avatar
A Parliament of Women as much as of Men


I

 

As is well known, the semantics of equality entered  western intellectual discourse only as a result of the writings of the  French Philosophes, whereas previously the acknowledged universal paradigm had been  that all human beings were created unequal.  Thus there were  those who were “privileged” by birth, and those who were not.

 

Indeed, in passing, it was only Buddhism in India that could be said to have genuinely offered a world  view  wherein equality made no exceptions.  Some reason why  it became fatally important for Brahminism to eject it at all costs.

 

The new European classes whose  material interests were thus enunciated by the emancipatory  writings of the Enlightenment claimed, as Marx was to note, that they represented not just their own interests but those of all “humanity.”  A classic example of false consciousness, since, as Marx theorized,  every new class that challenges older social formations needs such universalist claims to garner sufficient clout for the overthrow.

 

The fact of course was that  the  notions of equality, or rights (“unalienable” ones, you may recall) that came to be floated as potent ideological legitimisers of  the aspirations of new dominant interests effectively left out of the ambit of these notions slaves, all labouring classes, and, you guessed it, women.  Indeed the men who were inscribing the concepts of unalienable rights were  untroubled slave owners themselves.  Jefferson for one.

 

Within the  expressive world of  what came to  be called  “liberal humanism”  the reference to “all men” etc., in well-known redolent phrases meant just that—all men.  To a point where indeed not even the world’s first industrial proletariat asked for the  right to vote for women as they submitted their Charter to the Whig parliament in 1832.  Their demand was “one man, one vote.”

 

Not until 1928—only some two decades prior to India’s political independence from colonial rule—did English women obtain their right to franchise, as a result of their protracted struggles aided by sections of truly liberated men.

 

And, as has so often happened in the history of democracy worldwide, those accreted  gains elsewhere  helped  new, post-colonial Indian rulers to provide for universal adult franchise from day one.

 

II

 

Obtaining the right to vote ofcourse did not translate in equal measure to an equality of representation in  parliament and the legislatures.

 

As in the case of Indian men, only some women who had the pedigree, of birth or class, came to be given the occasional ticket to stand for elections.  Universal franchise thus has remained  a grossly anomalous  adoption, having left out effectively half the population of India from any stake in decision-making at state and national levels.

 

Over the last two decades especially of  the  expansions of  consciousness among newly assertive and literate groups and elites, men and women, the demand  that  a certain percentage of  seats in parliament and the legislators be set apart for women qua women has been gaining force.  A movement that may be conceived as the third rung of the evolution of Indian democracy into a credible representative  system of consent and governance.  The previous two having been the  success of Indian Dalits and ethnic Tribals to have won the principle of reserved seats in proportion to their population as a result indeed of the  Ambedkarite movement of the 1930s, and the success of India’s Intermediate middle castes (often referred to as Other Backward Classes—OBCs) in the northern states to capture political power consistently since the mid 1960s.

 

For some fifteen years now, the proposal to accord 33% reservation to Indian women has been  the most consequential and contested issue in India’s  political discourse.  Not surprisingly, the ruling party apparatuses have found themselves caught in that classic pincer which the idea of democracy has so often presented the world with; namely, the imperative to seem wedded to the notion of  universal representation but to be socially unwilling that the ideal see the light of day. 

 

Capitalism, suffused and mediated by Patriarchy, remains unwilling to redistribute political power among the genders, just as it remains unwilling to redistribute the right to the ownership of economic assets. 

 

As any number of India’s  TV soaps will testify, especially since the beginnings of India’s  neo-liberal, market fundamentalist shift (coterminous with the Washington Consensus of 1990), middle class indian women (the only kind who are visible on TV)  are sought to be drafted for two conjoint purposes:  one, as consumers of  what the cosmetics corporates have to offer, and two, as vehicles simultaneously of  ideas of  moral/ethical/religious traditions, all of which issue from patriarchy and Brahminism, and seek to hedge and confine women within joint families as the principle torch bearers of culture.

 

Typically, thus, the soap serials present lavish sets, even obscenely lavish sets, where upon brocaded and bejeweled daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and  mothers-in-law  walk about   in leisured and gingerly cadences unspoilt by the least hint of labour even about the household, unraveling fatal decisions wth regard to  the conduct of various, and endless pujas, engagement ceremonies, weddings (and their consequences), and all interspersed without relief with rituals, ritual fasts, ritual obligations bearing almost wholly on the women.  And laced with heavy doses of superstition.

 

In all these, money remains unmentioned as a given of which we are never told how it is made or how much of it exists.  What defines these offerings is a relentless and relentlessly devious ideological tie-up between seemingly unlimited resources and  religious iteration.  And if ever a woman with a mind of her own surfaces, she does so invariably as a threat or a menace, and thus an object of rejection secured by showing her up as  out of line with  the best traditions of  accumulated culture and received patriarchal wisdom. 

 

Indeed, a woman who chooses to dress plainly or un-selfconsciously is equally a no no, because such a stance then  is seen to rebuke the  labours of the corporates who know best about what women with money need and how they look best in various situations.

