CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1In 1935, the second Government of India Act was passed. This act served as a Constitution for British India, a complex political entity which extended over a territory now divided between the states of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Among other reforms, this text extended the forms of political representation by bolstering the powers of the legislative assemblies (in the provinces and at the central level), as well as by expanding the electorate. From then on, not only could women vote, but the conditions of franchise were lowered for them, and seats were reserved for them in the legislative assemblies. This made India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh the first countries in which quotas for women were implemented. [1]

2It is tempting to see the adoption of these reserved seats as a feminist victory – all the more so as a small group of women had been active in the public sphere, demanding political rights, since the end of the 1910s. [2] However, in the 1930s, the major organizations fighting for equality between the sexes were opposed to the quotas, which had been imposed by the colonial authorities against the feminists’ will. This configuration may seem surprising, insofar as many works on the subject insist on the role of feminist mobilizations in the adoption of women’s quotas. [3] Certainly, in British India, feminists took part in the debates over the reserved seats, and they continued to do so in the independent states of India and Pakistan. However, in these countries, it seems more heuristic to analyze the quotas through the prism of public action than through that of the sociology of mobilizations. Thus, we will focus on the potential significance of women’s political representation for the political authorities, whether these be the colonial administration, the governments of the independent states, or the governing parties. Indeed, the question of women’s representation remains an important political issue in India and Pakistan after 1947, and it was particularly the object of acrimonious debates in the 1990s and 2000s, when the issue of quotas returned to the public agenda. It is thus important to understand why, at various times in the history of these countries, some actors who were neither feminist nor even female asserted women’s right to political representation.

3The quotas can then be analyzed as instruments of public action which play a part in the governing authorities’ assumption of responsibility for the “question” of women, and later women’s rights, i.e., for what could be called, from the 1980s on, “state feminism”. [4] In this regard, reserved seats constitute an attempt on the part of the political authorities to establish and organize women’s political representation by proclaiming not only their need for representation but also the conditions under which this representation can be assured. In this respect, the concept of the “representative claim” proposed by Michael Saward [5] is a particularly useful analytical tool, because it makes it possible to analyze “claims” concerning women’s representation without limiting this to the representative-represented dyad. On the contrary, Saward suggests attending to five elements: the author (the “maker of representations”), the subject (or the representative), the object represented – constructed on the basis of a referent in the social world – and the audience. [6] In the case of women’s political representation, this analytical framework makes it possible to question the role of the political authorities, as an author of a claim for women’s representation. Is this claim also voiced by other actors, particularly feminist actors? How are “women” constructed as an object of representation, and which women are foregrounded or marginalized in the search for representatives?

4By combining this analytical framework with a socio-historical approach, this article aims to show how the political representation of women – and more broadly, the organization of the representativity of institutions – constitutes a matter of political legitimacy for the incumbent authorities. In other words, the quotas for women in South Asia are not so much the expression of a feminist movement or women’s demands (even if women and feminists participate in the debates) as they are a component of the political authorities’ legitimation process. For the latter, it is a matter of presenting representative institutions as “just” and “legitimate”, thereby legitimizing their own authority. Beyond the quotas for women, this article highlights the way in which, since the colonial period, the “women’s question” has been central to the definition of political modernity in India and Pakistan.

5The socio-historical approach thus makes it possible to trace the development of the representative claims made in the name of women, the alliances which formed around this issue, and the way in which the arguments evolved. In this respect, while there is a fairly rich literature concerning the quotas and women’s political representation in India, including from a historical perspective, [7] the issue has been less well studied on the other side of the border, [8] and comparisons between the two countries are rare. [9] However, the intersection of the Indian and Pakistani trajectories [10] makes it possible to inquire into the influence of the colonial past and to grasp the contexts in which the debate over women’s representation resurfaces or, on the contrary, is sidelined.

6This article is based on a corpus of colonial and then national archives (reports, legal texts, constitutional and parliamentary debates, correspondence) collected in India and Pakistan between 2008 and 2012, as well as on around a hundred interviews with actors in the contemporary debate on quotas. [11] It is thus primarily concerned with understanding how, and by whom, a demand for women’s representation was formulated, as well as the way in which the champions of women’s representation deployed their discourse. It first attempts to account for the conditions of the emergence of a demand for women’s representation in colonial India, then turns to the independent nations, and finally to contemporary debates.

Protecting and representing women: the civilizing mission and its detractors (1917-1947)

7The decision to establish seats reserved for women in the Government of India Act of 1935 was remarkable. Not only did it constitute a reversal with respect to an initial position rejecting political rights for Indian women, but perhaps more surprisingly it set the colonial authorities [12] against the position expressed by the major women’s movements, who demanded universal suffrage without quotas. In so doing, the British positioned themselves as champions of women’s electoral representation and implicitly contested the representativity of the women’s movements.

The British: champions of women’s representation?

8The issue of voting rights for women was not introduced to the public sphere by the colonial authorities but by a delegation of women who presented themselves to the secretary of state for India and the viceroy in 1917, when the latter held consultations on the drafting of the Government of India Act of 1919. These women were led by Sarojini Naidu, poet, feminist, and nationalist from the Congress party. [13] Their demand was refused on the pretext that this delegation was not representative of Indian women who did not want the right to vote. At the same time, the Southborough committee which toured the colony to collect opinions on the projected law did not meet with women (but accepted their written testimonies). Ultimately, the Government of India Act of 1919 did not enfranchise women, but it left the possibility of doing so up to the provincial legislatures, which did so in all provinces between 1919 and 1929. [14]

9Despite their initial hesitation, the British took up the question of women’s political rights at the end of the 1920s, just after all women obtained voting rights in Great Britain. During this period, consultations were undertaken in order to prepare a new Government of India Act. These took the form of three Round Table conferences held in London at the beginning of the 1930s, then of committees and commissions which were sent to the colony to collect the testimonies of individuals reputed to be representative or enlightened. Unlike the case in the 1910s, not only was the question of women’s representation on the agenda, but women were also present on the committees (in a limited number), and they were given a hearing. The committee that the British prime minister placed in charge of making recommendations on voting in 1931 is a good example of this effort at representation. Led by the Marquess of Lothian, it included two women, one of whom was Indian, among its eighteen members (half of whom were Indian). Part of the committee’s questionnaire pertained to women’s representation, and about thirty women and women’s organizations testified or sent a memorandum. The committee concluded that “there should be in the legislatures a number of women sufficient to express their views and make their influence felt”. [15] The committee’s report did not say much more about the need for women representatives in the legislatures, but the issue was addressed at the same time as the question of the number of women voters. According to the committee, more women voters were needed “to compel candidates to consider their interests, and opinions, to awaken political interest among women, and to make their votes an effective lever, particularly in providing reforms of special concern to women and children”. [16]

10It was thus simultaneously a matter of creating the women represented (politically “awakened” women) and women representatives, whose primary role would be to relay women’s opinion on issues such as the well-being of women and children. To this end, the committee recommended the establishment of quotas as well as measures aiming at feminizing the electoral rolls. These recommendations were, in fact, followed. In the Government of India Act of 1935, the vote was opened to women, with special conditions for franchise; in certain provinces, the wives of voters could vote, in others, the literate women. From that point on, there would be one female voter for five male voters. [17] In addition, fifteen seats were reserved for women in the central assemblies and forty-one in the provincial assemblies (around 3% of the elected seats). The methods for allocating these seats varied. In the central legislatures, it was done via an indirect poll of territorial districts especially drawn up for this purpose. In certain cases, separate female colleges were considered, but generally, the electorate was mixed. [18] Lastly, the Government of India Act turned its back on co-option, which, in the 1920s, had been the favoured means of representing women in the legislatures. Presenting the conclusions of his committee at Chatham House in 1932, the Marquess of Lothian explained:


