March 21, 2011
Women in India: The long road from purdah to power
By Stephanie Nolen
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Affirmative-action quotas, introduced for local government in the
mid-1990s, did not change things overnight. But little by little,
women are coming into their own as equals on village councils - and
learning to run them
The first time Mumal Barupal went to a meeting of her village council,
she sat on the floor, off to the side of the benches occupied by the
other members, in purdah - her face completely veiled by the end of
Then she ran the meeting: She was the newly elected mayor.
Back in 2005, Ms. Barupal won a tense local election; others in her
low-caste group believed she might champion their causes, and used
caste and family alliances to propel her to victory. But a few hundred
votes did not change the social codes of rural Rajasthan, where no
low-caste interloper seats herself up high, and no woman speaks when
her face is covered or dares look at men without a veil.
Over the following months, though, she found a way to shift a bit at
each meeting until she was sitting at the same level as everyone else.
At first, she spoke from beneath the veil, but gradually drew her sari
back inch by inch until her face was uncovered.
"Nobody wanted me there, but they couldn't stop me," she says,
recalling the first days of her dominion in the dingy, cinderblock
room. "You have to go and get your rights."
The story of this mayor - or sarpanch - is one of extraordinary
personal achievement. But the gradual pulling back of her veil also
represents a wider change that has occurred across India over the past
15 years, a change that is profound and yet so gradual as to have come
Affirmative-action quotas - known here as reservations - were
introduced in local government in the mid-1990s. The new laws reserved
a third of council, or panchayat, seats for women. In addition,
statewide lotteries were used to assign a third of all sarpanch
positions to women, a portion of whom must belong to low castes.
At first, the immediate impact was less than revolutionary: Although a
million women instantly entered electoral politics through the
reservations, most of those elected were proxies for their husbands or
fathers. They either sat mute beside the male family member who made
the decisions at meetings, or did not even attend.
But today in villages such as this one, there is a perceptible opening
in the political space for women: not the earthquake anticipated by
activists, but a thousand tiny changes, each of which was
inconceivable in the era before the quotas.
"Many women get into their seats the first time from the reservations,
but then come back and fight in general constituencies and win," says
Devaki Jain, a feminist economist who has written on power and
politics in India since the 1960s. "Real women are entering politics
through this system - and politics is power."
Mogara Kala is a sleepy community of 5,000 surrounded by fields of
mustard and onions on the edge of the Thar Desert in the heart of
India. Villagers report that the first female sarpanch here rarely
showed up at meetings; her husband stamped her initials on the
paperwork. When her term ended, and the seat was again open to men,
the men did not expect a woman to stand in their way.
But Ms. Barupal, the wife of a respected local teacher whose job bars
him from politics, saw an opportunity. She ran - and won. And she was
no proxy. "My husband didn't come to meetings," she says, laughing at
the idea. "The things I had to say were mine and I said them. I'm
uneducated and I don't know how to write. So the secretary wrote. But
talking, I did that myself."
In her five years in office, Ms. Barupal worked to improve
water-collection points, since much of a woman's day here is spent
fetching water. But she says her greatest accomplishment was a road
connecting a remote part of her ward with the village centre - making
a safe way for 40 girls to come to school, and allowing her to
persuade their parents to enroll them.
"It's not unusual for a sarpanch to build a road; that's the kind of
thing they do," says Arvind Agarwal, a program officer with Unnati, an
organization that works on citizenship and governance issues in
Rajasthan. "But to build a road that would bring girls to school -
that was totally her idea."
In the last election, the sarpanch position was assigned to a Dalit,
or "untouchable" woman from the bottom of the caste system. Unable to
seek re-election, Ms. Barupal backed the successful campaign of Jamana
Patel, also illiterate and ambitious, as her successor.
Some women in the village grumble about Ms. Patel, saying she doesn't
pay them for public works schemes and doesn't listen to them any more
than the old, male sarpanchs did. But everyone agrees that even a few
years ago, it would have been impossible to conceive of a sarpanch
like this one - chunky silver coils around her ankles, buffalo nudging
the door of her small mud-brick house.
Across the state, across the country, this story is repeated. "When I
was little, I used to see Indira Gandhi and I thought, somewhere in my
heart, 'What if I could go for a big position in politics?' But I
never thought it would be possible," says Rajendra Kawar.
Ms. Kawar lives near Jodhpur, a sleepy city in the east of Rajasthan.
She grew up in strict purdah as the member of a high caste that
confines its women to the home; she left school before she was 13.
But when she was grown with a family of her own, a women's seat came
up on her district council. At first she had no idea how to speak in
public, or to strangers; the idea petrified her. But she ran for the
seat and won. After five years on the council, she served from 2005-09
as her village's sarpanch. Last year, she addressed a crowd of 20,000
at an event attended by India's vice-president.
"Many people in society were opposing her going forward for this: Men
were coming to me and saying, 'Why are you letting your wife do these
things?' " recalls her husband, an avuncular businessman named Shyam
Singh. Sniggering men questioned her morals, she adds, and said
terrible things. But her husband delighted in her new independence. "I
supported her," he says, adding, "She was very bold." Ms. Kawar looks
down modestly, but grins.
