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Women, Politics And Development

By P Radhakrishnan

12 December, 2013

[Revised version of my Keynote address to the three-day national seminar “Modernization and Marginalization: Women in Politics and Development”, delivered on November 21, 2013, at the PG Department of History, Sri C. Achutha Menon Government College, Thrissur, Kerala.]


What I propose to do in my address is raise a number of issues relating to the central theme of the conference. Before I turn to that let me give three quotes.

•  “Women resent the burden of motherhood being unequally distributed” – Bernard Shaw.

•  "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." - George Santayana.

•  “Society is a growth in time not a syllogism in logic, and when the past is put out through the door it comes in at the window” - Will Durant.

In the first quote my emphasis is on the burden of motherhood ; the burden of womanhood ; and though not part of the quote, as a derivative of it, the crushing burden of patriarchal cultural baggage.

Implicit in the second quote is, in women's development we have to be Janus-faced, for which history is very important. We all know that it is simply not possible to unburden the past; it continues to shadow and stifle us, particularly women, and hamper our development.

The Three Key Issues


I am not dealing with women as an ensemble, a generic group or category. For analytical purposes we need to differentiate them, classify them: Given the complexity and diversity of the country and the fact that women are of disparate socio-economic, cultural, and regional backgrounds comprehending their social reality can be only through differentiation and classification which crisscross their multiple trajectories.

Let me give some illustrations:

•  Understanding women in relation to women – that is from the youngest to the oldest, poorest to the richest, illiterate to the most educated, most oppressed to the most liberated.

•  Understanding women in relation to men – gender discrimination, gender-based violence, and so on. Understanding women in relation to space and time (spatial and temporal factors).

•  Understanding women as social beings – for whose development gender-parity in different socio-cultural, political, and related arenas assumes great significance.

•  Understanding women in family , marriage , in relation to caste, regions, religious formations , economy, education , and so on.

From all these it should be only too obvious that in our policy formulations, planning and implementation of various welfare and development programmes instead of adopting a top-down approach as is being done now, the approach should be bottom-up; and the macro should be a conflation, a fusion or aggregation of many micros.


The second issue is politics . Often politics is equated with power; which is wrong; the sources and articulation of power or the perfidies of power are in different forms. The Ambanis and their ilk as progenitors and purveyors of crony capitalism are way ahead of the Manmohan Singhs in power; and their maneuvers and power play are unscrupulous and inscrutable.

Often politics is identified with man. This reality militates against women's well-being. As I know the only book with a gender connotation prescribed in political science and sociology is Political Man: (The Social Bases of Politics) by Seymour Martin Lipset (1960). Lipset used statistical and historical data to demonstrate that social class is one of the chief determinants of political behaviour. ( Chapter II of the book is on Economic Development and Democracy).

Lipset did not write the book from a gender perspective. But why no book as Political Woman even after fifty years down the line; even after the twentieth century was characterized as “democracy's century” by Freedom House (an organization based in Washington and New York )? Answer to this should answer many of the issues relating to women in politics and development.

Politics is the art and science of governance; influencing government policy; winning and holding control over a government. It is being increasingly recognized that India is not a democracy but an oligarchy (a government in which power is in the hands of a few).

Politics is not necessarily empowerment, political representation, or power: If women get adequate representation or have women as their leaders will they develop better, faster? I have my doubts: Grassroots democracy is fine; it is doing well in some states; but the idea and praxis of power in the entire structure of political organizations should be democratized from a gender perspective. This has not happened.

In some sense women themselves are responsible for this; and along with patriarchy, we also have matriarchy in the sense of women dominating, exploiting and discriminating women. Take the case of Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati. They have powerful political organizations; and enormous political power. Have they been using these for women's development; and from a gender perspective? My answer is an emphatic NO.

More than being in political power what is important is political articulation and action by expanding the civil and democratic space for women.

Closely related to the terms politics and power is empowerment. Empowerment is often not clearly understood: As empowerment means enabling , the question is enabling whom and for what. More often than not the purpose of government schemes for women is touted as “women's empowerment”. This is not so. I am referring to the various populist schemes named after different Gandhis. They are at best tokenism and at worst schemes for more corruption.


Development is a complex, highly confusing, and misleading term. We need to be clear what we mean by the term: its spatial, temporal, quantitative, qualitative, and most importantly, political, dimensions. In this context we have to be cautious about the HDIs and HDRs with the macro swamping the multitude of micros.

Before I conclude, let me reiterate some of the issues already mentioned and dwell on some more.

Recap and more

Starting straightaway with women in discourses on women in politics and development is akin to treating history and sociology as dead or irrelevant.