“[Co-option] was condemned universally by the women themselves, who thought that no woman elected by men only would be representative; she would be a man’s woman and not a woman’s woman. But they were equally clear that women elected by women only would not be representative either. I take my hat off to them for saying that […] if women were to play their part in questions of reform affecting women […] it was essential that they should learn to fight elections on the same terms as anybody else.” [19]

12Lothian was selective in his citation of women’s testimonies before his committee. All firmly opposed co-option, but about half rejected the reservation of seats as well. They were followed in this (for other reasons) by several of the provincial committees appointed to assist the Lothian Committee in its work. Only a minority of these committees, in which the majority of the members and president were Indian, approved the reservation of seats for women, the others rejecting the idea or ignoring the issue. Thus, the Lothian Committee, led by a Briton under the authority of the prime minister, was the primary proponent of quotas for women. In order to understand this position, it is important to relate it to other colonial policies, in which women play a specific role.

The representation of women as an issue in colonial politics

13The assertion of the need to represent women electorally is inscribed within a twofold genealogy: British management of the protection of Indian women and the implementation of a political system founded on groups. The gendered nature of colonial processes, and particularly of the rhetoric of the “civilizing mission”, is well documented today. [20] In the case of the Indian subcontinent, Gayatri Spivak’s phrase “[w]hite men saving brown women from brown men” [21] reminds us that the issue was not so much the protection of women as the assertion of British (and thus white) supremacy. Though ambivalent, civilizing and chivalrous rhetoric can be found in various attempts to reform Indian social practices (often revised in the process), such as child marriage, polygyny, or sati. [22] British “protection” extended beyond women to a variety of groups considered to be vulnerable, such as the so-called “depressed” castes (in particular the “untouchables”) who thus benefited from reserved seats in the education system and public employment from the beginning of the twentieth century. [23] The logic of protection intersected with the logic of representation within the framework of the Government of India Act of 1919. This law effectively extended the system of separate electorates and representation which had been granted to Muslims beginning in 1909, [24] granting a small number of seats to various communities, including the “depressed” castes, on the basis of nomination. In 1935, the representative system was made even more complex with the extension of the separate electorates as well as reserved seats, including seats for women. [25] The representative system was thus constructed on the basis of the identification of groups presumed to be distinct from one another, whether the distinction was perceived as essential (religious or racial difference) or conjunctural (developmental lag), without the status of the distinction based on gender being otherwise evident.

14In this context, the evolution of the British attitude towards women’s political representation can be schematized into three periods. Until the 1910s, the British attempted to represent the interests of Indian women directly, particularly on the legislative plane. But in 1917, the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) was created, followed by the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1927. [26] The appearance of pan-Indian women’s organizations (some of whom were also feminist [27]), coupled with the reforms to the representative system in 1919, cast doubt on the right of the British to represent women directly. However, in the 1920s, the British and these organizations collaborated to this end. In particular, the WIA nominated women to be appointed to the legislatures. [28] Thus, like certain castes, women were represented via a small elite co-opted by the colonial authorities. Here, we can see how the author of the representation – in Saward’s sense – is separated and made autonomous from the role of the subject of the representation, i.e., that of the representative. Indeed, in the context of rising feminist movements, the colonial monopoly over women’s representation turned into a bid to monopolize the right to designate legitimate representatives. This logic was pushed to its conclusion from the 1930s, when it was no longer a question of appointing individuals to the assemblies but of electing them. There is a notable difference, however: colonial authorities had to face the opposition of feminist organizations, which were no longer content to legitimate the colonial claim to protect and represent women.

15The 1920s were thus a transitional period during which the British passed from one kind of representative claim to another. Let us recall that Saward defines his “representative claim” as “a claim to represent or to know what represents the interests of someone or something”. [29] However, as we see, the two logics were not strictly identical, and the passage from the one to the other gave rise to a major paradox: “women” were the object of a protective policy, but they also became political subjects capable of negotiating with the political authorities. Such was the case for other social groups affected by this policy. However, whereas Ambedkar refused to align the dalits (the “untouchables”) with the politics of the Congress Party in the 1930s, the AIWC and the WIA followed Congress and especially Gandhi, who rejected the reserved seats. [30]

16Thus, these two organizations clearly refused British protection with regard to representation and, along with it, the reservation of seats. In a 1931 letter addressed to the British prime minister, Sarojini Naidu and Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, two prominent feminists and nationalists representing women at the time of the second Round Table conference, asserted that “[t]o seek any form of preferential treatment would be to violate the integrity of the universal demand of Indian women for absolute equality of political status”. [31] While they invoked the principle of equality, their position above all reflected the loyalty of their organization (the AIWC) to the Congress. Women’s organizations were indeed expected to eschew positioning themselves as an autonomous group capable of negotiating directly with the British. For the nationalists of the Congress and of the Muslim League, only the party could speak on behalf of women and organize their representation. Both parties integrated women’s suffrage into their program at the beginning of the 1930s. [32] At that moment, therefore, the AIWC and the WIA demand for women’s franchise was integrated into a more global claim for universal franchise, and thus denied that women were to be represented as anything other than Indian citizens.

17The British authorities became anxious at this alliance of feminism with nationalism. This anxiety manifested itself in the sessions of the Lothian Committee, members of which sometimes demanded that the auditioned women reveal their ties to the Congress. [33] In this context, the British sought female representatives who would participate in the legitimation of the colonial political order. Thus, the only Indian named to the Lothian Committee was Radhabai Subbarayan. She was certainly a member of the AIWC, but also close to the British suffragettes, and her pro-reservations positions were well-known. Moreover, she had declined Congress’s call to boycott the first Round Table conference. [34] Ideally, women’s representatives should have been apolitical, just like the women’s interests which they were supposed to defend. This came through in the remarks of Philip Hartog, a British academic who had worked in the colony for a long time. Commenting on the Lothian Committee report, he was pleased that:


“[T]he Committee had not altogether accepted the views of the Indian ladies who would have denied themselves all special privileges. Under that system there would be little probability of having women members in the first legislatures […] The obstacle to progress in India [is] the illiterate mother. It [is] the women’s voice which [is] needed, more than the women’s vote.” [35]

19These remarks recall that while the myth of the colonial civilizing mission had become intolerable in the India of the 1930s, it retained its power in Great Britain. In this respect, the demand for women’s representation was directed not only toward colonial audiences, but also toward the British public, and in particular toward British suffragettes, who supported the option of a quota system for Indian women. [36] In addition, by proposing the reservation of seats for women, the British exploited divisions within the feminist camp, weakening the AIWC and the WIA, which, in alliance with the Congress, claimed to speak in the name of all Indian women.

