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Women’s Political Caucuses: A recipe for gender inclusivity in South Asia

Ishita Gupta, Advocate, Women for Politics

Ishita Gupta is a third-year undergraduate student of Political Science (Hons.) at Jadavpur University. Her interest areas include international relations and public policy. She is currently working on a research project analysing public policy in the times of COVID-19  as an intern with the Centre for Civil Society (CCS).

It is a case historically documented, that women leaders hardly receive the support and nurturing that they deserve in a political atmosphere largely dominated by men. Razia Sultan, the only woman ever crowned in the Delhi Sultanate, was dethroned by a rebellion despite her many accomplishments in statecraft and political manoeuvres. Her fault simply being her inability to reconcile her Muslim nobility to her authority as a woman leader.

Women began to be relieved of this gendered isolation to some extent, only after they started organising collectively. Significant women's movements- beginning from the first wave of feminism to the #MeToo, have all been a case of collective action taken up by women themselves. 

A women's political caucus is a replication of this very recipe. 

A study conducted to identify when and where women's caucuses emerge - looked at the institutional context that drives women legislators to organise around their gender identity. It determined that state legislatures are predominantly male majorities with marginalised women's representation. As a result, for individual legislators, a women's caucus becomes an opportunity to gain social support within a space dominated by men. While as representatives, it presents an opportunity to strengthen an overlooked constituency.

The South Asian political atmosphere with its overbearing gender isolated spaces creates a gaping vacuum for women’s caucuses to emerge from. 

In such highly patriarchal societies, the participation of women in politics is relentlessly challenged, limiting their effectiveness. Even with the presence of quotas, the women representatives face challenges such as being isolated within their own parties and remaining indebted to the men who nominated them.

Some experiences of women quota seat holders in India, Nepal and Bangladesh have shown their capacity to work despite these stigmas and structural obstacles to make a positive change in the community. But the question is, why should women carry an extra burden of responsibility?

Bipartisan women’s caucuses play a crucial role in breaking down these structural obstacles. For example, the Pakistani Women's Parliamentary Caucus (WPC), formed in 2008, is a legacy of the late Benazir Bhutto, the first woman prime minister of the entire Muslim world. It is the only functioning cross-party forum in the otherwise polarised parliament. The caucus has successfully worked together with women's activists as well as male politicians to create new laws on domestic violence, child marriage, honour killing and other gender-sensitive issues.

Women's Parliamentary Caucus of Pakistan

Although bipartisan women’s caucuses are created for a common good, they are not meant to be social movements. They present political opportunities and resources that benefit individual legislators. Women legislators choose to join bipartisan caucuses as the benefits to organise may outweigh the potential costs. 

The Nepalese Constituent Assembly of 2009 was notable for its groundbreaking hike in women's representation. 33 per cent of the total elected members i.e. 197 out of 601 members were women. These members formed a caucus to collectively exert pressure on the Constituent Assembly to include women's issues in the constitution. Given the size of the caucus, it put considerable pressure on the CA to write laws that promoted a more gender-equal society. 

An obstacle to the entire collaboration was the dilemma these representatives faced between being devoted to their party’s obligation or to work in the spirit of the women's caucus. However, they managed to iron out the internal biases and come together for the cause of women’s rights. 

A well-meant argument against the formation of women’s caucuses is that these gender-specific forums can become echo chambers for women’s issues. There is a fear that the cumulative view prevailing within the caucus may not reflect the reality outside. 

But if this were true, a similar case could be made for every other minority caucus that exists. The successful example of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in the US negates this argument. The CBC advocates for minority constituencies and has over time increased their representation in the Democratic party. 

Nevertheless, a greater seat share of the members of the caucus in parliament undoubtedly increases their scope of influence.

In an interview conducted by Women for Politics with Dr Harini Amarasuriya, a contesting politician in the upcoming Sri Lankan elections, while speaking of women's representation in political spaces, said that “I want women to change these spaces to suit them rather than trying to fit into the toxic masculine culture.”  This sentiment precisely sums up the fundamental need for women's political caucuses. It is high time that the gender discriminatory corridors of the parliament opened their doors to make way for more equitable spaces. 

If Razia Sultan had a women’s caucus backing her, history would be written differently.

This article gives the views of the authors, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics. Photo credit: Women's Parliamentary Caucus of Pakistan

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