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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 31, July 18, 2009

Feminism or Reservation?

Saturday 18 July 2009, by Malini Bhattacharjee

A die-hard feminist at heart, I find the recent controversy revolving around the Women’s Reservation Bill disturbing. At a time and age when it has been established over and again that women are equal, if not better than men in terms of their capability, intellect and maturity, why is there a need for reservation suddenly? A staunch adherent of meritocracy, I have never been convinced by anybody to see the logic behind reservation of any kind, especially in present-day India. In a society like ours which has always been ripped with cleavages of caste, religion and language, since Independence days, reservation has provided a short-cut political solution to meet most of these problems. But how far it has benefited the people of this country is a debatable issue.

One may argue that even if it has provided opportunities for a minuscule section, excluding the creamy layer, the policy of affirmative action is a clear winner. Point well taken. But how does one justify reservation for the offspring’s of the beneficiaries of reservation? On what basis do the children of a reserved category civil servant or university professor deserve a reservation in higher educational institutions or at employment, after probably having achieved the best primary education available in the country, and in some cases even abroad. Also, even if one employs the left liberal logic of distributive justice, how does one account for the injustice of a meritorious student belonging to a so- called ‘upper- caste’ category?

The Women’s Reservation Bill is another attempt at ‘tokenism’, which has become characteristic of Indian policy-making. In the 21st century when women have proved their excellence and competence in probably every conceivable professional field, the ratification of this Bill would disprove the very premise of all feminist movements—that men and women are equal in terms of their abilities. No self-respecting woman would therefore ever support this move. In fact capable politicians like Mrs Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalitha and Mayawati have proved that women can carve out a niche for themselves if they want to, even in the male dominated realm of politics.

Moreover, providing one third reservation for women in Parliament does not address the real problem- patriarchy, which is a structural problem of mindset rather than faulty policy-making. At a time when television channels are flooded with popular soaps like ‘Balika Vadhu’, ‘Na Aana Is Des Meri Lado’, ‘Agle Janam Mujhe Bitiya na Dijiyo’ etc., it becomes even more evident that on most occasions the perpetrators of violence and oppression on women are none other than women themselves. History is replete with examples of how most social evils like sati, dowry deaths, female foeticide and discrimination of various other forms against women have always been facilitated and at times even instrumented by women. Mere reservation in Parliament therefore does not warranty the best representatives for the womenfolk in our country. As witnessed in several Panchayats in rural India, most women elected through the reserved category merely act as pawns of either their husbands or other powerful menfolk in the village.

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What we need today are mature and capable leaders, who are competent of taking the country ahead with clear and sound vision, irrespective of whether they are men or women. The need of the hour is foresighted strategies on improving the basic infrastructure of the country which includes eradication of poverty, equal and quality primary education for all, provision of health and medical facilities, eradication of evils such as dowry and female foeticide and providing a safe environment for women, where they are not constantly in fear of being raped or assaulted by goons on the roads.

The basic problem with reservation of any sort is that it tries to correct one historical mistake by making another. Women of this generation have to understand that they cannot ask for equality and fair treatment on the one hand and demand for reservation on the other. This would undermine the basic dignity of women and reiterate the patriarchal belief of a ‘weaker sex’ who needs to be protected with affirmative action. Today democratisation has picked up pace in our society like never before. Things are improving and it won’t be long before women in huge numbers will occupy the seats of power, just as they have made a dent in all other realms. Not an ounce of reservation will be required to ensure their representation, once the basic conditions of a good living have been provided to all citizens by the government.

The author is a Ph.D research student enrolled in the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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