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27 décembre 2006 3 27 /12 /décembre /2006 00:00

It is generally admitted that the more developed a country is and the higher its Human Development Index is, the more active and equally represented in the political realm women are. But paradoxically enough, the situation of Sri Lankan women completely challenges this axiom, especially when compared to India

. Indeed, Sri Lanka ranks 96th of 177 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index whereas India painfully reaches the 127th rank <www.populationdata.net>. The figures of literacy and education among women are much better in Sri Lanka than in India, as well as the average welfare level. Therefore, we can wonder whether a country where 87% of the women are literate hardly grants any political representation to women, while Indian women are much further on the way towards equality, at least at the local level. This essay aims at showing that cultural and historical factors are more crucial in determining the level of female political participation than economic factors. However, the most deciding factor in moving a society towards an equal representation is the leaders’strength of will and the setting up of quotas. To do this, it will first compare socio-cultural factors in India and Sri Lanka that could explain the gap between the countries and secondly try to prove how only a strong political will coming from the top down allowed Indian women to make their voice heard in the political realm, in spite of a deeply patriarchal environment.

When looking for socio-cultural factors that might explain the gap between the political representation of women in Sri Lanka and India, one can not avoid dealing with the religious factors, since politics and religion permanently penetrate each other in South Asian societies. But above the religious essentialisation of women, I will try to show how some historical factors strengthened the patriarchal values of the society whereas others lead to a political empowerment of women.

 The widespread perceptions of gender roles in India and Sri Lanka are deeply linked to religious bases and the laws on personal status are partly derived from religious norms (Sobhan, 2003, p.27). At first sight, it seems that Buddhism, the religion practiced by 70% of the population, should be more compatible with the participation of women to the political life than Hinduism, practised by about 80% of the Indians. Indeed, in Hinduism, the women are not allowed to study the Vedas or to perform any sacrifices. The laws of Manu state that a woman must never be independent, even at home (Verma, 2005. p.26), while the custom of purdah restricts the women’s freedom of movement among many Hindu and Muslim groups in Northern India. As a result, politics is perceived as a male domain, while women are considered the guardians of family honour. Family discord and dishonour would be brought about by a participation of women in the public space (Richter, 1990).

 In contrast to Hinduism, Buddhism seems to confer a much more favourable status to women than Hinduism. Bartholomeusz (1999) enlights the fact that the Buddha’s foster mother was the first person to be initiated into his order and that the Buddha considered women as spiritual equals. But when one goes deeper into Buddhist canonical literature, it becomes obvious that the Buddha praised women for the motherly virtues that they embodied.  According to Bartholomeusz (1999), the Buddhist “theory of dependent-arising” fosters the male acceptance of women as political leaders as far as they represent the would-be female values of compassion, cooperation and responsibility, but not as equals to the men. For instance, C.B. Kumaranatunga was elected president in November 1999 by the very patriarchal Sri Lankan population, after a campaign when she stressed her abilities to be the peaceful mother of all ethnic groups (Bartholomeusz, 1999). Thus, if religious factors can certainly not explain why the level of political participation of women is higher in than it , it would be far too simplistic to consider Buddhism an instrument of equality between men and women.

Buddhism primarily emphasizes the role of women as mothers, but more generally, South Asian women are perceived within the framework of family, as mothers, wives or daughters. Consequently, women are socially accepted in politics when they are perceived as filling a political void, brought about by the death or assassination either of their husband or father (Richter, 1990). Traditionally, an unmarried woman without any kinship link to a politically active father, brother or husband has very little chance of reaching a leadership position, or any political role. Mark Reade McKeanna (p.10), representative of the Asian Foundation in , writes that 90% of the few women who are currently members of the Sri Lankan Parliament are in place by virtue of a tie to a male family member. Thus, the fact that Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to have a female Prime Minister does not prevent the Sri Lankan women from having a lower status that Nepalese or Mongolian women. Indeed, the kind of legitimacy that allowed Sirimavo Bandaranaike to be elected head of government in Sri Lanka, after the  assassination of her husband in 1959, was very different from Golda Meir’s or Margaret Thatcher’s legitimacy (Richter, 1990). In as well, Indira and Maneka Gandhi were perceived, at least at the beginning of their political carriers, as the heirs of their late father and husband. Thus, and have in common the fact that female politicians are better admitted if they seem to be guardians of inherited familial values rather than independent forerunners.

 Significantly, a women's movement as generally conceptualized by sociologists has not emerged in Sri Lanka.(Pickles, 2004), since most organisations of women, like Women in Black or Mothers and Sisters of Sri Lanka,  are related to their motherhood. These movements within the civil society managed to be relatively influential while demanding peace through petitions and demonstrations, but dramatically no woman gained access to the 1984 All Party peace negotiations (Samuel, 2001). According to Samuel, “the use of motherhood as a political means could not be sustained as a means of genuine empowerment to women.”, and all the less since women present themselves as victims of the conflict. Lindio-McGovern (1999, p.68) even considers that the women’s activism had “contradictory outcomes” as far as empowerment is concerned. In India and Sri Lanka, neither the respect granted to women as wives and mothers makes them take part in the political decision-making nor the model of mythical female leaders brings a gender revolution from the top down for the mass of rural women.

