Commentary | Quotas for women won’t fix anything

Gender and class struggle are inseparable

There is yet much to be said, but able tongues lie still, for the women of India have not the voice to speak. So imply the proponents of the bill recently passed by the upper house of parliament. It is a bill which would reserve one-third of the seats in India’s national and state legislative bodies for women. Backed by a coalition, it faces opposition from various minority groups who question its ability to solve the problems of women in India. Yet the fact remains – women are woefully underrepresented in Indian politics. What is the solution?
I spoke with Narendra Subramanian, a political science professor at McGill. “There isn’t gender inequality in every society,” he said. “By usual standards, India is not at the bottom,” though he added that it was below several comparable countries. This gender inequality is built into the society, and does not simply find expression in the political realm. In that light, the good that a purely political reform could do is unclear.

“No sober defender of this bill says that it will solve all of women’s problems,” Subramanian emphasized. He added, however, that it is a progressive step. The bill would provide for a “political presence in a representative government,” which would in turn lead to previously unheard viewpoints being voiced. Furthermore, by providing a stable arena for public discourse, the policy would ideally encourage greater political participation among women – a group that at present is not only underrepresented, but unmotivated to join politics due to the overwhelming factors discouraging political activity by women.

However, establishing a quota for women has its critics. Various members of the opposition contend that while the reserved seats might give women a greater voice in government, the women who would get involved are more likely to be members of upper castes. “Middle and lower-caste Muslim women are not that mobilized,” Subramanian said. “This would lower the Muslim share of representation and transfer power to upper-caste Hindus.”

“Caste-based quotas were introduced after independence,” Subramanian points out. However, this bill would introduce a quota ostensibly separate from economic position – which leaves various minority groups underrepresented further by not receiving a quota of their own. Even if the fraction of seats reserved for women are not exploited by already-dominant political groups, the simple competition between underrepresented groups invariably leaves certain interests unheard.

Reforming a parliament to be more representative of women is a progressive step: it increases participation and has the potential to embolden political feelings – although Subramanian did not hesitate to point out that countries with the greatest political participation of women (in northern Europe, in particular) do not owe that fact exclusively, or even predominantly, to any form of quota. Thus the mandate is important not for sake of equity, but for the political empowering of the spirit of women.

Yet the problem of gender inequity cannot be solved as long as any inequity exists. Does a woman cease to be oppressed simply when another is elevated? As long as oppression and exploitation exist, can women be liberated – politically, socially, economically? Can anyone? The idea that equality for women can be separate from the dissolution of classes and thus of inequality in general is absurd. For as long as disparity exists – in whatever form – what does it mean to say “equality for women?” Equal to whom? If one has less and another more, I cannot be equal to both, and so the fight for the liberty of women cannot be separated from the fight for liberty for us all.

Benjamin Heller is a U2 Classics student. Solidarity forever at benjamin.heller@mail.mcgill.ca.


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