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India moved this week toward enacting a pivotal bill that would reserve a third of seats in the lower house of Parliament and in state legislatures for women, and could make strides in gender representation in the world’s largest democracy.
The legislation, known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, has faced obstacles for decades. It passed in the lower house on Wednesday and upper house on Thursday, with close to unanimous votes in its favor. It now requires approval from half of India’s 28 state legislatures, which is expected.
The revived push for the bill, first introduced 27 years ago, comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seek to bolster support going into elections next year and to project a pro-women image. Modi celebrated the move on social media, writing “India stands at the cusp of a brighter, more inclusive future” and said the reservation bill is “at the core of this transformation.”
Here’s what you need to know.
What the Women’s Reservation Bill would do
The bill will set aside 33 percent of seats for women in Parliament’s lower house (known as the Lok Sabha), as well as legislatures at the state level and for the capital of New Delhi, by amending articles in the constitution. The quota also applies to seats reserved for marginalized groups known as Scheduled Castes, or Dalits, and Scheduled Tribes.
Rotations of the reserved seats will take place after constituency lines are redrawn following a census. The next census is expected to take place around 2025, meaning the gender reservation bill may not go into effect until the 2029 elections.
There were four failed attempts to create reserved seats for women previously, according to the Indian nonpartisan institute PRS Legislative Research. The most recent began in 2008, and ended with the bill getting stuck in the lower house. The 2023 bill praises recent government efforts to improve health, finances and education among women, but says “true empowerment of women will require greater participation of women in the decision-making process.”
“Anything that benefits women is always welcome,” Medha Nanivadekar, director of the Center for Women’s Studies at Shivaji University in Kolhapur, wrote in an email. However, she called the bill a “lost golden opportunity” to recognize and implement “women’s entitlement to equal representation,” with a reservation percentage that reflects the population of women, she said.
Mary E. John, formerly the director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in India, cautions against a progressive interpretation of the bill, which she says treats women like “subjects of social welfare” and does not stop the ruling party from seeing women through a conservative lens that focuses largely on their role in the home and religious life.
“Perhaps we all have a tendency to think a greater presence of women should automatically imply more feminism, but let us not be under such illusions, ” she told The Washington Post. “Women’s issues are being shaped by this party’s nationalist right-wing agenda and women are a part of these politics.”
It’s “a very fearful time” for “those of us who think differently about women’s rights,” she said.
If passed, the bill will take a significant step forward in a country that has struggled with gender parity, with only 15.1 percent of seats in Parliament held by women, according to the World Economic Forum. India has already reserved one-third of seats for women in some local governments at the village and urban level, U.N. Women said in a news release about the bill’s passage.
The revival of the bill comes as India struggles with a low number of women in the workforce. According to World Bank data, in 2022 just 24 percent of women were participating in the labor force, compared with 73.6 percent of men. In its most recent report, the WEF rated India 127th out of 146 on its Global Gender Gap Index.
Since independence, India has had one female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who served twice starting in the mid-1960s. It has also had two female presidents: Pratibha Devisingh Patil, who was in power from 2007 to 2012, and Droupadi Murmu, who took office in 2022.
“In a patriarchal society like ours, having more women in Parliament is a hopeful sign,” Hema Swaminathan, a professor who studies gender inequality at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, wrote in an email. The most important take away for Swaminathan is that “women leaders are role models and can shape aspirations of the next generation.”
“It can change gender norms, slowly but surely,” she said.
The bill was celebrated by leaders across the political spectrum, though some expressed frustration that Modi would not push to enact the new quota in time for 2024 elections. Others called attention to minority groups that do not have reservations, particularly Muslims, who have faced marginalization under Modi’s government, and another marginalized group known as Other Backward Castes, or OBCs.
“We should recognize huge disparities between women,” John said, noting calls for sub-quotas within different groups. “Will a blanket reservation address that? It won’t.”
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in Parliament that “it is important that we build consensus, and also show that we are committed to the economic and social empowerment of women.”
“These are the fundamental bricks which we will build on for empowering women,” she said.
U.N. Women noted in a statement that India will become one of 64 countries with reserved parliamentary seats for women. Achieving a “critical mass” of 30 percent representation is “known to yield positive outcomes for women’s empowerment,” said Susan Ferguson, country representative of U.N. Women India, adding that she hopes that political parties come together for “timely implementation.”
The time frame has been a point of contention. Mahua Moitra, a member of Parliament, called the delay “legislatively mandated procrastination.”
“We hold up half the sky,” she said, “give us at least a third of our earth.”
Gender policy expert Ranjana Kumari advocated for India to make “a resounding statement” by reserving 33 percent of seats for women from diverse backgrounds in the 2024 elections.
Still, she celebrated the bill on social media writing, “We have shown the world when Women fight with full determination they will achieve.”