Praise for My Books

"Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a gifted writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab's literary horizon. She has an excellent command of English and a sly sense of humour."
- Khushwant Singh on The Long Walk Home

"An enjoyable tale of a sassy girl's headlong race up the corporate ladder."
- India Today on Earning the Laundry Stripes

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Earning their political stripes: Women’s reservation bill in India

March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day across the world. This year India marked it by tabling the Women’s Reservation bill – which aims to reserve a third of legislative seats for women – in Parliament. However, the bill was torn up by its opponents amidst an uproar. A day later it was cleared but there are still hurdles to be crossed: the lower house of Parliament, Lok Sabha, must pass the bill, then the proposal has to win the approval of at least half of India’s state legislatures, and finally, a sign-off by the President – the last, hopefully, will be a cinch. The President’s post in India is largely ceremonial, and Pratibha Patil, the first woman to be President, has already urged the passage of the bill.

Since its inception in 1996, the bill has had a rocky journey. Opposition has been mounted by conjuring myriad unwelcome consequences of its implementation: increased marginalization of other minority groups such as backward castes and Muslims, the abuse of the reserved seats by male members of the woman’s family, disruption in domestic life. All such arguments are, in fact, ingenious attempts to distract from the central fear: empowering women.

The bill tabled by the Congress-led ruling UPA has garnered support from opposition Communists and rightwing BJP but was opposed by two northern regional parties, members of its coalition. These parties are headed by men who have made their political careers by playing the caste card in states which are populous, poor, caste-ridden, male-dominant, and largely illiterate. One of the states, Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 190 million, is the most populous state in India and if it were a separate country, it would be the world’s fifth largest nation.  

At a previous discussion on the bill Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh, cautioned his fellow parliamentarians championing the bill: “for all the table thumping taking place, you will be thumping your charpoys (string cots) in your homes”. A deep fear prevails that “leadership” – read patriarchal hegemony – will be “destroyed” by the passage of the bill which promises to unleash women onto the political arena. Playing the minority card, they have termed the bill elitist, insisting it should have a quota within quota for backward and Muslim women – further stirring up the state’s caste-heavy cauldron.  

The irony is that both the President and leader of the largest party in India are women. For fifteen years, it was led by a democratically-elected Indira Gandhi, the Iron Lady of India. Inherent in that fact is the contrarian nature of Indian politics, marked by nepotism. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Nehru, India’s founding father, and the inheritor of his Congress party. What would prevent a similar misuse of power when the women’s reservation is implemented? ‘Proxy’ seats filled by the female relatives of male politicians is a possibility. However, for reference, one can turn to the village and local governments, panchayats, where a reservation of 33 percent for women was implemented in 1993.

Today there are one million elected women leaders in local governments. Several studies have been conducted on the result of increased participation of women. While ‘proxy’ cases have been recorded, it is also seen that panchayats run by women have effectively tackled several areas that had been traditionally ignored: reducing liquor consumption by removing liquor vends, increasing panchayat income by removing encroachment on government land and building shops for rent, installing hand pumps to provide drinking water, setting up maternity homes, providing toilets for women at bus stops. 

The results fly in the face of concerns about women’s ability to serve as effective legislatures. Concomitant with the growth in economic prosperity has been an increasing participation of women in the corporate sphere. ICICI Bank, the country’s largest private bank, is run by a woman. She reached there due to the bank’s policy of actively recruiting women.

According to the Centre for Social Research, women make up 44 percent of the voting population and have less than 10 percent representation in India’s parliament. In a country where fifty million women have gone “missing” a move to ensure their representation will empower women. In turn, they will be more likely to champion women’s causes and serve as role models for other women.

In the mid-nineties when I joined Unilever India after business school I was the first woman recruited into the sales system. The company that sold consumer products targeted at women had over its 150-year presence in India been steered solely by men. With increasing competition, a more sophisticated consumer, and the emergence of women in MBA courses, the company had decided to widen its talent pool and leverage a woman’s perspective. It was a new reality in which male chauvinism was endangered. Later when I started writing full time, I fictionalised my experience as a lone woman in an all-boys sales club to write my first novel, ‘Earning the Laundry Stripes’.