A study of the reservations' impact in India - funded by Canada's
International Development Research Centre - found that candidates
almost universally faced "gossip and sexual slander," and all said
they would not have been able to participate in politics had their
husbands and families been opposed.
Alice Morris, a governance specialist with Unnati who authored the
Rajasthan portion of the study, says that, if nothing else, the fact
that women are required to attend meetings and training sessions
outside the home upends the domestic balance, sometimes causing a
rethink of roles.
"The men used to help me with the housework, so I could go to all
these meetings," Ms. Barupal says, clearly delighted with that turn of
events. In another modest home, Ms. Kawar grins at her teenage sons
and says her time in politics meant "everyone had to learn to do new
things in our house."
Today in Rajasthan, half of panchayat seats and sarpanch positions are
reserved for women. A law now under consideration would do the same
for half the seats in the state legislature, but the upper house of
the national parliament has been sitting for nearly a year on a bill
to allot a third of its seats to women.
Why the delay? "Because men are afraid women will come to power and
take away all their red-light cars," says Ms. Kawar, mocking the
ubiquitous ministerial cars that push through traffic across India, a
much-hated symbol of power.
The reservations have not brought political change to every village:
Ms. Morris found that members of upper-caste land-owning families have
been the greatest beneficiaries and their new lock on power keeps
low-caste women marginalized. But even they can advance an agenda that
brings change for women.
Damayanti Paliwal, for example, comes from a high-caste family, and
has a father and uncles who have served as sarpanch. She was elected
to her district council in 2001 and then spent five years as sarpanch
in Hopardi, a village of 7,000 in central Rajasthan. Though she
describes herself as an incorruptible and visionary leader, she needed
that seat set aside for women. "Without reservations, a woman with my
personality could have been sarpanch," she says. "But it would have
taken another 50 years."
Ms. Paliwal tours Hopardi's sand streets with her head bare and her
silk sari rustling; she proudly points out the girls' latrines she
built at the primary school. When that failed to have much of an
impact on enrolment, she persuaded the government to construct a
separate school for girls. That, she says, boosted attendance of girls
from 40 per cent to nearly 90 per cent.
In 2008, she held a women-only village assembly, the first time many
of the women had ever spoken in a public forum, and the first time
there had ever been a list of requests and plans to which women had
But when Ms. Paliwal embarked on that agenda, men in the village
organized to oust her. She was only narrowly rescued by the
intervention of higher officials. That, Ms. Morris says, is not
unusual: "As soon as women try to wield real power, men try to move
them out through no-confidence motions - or worse." Her research found
repeated reports of women who faced violence in their homes - or
outside them - when they refused to carry out a proxy agenda.
And today Hopardi has a male sarpanch, Ms. Paliwal reports with a
sigh. The women on the panchayat are all proxies who don't attend the
Nevertheless, the reservations have created irrevocable change:
Everyone has seen a woman run things, now, and there can be no debate
about whether that is possible.
Jamana Patel, the Dalit sarpanch in Mogara Kala, says that when she
was young, she never dreamed that she could be an authority in her
village. But for her daughter-in-law, Nirmala, it's not even a
"Women have power now and the way people treat them changes - they get
a say in society now," the younger Ms. Patel insists. She keeps her
sari over her face - there are men outside. But her voice is strong
and certain. "When it's a woman, they say it's 'just' a woman - but
when it's a woman sarpanch, that's different - she has an identity. I
think girls today think, I can go beyond even what my mother-in-law
Women her age - at 22, she is half as old as her mother-in-law - must
focus on home and family, she says, but her time will come.
"When I'm sarpanch, you come and see whether I do a good job."
Countries mandate seats for women in government
Dozens of governments - led by strongmen, monarchs and Marxists or
prodded by the World Bank - have set aside political space for women,
mandating that either a percentage of an electoral ticket or actual
seats in the legislature be reserved for them.
Rwanda may have seen the most dramatic impact: Since 2003, it has
allocated 30 per cent of seats in parliament to women, who now make up
more than half of all legislators elected.
In Argentina, a third of national candidates must be women while, in
both Afghanistan and Eritrea, it's one-third of all seats in the lower
house of parliament. Uganda also sets aside seats (61 of 214) as do
Bangladesh (45 of 345) and Tanzania (75 of 324). Nepal introduced a
quota in 2008 that holds 32 per cent of parliament for women.
However, India's immediate neighbours have been less successful.
In 2000, Pakistan's president at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf,
decreed that women fill a third of the seats on local councils, plus
20 per cent of the National Assembly and 18 per cent of the Senate.
But Pakistan's entrenched feudal system has relegated women to the
roles of political proxies for men.
Sri Lanka has encouraged women to take part in local politics,
conducting an intense training program to prepare them for public
office, for example. But despite years of workshops, the number of
women elected has barely increased.
India, however, now wants to take the practice beyond politics - to
business. This month Minister for Corporate Affairs Murli Deora said
he will table legislation to reserve at least one seat on the board of
any company with more than five directors. At present, more than 70
per cent of Indian businesses don't have a female director - unless
she's a family member of the owner.
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