Halima Bibi Molla, a member of the Gram Panchayat Pipragachi,
a village in West Bengal. Photograph by Anrica Deb.

A Distribution of Chairs

As India considers saving seats for women in the government’s upper tier, a tour of the country’s rural east shows how quotas have turned women into local politicians.

In the villages of West Bengal, India, after the sun goes down, a profound darkness sets in. The rice paddies and mustard fields stretch out into the horizon, but after dusk they disappear into dimensionless black; 70 percent of the land in the district of Nadia is under some kind of cultivation, and none of that is lit. There are no streetlights, and electricity is sporadic. The village doorways and windows—most of them without glass—glow cozily in flickering candlelight. Homes are built from cane and jute, dried grasses, corrugated metal, concrete and plastic, and mud.

It’s peaceful and appealing after the cacophony of the Indian roadways, or at least it seems so until I arrive at a local politician’s house, where a neighbor’s generator brutishly negates all the tender sounds of dusk: cow bells clinking as the animals return, bicycle bells, and a melodic call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

As family and villagers convene and choose seats around her in the dimly lit mud courtyard in front of her house, Fatema Sheikh shyly turns left and right, searching for a seat. She avoids the chair in the center, but that solitary, painted wooden chair is the only remaining place. Everyone is looking at the chair. Rather than take it, the little Bengali woman rushes inside her house and returns holding a small, squat stool.

My visit to West Bengal comes more than 16 years after India’s parliament ordered the nation’s local governments to save a third of their seats for women. At that time, the Women’s Reservation Bill passed with hardly any discussion and no opposition, also demanding quotas for certain castes and tribes. Today, India has more women in government than any country on the planet. And yet, India’s parliament is still debating whether to pass a women’s quota for its own seats. The Rajya Sabha, or Council of States, passed the bill after heated debate this March,but a second hurdle still waits in India’s House of Commons, the Lok Sabha.

She abandons the stool and sits on the chair, curling her feet behind the bottom rung.According to government reports, more than a million women have positions on the local level, known as the Panchayati Raj. Fatema Sheikh is one of them. A young mother, she’s also part of the region’s Muslim minority and lives in Kalinga, a rural village in Nadia, a district of roughly five million people, several harrowing hours’ drive north of West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata.

Sheikh wears red, draping the end of her soft cotton sari demurely over her head. I have come to interview her specifically, and she is supposed to be the center of attention, but as we begin to talk she tries to defer to everyone else. She doesn’t want to sit on the chair because the rest of the onlookers—many of them men—are sitting on a bench or on the ground, and she feels uncomfortable with the higher status that the chair gives her, though it’s no taller than the benches. Everyone insists she sit on the chair. So she abandons the stool and sits on the chair, dropping her flip-flops on the ground and curling her feet behind the bottom rung.

The darkness blots out the external world and everything outside of the circle of light coming from Sheikh’s doorway. We sit in a broad, well-swept mud courtyard. Besides Sheikh, our group includes a savvy male translator from Kolkata, a female local guide, two dogs, a goat nibbling discarded clothes, and around 20 nosy interlopers from her family and the village. A duck arrives late, loudly interrupting with surreal quacking before waddling into the darkness.

Kalinga elected Sheikh to its village government last year. The process by which she was nominated reflects how centuries of a strong patriarchal rule persist despite the women’s quotas. The state’s dominant political body, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) asked Sheikh to run for office because her seat had been held by men for the last two terms. The quota requires that a woman hold each seat at least every third term.

The party’s local affiliate thought Sheikh would be a good match. She has three children; the eldest is 12 years old. Sheikh was educated to the “sixth standard,” the rough equivalent of sixth grade in the American system. Before joining the government, she had never ventured beyond the household world of cooking, cleaning, and childcare. “I have to regard my elder ones,” Sheikh says about why she ran for office, meaning that the party bigwigs told her to take the seat, and she obeyed. “I never went out of the house before, so how do I know about these things?”