The symbolic takeover by force and the manufacturing of women as representatives and represented

20In the aforementioned address to Chatham House, the Marquess of Lothian expressed the desire to allow the “women’s women” to enter the legislatures. He attributed this expression to those who testified before his committee. However, according to the minutes of the report, it derived instead from the electoral committee of the United Provinces, which expressed its discomfort with representatives who would not represent their gender. [37] Whatever its origin, this expression evidences the dual character of the “symbolic takeover by force” of representation: it simultaneously manufactures the objects and the subjects of women’s representation, without women necessarily being involved in the process. While rural women of low caste or veiled women were integrated into the group of women whose interests must be represented, they were not among those anticipated as representatives, who had to be educated, enlightened, and morally irreproachable. [38] Moreover, the representatives for women at the time of the second Round Table conference, Sarojini Naidu, Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, and Radhabai Subbarayan, belonged to the elite; they were educated, spoke English, and had spent time in Europe. They were certainly not typical of Indian women of the period, but their profile was representative of those chosen to represent Indian women, whether in the political assemblies or in the various advisory conferences and committees.

21In spite of the elitist nature of the movement, the leaders of the AIWC and WIA insisted on their capacity to speak for all Indian women. [39] Admittedly, it is not surprising that a feminist organization should present women as a unified subject or that it should demand the representation of this subject in public space. But this position was also adopted in the context of an intense debate as to the place of groups in political life. During the 1930s, the positions of the members of the Congress and the Muslim League on this subject became irreconcilable. For the former, separate electorates were a colonial invention which was contrary to national unity; for the latter, they were essential to safeguarding Muslim identity and interests. Close to the position of the Congress, the AIWC and the WIA thus opposed the political recognition of communities. For instance, in the course of her testimony before the Lothian Committee, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, a nationalist and women’s rights activist, refused to indicate the number of Muslim women members of the AIWC, asserting that women, unlike men, did not think in communitarian terms. [40]

22This feminist and nationalist universalism was disputed even within the women’s movement. Several testimonies of Muslim women attested to their feeling of marginalization. Jahan Ara Shahnawaz is one such example. During the second Round Table Conference in 1931, she was on the side of Sarojini Naidu in opposing reservations for women. Thereafter, her position evolved as she moved away from the AIWC and became closely involved with the Muslim League. [41] But the latter demanded separate electorates and reserved seats for Muslims, and it did not oppose the reservation of seats for women as long as these were also communitarian. [42] Indeed, for the partisans of separate electorates, “Muslim women standing as candidates or voting in any other than a Muslim constituency” would be unacceptable, [43] as the Muslim members of the electoral committee of the province of Assam reported in 1931. The British were sensitive to religious difference, which they had inscribed within the representative system at the beginning of the century. In the Government of India Act of 1935, the seats for women were communitarian, except in Orissa and in Assam, where there was only one seat reserved for women. [44] The willingness to maintain separate electorates is a reminder that the British claim to represent women was part of a broader strategy to legitimate their presence, a strategy in which separate electorates played a dominant part. Indeed, for the British, the point was to refuse the universal suffrage demanded by the nationalist parties, the WIA, and the AIWC, all while appearing to be the liberal protectors of the weak.

23At the end of this first section, it is important to stress that, on the Indian subcontinent, the question of the legitimacy of women’s political rights was quickly eliminated in favor of a still unresolved interrogation as to the form which their representation should take. This precocity was not, however, the sign of a greater feminist sensibility within Indian colonial society. In setting themselves up as women’s advocates, the British authorities primarily intended to legitimate a colonial order which was the protector of the most vulnerable and to consolidate a representative system which fragmented the electorate. So the question of women’s political representation overlapped with the more general question of the definition of the citizenry, and this became very clear in 1947 at the point when the colony became independent and partition occurred.

Representations of the nation and the representation of women (1947-1974)

24After India and Pakistan became two independent nations in August 1947, the Constituent Assembly elected in 1946 was divided into two. Within each Assembly, a clear majority emerged: that of the Congress in India, and that of the Muslim League in Pakistan. In this context, the positions expressed prior to independence strongly marked the development of the systems of representation and the place of women therein. In India, there was a focus on the role played by the incarnation of national unity in political representation; in Pakistan, the question of how to inscribe the ideal of a Muslim nation within the representative system emerged.

India: women caught between equality and unity

25In 1947, a major goal of the Indian constitutional process was the assertion of an egalitarian and unified nation. For the majority of the members of the assembly, partition constituted a severe trauma, for which separate electorates and the British policy of the representation of minorities were held responsible. Thus, the separate electorates and the reservations for religious minorities were quickly abandoned. [45] With regard to women, the fifteen elected to the Constituent Assembly all belonged to the Congress, and a third of them had played an important part within the AIWC or the WIA. These included, in particular, Sarojini Naidu as well as Renuka Ray, a nationalist from a significant political family from Bengal and a member of the AIWC. In July 1947, even before India declared its independence, she rejected the reservation of seats in the name of the principle of equality. Speaking to parliament in the name of “women”, she asserted that, “[e]ver since the start of the Women’s Movement in this country, women have been fundamentally opposed to […] reservations”. [46] According to the transcript of the debates, her declaration was met with a round of applause; in the political context of the time, this position was perceived as exemplary because it conformed to the principle of formal equality. Thus, the future deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who played a major part in the dismantling of the separate electorates, was pleased that “women have come forward to say that they do not want any special treatment”, while considering it regrettable that “men have not yet come up to that standard”. [47]

26Indeed, although they were abolished for religious groups, reserved seats were maintained for scheduled castes and tribes. [48] The debates highlighted the emergence of a new rhetoric which made it possible to justify these quotas by clearly distinguishing them from quotas for religious minorities. According to this rhetoric, reservations for the scheduled castes and tribes were meant to compensate for the economic and educational backwardness of these groups. They thus were not a matter of group representation but a temporary social justice measure permitting the implementation of equality as an abstract and universal principle. [49] However, the members of the scheduled castes and tribes which defended this measure within the Constituent Assembly revealed themselves to be distinct, unified groups, particularly because of their common experience of a long history of oppression. A dalit elected official presented the scheduled castes as a “political minority” [50] founded in exclusion, while an elected official of tribal origin underlined the specificity of the tribal populations and their millennia of exploitation ever since the “Aryan invasions”. [51] In this respect, this system of representation corresponds to the principles defined by Melissa Williams with regard to the political representation of African-Americans and women in the United States. According to Williams, since past experiences can render trust between certain groups difficult, demands for political representation are legitimate when they emanate from marginalized groups in whom the experience and memory of oppression coincides with unequal socio-economic status. [52] This theoretical framework makes it possible to understand why seats were not reserved for Muslims, since they could not point to a history of oppression and political exclusion. The exclusion of women remains an anomaly, but can be explained by the choice of the dominant women’s organizations and leaders to remain faithful to the ideal of undifferentiated equality.

27The abandonment of quotas does not imply however that the parties completely gave up organizing women’s political representation. Wendy Singer has shown that in the 1950s and 1960s, the Congress Party (then in power) set a target for approximately 15% of its elected officials to be women. [53] This figure is not very far from what was achieved in terms of female senators, whereas the proportion of women among Indian deputies stagnated around 5% until the 1980s. [54] A similar pattern appears in the case of Muslims; while they were underrepresented in directly elected legislatures, their representation was significantly higher in the Upper House and the government. [55] Thus, while rejecting the reservation of seats for women and Muslims, Congress worked toward the representation of these groups in the institutions which it controlled. Access to the upper chamber was largely controlled by the party; [56] those elected did not have the legitimacy conferred by a popular vote and thus remained dependent on the party. As in the colonial period, it was not a question of promoting women’s rights and their political organization as a group, but of legitimizing the representative system by emphasizing its inclusive character.

