Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Why Are Some Women Political Active? the Household, Public Space, and Political Participation in India

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Why Are Some Women Political Active? the Household, Public Space, and Political Participation in India

Article excerpt

Introduction

While major changes have occurred in the status of women in some parts of the world in recent decades, the role of women continues to be home-centered, thus, excludes public activities and political life. In the contemporary world, some regimes have enforced this principle most severely (the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example), but it is also a powerful factor in many other countries such as Japan (where there is still a strong expectation that when women marry, they will leave full-time employment outside the home). (1) Moreover, the impact of home-centered roles for women is not restricted to non-Western countries. The view that "a woman's place is in the home" prevailed in Western societies well into the twentieth century and, as this article will demonstrate, it still bears significant influence. In so far as such roles, which include the constellation of norms, values, beliefs, attitudes, and actions are accepted, they will continue to inhibit women from participating in politics.

In India, a large number of women do not work and, by implication, spend much of their time at home. In 1991, only 22 percent of the women were in the workforce as compared to 52 percent of the men. In 1961, only 28 percent of the women were in the workforce (Gopalan and Shiva 2000:119). Many of the women in 1991, however, worked in the unorganized sector and did not have regular employment. While 28 percent of the men were employed with "casual wages" (i.e., did not have a permanent job), 39 percent of the women were casual wage employees (Gopalan and Shiva 2000:119). In the organized sector, where there is greater job security, the proportion of women employed to total employment was only 16 percent in 1996, up from 11 percent in 1961 (Gopalan and Shiva 2000:344). Given that few women are in the workforce, women's participation in political life is fairly limited (Burns, Scholzman, and Verba 2001). While a large enough proportion of women turn out to vote and the gender gap in turnout has dropped to single digits in the 1990s (from almost 20 percent in 1971), women still are not well represented in political life which requires them to be active in the public sphere--such as membership in Parliament and in State Legislative Assemblies. To redress the low level of participation by women in deliberative bodies, the government of India amended the constitution in 1992 (73rd and 74th amendments) so that a third of the seats in the Panchayats (local governments), including the chairpersonship of these local bodies, would be reserved for women. As this constitutional amendment mandates that women be elected to local office, it offers us a chance to assess which women become politically active. (2)

This constitutional amendment has indeed brought women into local bodies (Gopalan and Shiva 2000), but which women have been able to take advantage of their new entitlements? Are women aware of the changes that were introduced by the central government? Further, are there significant inter-community differences in terms of awareness and responsiveness to these changes? The answers to these questions are interesting from a theoretical standpoint. Prominent arguments, both in India and elsewhere, have suggested that women's participation is generally lower either because they have been "socialized" differently (especially as far as marriage, motherhood, employment, and property ownership are concerned), or because they have fewer resources (Schlozman, Burns, Verba 1994; Verba, Burns, and Schlozman 1997; Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 1997b). An implicit assumption in these sets of arguments is that the lower level of participation of women is mostly the result of a process of socialization that leads them to think of political activity in a different way than men. In other words, women don't take as active a part in political life because they don't think (as autonomous actors) that political participation is important. …

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