Because of the quota system, Sheikh has the opportunity to see people and events outside her domestic life, which she views as a major boon of political office. She also benefits from the sense of support, and she grins when she describes being encouraged by her community when she ran for her post. “Since I’ve taken up the thing, I enjoy it—I like to work for the people,” she says. Most people looking for gender equity would say it’s a good thing for a woman to get out of the house, particularly if it’s a house owned and run by her in-laws, as is traditional in most—though not all—Indian families.

But she’s also a pawn in a political game. Men have plunked her in her seat and continue with the status quo. Some academics say political parties choose uneducated women like Sheikh precisely because they think the women will be too meek and illiterate to rebel against any party agenda. And Sheikh will cede not just control but also the simple act of forming an opinion, even when it comes to her own child.

When asked if she would support a bid for office by her daughter, Sheikh cages her answer in a patriarchal perspective. “If after she’s married, if her family wants and the village wants, she has to go and I can’t restrict her,” Sheikh says.

In this humble, dark, village courtyard, Sheikh needs help to answer the question of whether she supports a women’s quota in distant New Delhi. The translator and guide don’t even think it’s worthwhile to ask her the question. Even though she is a government official herself, she doesn’t quite know what parliament is, and the translator has to explain it first. Then again, this is India, a land of more than a billion individuals, and contrast is the rule, not the exception. If Sheikh lives here, her opposite must live here, too.


* * *

Earlier in the day, I met Serina Khan, the head of a nearby village, Brittihuda. Both Khan’s and Sheikh’s villages are in the same sub-district of Nadia, called Chapra. Though India is mostly Hindu, this district is primarily Muslim, and Khan, like Sheikh, is also a Muslim. She looks fearless, bareheaded and calm in a white and hot-pink sari and simple jewelry.

Khan is no puppet; that is obvious from her posture, even from a distance. We meet her along a busy main road in front of the tiny office supply shop she owns. I imagine she is constantly battling the dust from the road, as is everyone in the region during the drier seasons. Khan’s store, like most stores in town, has only three walls during business hours. The fourth is a corrugated metal door. As we sit on a pair of benches out front and speak over tiny cups of sweet tea and cookies wrapped in newsprint, the tall, white village mosque looms above the buildings behind her.

There’s a conflict over whether her fellow male district politicians will let her talk with me alone. Roy makes them leave.“I’m proud of being a woman-head; had there been no provision, we couldn’t have come up like this,” she says. When asked her age, she laughs and hangs her head, as if she should be embarrassed but isn’t. “Forty-seven, unmarried.”

Khan was the only one in her village to go on to college. She secretly longs to do her master’s, but politics and women’s issues come first. It wasn’t her idea to run for office in the beginning, but others encouraged her because—unlike Sheikh—she had 17 years of experience in political work as an activist. As she talks, a large number of men gather to listen to her. They are polite and never interrupt, which surprises me because Bengalis are famous foremost for poetry and a close second for arguing about politics.

“Now that I’m in my position, I’m very willing to do work specific for women, but the general barrier is there, the women cannot come out freely.” She wags a finger for emphasis. “I’m moving around freely on my own,” she says, but she knows that’s exceptional. “There are five female members in my panchayat (village council), and they have to come to government meetings with their husbands,” she says. In 1992, India’s parliament wrote the panchayat style of local government into its constitution, attempting to streamline a wildly incongruous nation uniformly on the local level. They endowed certain rights and in turn expected the local governments to manage everything from irrigation to primary education. Panchayats are tiered, and villagers elect representatives at the village, intermediate, and district levels.

Khan is the pradhan, the head of her village council, called a gram panchayat. As Brittihuda’s representative, Khan is a role model for young women in her area, just as a female cousin who became a judge was an inspiration to her. “Previously the Muslim women couldn’t come out of their houses, and now they’re taking up outside jobs,” Khan says. She thinks the situation has improved a lot in her lifetime, but women could have more autonomy if they controlled their own purse strings. “Primarily, it is the economic freedom of women that matters,” Khan says.


* * *

Though Khan and Sheikh’s district isn’t on the bottom of West Bengal’s economic scale, a noteworthy portion of the population still struggles to eat three meals per day. Twenty-seven percent of West Bengal is officially below India’s poverty line, a designation that means complete destitution. “A sandal is a luxury,” Anuradha Talwar says about some of the most deprived individuals in the region.