Quotas: from one Pakistani constitution to another

28Whereas India rejected the reservation of seats for women as a colonial legacy, they were maintained in Pakistan. As in India, however, this decision took place within a vast debate over how citizenry and equality were to be conceived. Indeed, a central question for the two Pakistani Constituent Assemblies which met between 1947 and 1956 [57] was the future of separate electorates within a country that would be majority Muslim from now on. In general terms, two camps clashed. According to the first, the country was founded for the Muslims of India, but it was secularist, and all citizens had to be treated in an undifferentiated way. The other camp held that Pakistan was an Islamic State within which religious minorities had to be distinguished. [58] In this debate, elected representatives belonging to religious minorities (mainly Bengali and affiliated with the Congress party) opposed the reservation of seats and separate electorates for minorities because this would make them second-class members of parliament. They were supported by some elected officials of the Muslim League, but the majority favored separate electorates.

29Just as in India, the two women representatives in the first Constituent Assembly (none were elected to the second) remained faithful to the positions they held prior to 1947. Thus, Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, who supported quotas for women after distancing herself from the AIWC in 1932, agitated for a substantial increase (20%) in the reserved seats, asserting the specificity of women’s interests and their need to be represented politically in order to achieve equality. She had to scale back some of her demands, as the quota for women never exceeded 3% in the various constitutional projects. Indeed, within the committee tasked with questions relating to the vote, there were misgivings concerning the reservation of seats for women. Some argued that the quotas aimed to compensate for the imbalance of the electorate in a context where the franchise laws favored men, and that universal suffrage made them obsolete. [59] However, at a plenary sitting, all the speeches were in favor of quotas. The arguments were even rather close to those of the colonial period; male representatives made reference to women’s particular situation and need of protection. Thus, quotas were necessary to compensate for the sufferings endured by women for centuries, but also because their “tender hearts” would be more sensitive to the misfortunes of their compatriots. [60]

30Colonial protection was thus replaced by national protection, also often presented as Islamic. Since the colonial period a discourse had developed which insisted on the privileged position of women within Islam, in response to the colonial discourses (and those of Hindu movements) which depicted the “Muslim woman” as a victim. [61] In this context, the rights granted to Pakistani women provided evidence of Islam’s progressivism. Thus, in 1950, Jahan Ara Shahnawaz hailed the full political citizenship granted to women. According to her, this decision exposed the “propaganda against Islam carried out in Western countries” by recalling that “Islam is the first religion in the world to recognize women as individual members of the State”. [62] This declaration was important in the context of the debate over the nature of the Pakistani state, because the representatives of the minorities favored a secularist state in the name of women’s rights and moreover supported Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, even if the latter did not show any willingness to link the women’s cause to that of the minorities. [63]

31The Constitution of 1956 was repealed in 1958, following a coup d’état. However, in the Constitution of 1962 promulgated by General Ayub Khan, there were six seats reserved for women in the National Assembly, that is to say 3.8% of the total seats. The third (and to this day, the last) Pakistani Constitution was written in 1973 by an assembly dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a party founded in 1967 by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto which had a social ideology. This text envisaged ten seats reserved for women, allocated to the parties in proportion to their weight in the National Assembly. This measure was not challenged by General Zia-ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977 and had Bhutto executed. On the contrary, he extended and doubled the number of women’s seats. [64]

32It is necessary to look more closely at the debate over the implementation of quotas, as it helps us to understand the objectives of the various actors. First, the question of the electoral college and electoral system was raised. Before 1956, in the absence of a Constitution, it was the Government of India Act of 1935 which applied, and at the time of the elections in the provincial assemblies the seats reserved for women were directly elected by means of large territorial constituencies in which only women voted (who also voted in the general elections). This mode of polling reappeared in the first constitutional projects, but the Constitution of 1956 simply stated that the reserved seats would be provided by means of women’s territorial constituencies, without further details. In the Constitution of 1962, an indirect election was envisaged: the seats reserved for women in the National Assembly were to be filled based on voting in large districts by members of the legislative assemblies of the provinces, who were themselves elected indirectly. [65] An indirect poll was also established in the Constitution of 1973, in spite of the protests of Jahan Ara Shahnawaz’s daughter, Nasim Jahan, then a representative in the Constituent Assembly, who feared that those elected would no longer represent women:


“These 200 members who are going to form the electorate for the women of Pakistan are likely to be males. Therefore, a very ambiguous position arises when women […] are also to act as representatives of women. They have to look after and safeguard the special interests of women and yet men are to elect them […] What happens is that many times when I get up and say something, they say, we elected you; you are now talking against us.” [66]

34Thus, the ideal of the “women’s women” defined in the colonial period was left behind. Moreover, in the Constitution of 1973, the quotas were limited to ten years. This is thus a shift from the representation of ontologically different interests to compensation for a conjunctural disadvantage. It should be stressed, moreover, that the quotas were not agreeable to the feminists nor to the women politicians who, as we have seen, criticized both their level and the mode of polling. The reserved seats were thus primarily satisfying to the heads of state (and their party, if there was one), whether that was the “modernizing” General Ayub Khan, the “socialist” politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, or the “Islamist” General Zia-ul-Haq. However, when there were elections, the parties (including those which established the quotas) showed little interest in women’s political representation, as evidenced by the low number of female candidates involved in the general legislative elections, which went from nine in 1970 to twenty-four in 1997. [67] This clearly demonstrates that the quotas were not justified by any feminist vision shared by these leaders, nor even by an attachment to democracy. The seats reserved for women functioned rather as a “marker”, in order to signal a certain kind of political modernity characterized by the protection of women.

35Thus, in spite of the rather different choices made, the attitudes of both the Indian and Pakistani political authorities toward quotas for women followed a similar logic. In the two countries, the question of women’s political representation was located within a wider debate as to the form of the state. This prohibited certain positions to feminists if they wanted to maintain their collaboration with the dominant political (or even military) forces. [68] In this respect, the cases of India and Pakistan are representative of the paradox of the institutionalization of the women’s movement from a feminist perspective: was it a victory or, on the contrary, a confiscation of women’s representation? This question became particularly crucial in the 1970s, as state feminism developed in the two countries.

Women’s representation in the era of state feminism (1975-2010)

36In 1992, India established a quota of 33% of women in its local governments (roughly the equivalent of municipalities), imitated in 2000 by Pakistan, where a quota of 17% in the provincial and central legislatures was also adopted in 2002. In India, the quotas remained confined to the local level but their extension to the legislatures was bitterly debated in the 1990s and 2000s. In both countries, the government played a crucial part in the (re)establishment of quotas for women. It is nevertheless necessary to highlight one notable change; while it was indeed the Indian government, under the leadership of Congress, which first suggested quotas at the local level at the end of the 1980s, now it enjoyed the support of the major women’s organizations. [69] In Pakistan, where the constitutional provision for quotas had lapsed in 1988, the feminist organizations and leaders also demanded the reestablishment of reservations. It was not until the 2000s that these demands were fulfilled, thanks to president (and military dictator) Musharraf. At the very end of the twentieth century, the Indian and Pakistani governments once again presented themselves as champions of women’s political representation. However, their claim – as well as the type of representation for women that was proposed – arose in a new context, that of the globalization and institutionalization of the women’s question.