 Even if India and Sri Lanka partly share the same base of patriarchal value, however, there is a major difference between both countries as far as the historical environment that has prevailed for one century is concerned. In , a long struggle for independence has brought about the political empowerment of some women, whereas in , a civil war and a violent political context have made politics an unsafe domain for women. According to Romila Thapar (quoted by K.L.Richter), the longer struggle for independence their country has experienced, the more likely Asian women are to be involved in politics. In , Sarojini Naidu was the first female President of the Indian National Congress in 1925 and Aruna Asaf Ali was one of the leaders of the Quit India Movement in 1942[1]. Doubtlessley, there was a desocialization of women after independence and the number of women in elective politics dropped, since the men were reluctant to share power. But the experience of these years of struggle showed that women were able to participate into decision-making.

In Sri Lanka, the struggle for independence has been shorter than in India and post-independence politics has been marked by a climate of chauvinism and violence between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. According to

Mark Reade McKeanna, more than 2,000 violent incidents were reported during the 1997 local elections. This context has urged women, perceived as more vulnerable than men, upon a withdrawal from politics or prevented them from entering politics for more than thirty years. In the Tamil nationalist groups, the parity between men and women in the fighting force and among the suicide bombers is striking but the echelon of political decision-making remains overwhelmingly patriarchal (Samuel, p.195). In a context of civil war, in which allegiance is primarily ethnic, women’s movement do not manage to maintain their solidarity and enforce their constitutional right to representation.

 Thus, religion and traditional gender divisions of role do not help to understand why the level of female political participation is lower is Sri Lanka than in India. But the Sri Lankan political environment, which is more violent that the Indian one, relatively violent towards women and minorities too, is a key factor to understand this lack of participation. Nevertheless, the Indian political will of enforcing women’s right was even more crucial.

 In South Asian countries where patriarchal values are deeply rooted, a political philosophy of the will  seems to be necessary to enforce women’s right to an equal political participation at every level. Officially, both the 1950 Indian Constitution and the 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution guaranty equality for men and women in face of the law. Article 15 of the Indian Constitution specifies that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. Sri Lankan women were even allowed to vote in 1931, thanks to an unusual universal franchise which granted this right to men and women at the same time. This was even before the British women gained access to the right to vote. also ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination Of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

 Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan state does not use any affirmative action method to enforce this abstract notion of equality of men and women, whereas India does. is the only South Asian country which does not reserve any percentage of the seats in local governments to women.  (Philips, A., 2004). Thus, the Constitution of Sri Lanka is a perfect example of “classical Western democratic approach of equal opportunity with little concern over structural or economic obstacles to equality” (Coomaraswamy, 1984, p.79). However, the Sri Lankan Constitution provides affirmative action with regard to ethnic groups and backward classes. This reveals the lack of political will to move towards concretely enforced political equality for women, because of the weight of traditions and patriarchal values in the Sri Lankan society. However, lawmakers very often have to be forerunners instead of reflecting the widespread values of the society, in order to enforce equality.

 Contrary to Sri Lanka, India has a long tradition of using affirmative action with regard to gender. In , article 15 of the Constitution was interpretated as allowing the state to discriminate in favour of women against men, since the women were considered of an historic discrimination (Kapur and Cossman, 1999, p.232). This permitted the adoption of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution in 1992, which reserved seats for women in pantchayats. As early as the beginning of the1950s, (Buch, 2005, p.238), Indian states as Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh had started reservating two seats for women in panchayats, or co-opting them if they were not elected.  Nevertheless, the 73rd amendment to the Constitution was a determinative step forward, since it reserved at least one third of the seats to women at all the three levels of the panchayat councils, from village to district. The seats were reserved for women both as members and chairpersons. As a result, by 1998, about 800 000 women had entered panchayats, and thus grass rooted politics, whereas most of them had never taken part to any political decision-making. (Buch, 2005, p.243). According to Veena Gokhale (2004), over five million women have had some experience of local politics during the last decade thanks to this amendment.

 This policy of reservation was far from being welcomed by the whole male rural population across India. Many rural men criticized the fact that illiterate women had been elected and that they were to shy and not self-confident enough to take part to the debates. In lots of instances, the brothers or husbands of the elected women presided over the panchayat meetings (Subrahmanyam, 2005, p.170).  In a way, the 73rd amendment was ahead of its time, but it obliged the men to accept the presence of women at the panchayat’s meetings. At the beginning, some unskilled women were obviously manipulated by their male relatives, but the more political experienced they gained, the more autonomous they became. Self-help groups and NGO have been working in villages and helping women to run for local elections by increasing their political awareness. This allowed some women to stand for unreserved seats and sometimes win. Therefore, we can expect the 73rd amendment to lead to the emergence of a long term female leadership in the countryside.