Talwar organizes villagers with the Shramajibi Mahila Samity, a community group trying to educate and unite people—particularly women—on the local level. A few days before I headed out to the West Bengal villages to interview government officials, Talwar invited me to the shady, green commune where she lives with several other activists, just outside Kolkata. Two young women here, Namita and Suchitra, do field work for the group in other villages in West Bengal. Talwar translates for our discussion.

We sit on a mat in one of the cool, concrete commune buildings. A child lolls on the ground between us; his mother is leaving him to work in a village far away, and he tries unsuccessfully to coax her to stay home. Later, he gets his wish as a bandh—a political strike common in West Bengal—shuts the railroad line down.

Women are slowly progressing along a hierarchy. Once they’ve learned the ropes, some women in the panchayats defy their puppet masters.Namita and Suchitra are often at odds with the village governments, whether or not they’re being run by women, and the two activists have a low opinion of the local governments across West Bengal. They complain about widespread corruption in all the political parties, be they Communist, Indian National Congress, Trinamool Congress, or something else. Bribery and nepotism run rampant on every level, and extortion and physical intimidation are not unheard of. They say a woman was run out of her own village for not complying with her party and another female official was raped. The presence of women in government, they say, hasn’t eliminated corruption and violence.

“Among 10 women you may have one woman who is actually resisting” the status quo, Suchitra says of the women in the reserved seats. She says one female official she knows recently fell asleep at a government meeting. “It’s not her fault,” Suchitra says kindly, defending the woman in the same moment as she complains about her. No one gave women in government the preparation and education they need to understand what goes on. “Many can’t even sign, they give their thumb,” Talwar says. “They don’t even know that dowry has been abolished,” Namita adds, explaining that the parties will nominate “any housewife.”

Even as they bemoan the intimidation and the ineffectiveness, the activists insist it’s unfair to reserve just a third of seats when half the population is female. They think it should be 50 percent. “Reservations help people to come out of their houses and take an active role,” Namita says. It’s just a matter of providing better training for women.


* * *

Samita Sen teaches at the Women’s Studies Department at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. She also trains women in the panchayats, providing materials to help teach female government officials about their rights and duties. One of Sen’s graduate students, Anindita Ghosh, is trying to evaluate the effectiveness of the women’s quota in local government around Kolkata, traveling to villages and interviewing women. She’s a native and has been surprised and demoralized by what she hears from the villagers outside her own city.

“If you want to say something about empowerment, in black and white, then there is nothing.” Ghosh says. “The party wants women who don’t know anything about the system.” Though Ghosh is incredibly downhearted about what she’s found regarding women and quotas, she would never say the quota should be taken away. She’s just annoyed that women aren’t getting better equity. And, in a phone call after our interview, she graciously asks me for one favor: Write at least one positive thing. She needs a little hope.

Despite negative data, Ghosh’s adviser, Sen, says gender experts have an optimistic viewpoint, too. Women are slowly progressing along a hierarchy. India has an increasing urban middle class of women, too poor to be figureheads in rich families but educated enough to make waves. And, sometimes, regardless of age, status, or education, women have minds of their own. Once they’ve learned the ropes, some women in the panchayats defy their puppet masters.


* * *

Mana Roy is in her first term as a member of the Helencha local government. She wasn’t even aware what she was signing up for when her family submitted her for nomination. But she’s learning fast.

Helencha is in North 24 Parganas, a district directly adjacent to Kolkata, closer than Nadia. Home to roughly nine million people, North 24 Parganas is West Bengal’s most populated district and looks close to the capital on a map. But to get there, we spend hours bouncing across half-paved roads, first getting stuck behind a walking horde of devotees celebrating their guru, then languishing in border traffic going between India and Bangladesh.

Mana Roy wears a brown sari and a brown, flowered cardigan. She is 34 and Hindu and has two sons, 14 and 8. We meet in a simple room at the large, concrete government office building; there’s a little conflict over whether her fellow male district politicians will let her talk with me alone. Roy makes them leave. Tea is served, and we sit at a rough-hewn wood table, with a glassless window open behind us.

