Lok Sabha
Lok Sabha Reuters

Women around the world have made rapid advances in politics over the past two decades, gaining election as prime ministers, presidents, chancellors, members of parliament, and other high offices. Although India has had a female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, few other women have made inroads into the corridors of power.

On Monday, a popular Indian television soap opera actress announced her candidacy for a parliamentary seat in Uttar Pradesh state as a member of the right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), where she will directly challenge Congress Party scion, Rahul Gandhi. But Smriti Irani, 38, a glamorous former model, beauty queen and television producer perhaps best known as star of the TV soap opera "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" ("Because a mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law, too"), faces a difficult struggle to win -- not only does she have to battle the powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty of Congress, but also another political reality of India: high government positions are almost entirely dominated by men.

Indeed, India has very few women in positions of political power. Consequently, various women's rights groups in the country are demanding that upcoming parliamentary elections serve as a launch pad for upgrading the status of women and, more specifically, that New Delhi pass laws to facilitate the entry of more females into office. In the current Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), women hold only about 11.4 percent of all seats, while the Rajya Sabha (upper house) has an eerily similar 11.4 percent female representation. To put these figures in perspective, consider that in neighboring conservative Islamic nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh -- which are considered less-democratic states – females account for 28, 21 and 20 percent of MPs, respectively, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a Geneva-based international organization that advocates for greater access to political power for women.

All told, of the 790 MPs in both houses of parliament in India, only 90 are women, Press Trust of India reported. IPU ranked India 108th out of 188 countries in terms of the relative presence of women in parliament. (Incidentally, the United States, with about 19 percent female representation, ranked 84th.) As of January 2014, about 21.8 percent of all parliamentary seats on the planet were occupied by females (up from 10 percent, 20 years ago).

"It is shocking that we [in India] even lag behind our neighbors like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh in giving women representation in parliament,” Radha Kumar, the director-general of the Delhi Policy Group, an independent think tank, told Khabar South Asia (South Asian news). “The gender bias is still deeply rooted in our mentality. Women in India have to move ahead, as male supremacy continues to supersede in every field of life.”

Indeed, at the very highest levels of power of New Delhi, women account for only 1 percent of cabinet ministries. (In its 67-year history, modern India has had only one female prime minister, Indira Gandhi). Khabar noted that during the last general elections in 2009, women represented only about 7 percent of all parliamentary candidates, while they accounted for almost half (47 percent) of all voters. Since that poll, female voting participation has continued to move upward, but advances in female political candidacy remain sluggish. The Election Commission of India noted that in state assembly elections held since 2010, women voters outnumbered men in 16 of 20 such polls. In the huge states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – which together represent 120 Lok Sabha seats (out of a total of 545) – females now comprise a majority of the voting populace.

It is unclear how many women are running for office in the 2014 elections, but media reports suggest the total number is again quite small, perhaps even lower than in 2009. For example, the Times of India reported that in Pune district in Maharashtra state, about 10 percent of all parliamentary candidates are women, while the entre northeastern part of India, covering seven states, will field a total of only six women candidates.

But, as their numbers grow among the electorate, Indian women, particularly among the youth, are demanding a greater say in politics and in social policy – in a country where women have long suffered from a multitude of abuses, including chauvinism, social ostracism, marginalization, forced marriage, child marriage, infanticide, feticide, acid attacks, burning, rape, torture, and other forms of violence, all the way up to murder. India’s treatment of women became a global issue more than a year ago after a female medical student was brutally gang-raped on a Delhi bus (and subsequently died in the hospital), an atrocity that triggered waves and waves of national and international protests and demands for changes in the rape laws and in deep-seated patriarchal attitudes.

"I know my vote has tremendous power and can make a huge change in building my future, but unfortunately there are few female parliamentary candidates," a Delhi University graduate named Sachika Pathak told Khabar. "The majority of young girls will cast their vote, but male parliamentarians are unable to understand our problems."

Indeed, with a paucity of women candidates, some females worry that voting may not matter, although they still want to promote social change. Another young woman, Komal Bajwa, a psychology student at Mata Sundri College for Women in New Delhi, complained that women are discriminated at all levels of Indian society. “Even when it comes to voting, we are asked to follow the dictates of our elders, and the vote becomes meaningless for us," she told Khabar. Other women said the issue in India can only be addressed when more females occupy high government positions.