 The Indian example of grass rooted equality reveals how an affirmative action policy can help changing mentalities in deeply patriarchal societies. In , no affirmative action policy was set up for the legislative bodies and as a result women are very poorly represented in the Lok Sabha. Their number has never reached 10% of the total number of MPs. In 1996, a law was introduced at the Lok Sabha, which advocated the reservation of one third of the seats for women in all the legislative assemblies.  But this law never saw the light of the day, since male opponent of the bill claim it will only bring to power highly-educated city women.

 Thus, without affirmative action policy, it may take several decades before Indian women reach equal representation in the legislative assemblies and the change might come from the continuing political socialization of rural women. With other words, lawmaking is the only way to make gender representation radically change relatively quickly.

 In Sri Lanka, there has never been any affirmative action policy conducted in order to facilitate women’s access to political representation. For decades, it has become obvious for scholars and observers that equal access to education for boys and girls is not enough to guaranty a fair political representation. Indeed, according to Katie Pickles (2004, pp.235-236), 44.4 percent of students attending Sri Lankan universities by 1970 were women, which is  a huge proportion of female students in a South Asian country in this period. But at the same time, very few women played an active role in the political field. Dr Amali Philips (2004) underlines that at the recent election in April 2004, there were 337 female candidates but only nine of them were elected to Parliament.  Today, in a government that counts out more than 50 cabinet and non cabinet ministers, there are only three women <http://www.priu.gov.lk/Govt_Ministers/Indexministers.html>: Mrs Ferial Ashraff, Sumedha Gunawathi Jayasena and Pavithra Wanniarachchi. Moreover, they are respectively minister of housing and construction, Minister of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment and minister of the reduction of poverty, which shows how female politicians are still allocated traditionally “female” portfolio, supposed to require “female qualities” as sympathy and social awareness.

 Thus, without a policy of quotas, South Asian women find it very difficult to trace out their way to political power, in local institutions as well as in national ones. In rural , the shortage of time because of the burden of housekeeping and child care and the essentialisation of women as mothers prove a stumbling block to their political empowerment. On the contrary, in India, after the 73rd amendment was enforced, rural women organised in order to allow the elected women to attend the political meetings and sometimes political or social trainings in the neighbouring towns, by taking care of their children. (référence??) Thus, Indian women progressively get the means of having their voice heard on matters that affect their daily lives, whereas most Sri Lankan women do not, since they are even less represented at the lower level that at the higher one. According to Dr Amali Philips (2004), quoting a study carried out by South Asia Partnership Sri Lanka/Canada, there are about 3.65% women in Municipal Councils, about 2.75% in Urban Councils and 2.43%.in Pradeshya Sabhas. Because of the lack of quotas, the women can only be influential as voters, but very often political parties use female candidates or put women’s rights on their agenda in order to catch the female vote. Dr Philips emphasizes the fact that in the 2001 general elections the United National Party launched a manifesto for including women in candidates’ lists but that “no women were included in governance after the elections”. This reveals how difficult it is for women to fight their way to political representation if their are not assisted by a benevolent policy coming from the top down, to empower them politically, as well as educate them and provide them with capacity-building training. 

 As a conclusion, there is no automatic link between the economic development of a country and the level of female participation in the political realm. Economic growth and welfare improvment do not automaticaly empower women in societies where the domination of men over women is based on millenim-old traditions. Furthermore, neither in India nor in Sri Lanka is religion favorable to the access of women to leadership position in the public space. However, the historical context of a long struggle for independence and the incarceration of many male freedom fighters have laid the fundation for a more active participation of women in India than in Sri Lanka, where the violent ethnic conflict tends to keep women out of politics. Nonetheless, the most determining factor in widening the gap between India and Sri Lanka, as far as the percentage of female politicans is concerned, has been the setting up of quotas in India for local assemblies. This brought about a real revolution in rural India and is slowly helping to shift the rural mentalities toward more equality. In a country where intolerance based on caste and gender is paramount, this is a miracle due to a strong political will, coming from the top down and being progressively internalized by the Indians. In Sri Lanka, the lack of such a reservation policy maintains the percentage of women in political bodies at a very low level, whereas a high number of women with academic qualifications could play a deciding role in the political realm, and even more crucially in the solving of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict. The force of inertness and the weight of customs have been stronger in Sri Lanka than in India, which proved not to be afraid of bold political innovations.


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Nathouille 04/09/2006 21:44

Pfiou, il faut savoir parler Anglais maintenant :op ? ah mais non, ah mais non, non non naaaaoooon, c'est fatiguant ! Bon j'avoue, j'ai lu, en diagonale / en zigzag / en coeur... ;o).

J'espère que all is perfect pour toi ; gros bizoux, ZOUX, ZOUX !

(Pis d'abord, j'écris des commentaires puérils si je veux - vouée que je suis à ma tâche de "dé-sérieu-risation bloguesque" ^_^)