Are Husbands the Problem?

Photo by Rupinder Singh via Unsplash.

Since India passed the 1993 Constitutional Amendment mandating quotas for women in government, a critical mass of women have entered local politics. The law was rightly celebrated, but also gave rise to a belief that while women are de jure elected to local office, their husbands de facto run the state. This belief has had legal repercussions in some states: in 2020, Rajasthan’s Panchayati Raj department issued a new order dictating that where husbands are observed performing the duties of female elected leaders, the woman will be removed from her elected post and “action [will be] taken” against the husband. 

In a new issue of Seminar Magazine focused on the political representation of women in India, Rachel Brulé and coauthors argue the hurdles Indian women face in exercising their legally mandated roles in elected government cannot be reduced to the problem of husbands assuming their responsibilities. While patriarchal gender norms within some households constrain the emergence of effective female leadership, it is really the institutional design of local government, from the structure of local elections to the composition of committees to the very rules of deliberation, that guarantee women’s symbolic inclusion while allowing for inequality to persist.

According to the authors, gender equality in politics is thus only possible if quotas reserving seats for women in government are reinforced by measures to build institutional support for the political agency of women. Specifically, the authors advocate that legislation is urgently required on three fronts: within the rules that structure local, democratic deliberation; within the bureaucracy that supports elected democratic officials; and within the state’s explicit efforts to support officials upon their assumption of elected office. 

Other topics investigated in the issue include trends in women’s participation in Indian national elections, with evidence from the 2019 general elections; the importance of political networks for women elected to village councils; and the impact of Political Shakti, a pan-India, non-partisan collective of volunteers with the goal of increasing women’s representation in the state legislative assemblies and the Parliament.

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