward, the disadvantaged and women in various spheres of life— social, economic, political and cultural. The attainment of powerful political positions by women and expansion of their political rights are perceived as important factors for gaining empowerment in other areas of social life, especially after the Beijing World Conference of Women in 1994. Besides, the access to and / or control over political power are / is realised as pre-condition /s for challenging the unequal power relations— based on social, political and economic dimensions— that cause women’s marginality, and also for transforming the unequal, unjust and highly stratified, hierarchical and patriarchal social order. The Beijing Declaration emphasised that women’s empowerment and their fuller participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making processes and in power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace. Political participation of women is thus seen as a vital link in the total empowerment of women. This makes the debate on the proposed 81 st Constitution Amendment Bill that provides 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and the State Assemblies all the more important.

The historic 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts (1993) that provided for reservation of one third seats for women in the local bodies (Panchayats and Municipalities) broke the tradition of women’s weaker political representation, and enhanced women’s participation in the decision-making bodies at local self-government levels. The debate on the 81st Amendment Bill for extending the political reservation for women at the state and national levels unfolded the real nature of the Indian democratic polity premised by its social structure and gender relations. The interrelationships between the institutions of caste and patriarchy became a crucial question on the way of women’s political empowerment. Significantly, caste / social justice has also become a new challenge before the movement for gender justice, while dealing with forces of patriarchy and inequality in their effort to bring a meaningful representation of women in a polity where political parties organised around the issue of gender relations are absent. This article tries to examine the context, strategies, systemic complexities and impediments in the way of women’s political empowerment.

Women’s Political Participation

There is a general consensus on the perception that Indian women had actively participated in the national movement for independence. But this trend in the same intent or in greater proportion could not continue after independence. Though Indian women actively participated shoulder to shoulder with men in the freedom struggle, after independence women could not win a fair deal in the arena of power politics. Thus, the area of power politics has practically been conditioned as a male domain. The traditional patriarchal stereotypes about the nature and role of women still have great influence, and this is maintained and perpetuated by the male political order through traditional norms, values, beliefs, institutions, education and social conditioning which form the basis of patriarchy and casteism.

Moreover, gender bias in the discipline of Political Science is also partly responsible for this situation. The conventional paradigms and theoretical perceptions of political scientists regarding women from a male perspective labelled women as apolitical. Though conventional political scientists have not totally ignored women’s issues, women are perceived as part of the social structure rather than as part of the structure of power. Roles of women were confined to household responsibilities of homemaking, bearing and rearing of children. When they were burdened with household duties, their activities in the public sphere outside home became limited. In Universities, considered centres of research and academic excellence, women as academicians doing research and teaching were more or less absent. Even today, when time has come to widen the scope of Political Science by incorporating the perception of the empowerment of women in the study of politics, women are not adequately represented in these institutions. This necessitates the breaking up of the prevailing power structure based on class, caste and gender inequalities and biases, in order to make women visible, their voices to be heard in history and society, and highlight their contributions to society.

Over fifty years of constitutional guarantees for equality and legislation in favour of women could bring in no change in the prevailing ideologies and power structure within family, society and state. The essential assumption that the woman’s role is primarily to serve the husband and bear and rear his children and not to take up any leadership role outside the family remained practically unchanged. The male-centred political structure could not change the disadvantages of women, and there still exists in India a wide gap between the goals enumerated in the constitution, and the various legislations and policies enacted under the framework of democratic polity on the one hand and the situational reality of women on the other. Though India had a woman Prime Minister for quite a number of years, gender disparities persisted in all walks of life and women’s status did not change for the better. The male reluctance to power sharing made women politically insignificant. Even after 13 general elections, the ordinary women masses have gained nothing more to feel that their life is being enhanced as a result. Women from their experiences now realised that the patriarchal social order cannot be transformed through merely having regular elections with flowery promises, good legislation, policies and programmes. They find the strategy of empowerment to this end. Significantly, for the overall empowerment of women, their political empowerment is much warranted.

Caste and Patriarchy in Indian Society

The discourse on the 81st Amendment Bill exposed the importance of an interrelationship between the categories of caste and gender in the Indian socio-political context. It made it clear that by dismissing the issue of caste, it is difficult to advance a political strategy for gender politics in India. The authors like Sonalkar (1999) and Rege (1998) emphasise the need for simultaneously addressing the issues of caste, class and gender in the contemporary political set up. Though the Indian Constitution is claimed to be democratic, society still remains conservative and traditional in many respects, particularly on gender relations. Caste and undemocratic institutions rule the roost.

Despite various reforms and movements against caste, this institution is well preserved and perpetuated, and is a significant factor in socio-political interaction. The preservation and perpetuation of caste hierarchy is the basis of the functioning of Indian patriarchy. At the top of the hierarchy exists the dominant upper castes, and the lower castes are at the bottom level. Women of the lower castes remain at the bottom level and are practically deprived of human rights. The experience is that through the women’s movement and NGOs, the interests of the urban elite women, or upper caste women are highlighted and promoted. And the lower caste women’s interests remain at a low priority. The common factor is that the social structure functions as per masculine and caste norms. Women and lower castes, particularly the women of the lower castes, fare as lesser beings in our democracy. And thus, and to that extent, the practice is less democratic and more patriarchal and casteist.

