Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > Is Democracy Bad For Women?

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 18, April 20, 2013

Is Democracy Bad For Women?

Monday 22 April 2013

by Tamanna Khosla

Women have always had a strong stake in democracy. Democracy requires that citizens’ interests be heard, deliberated and legislated on. Women are half of the world’s population, and as such their voice should be heard in the democratic process. Democracy needs women in order to be truly democratic, and women need democracy if they are to change the systems and laws that preclude them, and preclude societies as a whole, from attaining equality.

But the crimes against women—which demo-cracies are facing recently—focus our attention to the question as to whether democracies are safe for women. Democracies provide freedom to all citizens. But still democracies need to include women as equal citizens in the democratic set- up. Heinous crimes like rape, honour-killings, sexual harrassment, dowry deaths etc. prevail in India and the world over. What is the difference between Pakistan’s Hudood ordinance and Saudi Arabia’s tough sentence on both those raped and the rapist? For married Muslims, the maximum punishment for zina is death by stoning. For unmarried couples or non-Muslims, it is 100 lashes. Some contend that in practice, only imprisonment has ever been enforced because the maximum punishment requires four eyewit-nesses of the crimes mentioned above.

The maximum punishment for drinking alcohol is 80 lashes. Theft carries a maximum punishment of amputation of the right hand. Kidnapping a woman with the intent to commit a sexual crime against her carries the death penalty.

Democracies, whether in the US, India or Britain, have been unable to do much about the crimes against women. This is because there is a uniform concept of citizenship which exists in democracies. A uniform concept of citizenship creates a situation where a man’s concept of citizenship is considered universal that ignores women’s differences.

Democracies have been unable to deal with crime against women which have been increasing unabated. India’s “inefficient and unequal democracy” cannot provide answers to social evils . Representation of women in Parliament and other bodies is very low.

Women are still under-represented in elected positions and most countries are far from reaching the 30 per cent critical mass proposed by the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Political institutions—from political parties to electoral commissions—often lack the capacity to ensure that women’s interests are articulated and addressed in public policy. Accountability institutions are not consistent in ensuring that power-holders answer to women for failures to protect women’s rights or respond to their needs.

The Problem with Democracies

The problem with democracies worldwide, except the Scandinavian countries, is that women are under-represented in the political process. The political process is dominated by men. Thus women find their voices muzzled. Only an active participatory political process can guarantee women being heard. While thinker Will Kymlicka talked about multiculturallism, I would say:                “The interesting debate is not whether to adopt democracy or not but what kind of democracy to adopt.”

A stricter punishment for perpetrators of crime against women is possible but it is not the only solution. The need is for enhanced inclusive democracy which ensures differences, whether related to the body or emotional, of its women citizens are taken care of. Feminists say that respect for other cultures is always premised on first respecting the individual citizens—which is not abstract but a gendered, differentiated citizenship within which multiple differences and diverse perspectives of previously excluded other might be recognised, affirmed and represented. In fact a sensitivity to historical injustices, that is, new pluralism, as Chantal Mouffe points out, is needed.1 Therefore, as feminists would infer, democracy is a problem today and in the foreseeable future—a problem for politics and ethics of politics. That is because feminist and many such other issues still need to be addressed in their true complexity, within the domain of the prevailing democratic cultures.

Further, not just the public but the private sphere too needs to be considered. The family need not be out of law. Violence against women in family go unreported and that is what needs to be included in our democracies.

If Democracy is the answer, then what kind of democracy is needed for women citizens?

Democracy is definitely the answer but what kind of democracy? That needs to be explored. Here are some of the principles which must be taken care of.

1. Make both local and national elections free and fair for women.2

Promote temporary special measures such as quotas, waivers of nomination fees, access to public media, access to public resources, and sanctions on non-complying political parties, to increase women’s participation as both elected and appointed decision-makers in public institutions. Work on voter registration in order to enable women to exercise their democratic right. Take measures to address the factors (violence against women, lack of childcare, gender-biased media reporting, non-transparent political party practices, lack of campaign financing) preventing women from participating in politics by working with the electoral manage-ment bodies and political parties.