The global and institutional logic for the re-establishment of quotas

37We can date the beginnings of state feminism in South Asia to the 1970s. In India as well as in Pakistan, the preparation and then the implementation of the recommendations issuing from the 1975 World Conference on Women organized by the United Nations in Mexico City were decisive. [70] Nevertheless, the institutionalization of the women’s movement took place at a different pace in each country. In Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s accession to head of state in 1971 marked a first wave of state feminism, because he made women’s rights a marker of his social modernization program. [71] However, Zia-ul-Haq’s 1977 coup d’état changed the situation, as women were directly affected by the policy of Islamization. While he advocated for the segregation of the sexes, even the seclusion of women, Zia increased the number of reserved seats. He continued the institutionalization of the women’s movement by establishing a dedicated division in his government. In India, the Women’s Welfare and Development Bureau, created in 1976 under the aegis of the Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, developed gradually, ultimately becoming a full ministry in its own right. [72]

38The importance accorded to the women’s movement varied from one government to another, and it should be stressed that the PPP in Pakistan and the Congress in India were particularly proactive on this issue. This may be explained by the location of their discourse on the center-left and the fact that they had been led by women. However, beyond partisan specificities, the institutions connected to women resisted changes of majority, even of regime. This was the effect of the development of “a globalized political culture of gender equality” [73] which made the representation of women a marker of democracy and modernity. It is impossible to do justice here to the complexity of this phenomenon, but it should be noted that at the end of the 1970s gender equality became a major subject of international and transnational debates. In particular, the Mexico City conference marked the beginning of the “Decade for Women”. It was during this decade that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was adopted. [74] This convention insisted on the need for substantive equality between women and men, opening the way to positive discrimination, particularly in the field of politics. In 1995, quotas for women were recommended within the framework of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. [75]

39In India and Pakistan, there were a certain number of the markers of these global discourses on women’s political representation, in particular the concept of “critical mass” which explains the figure of 33%. Even the quota of 17% in the Pakistani legislatures may be understood by the fact that it represents half of the 33% initially demanded, which had been considered excessive by the Musharraf government in 2002. [76] The influence of international discourses may also be observed in the way in which the quotas for women were legitimated. In both countries, they were integrated into discourses concerning the role of women in economic development, a set of themes developed in Beijing. [77] Additionally, in India as well as in Pakistan, quotas for women were implemented within the framework of reforms aimed at modernizing and democratizing local political life.

40The discourses on women’s political representation which were developed at the turn of the century echo colonial discourses on the links between women’s status and the modernity of nations. Rajiv Gandhi, who became Indian prime minister in 1984, and Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in Pakistan in 1999, had in common a modernizing agenda, and it is for this reason that they both advocated for women’s political representation. If this seems logical in the case of the young Rajiv Gandhi, who came to power after his mother’s assassination, the defense of women’s rights by a military dictator might seem surprising. But this was not new in Pakistan, where Ayub Khan had followed a similar path in the 1960s. In the geopolitical context of the 2000s, it was crucial for Musharraf to distinguish himself from Islamic fundamentalism by his liberalism. [78] In the context of the war in Afghanistan, discourses about protecting “Muslim women” against religious fundamentalism multiplied. [79] Hence, to promote women’s political representation seemed a smart choice for Musharraf. In his autobiography, he thus presents quotas as the proof of his commitment to women’s rights, declaring that Pakistan must progress in this respect if it wants to improve its international image and to develop economically. [80]

41This discourse on the importance of women’s political representation has penetrated a good deal of the party system. Thus, when quotas were introduced at the local level in India in 1992, no party protested. At the legislative elections of 1996 (and after), the majority of the parties supported the measure known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, which envisaged the extension of quotas to the legislative assemblies. This bill was never adopted, but no party represented in the parliament since 1996 has openly opposed the reservation of seats for women. Even the parties that reject this bill declare that they are open to some form of quotas. One finds this same ambivalence in Pakistan. After the lapse of the constitutional quotas in 1988, successive governments were committed to restoring the reserved seats. [81] However, none did so, and they were finally imposed by ordinance. This aroused very little opposition, and at the time of the constitutional revision of 2010, the parties almost unanimously decided not to tamper with the reserved seats. [82]

42Thus, beginning in the 1990s, it became politically costly, in India as in Pakistan, to oppose women’s political representation, or even to fail to actively advocate quotas. However, if we consider the political context in which the reserved seats were adopted in 1992 in India and in 2000-2002 in Pakistan, we see that what was really at stake was the legitimacy and image of the political decision-makers. Moreover, while the reservation of seats for women was supported by part of the women’s movement in India as well as in Pakistan, the construction of women encapsulated by the quotas was in tension with feminist politics, as attested by the debates around the role of Pakistani women in elected office, or the controversy concerning the Indian Women’s Reservation Bill.

Pakistani women in parliament: representing women or the people?

43In 2002, the implementation of quotas led to the nomination of 60 women to the Pakistani National Assembly and 17 to the Senate. These constitute the vast majority of the women members of parliament, insofar as only about fifteen women were directly elected in 2002, 2008, and 2013. The role of these representatives is dubious. As Anne Phillips has shown, the establishment of quotas for women rests partly on the idea that there are interests that only women can represent. [83] However, the 2002 measure did not assign any specific role to these women representatives, who have a status identical to that of the other members of parliament. Nonetheless, since they are nominated according to the performance of the parties in the general elections, they are often perceived as being less representative of the people than directly elected members of parliament. Because of the singularity of their gender in the political landscape as well as the specificity of the mode of polling, representatives occupying the reserved seats (and by extension women members of parliament) are confronted with specific injunctions to represent.

44In particular, there exists a strong injunction to represent women, emanating from the media and civil society organizations. Two articles published after the elections of 2002 in an English-language newspaper spoke eloquently to this point. Respectively entitled “Elected women ray of hope for oppressed females” [84] and “Agenda for women MPs”, [85] they presented a fairly clear roadmap for those elected, namely, to voice and defend women’s interests. Women’s organizations are generally more careful in their formulations, in particular because they consider that to limit the role of women representatives to female questions is a not a very feminist position. [86] The fact is, however, that women representatives may be criticized if they do not champion women’s causes. Thus, in 2009, the parliament voted for a law ratifying an agreement made with an armed group according to which sharia could be applied in a certain region of the country. The silence of the women members of parliament at the time of the vote was decried in the feminist community. [87] This controversy illustrates the ambivalence of feminist organizations with respect to the women members of parliament, with whom otherwise they have few formal ties. While they expect the support of women representatives, feminists are not ready to give up their right to define women’s interests.

