Is gender a universal category? The double edged sword of identity politics.

Jameen Kaur reports on the three day conference on ‘Women Deepening Democracy: Transforming Gender Equality. From Groucho Marx to a Revolution Fund – and beyond.
Jameen Kaur
18 January 2010

Day One: the optimism of the will versus the scepticism of the intellect.

 The title of United Nation’s three day workshop ‘Deepening Democracy: Transforming Gender Equality’ highlights the fact that today’s democracies are not even close to fully implementing women’s rights. It is a well known fact that while women account for 51% of the global population, world-wide political representation of women averages at a total of 17-18%.   Perhaps it was no coincidence then that this conference was held in India, a proud champion of democracy.  A country that is headed by a woman: Sonia Gandhi, Leader of the Congress Party, as well as women heading the two main opposition parties: Sushma Swaraj, Bharatiya Janata Party and Mayawati Bahujan Samaj Party.

The key note address was given by Dr Pratap Mehta, President, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, on ‘The sinews of power: institutions and the empowerment of women’ in which he asked:  what has been the experience of democracy, and does it genuinely empower women?  He spoke about the optimism of the will versus the scepticism of the intellect.  Yes, we have a whole range of new laws, new machineries, rights to information, civil society reviews and audits, which have set up new architectures for new levels of accountability, but the questions he posed were: how does this impact democracy, and in particular the empowerment of women in democracies? How are women accessing power? By using India as a case study he traced the journey of Mayawati, pointing out that she has reinvented her own path to the corridors of power, like Swaraj she has been an innovator of a new political entrepreneurship, not by taking power, but by creating new spaces.  In particular Mayawati’s use of ‘identity politics’ has been a key strategy to her popularity – she has given the historically marginalized Dalit community a close identification with the Dalit identity and personally challenged both gender and caste stereotypes. 

Addressing women’s agency for political protest, the case of Irom Chanu Sharmila ‘Iron lady of Manipur’ was discussed, Sharmila has now entered the record books as the longest ‘political’ fast in protest against the brutality of the Armed Forces (Specials Power) Act, 1958. The case of Manipur illustrates the assumption made about democracies, as Dr Mehta said: ‘democracies are conservative…..there is an assumption that if there is a representation in government, the government will act responsibility. This is not the case.  This is the paradox of representation.’  He pointed out that although the means and methods of the electoral apparatus, such as quotas and reservations, are implemented to empower previously marginalized communities, what often occurs is that though the marginalized community may be given a voice, the institution – such as a local council – does not grow much stronger. This is because the limited terms that these elected representations are allowed to serve reduces the bargaining power of the council against other forms of government. This often results in a stronger representation of the marginalized sectors under weaker institutions, which Dr Mehta said had been the experience of the Dalit and the women’s movement in India. Taking for example the National Women’s Commission, he said that it is not ‘who runs it, but what capacity and resources it has’.

Some of the participants challenged Dr Mehta’s observations, arguing that with regard to democracy it was the ‘cup half full or empty argument’. One woman gave the example of how having more women elected at the local level i.e panchayats (local councils) had ensured that water accessibility issues, which are central to so much of the work women do, were given greater priority than the maintenance of roads.

Dr Mehta reassured the audience that he was not against democracies per say, as there ‘is no alternative’, however we have to be realistic on what democracies can and cannot deliver, given the historical evidence and baggage there are shaped from. Finally, to end in Dr Mehta’s words perhaps ‘the United Nations should fund a ‘Revolution fund’ instead of a ‘Democracy fund’.


Day Two: women are willing to manage the triple burden of gender, public and private responsibilities.

‘Groucho Marx once said: 'why yes ma’am, I would be more than happy to give you my chair, if I wasn’t using it myself’ these were Professor Richard Matland’s opening words to his presentation ‘Women’s pathways to power.’ A specialist on quota systems, Matland told the audience that ‘you have to be crazy to do what I do’. He has worked in remote places such as Siberia to research and monitor democratic electoral voting mechanisms to assess the impact on women’s lives. And times-  well they are changing. There are now eight countries in the world that have exceeded the 40% ceiling of  female political representation, and Matland explained that twenty years ago four out of the top five states were from the Scandinavian region, and nine out of the top ten were industrially developed countries. However, the most recent statistics show that women who were not previously on the radar, are now claiming their electoral seats, and states such as Rwanda, Cuba, South Africa and Argentina now sit in the top ten. Rwanda takes first place with 56% of female political representation, but Matland stressed that these representatives still require greater changes for real empowerment and effective change.

An advocate for quotas for women in democratically operated systems, he said that quotas have to have effective representation, such as placement mandates and candidate based quotas rather than reserved seats. Candidates need to be elected and not appointed in order to carry legitimacy in the legislator field. In spite of the limitations of the quota system it is does have a ripple effect. For example in Norway in the 1970’s the small Liberal left party introduced a quota for the recruitment of women parliamentarians. Such a step then put the more powerful Labour socialist party on edge, as this exerted both internal and external pressure from members to follow the example. It was also pointed out that there are gate-keepers to women’s active political inclusion. Many of the conference participants talked about the problem of gate-keepers to women’s active political participation, saying that it was not the voters that forbade women to enter the democratic electoral process, but often the lack of internal democracy of the political parties themselves.

