In South Asia, women have been heads of state, and vital grassroots members of social movements, yet are under-represented in political parties. What determines the success of political parties in recruiting and promoting women? At what stage do parties supported by women feel compelled to represent their interests? What impact have female heads of state had on women’s participation in party politics? Focusing on Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, this paper examines the relationships between women and political parties, and between political parties and social movements that organise women.
Very little scholarship has been devoted to women’s political party engagement, perhaps because most political parties are male dominated, and neglect women and their interests. Beliefs that men are better equipped than women to exercise power in the public domain are widespread and deeply held in South Asia.
Even when parties have neglected women’s interests, they have profited from employing gendered imagery, drawing on women’s votes and using women in electioneering. Various questions arise:
- What determines the success of political parties in recruiting, training and promoting women? Are there systematic differences between parties depending on orientation, size or level of power? How effective are quotas in increasing women’s representation?
- What strategies do parties employ to gain women’s support during elections? Having received support, do parties then represent women’s interests? How much have women’s movements exploited parties’ need for votes by pressuring them to address women’s issues?
- What is the relationship between women’s leadership and women’s representation in political parties?
- Does a close relationship between women’s movements and political parties lead to deradicalised and undermined social movements, or is it a vital method in advancing the cause? What are the implications for women of the alliances between political parties and ethnic/religious movements?
In contrast to research on political parties, there is an abundance of literature on women’s activism in social movements: both democracy and peace movements and ethnic secessionist and religious nationalist movements. It is misleading to draw too strict a division between the social and political, not least because parties are formed and influenced within and by civil society. Parties and movements sometimes find alliances necessary to achieve otherwise impossible goals, and it is critical to examine the large-scale mobilisation of women by combinations of parties and movements.
- Left-of-centre parties are more likely to address questions of gender inequality, but not necessarily to have better representation of women in leadership.
- Nationalist parties, often ethnically and religiously based, have been especially effective in mobilising support through gendered appeals.
- Parties draw on women’s participation as individuals, not as members of a group that has suffered discrimination – participation in party politics further undermines women’s sense of identity.
- Gender inequality and patterns of discrimination are only challenged when women’s movements are strong enough to pressure political parties for better representation of women’s rights. This generally only happens in the context of a democracy.
- Women’s movements in South Asia have focused on bureaucratic or legal struggles rather than political ones, and have generally not developed alliances with political parties or women MPs.
- There is potential for South Asian women’s movements to jointly formulate demands concerning quotas for women’s representation in parliament.
- The growth of civil society in South Asia has been accompanied by the increase of conservative parties. Right-wing groups, often ethnic and religious in character have an enormous capacity to mobilise women’s groups whilst undermining women’s advancement – this a critical issue to be faced by women’s movements in concert with leftist and secular groups.