45Thus, women members of parliament are the “subjects” of demands to represent voiced by various actors, including Pervez Musharraf and his successors, the political parties, the media, and women’s organizations. Faced with this, the attitude of women representatives is ambivalent. Many accept these injunctions, as in the case of one deputy who asserted that “we must stand with women […] and talk about them in parliament and in the media […], support them, protect them”. [88] Between 2008 and 2013, more than a quarter of the bills brought forward by women (individually or in groups) have pertained to women and their rights. [89] Established in 2008, there has also been a women’s caucus in parliament, i.e., an interparty group which gathers all women representatives with the official objective of channelling the efforts of women in parliament towards the improvement of the female condition, raising awareness in parliament concerning the issue of gender equality, and reinforcing ties to women’s organizations. [90] However, while an overwhelming majority of the women members of parliament I met before the creation of the caucus wanted it, those I met in 2010 were little invested in this structure. They justified their disinterest by pointing to the partisan character of the caucus, which was dominated by the party in power, and to its lack of effectiveness. For one woman representative, it was really just a matter of “photo ops”, [91] and for another, of “drinking tea”. [92] Supported by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and a series of ruling parties, this caucus has been a failure, illustrating the limits of the claim for women’s representation by the dominant political institutions. Thus, if women representatives occupying reserved seats are the “subjects” of a “claim to represent” formulated in their name, they do not always live up to the expectations of the authors of this claim. Women’s representation is one role among others to which women representatives refuse to be confined. [93] Moreover, if the caucus could not exist before 2008, it was because until the 2008 elections, 17 of the 60 deputies occupying seats reserved for women belonged to Islamic parties. At that time, it was impossible to create a shared platform, insofar as their presence, made extremely visible by their full-face veil, clashed with the enlightened discourse that quotas were supposed to express. This initial “failure” of the Pakistani quota system, like the Indian debates around women’s reserved seats, points to the difficulty of understanding women as an “object” of representation.

Who are “women”? Indian quotas at an impasse

46The definition of women as a group was central to the debate around the legislation known as the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Indian parliament between 1966 and 2010. This bill proposed to reserve one third of the constituencies in the National Assembly (Lok Sabha) and the legislative assemblies of the states for women. This quota would apply for fifteen years with a rotation of the reserved constituencies at each election. The bill was supported by a broad coalition of parties. However, it was never adopted because of the blocking strategy employed by a small number of parties, in particular the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal. With the passive complicity of a great number of male members of parliament, [94] these parties quasi-systematically prevented discussion of the law by disrupting the debates (shouting, disconnecting microphones, occupying the floor, and so forth). The project was finally passed by the Upper House in 2010, but having not yet received a similar vote in the Lower House, it has not yet been adopted. However, all the parties recognize the importance of women’s political representation and the legitimacy of the quotas. Thus, the opponents of the bill say they approve of quotas for women, but demand sub-quotas for Muslim women and the “other backward classes” (OBC). [95] The majority of those opposing the bill belong to parties presenting themselves as low-caste or Muslim, and are generally OBC or Muslims themselves. Their main argument is that the category “women” is without substance because of socio-economic, caste, and religious differences which give rise to radically opposed interests. Uma Bharti, a woman representative of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, a nationalist Hindu party which supports the bill) from an OBC caste, thus justified her demand for quotas for low-caste women:


“Women are in a difficult and dubious situation in their homes, in the homes of the high castes, of the low castes, and of the dalits, but the dalit women and women of the low castes suffer doubly. They suffer because they are dalits or low-caste and because they are women.” [96]

48Other dalit and OBC women in parliament developed a similar position, using their experience to denounce the intersection of these dominations. [97] Conversely, men insisted on the differences between women in terms of values, behaviors, and even physical appearance. Women of high caste and class are described as “sophisticated”, wearing their hair short (bal-katī mahilā), [98] and Westernized. One member of parliament went as far as to compare them to Non-Resident Indians, who are generally associated with money and education but also with a poor grasp of the local languages and traditions. [99] These women would thus not be very representative of “true” Indians. The critiques made by the law’s opponents are based on a certain sociological reality pertaining to the class homogeneity of the women elected to the Indian parliament since independence, and to the weak presence of Muslim women and OBC among them. [100] Admittedly, Muslims of both genders are underrepresented, but this is very marked among women. In the same way, OBC women benefited little from the gains made by OBC in the Indian legislatures since the 1950s. [101]

49Whereas the bill’s opponents say that “their women” (the possessive is frequently employed) cannot be represented by women of high class and caste, its partisans contest their right to speak in the name of women. Some, especially women, rehash the old argument of the unity of women beyond caste and religion. Thus, in 2000, junior minister of state Jayawanti Mehta (BJP) affirmed that there was “no difference within the tribe of the women” who “cannot be divided on the basis of religion and caste”. [102] However, this argument is no longer so frequently heard. In India, as elsewhere, the definition of the subject of feminist politics has been the topic of many debates; in particular, the exclusion or erasure of dalit, rural, and non-heterosexual women, and so forth, has been denounced. [103] For this reason, most of the activists in the women’s movement I interviewed, and some of the female politicians, recognized the plurality of situations and the intersection of dominations resulting from caste, gender, and religion. However, this has not always led them to question the legitimacy of their speaking for all women, but rather to stigmatize certain men. Thus, according to the director of a feminist NGO based in Delhi:


“[Opponents of the bill] belong to a macho culture […] that whole, male dominated culture of OBC. They have not given space to their own women, neither at home, nor in the community. So how can they talk of women in politics or the role of women in politics?” [104]

51This attitude has been challenged by certain feminists who proposed beating the opponents of the bill at their own game by accepting the sub-quotas. [105] Their argument emphasized the need to take account of the way in which women have been constituted as a group by the political authorities since the colonial period. In particular, the assertion of women’s right to be represented is articulated with a discourse of political modernity which has been used to legitimate inequalities of access to political power. In this respect, the case of India reminds us that the question of women’s political representation cannot be discussed in a decontextualized manner. It is not only a question of knowing which social marker (caste, class, religion, or gender) is the most politically legitimate, but of understanding how, and by whom, these categories were constituted and articulated with one another.

52* * *

53Since the 1990s, the adoption of quotas for women in many countries has been accompanied by a rich theoretical debate as to the relevance of the representation of women by women. [106] However, this theoretical framework is not sufficient to understand the logic behind the reservation of seats in India and in Pakistan. If, since the colonial period, the successive political authorities formulated and defended demands for representation in the name of women, it was above all with the goal of legitimating the political system in place, by underlining its protective or – after independence – its democratic and modern character. One thus cannot reduce the claim for women’s representation to a demand voiced primarily by women or feminist movements. On the contrary, it appears that this claim has multiple authors and audiences, well beyond the space of the women’s movement or national borders.

54The analysis of the Indian and Pakistani cases also leads us to reject a “historicist” vision [107] which would inscribe women’s quotas within a dynamic of progress and the development of representative democracy purportedly emanating from Western Europe and North America. The crossing of the trajectories of the two countries highlights the historical and social importance of local contexts for the way in which the demand for the representation of women could be formulated in South Asia. In particular, the legacy of the colonial period is apparent, first on the institutional level – as attested by the resilience of the reserved seats in the two countries – but also with regard to the framing of the issue of women’s political representation. Indeed, in the colonial period, this question was linked to two concerns: on the one hand, the representation of groups, and on the other hand, the place of women and gender representations in the constitution of colonial and then national projects. These two questions are central to the debates about the Indian Women’s Reservation Bill during the 1990s and 2000s, while in Pakistan, in the context of the war against so-called Islamic terrorism, women’s rights were more than ever a marker of modernity when Pervez Musharraf reinstated the quotas in 2002. Thus, in spite of their disparate institutional and political trajectories, India and Pakistan continue to discuss the political underrepresentation of women in strikingly parallel fashions.