“The world of Indian politics is quite rough and tumble, and few women want to enter the fray,” said Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science and director of the Center for American and Global Security at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies in Bloomington, in an interview. “Also, India remains a fairly sexist society that does not adequately value women despite paying much lip service to that ideal.”

One proposed measure designed to increase the number of women in government – the Women's Reservation Bill – has already been passed by the Rajya Sabha four years ago, but remains stuck in the lower house. Under the bill, women would be granted a reservation of one-third (33 percent) of all seats not only in the lower house of parliament, but also in all state legislative assemblies. However, various other like-minded bills introduced since 1996 to place more women in MP seats have similarly vanished. Women activists charge that the Lok Sabha (overwhelmingly dominated by men, of course) do not want to pass the quota bill. An umbrella group of women’s groups, calling themselves The 33% Now Alliance (or, alternatively, Time for 33% Coalition) are demanding speedy passage of the bill. “Women comprise nearly 50 percent of India’s population yet continue to be under-represented in all aspects of politics including as elected representatives in the parliament and legislative councils,” Time for 33% said in a statement.

Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, an NGO dedicated to advancing women's rights, wondered why parliament passed the Telangana Bill (which created a brand-new state within the former province of Andhra Pradesh), despite massive opposition, but cannot even consider the Women’s Reservation Bill. “Why is the system so hostile towards women? The women of this country will not tolerate this anymore,” she said in a statement. Noorjehan Safia Niaz, the co-founder of Bhartiya Muslims Mahila Andolan, an Indian Muslim women's activist group, lamented that the bill will never be passed since it threatens male supremacy in parliament. Amitabh Kumar of the Centre for Social Research, told the Times News Network (TNN) that passage of the 33 percent bill would represent “one of the most significant changes in helping women attain their right to participate in Indian democracy not just as voters but also as leaders.”

Female government participation in extremely conservative societies like Afghanistan is largely due to such a reservation mechanism, which guarantees that women occupy a fixed minimum number of seats in parliament. “Appropriate representation of women is possible only through a quota regime, and this in turn will bring more transparency, efficiency and even decency in parliament's functioning," said Vibhuti Patel, economist and president of Women Power Connect, a women's rights NGO. But passage of the bill would mean that some 180 seats in the lower house of parliament would have to set aside for women – a drastic and sudden loss of power and political prestige for Indian men.

One gripe against the quota bill, as elucidated by various male MPs, including Sharad Yadav of the center-left Janata Dal-United party, is that a quota for women in parliament would erode the rights of protected minorities, including lower-caste Indians, including Dalits (Untouchables), who already have reservations in parliament. Yadav also warned in 2010 that passage of the gender quota bill would only lead to the election of “upper-caste elite women,” since they would presumably already enjoy the political connections and affluence to run for office.

In fact, part of the problem is that Indian political candidates are usually selected by party machinery and must have long-standing ties with local power brokers (in virtually all such cases, these entities are controlled and dominated by men). The few females who make it that far – like Ms. Irani – are either already celebrities or enjoy some measure of wealth or political connections. (This is particularly true in neighboring Pakistan, where female MPs invariably are drawn from wealthy, elite, politically connected landowning families). Indeed, Ganguly commented that even when women enter high office in India, they have historically done little to help women or others. “They [female MPs] are mostly interested in self-aggrandizement and little else, he stated

Parliamentary quotas currently exist in liberal, affluent Western democracies like Belgium, France and Germany, as well as in developing countries like Egypt, Iraq and Nepal. "Although quotas remain contentious in some parts of the world, they remain key to progress on a fundamental component of democracy -- gender parity in political representation," said IPU Secretary General Anders B. Johnsson, according to TNN. Johnsson also told PTI that, with about one-fifth of all parliamentary seats in the world currently filled with women, gender parity is achievable within one generation.

For the record, Rwanda, the central African country that suffered a devastating civil war in the mid-1990s, now boasts the world's most female-friendly legislative assembly – fully 63.8 percent of lower house parliamentary seats in Kigali are held by women. (India's comparable female representation amounts to one-sixth that of Rwanda, one of the poorest nations on earth.)

But Dr. Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, holds out hope that as women in India become the dominant voting gender and increasingly climb corporate ladders in the private sector they will similarly ascend to the top in politics as well. “Newer generations of younger Indian women are coming of age as gender attitudes start to change, albeit slowly,” he said. “This suggests that in the near future, we could start seeing more women MPs.”

Indeed, it should be noted that both leaders of the BJP and Congress, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi (one of whom will become the next prime minister of India), support passage of the gender quota bill.