Female politicians never work specifically for women as an underserved constituency. Instead, constituencies are always embedded first in ethnicity, caste, and religion.Roy is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); she says she ran for office because of pressure from her nephew, who’s an active party member. Her husband resisted the idea, but others in her family insisted she run. She defied her husband and ran for the post. After winning, she had to learn what the position entailed. Though she was politically naive when she started the job, Roy’s clearly a brave and outspoken person, with significantly more education than many women officials.

Going against her husband’s wishes can’t have been easy, but Roy’s marriage has another twist; her husband works in Saudi Arabia, a relatively common migratory path for some Indians. Her husband became so annoyed with her taking a government post that he’s refused to support her monetarily. So she does it all. Roy has a side business that produces a little extra cash, but her salary still isn’t large enough for her to hire someone to cook, clean, or take care of her sons. She gets up early, attends to the house, cooks, goes to her own office to earn a little money by investing her husband’s savings so she can use the interest, and arrives at the government office by 1 p.m.

Roy says she’s more than willing to try to address women’s issues. Sounds trite perhaps, but consider, Roy is the only female politician I meet in North 24 Parganas who didn’t wait for me to ask about gendered problems. Except for Roy and Khan and a few other rarities, my conversations go as follows: I ask, are there women’s issues? The normally friendly translator looks at me a little sarcastically, wanting to know what answer do I really expect—he tells me there won’t be a productive answer. I insist. He asks. The woman invariably answers in some unhelpful way. She may talk about domestic violence but never inequity.

But Roy doesn’t wait to be asked. She’s upset that women stay at home. “Whenever I want to work outside, the men say, ‘Why do you want to go outside?’” Moreover, the challenges for women in office are different. “Say I have to keep an appointment, but I cannot leave my house because I have to do the cooking,” Roy complains. If she’s delayed in her duty to cook at home, her own sons start yelling at her. “Even in this way, I am under the men,” she says, laughing.


* * *

In fact, Indian women have a lot to complain about. India ranked dead last—behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran—in health and survival equity in the 2009 Global Gender Gap Report. The 134-country study estimates the gap between women and men in each nation and compares that disparity to the other countries. India ranked 127th in economic participation and opportunity and 121st in educational attainment.

And yet, some women in India succeed. The country did well in the category of political empowerment, thanks to its quotas. Global Gender Gap researchers placed it 24th, well ahead of the United States and Canada. There are women doctors and professors, even women at the highest levels of the military. When Indira Gandhi ascended to the post of prime minister in 1966, Indians were unfazed by her gender. Voters cared more about her family ties.

Women in power on the local or parliamentary level rise to it exactly the same way that men do, through family connections and the support of political parties. Their gender isn’t so much of an issue, once they make it onto the ballot. However, even if a de-gendered election sounds good, a de-gendered political career means that female politicians never work specifically for women as an underserved constituency. Instead, constituencies are always embedded first in ethnicity, caste, and religion.

Indian women didn’t fight for the right to vote; they took on equal status when India’s government was created. Gender was dismissed as a topic of discussion. Instead, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, India’s independence restyled women as mothers and partners in building the nation. Gandhi said men should learn from women’s sense of self-sacrifice and devotion. That thinking may have helped women in certain ways, but it also reinforced how India values women, regardless of their social status. A good, devout woman gives herself up for her family and for her country.

Self-sacrifice such as this follows me everywhere in West Bengal, but perhaps it manifests itself most succinctly on the border of Bangladesh, at the Bagda Block Panchayat office, where I interviewed the vice president of the block. “I don’t have to complain,” says politician Maya Sankar stoutly. Married to a vegetable farmer, Sankar is the mother of two boys, has been in politics since 1998, and has a 10th-grade education. “Perhaps God has given us women the power to withstand everything.”

Anrica Deb is a science reporter and fellow at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She writes for the school’s experimental hyperlocal website, Mission Local, in San Francisco. More by Anrica Deb