The career of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament since it first appeared in 1996 as the 81st Amendment Bill, has been striking for the high drama and rhetoric of women’s rights that has accompanied it, the passionate opposition to the proposed 33% reservation for women in Parliament, generally being characterised by its supporters as anti-women and patriarchal. However, if we try to organize the welter of arguments that have been flying around for 13 years, we would find that while the proponents of the measure certainly base their claims on the idea of gender justice, the opposition to the Bill does not come from an anti-women position. Rather, the latter arguments stem from either
1) a generally anti-reservation position (which I am not interested in here) or
2) a claim that reservations for women should take into account other disempowered identities within this group – that is, the “quotas within quotas” position, which says that there should be reservation within the 33% for OBC and Muslim women. (The 22.7% reservation for SC/ST women would come into operation automatically.)
In other words, the sharp opposition to the Bill cannot simply be dismissed as anti-women. Take for instance, Sharad Yadav’s much reviled comment, derisively referring to “short-haired women” (par-kati mahilaen) who would overrun Parliament. This has been widely attacked for its misogyny, but we do need to see it as expressing a legitimate fear that the composition of parliament would be radically altered overnight, in favour of upper classes and upper castes – the image of women with coiffed short hair drawing upon a common stereotype of westernized and elite women. Now, of course this stereotype is misogynist, or anti-feminst, or both, but as a feminist I do insist that this is not the point here, for no feminist can be under the impression that all the support for women’s reservations comes from strongly anti-patriarchal sources. Come on, these are the very parties that consistently refuse to field women candidates, which have hardly any women in decision-making position unless they have the right kind of family-tree. It is the patriarchal operation of these very parties from CPI(M) to BJP (and all the others in between) for over 60 years that has made reservations for women necessary in the first place.
So is the fear justified that the WRB is an upper-caste ploy to stem the tide of lower-caste men in Parliament? Let us look at the experience of reservations for women at the local level, in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI), since 1992. Studies in several states (for instance, Gujarat, Karnataka, West Bengal) have confirmed that while there has also been a positive impact on the lives of women, mostly on the lives of the elected women; by and large, reservations for women have strengthened the entrenched power of the dominant caste groups of the area. That is, men of less dominant castes in PRI have been replaced by women of the dominant castes. A blanket reservation for “women”, it seems, unsuprisingly, brings to power women of dominant groups and castes in society. In other words, an immediate filling of 33% seats with a supposedly undifferentiated category of “women” would certainly change the caste character of Parliament in the short term at least, to one more comfortable to many. How else to understand BJP’s determined opposition to Mandal reservations and fervent support for women’s reservations?
“Women” versus OBC men – that appears to be the winning formula.
(This is why I am suspicious of the sudden introduction in JNU last year of 5 “deprivation points” – JNU’s excellent affirmative action policy works on a system of deprivation points – across the board for “women” students, concurrently with the first phase of implementation of the Mandal reservations).
What I fail to understand is why the “quotas within quotas” position is so unacceptable to progressive people. After all, surely the idea of reservations for women in Parliament is not based on the understanding that the biological category called “women” needs to be represented? If we are arguing that the social experience of being positioned as “women” within current economic, cultural and political arrangements is disadvantageous vis-a-vis men, and needs to be reflected in Parliament, then we need to accept that this experience is inflected differently by caste and community – that is, the social experience of being an upper-caste, urban Hindu woman, while definitely shaped by one kind of patriarchy, is nevertheless different from the experience of being an OBC or Muslim woman. Why should not the latter also have representation in Parliament?
Certainly feminists have long accepted this, hence our use of “patriarchies” rather than a monolithic “patriarchy.”