2. Support women’s civil society organisations to advance women’s interests.3

Provide assistance to develop collective policy agendas, for instance, through Women’s Charters or by holding National Conventions of Women. Women share priorities that cut across any differences they may have—these shared priori-ties may be about their right to hold office or their access to improved health care and child care. It is important for women to coordinate, create coalitions, work together and ensure common messages during times of change. Provide capacity building and skills develop-ment training to promote advocacy and communication skills, as well as internal organisational capacities of women’s groups and movements.

3. Build accountability for women’s rights in public institutions.4

Ensure that constitutional revision processes consider the impact of the design of political, judicial and other public institutions on women’s participation and the exercise of their social, political and economic rights. Constitutional revisions should lead to harmonisation with international standards on women’s rights. Work on electoral law reform to see that provisions are fair for women. Promote accountability mechanisms and governance reforms that address women’s needs such as gender responsive service delivery, access to justice, budgeting and access to information. Ascertain that accountability processes are in place, through which public authorities answer for their performance on national commitments on gender equality and women’s rights.

4. Support women political leaders to expand their influence.5

Support skills and capacity development for both candidates and elected leaders. This support involves both training in terms of skills (in parliamentary debate and language, advocacy) as well as content skills on gender main-streaming, international gender equality commit-ments and strategies that can be of use. Support also entails advocating for mechanisms such as women’s parliamentary caucuses or women’s networks within civil service institutions, as well as creating government mechanisms that have the mandate, capacities and position in government to be effective policy advocates for women’s interests.

5. A Deliberative Democracy needs to Be promoted.

A deliberative model presupposes the need for those affected to be included in the process of decision-making. Just like the Christian divorce law 2001 by deliberation within several denomi-nations, similarly many women and male activists and civil society need to come together to form stricter laws for women. If the 1993 local government reforms could be successful, then so can participation in Parliament and the judiciary.

As a working—but not non-controversial—definition of deliberative democracy, I follow John Rawls:

The definitive idea for deliberative democracy is the idea of deliberation itself. When citizens deliberate, they exchange views and debate their supporting reasons concerning public political questions. They suppose that their political opinions may be revised by discussion with other citizens; and therefore these opinions are not simply a fixed outcome of their existing private or non-political interests. It is at this point that public reason is crucial, for it characterises such citizens’ reasoning concerning constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice.6

Each is more likely to be tolerant of those with whom she disagrees if each has participated in institutions of deliberative democracy, has had her voice listened to and incorporated in the final decision, and has learned from and forged an agreement that most can accept.


India’s “inefficient and unequal democracy” has been unable to provide answers to social evils while democracies worldwide have not been able to stop crime against women despite providing the right to freedom and equality. What is needed for democracies to work for women is increased participation in the social and political spheres. Further, deliberation between different groups holding various visions to arrive at a consensus. Otherwise democracies would seem not to succeed much as far as women are concerned. 


1. Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, London, Verso, 1993.

2., accessed on 4/01/13

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. John Rawls, The Law of Peoples with “The Idea of Public Reason Revisted”, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 138-39. Joshua Cohen, in an essay that helped initiate the recent deliberative democracy movement, says: “By a deliberative democracy, I shall mean, roughly, an association whose affairs are governed by the public deliberation of its members.” “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy,” in The Good Polity, ed., A. Hamilin and P. Pettit [Oxford: Blackwell, 1989], p. 17; reprinted in James Bohman and William Rehg, eds. Deliberative Democracy[Cambridge, Mass., London, England: MIT Press, 1997], p. 67). Cf. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s definition:

“Deliberative democracy is a conception of democratic politics in which decisions and polices are justified in a process of discussion among free and equal citizens or their accountable representatives.” “Why Deliberative Democracy is Different” in Ellen Frankel Paul, Fred D. Miller, Jr., and Jeffrey Paul, eds., Democracy (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 161.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted