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As the demand for the Women's Reservation Bill makes headlines once again, let me voice an unpopular opinion. The truth is - our political system is not ready for women's reservation.
Before I get to the heart of this question, let me just clarify that I'm a staunch feminist and a supporter of affirmative action for the marginalised sections. For years, I've been advocating for more political representation of women, and I see reservation as the main route through which we would reach the end goal of having more women at key decision-making positions.
However, my personal experience in the political spectrum coupled with my learnings from various young women political leaders has taught me that there are many challenges along the way. Though the number of women entering politics is seeing a rise in many areas, we mustn't forget that politics is a long race that takes years and years to reach the top echelons. Many of these talented, outstanding, and hardworking women leave the system in a few years due to familial, social, and financial pressure. The few lucky ones who remain fight various other challenges throughout to ensure that they don't lose their space.
One of these is the need for women to conform. When I started my political career in the hub of student politics in Delhi University, the Campus Law Centre, I was told quite convincingly by my friends to stop wearing shorts and skirts, to wear kurtas if I wanted votes. And I did as I was told. It never occurred to me to question them because I was just starting out and was not in a position to challenge the norms. But over the years, as I evolved both politically and also as an individual, I developed the confidence to put my foot down and do away with the restraints I had imposed upon myself based on the stereotypes set by others.
However, women still need to conform in order to survive, even more so for those who are just starting out. It is also not easy being an opinionated woman in the political system, and that is one of the major roadblocks for a woman in politics. So today despite crimes against women being on a high, there is stoic silence from our women union ministers, I am reminded that even accomplished women in politics need to conform.
These are of course concerns of someone who is relatively privileged. The most difficult of situations are reserved for women belonging to the marginalised sections. The number of Dalit women, especially first-generation Dalit women, is almost negligible in politics. A deep patriarchal mindset and the systematic barriers highlight that our political system is not at all responsive to the ambitions of first-generation marginalised women. Our mighty State makes it even more difficult. In 2015, Haryana introduced a legislation that disqualified large sections of the people from participating in politics. It introduced educational qualifications, amongst others, as a precondition for contesting elections. The effect of the law was that more than half the entire population of women were not eligible to contest in these local elections, including 68 per cent of the Scheduled Caste women, just because they were illiterate.
This happened when there is already documented evidence that panchayats led by women outperform those governed by men. Ms. Rohini Pande, a noted scholar found in a study, that, "Village councils headed by women can catalyze change...my colleagues and I showed that living in a village that had elected a female leader caused villagers to report lower bias against female leaders. By creating empowered female role models, it led villagers to state more equal aspirations for their teenage sons and daughters and to reduce their daughters’ domestic chores and increase their schooling.”
It is thus imperative that we not let up our demands for greater representation. A Constitutional Amendment also acts as an incentive for political organizations to seek greater parity. Political parties will have greater incentive to change only when an intervention is made from the outside. It should be known that India made a turning point in its gender representation after the 73rd and 74th amendment. The representation at the local bodies grew from a mere 3-4% to 43%. This massive growth won't have been possible if it were just an intra-party reservation for women because men would, anyway, find a way to field women in non-electable seats and defeat the purpose of having more women in our assemblies and parliament. So, the only way to ensure our system is ready for women's reservation is by passing the Women's Reservation Bill.
Angellica Aribam is a political activist who frequently writes on issues of race, gender, student welfare, and politics. She is also a former National General Secretary of NSUI and a Forbes India 30 Under 30 honoree. She holds a Master's degree in Public Policy from Peking University, China.