Hussain, Sadia, ‘Performance of Women in Parliament: A Quantitative Study of Questions by Women Members in Lok Sabha (1999-2019)’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 57, Issue No. 31, July 30, 2022
Literature on the workings of Parliament and its performance has been scarce. Very few academic papers have covered critical reviews of the institution. Even less are research works on women’s performance in leadership positions or how they participate and represent people in political spaces. Sadia Hussain’s article, ‘Performance of Women in Parliament: A Quantitative Study of Questions by Women Members in Lok Sabha (1999-2019)’ draws attention to women’s performance in the Lok Sabha through a quantitative analysis of the questions posed by women leaders on the floor. It contests claims that women members act as silent dolls or ‘gungi gudiyas’ during the Question Hour in Parliament and that they act as mere token representation in political spheres.
Women in politics
The article contextualises women’s position in Indian electoral politics. Nivedita Menon’s work on feminist theory and politics in India asserts how India has not had a single women’s movement that challenged patriarchal and gender norms in the last two decades. Women have had to use alternate methods to come to power. Education and wealth have aided women in political participation. Studies suggest that more women have started to organise themselves into economic groups, and financial freedom has pushed them to be more politically active. The decreased gap in voter turnout between men and women is a positive sign toward gender inclusivity in the political sphere. The 2019 general election was a historic moment for women’s politics, as it saw 78 women elected to the lower house of Parliament for the first time since independence where only 22 women were present in the 543-member Lok Sabha. But the author explains that this number is still not representative of the actual proportion of women in the country.
Access to power versus participation
With more women representatives in Parliament, it is imperative to look at their performance. Women’s performance during the Question Hour session becomes relevant as it is a space where legislators act free from party regulation. Substantive representation or acting in the interest of those represented defines the quality of a leader. It becomes imperative to analyse whether descriptive representation transforms into substantive representation. Do women members only represent women, or do they represent the general public that voted them into positions of power? Do they ask questions only about “softer issues” such as women and child development, health, and sanitation, shying away from discussions on national security, finance, agriculture, and railways?
The author analyses these research questions through the study of parliamentary sessions. The questions asked during the Question Hour of Parliamentary sessions between the years 1999 to 2019 were specifically chosen as they involved four general elections with governments completing their full five-year terms with two different ruling coalitions. As part of the evaluation, the number of questions raised by representatives, the Ministries under which they fell, and the content of questions including terms like ‘women’, ‘girls’, ‘rape’, ‘crimes against women’ and ‘maternal’, were collected and categorised.
The study reveals how descriptive representation transforms into substantive representation. It goes against the popular notion that women members only touch upon softer issues or that they are silent spectators in Parliament. Though men asked more questions and participated in more debates than women, there has been a substantial increase in the number of questions women asked. Moreover, contrary to general belief, women representatives asked more questions on health and family welfare, human resource development, home affairs, finance, agriculture and railways than women’s issues. Male legislators asked more questions on issues concerning women than their female counterparts. These are very welcoming signs as the representatives were seen not to be held back by gender stereotypes.
Intersectionality of identities became an important factor in the questioning capacity of representatives. Members from marginal States, irrespective of gender asked fewer questions. Women from the BJP, irrespective of whether they were in power or representing the Opposition, asked the most number of questions. Party affiliations, education, regional background, ethnicity, caste and the age of women members played a role in the number and content of questions asked in the lower house. Thus, the author explains the danger of considering women as a homogenous group and how identities intersect and influence the political representation of women.
The paper studies the friction between the burden women bear to represent women’s issues more and on the other hand, being concerned in representing the issues pertaining to the general public at large. While women are expected to bring a feminine quality into the public political domain, they are breaking stereotypes by simply behaving like their male counterparts.
Analysing these debates on gender and politics, using the performance framework, one concludes that the problem of under-representation of women is only superficial. What lies underneath is the problem of structural inequality, wherein women are marginalised at different levels. Through examples of Latin American Parliaments, the author explains how proportional representation will lead to a better representation of women’s interests. Moreover, representation becomes a phenomenon that cannot be isolated from society. Social, cultural, economic, religious and political factors affect the process. The increased political participation is a positive sign toward gender inclusivity and equality in the political sphere. But it has a long way to go, considering the socio-economic and cultural conditions that still socialise women into being averse to politics, hindering them from pursuing politics as a career.