 

The  movement for the reservation of seats for women  thus  accompanies this matrix of decrepit social muck, all of which accompanied India’s “modernity” through the movement for Freedom, and has now gotten insidiously collaborative with corporate capitalism.  Religious occasions—dime a dozen in the Hindu calendar—help the corporate world and the corporate state in two all-important ways:  one, it is big business (according to one UN study, religion is currently the world’s fourth largest enterprise, after armaments, drugs, and education), and it helps to mute and neutralize class consolidation  as individuals and communities are projected primarily as religious entities and identities rather than as secular- historical victims or agents, or economically dominant or relegated communities.

 

Yet, it is suggestive of  the irresistability of the dynamics of democratic ideas that this press towards taking another  historic step in the equity agenda obliges India’s major and otherwise antagonistic political formations (the Congress, the BJP, and the Left especially) to collaborate in seeing to the introduction of the Women”s Reservation Bill  in the upper house of india’s parliament (the Rajya Sabha) tomorrow,   as the institution of the 8th of March as the International Women’s Day completes a centenary.  And all that despite  the bickerings among the party system as well as the considerable dissent within each party on the issue.

 

And despite also the  often violent opposition of the OBC-controlled parties who  insist that the 33% quota for women be further broken down into reservation for OBC and minority women.

 

 

That the male leaderships of these parties have thus far failed either to make such a provision for OBC women within their own party office bearers, or to apportion 33^ party-electoral tickets to OBC women is another matter—but one that underscores the hypocrisy of the resistance they offer. 

 

Already, one influential OBC chief minister (Nitish Kumar of Bihar) has demarcated his own position from that of his party, acknowledging that times have changed, and that he now thinks it is inadvisable to oppose the measure.

 

Such are the crevices through which the winds of rational historical transformation often creep.  The pity being that often those rational winds have to battle barricades set up by even those who should know better.

 

III

 

Here is what we say:  should the Bill after all be successfully introduced in the Rajya Sabha on Monday, the 8th of March, 2010, it will be our view that Indian democracy will have  made qualitatively a great leap forward.  The polity all across the nation-state will experience a new energy and conviction, such as will not but invigorate its contributions in many diverse ways, and facilitate the opening of further doors to further areas that remain dark and iniquitous.

 

In that context, I may enter a caveat. 

 

There are those who still hold to the “nature” view of gender.  Many men and women honestly believe that women are by “nature” less prone to violence, corruption, chicanery, more inclined to tenderness and empathy, and so on.   Many take the view that women are best kept away from such prosaic and hard things as finance, defence, industries, and allied areas of governance,  if they must be incorporated as  bureaucrats or as ministers.  Many also believe that given their “natures” women must remain incharge of households to which their commitment brings cheer and spiritual light, since women “naturally” take to the ways of piety and tradition.  And many honestly remain unaware that all these things that they say reflect not what women think, but what men of a certain kind think about women.

 

Some support their greater presence in the legislatures because they believe  politics will then see  a great ethical upliftment, and so on.

 

This writer remains of the view that  be it in potential or performance, discriminations based on gender are fallacious.  Men and women tend to be equally ambitious or not, canny or not canny, self-regarding or not self-regarding, callous or not callous, competent or incompetent, ethical or unethical,  violent or not violent, even murderous or not murderous.

 

Many men are often more tender as parents than many women, and many women are often more gamesome as parents than many men. Many women better drivers of cars and buses than many men, and many men better cooks of meals than many women, especially cooking of the kind that pays.  Sometimes women heads of institutions prove to be more inimical to gender justice than male  heads, and  perfectly of a feather with male corporate counterparts, and sometimes they are seen to be more sensitive to issues of social discrimination among both men and women than their male counterparts.   Same in all spheres of prowess and sctivity. 

 

 

Since we hold to that view, it is preposterous that some 98% of the world’s wealth should remain in male hands, while women share the rest of the 2%. And in large measure due to the fact that  gender discrimination based on assiduously constructed myths, traditions, and systems of knowledge and control has kept them out of the institutions of law-making and of governance where such constructions can be addressed and changed to the betterment, let it be said, not just of women but of humankind.

 

We also recognize that women are as prone to social prejudice, inherited bias, and class antagonism as men are.  But, we believe that these prejudices, biases, antagonisms are best attacked jointly by men and women both in  positions of responsibility and  in social movements outside the ambit of the state.  And that, most crucially, such an eventuality requires that women  be first of all  accorded all those transformative, constitutional  spaces  over which the state presides which have  been the fiefdom of men.  Tragically thus far in India, this necessary historical onus has been denied to women on one disingenuous pretext or the other.  And as a result, we are the nation we still are.

 

These fingers are therefore crossed as they type.  Tomorrow may be a day I shall truly celebrate, not as some teleological end of democratic history in India, but as the victory of  a democratic idea and imperative which has been delayed for far too long, and out of which many good things will come for those who are still at the receiving end at many points of the  social  maze.

 

Thumbs up for the Bill.  And may sense dawn on  those male heads  that are used to be  habitually headstrong without much thought.

Leave a comment