Political representation, democratic institutions and women's empowerment
The quota debate in India 1
Shirin M. Rai
This chapter examines whether the current debates about quotas for women in political institutions in India can form part of a wider debate on women's empowerment. I do this by exploring the reasons for these demands by women's groups in a country where quotas have had a problematic symbolic history of nearly forty years. The debate on quotas in India has reflected disquiet about women's engagement with state institutions, with the perceived elitism of 'the women's movement', and has challenged women's groups to address issues of difference among women based on caste and class. One of the important questions for women's groups has been whether this engagement with the state is appropriate at a time when the pressures of globalization and liberalization are increasing social inequalities and tensions within the country. Surely any debate on women's empowerment should focus on questions about improving women's life-chances rather than increasing their political representation in state institutions that are implicated, through policy-making, in the very process of globalization that is adversely affecting poor women in India?
The term empowerment has largely been ignored in mainstream Political Science. For example, it does not appear at all in the Oxford Dictionary of Politics (McLean 1996). On the other hand, empowerment has found great currency within feminist discourses. From early on, debates about the gendered nature of participation in local politics have been important within feminist politics (Phillips 1991). While some have taken issue with the costs of participation (Phillips 1991), the focus has been on the concept of participation rather than on empowerment. Empowerment as a concept has emerged out of debates on education and increasingly within the literature on social movements. 'The notion of empowerment was intended to help participation perform one main political function – to provide development with a new source of legitimation', writes Majid Rahnema in the Development Dictionary (1992: 122). Empowerment legitimates oppositional discourse as well as oppositional social movements, programmes, methodologies and policies – both macro and micro. The feminist literature on politics has re-emphasized empowerment as development. Bystydzienski, for example, defines empowerment as 'a process by which