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A feminist manifesto

If every profession is seeing a growing participation of women today without help from the quota fairy (with media and publishing houses overrun with the ladies), professional politics should also follow suit without creating a modern-day zenana. Indrajit Hazra writes.

india Updated: Jun 14, 2009 00:05 IST
Indrajit Hazra

One of my favourite episodes of South Park, that raucous, anarchic American cartoon show on VH1 (that I have petitioned the Prasar Bharati to dub in Hindi, retitle as Jhunjhunu, and showcase on primetime DD Bharati), has a mysterious fornicator of chickens terrorising the fictitious town. The perpetrator always leaves a not-so-cryptic note that provides a clue to where he’ll strike next. During the course of investigations, however, it is discovered that the sheriff can’t make head or tail of the clues because he can’t read. So, in order to crack the case, he joins school, learns to read and finally catches the nasty criminal.

He confronts the chicken-fornicator, a flamboyant camp owner of a mobile library, who explains that he had been forcing himself on chickens for one single reason: so that the sheriff is compelled to learn to read. Overwhelmed by the mobile librarian’s kind and successful gesture, the sheriff lets him go but not before thanking him for forcing him out of illiteracy. Yes, it is a touching story.

As can be the story of how the Women’s Reservation Bill, once passed into law and reserving 33 per cent of warm Lok Sabha seats, wiped out the noxious practice of female foeticide in the country. After all, with a ready reserve of ladies required to regularly fill a set number of seats in Parliament, parties would be compelled to vie with each other to have an on-tap supply of women MPs. The girl-child can be a woman MP soon enough.

Both the chicken-fornicator and supporters of the Women’s Reservation Bill have a point. But both are about being ludicrously besides the point. It’s bad enough to believe that Indian women will feel a surge of dignity if given hand-outs in the form of Lok Sabha seats. It’s far worse, however, when you realise what it’ll do for the steadily developing perception of meritocracy in general, and meritocracy among aspiring women in particular. After all, if you need a fixed number of MPs to fill the ‘women seats’, why go through the rigmarole of choosing ‘winnable’ electoral candidates? Might as well plonk those Nafisa Alis and Rabri Devis in there and get on with the job.

In Election 2009, a ‘record’ number of 59 women were elected to the Lok Sabha (out of 556 women candidates fielded by various parties). A 10.8 per cent of parliamentarians being women may sound awful, even when compared with the dismal 4.4 per cent in the first Lok Sabha; but will a mandatory minimum of 33 per cent automatically make us come a long way, baby? [Dramatic scream with both hands pressing down on the ears] Naheeeen!

The trouble with the Women’s Reservation Bill is that it seeks to blindly extend to the Lok Sabha what applies to panchayats. Reserving 33 per cent seats in panchayats, where representation actually merges with participation, has been a genuine democratic success since 1992. Hell, in the ground-level club rules of panchayats, there should be a 50-50 representation of men and women. But in the Lok Sabha, placed in a different bandwidth of representation altogether, reserving women-only seats becomes nothing but a silly, regressive gesture.

Ever since September 1996, when a 33 per cent quota for women in the Lok Sabha was first proposed, two things have gone hand in hand: flashes of stupidity that masquerade as an ongoing debate on ‘women’s participation in politics’; and delightful displays of hypocrisy. And who can forget those little tales of misogyny from the likes of Sharad Yadav, who gives anti-reservationists like me such a bad name with gems like, “Bal kati mahila nahin hai” (Short-haired women [implying women in politics] are no women at all)? Then there are those who oppose the Bill because they need to be seen riding their own quota horse. So if women are to get a quota, Lalu Yadav wants a special chunk set aside for women from the Other Backward Classes; Mulayam Yadav wants a special chunk for Muslim women; and King Kong for blondes on skyscrapers.

And if all that wasn’t enough, there’s the business of constituencies being chosen by a lottery system and rotated every election. Imagine the enthusiasm of a sitting MP (man, woman, eunuch, it doesn’t matter) stepping aside to make way for some gender-generated lady. Some suggest having dual-member constituencies by divvying up the 543 Lok Sabha seats into three lots of 181 each. Every election, one of these lots will elect two MPs, a man and a woman, throwing up 724 Lok Sabha MPs. Yes, I can just see co-ed constituencies becoming all the rage. Trouble is, making these floating ladies of Parliament accountable for the work they do (or don’t do) for ‘their’ constituency of the season.

Which is why I say stick to the old routine since new gender-neutral moves are already underway. If every profession is seeing a growing participation of women today without help from the quota fairy (with media and publishing houses overrun with the ladies), professional politics should also follow suit without creating a modern-day zenana. As for making healthcare and education reach more women, that’s a trickier, less symbolic task, isn’t it?