Can Women Officeholders Really Change India?

The Rajya Sabha (Upper House) of the Indian Parliament passed a bill on Wednesday approving a constitutional amendment to reserve 30 percent of  seats for women in national and state legislatures. This would not only improve India’s rate of women in parliament from the current 10 percent, but also put India in healthy comparison with the highest rates of women in parliament globally: 42.1 percent for the Nordic countries, 19.9 percent for the rest of Europe, 22.2 percent for the Americas (18 percent for the U.S.) and 18.7 percent for Asia, according to the Inter Parliamentary Union. Isn’t it time to rejoice?

Actually, a couple of notes of caution might be in order.

The passage of the bill has caused agitations and strikes all over the country. A main thrust of the opposition has been that gender cannot be a preferred category while caste and religious minorities face severe economic, social and political violence. Will these reserved seats come at the cost of seats that religious and caste minorities could have contested? Can women legislators be trusted to attend to these other issues?

This is a concern not just for the political parties opposing the bill’s passage (despite having some powerful women leaders), but has long been a divisive issue within women’s movements as well.

Women’s quotas for 33 percent of seats at the local governance (panchayat) level have existed in India since 1993 (amended to 50 percent in 2009). Some women in these seats may have been figureheads for influential political men in their families, and some may have been corrupt or ineffective, as feared, but there have been a lot of success stories, too. Women have used their institutional power in many cases to push for reforms on such issues as water, land, health and violence.

But national politics has very different stakes and scope than local politics. There has been no dearth of extremely powerful female politicians in India at both national and state levels, even if the total percentages are low. From Indira Gandhi to Jayalalitha to Mayawati to Mamata Banerjee, these larger-than-life figures have often wielded enormous power in their states and their parties, championing caste and class issues. Their attention to women’s problems, however, has ranged from indifferent to lousy.

So I’m rejoicing, but with some reservations (pun intended, of course). It’s possible that a critical mass of women could mobilize to promote social justice based on gender as well as caste and class and religion. But it’s equally possible that politics could get in the way, and that being a woman in charge doesn’t necessarily insure that justice is served for all.

ABOVE: Sonia Gandhi, president of ruling party Indian Congress, pushed for the bill.


  1. I was really surprised to learn about the passage of what seems to me to be a relatively progressive piece of legislation. And I had no idea that a 50% quota for female representation existed in local Indian governance! The analysis is very interesting. Thanks for informing me, Srimati!

  2. hollytomlinson says:

    I think the potential problem with quotas is that they can discredit the women that get into parliament after they are enacted. It’s really important to highlight the barriers to women’s involvement in politics, so that the public recognizes that quotas level the playing field rather than favor women over men, otherwise there’s a danger of quotas being used to discredit wel qualified women by their opponents.

  3. It’s also worth noting that simply being a woman doesn’t mean that feminist or pro-women change will follow suit. This is a huge argument amongst Indian feminists and women’s rights advocates and academics right now, and the general sentiment in the progressive circles I run in here in Kolkata is that this quota system lacks teeth, that these women will be tokens who will tow the patriarchal party line.

  4. Liliana Prina says:

    Dear Ms. Blog:

    There are not guaranties that justice will prevail in any country. As one search for justice the journey empowers intellect and spirit. A female Office Holder can change the world and surely a voice that today amounts to a 10 percent will increase to millions.

    Approximately one hundred thousand million stars populate the Milky Way claims the European Space Agency website. I would love to compare the voice of a female on India's' Office as a light that strikes the mind of the India populace with change and prosperity.


    Liliana Prina

  5. Dr Sujoy Majumdar says:

    It was really nice to visit your blog. However, I believe that you will agree with me that in India,there have been a lot of reservation classes, each with a specific agenda and very few of them have achieved their ultimate objectives. In most of these cases, unworthy people have been allowed a backdoor entry to the main platform, be it SC/ST quota, OBC quota etc.You have mentioned about Mayabati and Mamata Banerjee, but do you know how messy it became in Bihar when Rabri Devi , the wife of Laloo Prasad Yadav , became the Chief Minister ?THE MORE IMPORTANT THING IS EDUCATION– unfortunately, the minimum level of educational qualification that is required from a prospective MP/MLA is never properly defined; and Iam afraid that without the proper education , all these women MPs will become hostage to the corrupt society demands.Mayabati and Rabri Debi are two good examples of how bleak the situation can be. Shrimati, please dont get me wrong– I am not against women empowerment, but for empowerment of educated women; THAT IS WHAT WIL BRING THE REAL CHANGE TO THE INDIAN POLITY AND SOCIETY

  6. Responding to the commentor above:

    When Rabri devi became the prime minister, the situation of bihar stayed the same as it did under Lalu parasad’s rule. Lalu prasad is also illiterate, btw. And so are thousand of gram panchayat members and sarpanchs in villages. They are excellent leaders.

    I think you will agree that Indira Gandhi was out best prime minister till date. Would you say that was because of education? Then, is Sonia gandhi also accpetable? And if that is so, then why wasn’t Sanjay gandhi THAT good a leader when he was just as educated? Why isn’t Rahul gandhi like that?

    Are you going to tell me that the women who faught for women’s freedom stuggle(all of them illiterate) are incapable of handling themselves, let alone take decisions?

    That isn’t true. Education doesn’t change a person’s mentality. If it did, then we wouldn’t have educated men wanting dowry, we wouldn’t have educated men debating on whether on not it is right to “allow” “their” wives to work, and they would put up points like- well, then she can pay for her keep, so I won’t ask her for dowry, or I earn enough.. Completely discounting what SHE wants, like it doesn’t even matter… All in the guise of “adjusting.”

    Go with the rhetoric somewhere else… Education doesn’t make a person. I know many women who were natural feminists and have never been to school. NEVER. They simply learnt stuff the hard way, because they choose to open their eyes to what happens around us.

    Educated men also shouldn’t beat their wives, kill them and their children if they can’t produce a vaaris/heir(male always), WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF EDUCATION?

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