There exists a contrast between society and polity, or to be precise, between civil society and state in India, as far as the caste of women are concerned. Though the policy level attitude of the state is more inclined in favour of women, the social level practices cannot be said to have changed. This is because of the fact that it is difficult to have social change than to effect a political change. The former is a question of base where real changes take place only in the long run. The latter is the arena of superstructure where changes are relatively less difficult when compared to changes in the social structure. Due to the structurally inherent backwardness in the society, the progressive and revolutionary initiatives in the political sphere instituted through the constitutional machinery do not get materialised. Then came the strategy of reservation as a last resort. Now the question is whether reservation, without a serious discussion of the underlying caste issues, really empowers women in their socio-political initiative against patriarchy in India.

The Indian democracy keeps women on the sidelines due to the patriarchal mentality of the society. Apart from that, politics is controlled by money, feudalism and muscle power. As vehicles of political power, social and political institutions such as family, bureaucracy and political parties are built on patriarchal structure, and operate through male dominant principles. Therefore, along with reservation in politics, there should be adequate reforms in the family, and sufficient reservation in the bureaucracy and political parties. Reservation without support systems will be meaningless.

The social intricacies force the Indian woman to experience individual patriarchy and social patriarchy, i.e., women with upper caste identity face individual as well as social patriarchy. As the existing power structure is well in favour of the former, while bringing women into power politics, emphasis should be given not only to change the power equation or distribution of power on the question of gender but also to change the power structure itself. Any attempt which does not change the power structure will not bring the expected result. Luce Irigaray (1985:81) aptly warns of the economic and political empowerment claims which “aim simply for a change in the distribution of power, leaving intact the power structure itself.” Her reading sounds that, “If women do not challenge the very terms of economic and political discourse, which is only possible if they remain wary of the rhetoric of inclusion, women will ‘re-subject themselves, deliberately or not, to a phallocratic structure’ (Fermon, 1998 :128-129).

On the question of political representation for women through reservation, the major opinions that came up are : (1) only elite and upper caste women will enter the quota; (2) proxy women will be chosen as candidates; and (3) the women of lower and deprived castes will not get opportunities. These opinions can be valid only if we take both individual patriarchy and social patriarchy into consideration. As political scientists would agree, post-independent political experience also shows that only the interests of the propertied classes are protected. Favouring separate quota for women, (1999:29) argues that the concern against quota within quota is to contest the backward caste assertion. She relates the issue to the women’s participation in anti-Mandal agitation and says (1999:501-20) “In the anti- Mandal protests women often appear not as sexed beings but as free and equal citizens, as partners of rioting men, jointly protesting the erosion of ‘their’ rights ……….. In many cities, hitherto ‘apolitical’ women students participated enthusiastically in demonstrations and blockades, mourning the ‘death of merit’ and arguing the need to save the nation.” As she further observed (1999:503), “anti-Mandal women had learned to claim deprivation and injustice, now not as women, but as citizens, for to ground the claim in gender would pit them against middleclass men. The claiming of citizenship rather than sisterhood now not only to set them against lower caste / class women.”

In today’s situation though nobody wants to openly defend caste hierarchy, both the claims based on merit (efficiency) and caste (justice) bear the caste imprint. Gail Omvedt (2000) opines that Muslims and OBCs would not need any quota, and so also the women. Though one and each express their fear and concerns in their own way, the prominent reality is that the caste question should be comprehensively dealt with. The life experience of women from all social identities should be brought in the open, in the effort to find an answer to the problems faced by Indian women.

The implementation of 73rd and 74th amendments revealed that most of the women representatives were proxy ones. Women representatives had to face a lot of difficulties from the bureaucracy, from the party and the society. Caution should be taken to see to it that, after a certain period, it should not become a rule that women represent and act only within the reserved quota. Since the identity politics does not allow women to act beyond the agenda of the party they represent, the political hypocrisy and male dominance in the political parties should also be fought against.

To sum up, the operation of caste, both at the systemic level and also as a foundation of the functioning of patriarchy, warrants a broader and multidimensional approach in dealing with gender politics. An approach that takes into consideration the factors of class, caste and patriarchy is needed. Instead of transporting Western feminist principles to our socio-political milieu, the Indian feminists should lead the discourse on gender politics in view of things which prevail here and aim at what we need in our environment. When we assess the costs and benefits of political empowerment, our experiment should not lead us to the kind of tragic result as that which happened in Russia, for instance.


 1) Eminent political scientists have emphasised that popular participation, circulation of power and effective opposition are essential characteristics of a true democracy. Also, a democratic society is based on the recognition of equal rights of all the individuals in it.

 2) This article was written before the Vajpayee Government withdrew the Women’s Bill.

1. Fermon, Nicole (1998): “Women on the Global Market:Irigaray and the Democratic State,” Diacritics, Vol.28, No.1,Spring,  pp120-137.

2. Irigaray, Luce.(1985): This Sex which is Not One, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian Gill, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

3. Menon, Nivedita (1999): Gender and Politics in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

4. Omvedt, Gail (2000): “Women and PR” The Hindu (Thiruvananthapuram), 12 September.

5. Rege, Sharmila (1998) : “Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of ‘Difference’and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position”, Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay) October 31, pp.WS 39— 46.

6. Sonalkar, Wandana (1999) : “An Agenda for Gender Politics.” Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay), January 9,      pp.24-29.

U.G.C. Research associate at the Department of Politics, University of Kerala. She has taken her Ph.D. on Soviet Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently working on the topic “Political Empowerment of Women – A Critical Study of the Indian Experience.”

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U.G.C. Research associate at the Department of Politics, University of Kerala. She has taken her Ph.D. on Soviet Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently working on the topic “Political Empowerment of Women – A Critical Study of the Indian Experience.”

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