A changing India cannot afford to keep women out of the talent pool of available politicians. The women’s reservation bill is a first step in helping more women earn their political stripes.


  1. This is in response to comments on FB that convey the mistrust regarding reservation as a way forward.

    Wow! Great to have this conversation going.

    The issue of reservation is undoubtedly thorny but here I want to focus specifically on the Women’s Reservation bill. Of course, the bill is flawed (for instance, the seats reserved for women will be randomly changed every five years, thus denying the particular candidate a chance to nurture her constituency), and prone to possible misuse by the male members of the woman’s family. Bless our patriarchal society.

    But the possibility of a particular faulty fallout does not mean that the cause should be jettisoned. Corruption is endemic to Indian politics, and 90% politicians are men – would barring men from contesting elections be a solution therefore? It’s the old argument of throwing out the baby with the bath water… The issue at stake here is simple: empowering women. A 33% reservation is a paradigm shift in a society where it is routinely acknowledged that women are discriminated against at all levels – caste/class/income no bar. Poverty, illiteracy, rural living only exacerbate this problem. At present women have less than 10% representation in Parliament – surely a huge skew?

    Added to this is the positive experience of women in panchayats where it has been demonstrated that women leaders have more empathy for causes that are seen as “female”: providing drinking water, improving sanitation, and such. Then there are the intangibles of such women serving as role models.

    When I worked in Etah (the poorest district in India) I came across 7-year-old girls who ran households: cooking, milking the cows, taking care of their siblings. For those girls, young educated women like us management trainees who walked about freely in their midst and chatted openly with the men folk were a marvel to be gawked at. Now imagine a woman from their midst – maybe their mother or aunt or grandmother – contesting one of those reserved seats and winning. In one stroke, the trajectory of aspiration for that 7-year-old will change. She will see that it is possible to rise above all the extenuating circumstances of birth, gender, poverty, class and caste – something that we women have been privileged enough to never have as a shackle.

    Education is certainly the way forward – as any politician will wag his head. But why has it not happened in India thus far. Girl child and education for the girl child is paid lip service to. We need to take it to a granular level where some administrator will look into the case of misappropriated funds, schools that exist on paper, and employed teachers who are perennially AWOL. Since male politicians/leaders/administrators have demonstrated little enthusiasm for this particular task, perhaps a woman – with greater affinity for cause of the girl child – will be more effective?

    Ultimately, all the above is in the realm of speculation. However, as Robert Browning said, and I quote having taken some liberties with the text, “Ah! But a woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

    What women of India need is a revolution. Since that ain’t gonna happen soon, reservation is a step in the right direction.

  2. I'm in favor of women empowerment but reservation and quota in any form is not justifiable. Don't take me otherwise, but reservation were, are and will never be a final solution to any problem.

    The only beneficiaries of reservation are people from elite family. You know I was laughing when you took name of Indira Gandhi.. she legalized corruption and brought in License Raj.

    I'm sorry if any of my words offended you.

  3. Hi Rachit, I'm not sure I understand what you're laughing at. When I mention Indira Gandhi it is in context of the contrarian nature of Indian politics. My words: For fifteen years, it was led by a democratically-elected Indira Gandhi, the Iron Lady of India. Inherent in that fact is the contrarian nature of Indian politics, marked by nepotism.

    Indira Gandhi is an example of dynastic succession and a warning of how the women's reservation bill could be subverted - a fact that you seem to be stating as well. However, research has also shown that women who have taken on panchayat roles have shown greater empathy and effectiveness in implementing schemes which are seen as typically "female".

    As for why I think the Women's reservation bill, while not ideal, is a right thing to do - read my comment above.

  4. The wobbly judgements regarding Women's Reservation Bill are due to the non-fixed nature of the Bill.I think that making the constituencies rotational should act as an impetus for the women candidates.They'll have 5 years in hands to nurture their constituencies.
    Secondly,this Bill should be reckoned as a launchpad & not as the ultimate solution for gender equality.It becomes duty of the media to remind the 'State' & 'Statesmen-Women' of it.

  5. Thanks Mokshada, the Bill as a launchpad is what people need to view it as - essentially a way to provide a level playing field to start with.