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Occasional Paper Gender Policy 5: Women, Political Parties and Social Movements in South Asia

12 Sep 2005

  • Author(s): Amrita Basu


From Srimavo Bandranaike to Chandrika Kumaratunga, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, South Asia has had the largest number of female heads of state of any region in the world. This region also has relatively strong women’s movements, which emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of a broader civil society response to authoritarian state practices, and have continued to grow in the face of particular domestic challenges.

At the same time, across South Asia today there remains a normative commitment to relegating women, particularly middle-class women, to the private domain of home and family and excluding them from party politics. Political parties have generally accepted these views and functioned as the gatekeepers of male-dominated systems of power. And even as political parties have neglected women’s interests, they have profited from employing gendered imagery, drawing on women’s votes and using women in electioneering.

According to the author, left-of-centre parties are more apt to address questions of gender inequality, but not necessarily to have better representation of women in leadership positions. Leftist parties are most likely to commit themselves in principle to the eradication of gender inequality, which provides a normative standard to which their party leaders can appeal.

Nationalist parties, most of which are ethnically and religiously based, have been especially effective in mobilizing support through gendered appeals. Often the actual number of women involved in these movements, particularly in leadership positions, is relatively small, but their symbolic presence is enormously significant, the author says.

The biggest obstacle that confronts any serious attempt to challenge gender inequality through the party system is that parties draw on women’s participation as individuals, not as members of a group that has suffered discrimination. Women’s participation in party politics undermines their sense of collective identity, argues the author, and those women who have achieved positions of political power in South Asia do not owe these positions to political parties.

Women’s movements have played a critical role in placing women at the forefront of the political agenda. And whereas historically they devoted little attention to working with political parties through the electoral system, they have become more receptive to alliances with parties and more interested in influencing political processes than they were in the past. According to the author, this may be related to the growth of ethnic and religious nationalism, which has posed a direct challenge to women’s movements and led them to seek alliances with secular, democratic parties. International influences may also play an important role. Many Western funding agencies have sought to strengthen civil society organizations in response to neoliberal policies that have weakened states.

The major differences among South Asian countries concern the characteristics of their political systems, which offer very different opportunities for women’s political engagement. In general, the stronger democratic institutions and practices are, the greater the opportunities for women’s representation through the party system.

But democracy itself presents its own challenges. The alliance between certain civil society groups and political parties that is a product of democracy has also led parties to co-opt the demands of autonomous women’s groups. A related problem is that the growth of civil society associated with the spread of democracy is also responsible for the growth of conservative parties and movements. In all South Asian countries, right-wing groups, often ethnic and religious in character, have an enormous capacity to mobilize women, while undermining women’s advancement. This is one of the critical challenges that women’s movements acting in concert with leftist and secular parties must confront.

Amrita Basu is Dominic Paino Professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College, and the director of the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center, United States.

Order from UNRISD; 37 pages, July 2005, $12 for readers in industrialized countries, $6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.