‘Quotas should be rephrased as Gender Balance. The word quotas, makes it sound like charity.’ said Dr Rajan Kumari, Director, Centre for Social Research, India. Although India has quotas of 33% at the local level, this has yet to be followed up at the national level. Furthermore, membership of women in political parties is not actively encouraged: on average 3-5% of women are active members in political parties and in those parties which are caste based it does not even reach 1%. However Kumari said that there is increasingly a ‘higher level of aspirations of Indian women to get into political process. Women have tested power. Women are willing to manage the triple burden of gender, public and private responsibilities…… men often test power through women, they want their women to come forward. Women may at first attain proxy power, however, after the second and third election, women learn to exercise their own power’.

The case of Nigeria illustrated that even after women managed to raise the funds, campaign, bear the triple burden, once in political life, the male dominated party machinery continues to make it difficult. ‘the notion is that politics is a dirty game. .. that once women start going out, they will raise voices against their husband… or have extra marital affairs, or have to prostitute themselves to stay in power’. Many party meetings do not start till 12am and then go onto 2am in the morning. Male representatives say that is the time they can ‘think’…it is difficult for the women,  going out at night, they are vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, plus it causes tensions within their family home, but if the woman miss the meetings, then the males claim that the women are not serious about their electoral responsibilities.’ To overcome this obstacle the women in Nigeria have organized fellow ‘escorts’ groups of six to eight fellow women, who escort the female candidate to the meeting, wait for her and then bring her home. But this is not easy, as both sets of women still have to contend with their own families, ‘either way we lose. But still we need to hold onto it.’ Unbroken by the struggle, one Nigerian representative said ‘I am proud to be a woman, and love being a woman, I would not want it any other way’.

There are positive rays of light. In Nepal women’s advocacy groups are contesting seats and have pushed for 33% proportional representation at the national level. It is now being pushed through litigation to ensure that it is increased to 50% for all political parties enrolled in the electoral commission.  


Day Three: equality between versus equality within

‘India is a laboratory for identity politics’ began Professor Zoya Hussan , ‘identity politics, is a quick step for a particular caste/tribe/religious group to be given a ticket to contest, to gain access to public goods and services and to gain access to the state….identity politics is a double edged sword, identity politics is to ascertain the difference so that it can be used as a strategy for inclusion. Professor Hussan, highlighted three landmark examples of how identity politics played a role in the mishandling and shaping of future events 1) the Congress Government’s mishandling of the Punjab conflict in the 1980/1990s. 2) The Shah Bano case, of a 62 year old Muslim woman who approached the court for maintenance after her husband divorced her under  Muslim Personal Law. The Supreme Court ordered that Shah Bano be given the same protection and access to criminal procedures as other Indian women. However orthodox Muslims protested, seeing this as a threat to Muslim Personal Laws. Rajive Gandhi, in order to appease and safe guard the orthodox Muslim vote introduced The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 which nullified the Supreme Court Judgment. 3) The state’s handling of the Ayodhya Babri Masjid demolition in the 1990s  and the massacre of Muslims that occurred in 2002 in Gujarat

Professor Hussan went on to say that the whole issue of Personal Law raises legal quagmires - whether it should be allowed to continue in the first place, or whether it should be replaced by a uniform Civil Law. The women’s movement is divided on this issue. With the rise of women’s political activism such as the women’s wing, Mahila Morcha of Bharatiya Janata Party which has seen women visibly mobilize under the banners of emancipation and equality, supports the 33% local reservations but with no sub divisions. However, many argue that there is a deep religious rhetoric to their activities, and that the BJP want to enforce Hindu laws on everyone, which leaves women of minority groups feeling very uncomfortable and vulnerable.  Professor Hassan concluded by asking ‘Is gender really a universal category, and can it sweep all other identities aside?’

Anne Marie Goetz asked what the UN can do to make democracy work for women –‘we all know women are working for democracy.’ With no surprises the responses from the country representatives were direct and to the point: 1) the UN architecture must itself respect the 33% rules of recruitment for women in all senior positions and programmes/policies 2) Projects to build democracy must be sustainable, and incorporate the unique experiences of countries, one size does not fit all. The UN must itself have a consistent voice on the issue of quotas for women, 3) The UN needs to be stronger and stand up to governments more, and not take a back seat. Effective campaigns on gender empowerment are required to ensure transformation at the grass root level 4) The creation of effective models is essential; often when men arrive at the negotiation table they come armed with ‘working models’ as a reference point, women need to create their own working models.

As the conference ended and participants began to leave the hotel, they carried with them the shadow of the everyday personal realities that women experience and suffer to ensure inclusion and transformation of their societies -  kidnappings, sexual and physical violence, murder and the conservative religious backlash. When you have women literally outside the hotel breaking stones for roads...and walking home, I kept thinking, how will all of this impact on their lives?


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