55Finally, this article highlights the impact on feminism of the state’s assumption of responsibility for and organization of the claim for the political representation of women. Indeed, feminist and women’s organizations find themselves competing with the state on three levels. First of all, as the “author”, in Saward’s sense, of a representative claim for women, but also in the constitution of the “subject” of representation; that is who can be said to be representative of women: feminist and women’s organizations or women elected on reserved seats? Lastly – and this is of crucial importance – how should “women” be constituted as an “object” of representation? In this respect, any feminist politics runs the risk of instituting a political subject, “women”, which does more to generate exclusion than to emancipate. However, in the case of India and Pakistan, this tension is exacerbated by the role played by political authorities in the construction of women and other social groups as the object and subject of claims of representation, which are placed in competition. For feminists, it is then a question either of “playing the game” of competition, or of seeking to counter it by articulating their struggle with those of other social groups. However, in the case of the Indian Women’s Reservation Bill, the rare feminist calls for an alliance between the women’s movements and the OBCs and Muslim movements found little response on the part of lower castes and Muslim parties and movements. In this respect, the colonial strategy of fragmenting society and isolating demands for representation continues to bear its fruits in the twenty-first century. [108]

The English version of this article is published thanks to the support of the CNRS.

Chronology: Women’s political rights in India and Pakistan

561917: First delegation of women demanding franchise. Foundation of the Women’s Indian Association.

571919: Government of India Act; the possibility of enfranchising women is left to the provincial legislatures.

581930-32: Round Table conferences.

591931-32: Constitution, tour, and report of the Lothian Committee (Indian Franchise Committee).

601935: Government of India Act. Women obtain the vote under the same conditions as men and are given reserved seats in the assemblies.

611947: Partition of the subcontinent and independence of Pakistan, then of India.

tableau im1
India Pakistan 1950: Adoption of a republican constitution. 1956: First Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Women vote in the general constituencies and in women’s constituencies. 1962: Second Constitution. The seats reserved for women are retained, but women no longer enjoy double voting rights. 1971: Civil war and independence of Bangladesh. 1973: Third Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Reserved seats for women are retained. 1975: First international women’s conference in Mexico City. India and Pakistan participate. 1977: Coup d’état by General Zia-ul-Haq. 1988: Death of Zia-ul-Haq. Benazir Bhutto becomes prime minister. The seats reserved for women lapse. 1992 73rd and 74th amendments; institution of a new system of local governance with 33% of seats reserved for women. 1996: First presentation of the Women’s Reservation Bill in parliament. 1999: Coup d’état by General Pervez Musharraf. 2000: 33% of the seats in the local governments are reserved for women. 2002: 17% of the seats are reserved for women in parliament and in the provincial assemblies. 2010: The Upper House adopts the Women’s Reservation Bill. The legislation is never adopted by the Lower House.


