On being a woman in Parliament

Published : Jun 06, 2008 00:00 IST

Malini Bhattacharya: I found there was a tendency in Parliament to push women into certain corners.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Malini Bhattacharya: I found there was a tendency in Parliament to push women into certain corners.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

We need more women in Parliament not just to highlight womens issues but to strengthen our democratic process.

WHATEVER I have to say on women parliamentarians has a link with the question why we consider the womens reservation Bill to be so important. When I first went to the Lok Sabha in 1989, the number of women members was, as usual, very small; I think at that time it was 7.5 per cent in fact the highest percentage women ever had was a little over 8 per cent. But, as a woman parliamentarian, I think we need more women in Parliament not just to highlight womens issues but to strengthen our democratic process.

For instance, how many male parliamentarians represent their constituency consistently and articulately in Parliament? If a male parliamentarian takes leave of absence constantly, or spends time in Parliament without ever uttering a word, no one has anything to say against him. It is only in the case of women that questions of efficiency and effectiveness are raised. There is a lacuna in our visualisation of the representative process, which leads to our raising these questions as soon as the issue of giving higher representation to women in Parliament arises.

Effectiveness, of course, is to some extent a personal matter it relates to personal efficiency but I also think that for a parliamentarian, male or female, there is a process of learning. For instance, I had been a teacher for almost all my adult life and had been lecturing in classes for a very long time. But when I contested the Jadavpur (in South Kolkata) Lok Sabha seat, for the first time I had to speak at an election rally and there was a sense of embarrassment and of feeling exposed before the eyes of the public, which made me very uncomfortable.

But with rally after rally, I was able to train myself to approach the constituency through such rallies. This is something all parliamentarians have to learn. In the case of a woman, it is somewhat more difficult because of the age-old division of labour, which lays down that women belong to the domestic sphere and men to the public domain. It is the same problem at the panchayat level also.

If there are more women in Parliament, interaction between men and women, which I think is very important, will happen much more in the public sphere. This is the democratic value I have been speaking about, which would probably be enhanced if we have more women members. As I said, they will be there not just to raise womens issues more but also to promote greater interaction between womens issues and the general public and between men and women. This, I find, is of great democratic value and so I started my intervention with reference to the womens representation Bill. It is good not only for women but for all of us.

After one is elected, one finds in Parliament a huge system, which, even when one has physical access to it, needs more time for intellectual access. This is required by both male and female parliamentarians. There is a way of speaking in Parliament if you want to make yourself effective. There are certain methods you can raise an issue in the zero hour, you can ask starred questions, and have other kinds of intervention under various Acts, rules and regulations. These you have to learn, and for this it is necessary to have support from the constituency and from people outside Parliament dealing with certain issues. At the time when I was in the Lok Sabha, we were discussing what was then called the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Bill; later it became the Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act. It was brought to the Lok Sabha around 1992, during the prime ministership of P.V. Narasimha Rao. I was part of the Joint Select Committee.

I did not know a great deal about how sex selective practices were being promoted through certain new medical technologies. But when I became a member of the Joint Select Committee I had discussions with womens organisations and health activists who had been dealing with this issue for a very long time. This gave me a perspective of not just the demographic problem but also the problem of reinforcement of social prejudices that modern medical technologies allow.

I benefited a great deal from my experiences on that committee. Finally we found that the lobbies that were active to see that this Bill would not be an effective one succeeded in pushing through some of their concerns in it. When we (three of the women members, Gita Mukherjee, Sarla Maheswari and I) found that after the discussions we could not change the perspective of the committee, we decided to give a note of dissent. That note became part of the proceedings, and I was told that when the Bill was looked at once again, this note of dissent came up for discussion. So you see, even a note of dissent can become historic. If it becomes a part of the parliamentary proceedings, even if it is not effective immediately, it can be taken up again later on so that the struggle continues.

Another thing I found is that there was a tendency in Parliament to push women into certain corners. Just as in social life you put women into certain niches saying this is the space that women must inhabit, in Parliament also women are pushed into certain spaces saying this is where women should intervene.

Almost every year in Parliament, as a matter of routine there is a discussion on atrocities on women. Generally, only women from every party are expected to speak on this issue. I found this to be a kind of stereotyping of a womans role in Parliament and did not like it at all. So I tried to interest myself in issues that are not generally thought of to be womens issues.

At that time we were discussing the Dunkel Draft, and I found that a very great change was being perceived in not just our economic policies but in other kinds of policies as well. I thought it was necessary that I should learn about these changes. In fact, in spite of being a woman I was one of the spokespersons of my party on the Dunkel Draft when it was raised in Parliament. Once again, I was in touch with people such as economists and health activists who were working on these issues. So it was possible for us to intervene effectively on the Dunkel Draft and particularly on the IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) issue. Very often I found that Gita Mukherjee and I were the only ones who raised these issues on our own.

