A ‘man’s Parliament’ striving for an inclusive India

Despite an encouraging start in the 1950s in inclusivity, its discourse, communication and laws now are a concern

June 18, 2022 12:08 am | Updated 12:18 am IST

“The number of women representatives is still considerably small, but even more subtly, Parliament as a workspace continues to be built exclusively for men” File

“The number of women representatives is still considerably small, but even more subtly, Parliament as a workspace continues to be built exclusively for men” File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

In 1952, when the Indian Republic held its first Parliamentary session, 39 strong, intelligent, and passionate women leaders sat in the hallowed halls of power, challenging a centuries-old tide of men’s dominance over the polity.

A slide from the initial years

At a time when women formed only 1.7% of the total members of the United States Congress and 1.1% of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, India was leading the way in the fight towards more inclusive world democracies with 5.5% women representation. The struggle for India’s Independence can never be detached from the contributions of thousands of our women across profession, class, caste, and religion. A testament to their invaluable contribution has to be their louder voice in our parliamentary democracy; what happened in 1952 was a highly progressive step, but 70 years hence, it seems we have strayed from that path.

Despite a woman Prime Minister, a President, and a relatively higher percentage of women parliamentarians when compared to some of the other mature democracies in the past, our struggle with inclusivity has not eased. Due to systemic issues, Parliament continues to alienate women. The number of women representatives is still considerably small, but even more subtly, Parliament as a workspace continues to be built exclusively for men.

India has witnessed a burgeoning movement for gender inclusivity during the past few years. The Supreme Court judgment (National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India, 2014) on gender identity has given the movement greater impetus. In solidarity, citizens have begun asserting their gender identity by specifying their personal pronouns (she/her, he/his, they/them, etc.). Parliament, being the pinnacle of law-making and the symbolic centre of our democratic aspirations, must reflect this change too. However, the matter seems to have largely escaped the notice of the Legislature.

Not gender neutral

A closer look at our parliamentary discourse and communication reveals a concerning and disconcerting absence of gender-neutral language. For instance, after 75 years of Independence, and ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, Parliament often refers to women in leadership positions as Chairmen and party men.

Also read | CEC Sushil Chandra laments lack of women representation in Parliament

In the Rajya Sabha, the Rules of Procedure continue to refer to the Vice-President of India as the ex-officio Chairman, stemming from the lack of gender-neutral language in the Constitution of India. Additionally, references to inherently masculine pronouns are made over 150 times in the former and 600 times in the latter. The alarming degree of usage of masculine pronouns assumes a power structure biased towards men. This tends to manifest itself in parliamentary debates, for instance, when a senior woman MP from Tamil Nadu was referred to as “Chairman madam” in the Lok Sabha during last year’s winter session.

The issue further extends to law-making. In the last decade, there have hardly been any gender-neutral Acts. Acts have made references to women not as leaders or professionals (such as policemen), but usually as victims of crimes.

The root of such instances lies with a gender-conforming Constitution. In its present state, the Constitution reinforces historical stereotypes that women and transgender people cannot be in leadership positions, such as the President and the Vice-President of India, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Governor of States, or a judge. It is not a criticism of the Constitution but of the failure of the many Union Governments which did not take the initiative of amending it. In the past, amendments have been brought about to make documents gender neutral. In 2014, under the leadership of the then Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Meira Kumar, the Rules of Procedure of the Lok Sabha were made entirely gender neutral. Since then, each Lok Sabha Committee Head has been referred to as Chairperson in all documents. This initiative is proof that amending legal documents to make them inclusive for all genders is an attainable goal if there is a will.

Despite certain course corrections, both Houses of Parliament and Central Ministries have failed in one common aspect. In a compilation of ministerial replies to questions from the 17th Lok Sabha so far for 75 women Parliamentarians, it was found that 84% of the answers that used salutations (sir/madam) referred to women Parliamentarians as ‘sir’. During the 15th Lok Sabha, when we had a woman Speaker, only about 27% of the answers made this error. However, there is no indication of a clear reason for such lapses, either due to pure administrative errors or ignorance of the rules of addressal.

In other countries

Internationally, even mature democracies that legalised universal suffrage after India, such as Canada (1960 for Aboriginal women), Australia (1962 for Indigenous women), and the United States (1965 for women of African-American descent), have now taken concrete measures towards gender-inclusive legislation and communication. Canada’s Department of Justice has guidelines for using gender-neutral language in all forms of legislation and legal documentation; the Australian government has incorporated gender-neutrality in its drafting Style Manual; the U.K.’s House of Commons declared in 2007 that all laws would be drafted gender-neutrally.

When Parliament and government offices reinforce gender biases in their communication, stereotypical language in reference to women and transgender people becomes more palatable to the rest of the country. The country’s leaders must send the right message for citizens to follow. They can and must begin with an amendment to the Constitution and the entire reservoir of laws.

Moving ahead

Once the language is corrected, the entire country, including Parliament, can focus on the deeper issues of the aspirations and growth of its woman workforce. In 2018, the U.K. Parliament conducted a gender audit to understand its culture, environment, and policies as a workspace. If the report is any indication as to what might also be the scenario in the Indian Parliament, with an even lesser number of women employees, it opens questions about whether there is a single, transparent appointment and promotion process for women staff in Parliament, and whether their professional growth is being hindered by other issues such as harassment and domestic responsibilities.

In the 21st century, when people of all genders are leading the world with compassion, strength and ambitions, the Indian Parliament needs to reflect on its standing. Recognition and correction of past errors through amendments to rulebooks, laws, and the Constitution are just starting points, and must lead to sensitivity, equal treatment, and appreciation for the people of India, regardless of gender.

This article has also been co-authored by Pallavi Baraya and Devak Namdhari. The four writers are former Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament (LAMP) Fellows

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