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    Mona Lena Krook, Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 6.
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    Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), ch. 4.
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    Laure Bereni, La bataille de la parité. Mobilisations pour la féminisation du pouvoir (Paris: Economica, 2015); Krook, Quotas for Women in Politics, 21.
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    Amy Mazur and Dorothy McBride, “State feminism” in Gary Goertz and Amy Mazur (eds), Politics, Gender and Concepts: Theory and Methodology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 244-68.
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    Michael Saward, “The representative claim”, Contemporary Political Theory, 5(3), 2006, 297-318.
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    Michael Saward, The Representative Claim (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 36.
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    In India, the establishment of quotas at the local level in 1992, and then the proposal to extend them to the legislative assemblies, led to several strands within the literature. First there are works analyzing the effects of quotas at the local level: Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo, “Impact of reservation in Panchayati Raj: evidence from a nationwide randomised experiment”, Economic and Political Weekly, 39(9), 2004, 979-86; Archana Ghosh and Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal, Democratization in Progress: Women and Local Politics in Urban India (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2005). The debate over extending the quotas in the 1990s and 2000s gave rise to an engaged literature produced by feminist academics, of which the collection edited by Meena Dhanda provides a good example: Meena Dhanda (ed.), Reservations for Women (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2008). Other works analyze the issues and the history of the women’s quotas in a less engaged manner: Laura Dudley Jenkins, “Competing inequalities: the struggle over reserved legislative seats for women in India”, International Review of Social History, 44(7), 1999, 53-75; Vicky Randall, “Legislative gender quotas and Indian exceptionalism: the travails of the Women’s Reservation Bill”, Comparative Politics, 39(1), 2006, 63-82.
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    The issue of quotas in Pakistan is generally approached from the perspective of women’s mobilizations: Mariam Abou-Zahab “D’une rhétorique gouvernementale de façade à la mobilisation du mouvement des femmes en faveur des quotas” in Marion Tremblay (ed.), Femmes et Parlements: un regard international (Montréal: Éditions du remue-ménage, 2005), 275-88.
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    Michel Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann, “Penser l’histoire croisée: entre empirie et réflexivité”, Le genre humain, 42, 2004, 15-52.
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    The main archives consulted were at Nehru Memorial and Museum Library in New Delhi and in the library of the Pakistani National Assembly. This research was carried out within the framework of a doctoral dissertation in political science: Virginie Dutoya, La représentation des femmes dans les Parlements de l’Inde et du Pakistan (Paris: Dalloz, 2014).
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    “Colonial authorities” did not form a homogeneous whole at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Indian subcontinent was divided between territories directly administered by the British Crown and those administered by princes who were vassals to the Crown. The directly administered territories were divided into provinces, the legislatures and governments of which gained in autonomy as reforms advanced. Heading each province was a governor, who reported to the viceroy, the representative of the Crown in India. The latter reported to the secretary of state for India, in London. I use the expressions “colonial authorities” or “British authorities” to indicate the unit formed by the viceroy and the highest levels of the colonial administration as well as the secretary of state in London. For more details on the colonial political structure, see Judith Brown, Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984).
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    The Indian National Congress party was founded in 1885. From the end of the 1910s, it became a mass party dominating the national unity movement, the objective of which was the creation of a united India. Another important nationalist party was the Muslim League, founded in 1906. Initially a pressure group, the League gradually became the party championing the project of a separate Muslim state.
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    Suffrage remained regulated by a poll tax. On the question of women’s suffrage, see Forbes, Women in Modern India, ch. 4.
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    “Report of the Indian Franchise Committee”, Calcutta, Government of India, 1932, vol. 1, 82.
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    “Report of the Indian Franchise Committee”, 81.
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    Forbes, Women in Modern India, 112.
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    Government of India Act, 1935, see schedules 5 and 6.
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    Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (London: Zed Books, 1986); Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 [1st edn 1989]), 42.
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    Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the subaltern speak?” in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 297.
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    Sati is the ritual immolation of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband, practiced by certain communities, during certain periods. On colonial policy regarding women and its ambivalences, cf. Christine Keating, “Framing the postcolonial sexual contract: democracy, fraternalism, and state authority in India”, Hypatia, 22(4), 2007, 130-45.
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    Marc Galanter, Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
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    The demand had been expressed by a deputation (at Simla) led by the Aga Khan (Galanter, Competing Equalities, 25).
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    On the system of representation during the colonial period, see Alistair McMillan, Standing at the Margins: Representation and Electoral Reservation in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005).
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    The purpose of these two officially apolitical pan-Indian organizations was the advancement of women’s status through education, social reform, and policy. Together, they claimed a membership of 10,000 women by the mid-1930s (Forbes, Women in Modern India, 72-9).
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    The use of the term provokes debate in India and in Pakistan, because it is defined in terms of European and US history. I use it here as a convenient way to designate a movement or a person fighting for women’s rights from an egalitarian perspective. See also Forbes, Women in Modern India, 8.
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    Forbes, Women in Modern India, 104.
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    Saward, “The representative claim”, 305.
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    The Congress, however, managed to coerce the alignment of the dalits. See Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India (London: Hurst, 2003), 112-13.
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    “Letter to the Premier from Mrs. Naidu and Begum Shah Nawaz”, 16 November 1931, reproduced in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 6(1), January-June 1999, 129.
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    Indian National Congress, “Resolution on fundamental rights and economic policy (1931)”, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 6(1), 1999, 133; Shahnaz Rouse, Shifting Body Politics: Gender, Nation, State in Pakistan (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004), 24.
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    Philip Hartog, quoted in Marquess of Lothian, “India and the Franchise Problem”, 614.
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    Forbes, Women in Modern India, 111.
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    “Report of the Indian Franchise Committee”, vol. 2, 395.
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    Maitrayee Chaudhuri, Indian Women’s Movement: Reform and Revival (London: Sangam Books, 1993), 154-5.
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    “Report of the Indian Franchise Committee”, vol. 5, 102.
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    Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, Father & Daughter: A Political Autobiography (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2002). Another professional Muslim politician of this period describes similar feelings: Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, From Purdah to Parliament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
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    Chaudhuri, Indian Women’s Movement, 156.
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    “Report of the Indian Franchise Committee”, vol. 3, 327.
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    Government of India Act, 1935, schedule 6, part I, art. 6.
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    Constituent Assembly of India, 1947, vol. 4, 668-9.
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    Constituent Assembly of India, 1947, vol. 4, 674.
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    The scheduled castes constitute an administrative category corresponding to the castes situated at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Once called the “untouchables”, many today prefer the term dalit. The term “scheduled tribes” refers to the tribal populations, the so-called adivasi.
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    Galanter, Competing Equalities, 380.
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    Constituent Assembly of India, vol. 2, 20 January 1947, 674.
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    Constituent Assembly of India, vol. 9, 24 August 1949, 651.
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    Melissa Williams, Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failing of Liberal Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 176.
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    Wendy Singer, “A Constituency Suitable for Ladies” and Other Social Histories of Indian Elections (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007), 62.
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    The first Constituent Assembly was dissolved in 1954 and the new parliament adopted a Constitution in 1956.
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    This choice was justified by the difficulty of organizing a direct election, which is surprising insofar as the female territorial constituencies already existed. See “Report of the Constitution Commission”, reproduced in Mahmood Safdar, Constitutional Foundations of Pakistan (Lahore: Jang Publishers, 1990 [1st edn 1975]), 441.
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    Pakistan, National Assembly, Debates: Official report, 2(32), 1973, 2175.
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    Forbes, Women in Modern India, 225; Christèle Dedebant, Le voile et la bannière: L’avant-garde féministe au Pakistan (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2003), 100.
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    The “reversal” of the Indian feminists on the question of quotas was a long and complex process, beyond the scope of this article. See Dutoya, La représentation des femmes, 245ff.
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    Nighat Said Khan, “The new total order: politics and the women’s movement in Pakistan” in Soofia Mumtaz, Jean-Luc Racine and Imran Anwar Ali (eds), Pakistan: The Contours of State and Society (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2002), 141; Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewa, Femmes et politique en Inde et au Népal. Image et présence (Paris: Karthala, 2004), 188.
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    Lama-Rewal, Femmes et politique, 219ff.
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    Éléonore Lépinard, L’égalité introuvable. La parité, les féministes et la République (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2007), 29 (emphasis mine).
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    The text of this convention is available online: United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women”, UN Women, last accessed 23 October 2016 <>.
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    Fourth World Conference on Women, “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action”, 15 September 1995, last accessed 23 October 2016 <>, §190.
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    Nilofar Bakhtiar, advisor to the government in 2002, Islamabad, 9 April 2008.
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    Woman senator of the PML-Q (opposition), Islamabad, 1 October 2010.
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    Saward uses the concept of “shape-shifting representation” to describe such phenomena: Michael Saward, “Shape-shifting representation”, American Political Science Review, 108(4), 723-36. I explore these issues in depth in Virginie Dutoya, “From women’s quota to ‘women’s politics’: the impact of gender quotas on political representations and practices in the Pakistani National Parliament”, Politica Femina, 22(2), 2013, 17-34.
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    As became manifest in the course of the debate, the male members of parliament were generally hostile toward the law.
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    The OBC are an administrative category which combines various social groups (in spite of the term “classes”, it primarily concerns “castes”) which are “depressed” from the economic and educational standpoints, and which benefit from quotas in the educational sector and public employment, but not in the legislatures.
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    Lok Sabha Debates, 11th series, 12 September 1996, verbatim. The parliamentary debates are quoted either based on the bilingual official publication produced by the secretaries of the chambers (with the volume and number of page), or based on the verbatim transcripts put online (in these cases, signaled by the note verbatim, only the date is indicated). The original translation from Hindi to French was made by the author.
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    Such is the case of Phoolan Devi and Rina Chaudhary, women representatives of the Samajwadi Party elected at the beginning of the 2000s. Yet, some of the dalit, OBC, and Muslim women representatives favored the law.
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    This term was used by a male OBC representative; Lok Sabha Debates, 11th series, vol. 14, 1997, 384.
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    Lok Sabha Debates, 14th series, vol. 10, 2005, 532.
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    In 1996, less than 8% of the deputies belonged to the OBC castes, and 2.4% were Muslim.
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    Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Kumar, Rise of the Plebeians? The Changing Face of Indian Legislative Assemblies (New Delhi: Routledge, 2009).
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    Lok Sabha debates, 13th series, vol. 5, 2000, 715.
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    Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, 20 August 2009.
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    These positions were described to me by feminist researchers Mary E. John and Nivedita Menon in summer 2009. See also Mary E. John, “Alternate modernities? Reservations and women’s movement in 20th century India”, Economic and Political Weekly, 35(43/44), 2000, 3822-9.
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    See, inter alia, Phillips, The Politics of Presence; Meena Dhanda, “Representation for women: should feminists support quotas?”, Economic and Political Weekly, 35(33), 2000, 2969-76.
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    Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2000).
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    The author would like to thank Samuel Hayat and Bartolomeo Cappellina for their attentive reading and suggestions, as well as the referees and editors of the Revue française de science politique.

In the 1930s, reserved seats for women were implemented in political assemblies in British India, and they still exist in India and Pakistan today. Taking a socio-historical perspective, this article examines how the issue of women’s political representation has been framed in India and Pakistan, from the colonial periods onwards. In particular, political authorities (colonial and national) have made “representative claims” in the name of women, by claiming that they constituted a legitimate political category that ought to be represented as such, through reserved seats if need be. Using a large corpus of archives (committee reports, constitutional and legislative debates) as well as interviews, the article shows how the implementation of quotas contributes to the legitimation of the representative system, and consequently of the authority of the state.


  • political representation
  • women
  • quotas
  • South Asia
  • gender
Virginie Dutoya
Virginie Dutoya is a researcher in political science at the Centre Emile Durkheim at the CNRS. Her current work concerns spaces of the women’s movement in India and Pakistan and political representation from a comparative perspective. On the political representation of women in South Asia, she recently published La représentation des femmes dans les Parlements de l’Inde et du Pakistan (Paris: Dalloz, 2014); and “From women’s quota to ‘women’s politics’: the impact of gender quotas on political representations and practices in the Pakistani National Parliament”, Politica Femina, 22(2), 2013, 17-34 (Centre Émile Durkheim, Sciences Po Bordeaux, 11 allée Ausone, 33607 Pessac cedex).
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