When I was in Parliament, the demolition of the Babri Masjid took place. We had seen it coming for a long time and had raised the issue in Parliament. After the demolition, I was one of the spokespersons from my party. What I am trying to underline is that even when women are there in Parliament, very often they are excluded from important discussions partly because they are few in number and also because of a kind of social sanction on what is a womans issue and what is not. That barrier has to be broken.

I would say that we have had some excellent predecessors, such as Renu Chakraborti, Phulrenu Guha, and others, in this respect; so if you think of all these women who have intervened successfully in Parliament, they have not confined themselves to womens issues but have also been articulate on general issues.

Another thing I would like to deliberate on is the whole process of elections. The Sarkaria Commissions recommendations on this were never implemented. What seems to be rather alarming to me is that now contesting and winning a parliamentary seat seems to have become a kind of investment.

When I first contested elections I did not spend a single paisa from my own purse, except for the contribution that I made as a party member to the electoral fund. That is true not just of me but of other members of the Left parties. But I was shocked when many colleagues in other parties, including women, told me how they had to collect money even to get the party ticket. . That means even if you are a woman with certain abilities, you cannot get into the electoral process at all unless you can invest something.

I think this is a rising trend, and the greater incursion of money and muscle power into politics in the past 10-15 years is something that is definitely going to go against women representatives in Parliament. If there is a rise in violence so far as the parliamentary process is concerned, it would be difficult for women to play an effective role even if they enter the fray.

I was on one of the panels of chairpersons in the Lok Sabha for quite some time and have managed the Lok Sabha as its chairperson on various occasions, some of them quite turbulent. But when I look at the face of the Lok Sabha today, I doubt whether I would be able to sit in that chair and manage the House. This increase in violence, just as it hurts democracy in other ways, makes it difficult for women to operate within the parliamentary process.

If you ask me how women have fared in Parliament, I will say that in spite of the fact that they have got a raw deal in certain ways they have been able to push through some of their agendas. Early in 1990, we managed to get tabled the Bill on the National Commission for Women something the womens movement had been asking for, for a long time. When the Bill was tabled, however, we found it did not contain some of the most crucial powers we had expected the commission to have. It was more of an eyewash.

So women parliamentarians, irrespective of their parties, got together and met the Prime Minister. Some of the women members took the initiative and met the other women members and convinced them about the need to work together on the issue. Eventually, we were able to convince the Prime Minister that it was a different Bill that we needed. The Bill was withdrawn and after a national discussion and various rounds of consultations we were able to pass the right Bill. I think that was a big boost for women parliamentarians.

Another example that comes to mind dates back to 1974 when, during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi, the government formed a committee to determine the status of women in the country. The committee was headed by Phulrenu Guha, and had many experts on it. Women parliamentarians with the help of women activists and experts on womens issues prepared an excellent status report called Towards Equality.

I am not saying that the women parliamentarians alone did it, but they did play a very important role in it, which was not an echo of whatever the government was doing. It had a fiercely independent perspective, was also a critique of the government wherever necessary, and gave a very honest view of the actual position of women after so many years of independence.

Why go so far back. Think of the womens reservation Bill. I was not in Parliament when Gita Mukherjee initiated the process and was able to get together other women parliamentarians to support the Bill. That is the only reason why even today, in spite of many people wanting to, they could not kill off the Bill; I think it is because of that initial push given by very eminent and illustrious parliamentarians like Gitadi.

Very often women members are just decorative here dont ask me names, please. We dont find them speaking up or visiting troubled spots or intervening in debates. And I think many male parliamentarians are satisfied with that. On the issue of reservation for women, I have heard people saying, Why should an MP who is working well in his constituency leave it for a woman whose credentials have not yet been proven? But an MP is not a feudal Mansabdar. They are democratically elected representatives and have to remember that their constituency is not something that they control as a kind of feudatory area.

I would like to end with a very pleasant memory. I met a former colleague sometime after I had left the Lok Sabha, and he told me: The waiters in the Lok Sabha canteen often ask after you and say they miss you. [Smiles.] I thought that was the highest compliment I have ever had in my career as an MP.

(As told to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay.)

Dr. Malini Bhattacharya was a Lok Sabha member of the CPI(M) from 1989 to 1990 and from 1990 to 1996. She is a former member of the National Commission for Women, and is currently Chairperson of the West Bengal State Commission for Women.

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