Discourses on Indian women are often in the context of patriarchy. Why the centrality of patriarchy in understanding women's status in India ? That is where my quotes, and history and sociology become important; so also Manusmriti , and the writings of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

Manusmriti: Women are only a part of the corpus of Manu's Institutes or Injunctions. Of these some show women as benign, revered; but most others are hideous (morally offensive; shocking, horrible). Manusmriti is essentially philosophizing and legitimizing the caste system or the four-fold Varna system. The people whom we now consider as Dalits were outside this fold (described as Chandalas or fierce untouchables) - like the society in Plato's Republic which covered only about one-third of the population who alone were freemen or citizens, while the remaining 2,50,000 were slaves without political rights of any kind, those outside the Varna fold, including women, were not part of the society. It is still true to a large extent.

I shall not go into the details of Manu's misdeeds against women. To highlight only one injunction: A woman must be subject to her father in childhood, husband in youth, and sons when her ‘lord' is dead.

Historically most societies have been patriarchal. But India 's case has been bizarre. Societies based on scriptural religions purportedly draw legitimacy from scriptures; but India never had a scriptural religion, and its so Such being the case how Manusmriti was conjured up and how it is still persisting in perpetrating caste and gender discriminations, caste and gender-based dominance and dependence is puzzling.

Patriarchy is the most crude and cruel form of appropriation of women and their rights. A recent instance of this appropriation was in the context of film actor Khushboo and the Supreme Court had to step in for her relief. I had written about the whole sordid episode shortly after the court's judgment in her favour (see, “Moral Policing and Chastity Politics” [on film actor Khushboo's interview to India Today on premarital sex and live-in relationship and related court cases] Sahara Time . 15 May 2010).

Dr. Ambedkar had written at length about the nexus between patriarchy and women; we get this with a brilliant introduction in Sharmila Rege's book: Against the madness of Manu: Ambedkar's Writings on Brahminical patriarchy .

How from Brahmins the prejudices went downward right up to the bottom of the caste system was also explained by Ambedkar in what he aptly termed “the infection of imitation”.

Modernity and development, which the concept note has interchangeably used, are not the same. India never had a proper perspective of modernity and development, and development as a continuum. The gender issue is central to both. What is being done by the Centre and its Planning Commission is serving the cause of the World Bank and its various arms which goes against national interests, particularly of women and other weaker sections.

The UNDP Report on Gender Equality and Development, 2012

The report looks at women's issues in India. It emphasizes the importance of gender equality for national development as it ties into improve productivity, improved outcomes for the next generation, and more representative decision making:

Nationally, the report found that a woman's income correlated positively with the number of years her children spent in school. There is no gender gap in male/female  school  attendance for the richest 20% of Indian families, but males outnumber females by a ratio of 5 to 1 for the poorest 20% of Indian families. Girls in the bottom 20% on average only finish Grade 1 while males finish Grade 6. By age 15, according to  Young Lives , Indian parents from  Andhra Pradesh  prioritize family outcomes for their male children over their female ones.

The report offers several pieces of advice for Indian policy makers, including change in current role models to include more women who do not follow social norms; creating and enforcing laws to prevent sex selection of children; encouraging and strengthening ownership and land rights, which should also address the agricultural productivity gender-gap.

Change-makers ' insights

Ashoka's Change-makers , a U.S. based global online community of action , recently made some important findings relating to women: “ Because microfinance is fast-tracked compared to other social sector projects, we see women start earning an extra $10, $20, or $30, and things begin to change in the household. Another reason we do microfinance is because of the ripple effect: you change one woman; she's going to change ten more.

Countries where women have more power are more successful. Companies with gender-balanced executive committees have a 56% higher operating profit than those with male-only executive committees. Women entrepreneurs bring in 20% more revenue with 50% less money invested”.

Ideally, a gender-parity and participatory society should reflect what R.H. Tawney wrote more than seven decades ago, in his classic work Equality : “With the knowledge now at our command, we can ensure, if we please, that the whole of the rising generation, irrespective of income or social position, grows up in an environment equally conducive to health, enjoys equal opportunities of developing its powers by education, has equal access, according to ability, to all careers, and is equally secure against being crushed by the contingencies of life. What prevents effective action is, in the main, neither ignorance nor lack of resources. It is the [inegalitarian] temper”.


On a practical and philosophical plane women are inseparable from men and vice-versa; and both are indispensable for social reproduction and sustenance of society. What went wrong in history and why the wrongs are continuing is a mystery.

For women's development an equal share as of men in the development pie is necessary but not sufficient. Share in development should be backed by changes in women's existential conditions which determine their existential necessities through changes in the existing social arrangements. This can happen only through an active and articulate civil society, which is absent now.

[The author was Professor of Sociology at the Madras Institute of Development Studies; and is a media commentator on public affairs. Email: prk1949@gmail.com.]





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