Women in India on way to one third of seats in parliament

With 186 'ayes', and just one 'no' the Women's Reservation Bill, which reserves one third of parliament's seats for women, passes first hurdle.

MUMBAI // On Tuesday, the green-and-red LED display board in the Rajya Sabha, or the upper house of the Indian parliament, flashed a decidedly lopsided verdict. Ayes: 186; Nos: 1. The Ayes had it and history was made.

After a day of shrill sloganeering and tumult in the Rajya Sabha, the Women's Reservation Bill, a radical piece of legislation that will reserve one third of all seats in the Indian parliament and all state legislative assemblies for women, cleared the first of its four hurdles before being written in to law. The legislation, touted as a path-breaking social reform that will politically empower Indian women, now needs to be approved by the Lok Sabha - the lower house of parliament - as well as half of all state legislatures, before it finally goes to the president for his signature, the titular head of India's democracy.

Once it becomes a law - it is expected to clear the remaining hurdles - India will be one of the few democracies in the world to facilitate such large reservations for women in government. "It would not be an exaggeration to say that history was made with the passage of the women's reservation bill in the Rajya Sabha," said an editorial in the Times of India, the largest-selling English daily. "A milestone has been etched in the realm of women's empowerment in independent India."

The country has a female president, the speaker of the Lok Sabha is a woman, and Sonia Gandhi sits at the highest echelon of power as the chairwoman of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition. But generally, despite the country's impressive economic gains, women in India are often denied social, economic and political development. In the current Lok Sabha, elected last year, only 61 of 543 MPs are women. This is only the first time in democratic India that the number has exceeded 50.

Out of 617 high court judges, only 45 are women - not a single judge on the country's Supreme Court is a woman. Only 54 per cent of Indian women are literate, compared with more than 76 per cent of men. Across vast swathes of still-patriarchal Indian society, millions of families have preferred to have sons over daughters. The gender ratio in India is perhaps the most skewed in the world. Years of unbridled sex-selective abortions and female infanticide have resulted in 927 girls per 1,000 boys, according to a 2001 census, indicating that perhaps 900,000 female foetuses are aborted every year.

This legislation is expected to change the complexion of power equations in a society currently dominated by males, paving the way for a more egalitarian society, the government says. "It's a great step forward," said Ms Gandhi, who is largely credited with insisting on its passage despite sceptics within her party. "It's a celebration of womanhood." Various governments before have tried to get the amendment passed since the mid-1990s, but without success. The legislation has elicited vocal opposition from a few political parties, some of whom are allies in the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition. Some legislators had to be suspended for unruly behaviour before voting.

To women's rights activists, the opposing parties are symbolic of insecure males who are intolerant of women's autonomy and a role in governance. But the opposing parties say they are genuinely concerned about other marginalised constituencies this legislation might disempower. "We are not against women's reservation," said Lalu Prasad Yadav, the leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, an ally of the government, who threatened to withdraw support to the UPA over the amendment. "Give reservation to poor India, to original India. Ninety per cent of the population is deprived in India."

But, observers say, representation does not necessarily translate into empowerment, as evidenced by other quotas introduced for minorities that have not significantly improved the groups' social positions. "Quotas are our justice on the cheap," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. "Once we gave them, we absolve ourselves of larger and more difficult ethical questions about discrimination. Formal representational equality makes it politically harder, not easier, to articulate the case for substantive equality."

But despite the opposition, the UPA managed to cobble together the numbers in Rajya Sabha, and it hopes to replicate the same success in the Lok Sabha, where protests are expected to be rowdier when the bill comes up for vote in the next few days. "It is a huge [political] risk, but we have taken risks before," Ms Gandhi said. "Whenever there is something revolutionary and new, there is opposition, there are difficulties. But as I said the larger picture of women empowerment is more important."