Women make up slightly more than 50 per cent of the worlds population but hold only approximately 16 per cent of the worlds elected political posts. Political participation includes womens right not only to vote or have their concerns articulated and represented but also to have a wide understanding of engagement with the political process. The legislature not only holds a tremendous influence over womens lives but is the key institution capable of bringing about a change in womens realities.
Since 1996, womens organisations have held innumerable dharnas and demonstrations and put pressure on successive governments demanding 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and legislative Assemblies. On March 8, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government finally moved the Womens Reservation Bill, 2008, in the Rajya Sabha. It was passed the next day with 186 votes in its favour after the eviction of members opposed to the Bill. The Bill could not be placed in the Lok Sabha in view of mounting opposition from members. Opponents of the Bill are more concerned about the representation of women belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minority communities, especially the Muslim minority, within the quota. A handful of politicians have made the question of representation of Muslim women one of the crucial points in their arguments against the Bill. They are mobilising the conservative forces in the Muslim community to oppose the Bill if a special provision is not incorporated in it.
A look at the representation and participation of Muslim women in Indian politics shows that concern for religious identity in independent India made Muslims shun secular education and confine their women to the home. The emergence of fundamentalism (Hindu and Muslim) hardened minority identities. The divisive environment continuously affected Muslim women, who were considered solely responsible for preserving the community identity. However, this women-centric identity syndrome, to a large extent, ignores the rights granted to women by the Quran.
It is a well-known fact that Muslim women form a sizable chunk of the female population. Despite contesting elections since 1952, women in general are poorly represented at the federal and State levels. Muslim women were almost non-existent on the ballot owing to factors such as restrictions imposed by culture and traditions (very often justified in the name of Islam), patriarchy, poor education, low economic status and poor representation of Muslim men in the political sphere.
The Election Commissions statistical reports reveal that as far as representation of Muslim women in the Lok Sabha is concerned, there have never been more than three elected representatives in a House. As in the 15th Lok Sabha, there were three women members in the sixth and the eighth Lok Sabhas. In six Lok Sabhas (first, fourth, fifth, ninth, 10th and 12th), there was no Muslim woman member at all. Of the 549 women elected to the Lok Sabha since independence, only 18 have been Muslims. The Muslim women members in the current Lok Sabha are Tabassum Begum, Kaisar Jahan (both Bahujan Samaj Party) and Mausam Noor (Congress).
Let me briefly discuss the role of political parties and their concern for Muslim women, whose representation is less than 1 per cent in Parliament. It appears that the majority of the Muslim women fought Lok Sabha elections as independent candidates, particularly from the seventh Lok Sabha elections onwards.
For instance, out of the nine Muslim women contestants for the seventh Lok Sabha, six were independents, two contested on the Indian National Congress ticket and one on the Janata Party ticket. All of them lost.
In the eighth Lok Sabha elections, out of the seven Muslim women candidates, five were independents, and one each belonged to the Congress and the Lok Dal. Only the Congress nominee got elected. Coming to the ninth Lok Sabha, out of the 11 women candidates, nine contested as independents and two as Congress candidates. In the 10th Lok Sabha, 14 Muslim women contested the elections, of whom six were independent candidates, two each were fielded by the Janata Party and the Janata Dal and one each by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Door Darshi Party (DDP), the Indian Congress Socialist (ICS), and the Congress. All of them lost.
Moving on to the elections held in 1996 for the 11th Lok Sabha, a record number of 37 Muslim women tried their luck. The Congress fielded only two Muslim women (Mohsina Kidwai, a Congress loyalist, and Begum Noor Bano aka Mahatab Zamani of the royal family of Rampur), while the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Kranti Dal (BKD) and the Rashtriya Aikata Manch (RAM) nominated one each.
In the 12th Lok Sabha elections, a total number of 15 Muslim women contested, nine of them as independents, two on the Congress ticket and one each from the Janata Dal (J.D.), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Puthiya Tamizhagam (P.T.) and the Samata Party. However, none of them was elected.
In the 13th Lok Sabha elections, 26 Muslim women contested, of whom the number of women contesting as independents was again high. The BSP fielded three; the S.P., the JD (Secular) and the Congress two each; and the Janata Party, the P.T., the RJD, the Rajasthan Vikas Party, the Bharatiya Minorities Suraksha Mahasangh and the All India Minorities Front one each. (In 2004, out of 355 women contestants, 239 lost their deposits. Only 45 women got elected).
For the 14th Lok Sabha, the total number of Muslim women contestants was 21: six independents, three each from the BSP and the Congress, and one each from the S.P., the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the CPI(M), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Samata Party, the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, the Samajwadi Jana Parishad, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and the Nav Bharat Nirman Party.
It appears from the above analysis that established national parties did not entertain Muslim women unless they already had a track record (as in the case of Mohsina Kidwai) or belonged to a dynasty with influence at the grass-roots level and the means to fight the election. The other national parties, including the Left, hardly showed any concern for representation of Muslim women. In comparison, though, the BSP and the Congress have given some space to Muslim women in this regard.
This attitude of the political parties left Muslim women with no option but to fight the elections under the banner of some existing party even if it was an obscure one and had no history of electoral success. It is evident from the E.C. data that no Muslim woman was elected to the first Parliament and very few contested the subsequent elections. Thus, cumulatively, there have been only 11 women Muslim MPs in all the 14 Lok Sabhas put together. (Five of them were elected more than once.) Had Muslim women been represented in the House to the same extent as their share in the population, there would have been 440 MPs, or 40 times their actual number. This is an appalling situation.
However, the keen interest shown by Muslim women in entering politics is clearly evidenced by a spurt in the number of independent candidates even though Muslim political parties and the clergy do not encourage their participation. Recently, the Muslim clergy issued a statement that Muslim women should keep away from politics and should concentrate on their reproductive role. So, while on the one hand Muslim women find very little space to enter politics owing to the rigid attitude of conservative forces, the secular credentials of mainstream political parties are also not encouraging and supportive.
No national or regional party seems to be interested in increasing the political representation of Muslim women. This has further marginalised Muslim women who are already educationally and economically lagging far behind their Hindu counterparts. Their representation in higher education is a mere 3 per cent, and 70 per cent of them are involved in home-based piece-rate work.
In the light of this situation, the debate for a quota in the 33 per cent reservation for OBC and Muslim women should not be seen as a dividing line but must be seen from the perspective of the overall marginalisation of Muslim women from the mainstream development process and their keen interest in politics as is evident from the number of them contesting as independents. Providing a quota for Muslim women within the quota for women would not only help them to speak for themselves but also provide them a platform to decide and formulate a policy for improving their educational, economic and health status, which is close to the status of Dalit women. Further, the political parties would be bound to nominate Muslim women if a quota exists.
It would be appropriate to mention at this juncture that by asserting their Quranic right, which allows women to seek elected offices and contest as independent candidates, Muslim women have shown that they will not shy away from the public sphere. Since the Constitution does not permit religion-based reservation, Muslim women cannot have reserved seats. So, if there is a quota for them within the quota for women, it will bring more Muslim women into the political sphere. As non-Muslim women cannot plead the problems of Muslim women for fear of being accused of interfering in the affairs of the community, it is essential that Muslim women are elected in adequate numbers.
Experience in the elections to the local bodies in the past 10 years has shown that Muslim women have both the willingness and the competency. Indias secular democracy must offer more political space to Muslim women with the same spirit in which 33 per cent reservation to women in general is being demanded.
Sabiha Hussain is Associate Professor at the Dr K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.