Second Class Citizens
Zakia Soman, The Front Page, 29 June 2009
The case in favour of womens’ reservation does not need a discussion really. Our world is still inhabited by a majority of male chauvinists who are patriarchal to the core and this legislation comes in the face of them all. History of humankind is replete with instances of a cardinal injustice wherein women are not accepted as humans for most part, leave alone equals. Violence and injustice are intrinsic part of most girls’ lives. Women everywhere are unequal. But Asia and particularly South Asia leads the race when it comes to total subjugation of women. In modern day India girls are killed before they are born. They are discriminated at every step of their lives. Lesser food, lesser or no education, early marriages, dowry demands and dowry deaths… these are not just confined to remote areas and villages as most of us urban middle class would like to imagine. It happens in the metros of Delhi and Bombay in homes like us. Clinics for pre-natal sex testing thrive in broad daylight and scores of girls are murdered before they are born. A shocking nearly ninety percent of the women in various South Asian countries live throughout their lives under malnourishment and poverty.
Affirmative action is a legitimate means to empower the excluded in a democracy. Whatever the intentions of political parties it is high time that women in India became full citizens. But in order that this happens our socio-economic reality and exclusion of communities based on caste, religion and region need to be kept in mind. And even as we discuss exclusion the further exclusion of women within these excluded communities deserves attention. Sixty years after independence Dalits are still not allowed entry into temples across India. In such scenario what a Dalit woman goes through has to be considered. When Sachar Committee says that muslims are socio-economically backward today how much more backward is the muslim woman is a fact that deserves attention. Besides, our polity is increasingly getting marked by a disturbing trend with the powerful and the elites cornering most of the benefits emerging out of any democratic mechanism by manipulating the democratic processes and institutions. We need a mechanism to break this stranglehold of the elites in our democracy particularly when it comes to womens’ empowerment through reservation.
I don’t for a moment think that the womens’ reservation bill as proposed in its present form can really solve this situation. Our ruling elites are most likely to use it for their own gains. True, caste is a reality in India. Another reality getting uglier by the day is the near non-representation in politics when it comes to the adivasi and the muslim community. Not to mention the women amongst them. Equally disturbing reality is the emergence of a political class wherein a few hundred families cutting across caste, religion and region are dominating the electoral process. The argument of they being elected by a popular mandate is illusory because the political parties patronize the family members leaving very little room for others. In the 15th Lok Sabha 11% comprises of women MPs. But which of these 59 women MPs are not daughters, wives, mothers, nieces of the powerful and the rich? How many of them are not from affluent and established political families? How many of them are not from upper castes? This argument is not an argument for dividing women, just as demanding womens’ rights is not an argument for dividing humankind.
South Asia has had the legendary women prime ministers early on before anywhere in the world. Indira Gandhi, Sirimao Bandarnayake, Benazir Bhutto, Chandrika Kumaratunge, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have all not resulted in improving the lives of the women in their respective countries. Why should an ordinary dalit woman in a village in Andhra Pradesh believe for a moment that her plight would change with womens’ reservation bill? No wonder, any muslim woman in Ahmedabad would be skeptical that the passage of this bill will provide for her safety!
It would be naïve to assume that a blanket reservation would change the life conditions of average Indian women. Yes, reservation for women is long overdue and it should be passed without any further delay. But we have to take our existing socio-political realities into account. There has to be a special provision for the socially, politically and economically backward women. Care has to be taken to see that the creamy layer of women from affluent and political families don’t hog this space yet again. This cannot happen without addressing the larger issue of reform in the electoral process. Use of money and muscle power as well as criminalization of politics needs to be checked in order that the benefits reach to those they are meant for. There also has to be a democratization within the political parties. There should be reservation for women and there should be adequate provision within it for the excluded women to benefit out of this reservation.