Professor Shirin Rai’s and Dr Carole Spray’s Performing Representation: Women Members in the Indian Parliament (OUP 2018) is the first comprehensive analysis of women in the Indian parliament. Offering a new multi-methods analytical approach, it explores the possibilities and limits of parliamentary democracy and the participation of women in its institutional performances – and it raises critical questions about the politics of difference, claim-making, representation and intersectionality.

In this book, we set out to answer some theoretical and empirical questions about gender and representation through examining the role of women in the Indian parliament. To do so, we reviewed and analysed the history of women in parliament; the routes – sociological as well as electoral – they take to get there; and the social profile of this small set of women that do enter parliament. We also analysed what women MPs do once they get to parliament – their performances in parliamentary debates, in the committee system and as development agents for their constituencies. Finally, we addressed questions of women’s leadership and of sustainable parliamentary participation.

One of our ambitions for this book was to develop a multi-method approach and a politics and performance framework for our analysis. Most of the work that we have read on gender and representation does either one or the other; we were convinced that bringing together quantitative and qualitative work would allow us to better analyse our research materials.

Our analysis is historically and socially embedded; the Indian parliament, like all parliaments, is an evolving institution whose materiality and symbolic place in the Indian polity can be understood only through its emergence as the representative body in postcolonial India. Of course, the Westminster model of governance is a colonial legacy – the place and space of the actual building, the architecture and its political palimpsest, its elite membership and rules and norms of political and legislative practice – can be traced to the British rule in India and the nationalist struggles against it. The aesthetics of parliament also reveal new strains within the institution – through examining the portraiture in parliament, we can reflect upon not only the gendered exclusions operative within it, but also the shifts in the party politics and the discourse of nationalism in neoliberal India. We wanted to bring parliament to life – not only through its rules and regulations but also through its aesthetics; not only by focusing on its membership but also the performances that go on within its portals.

By locating the institution in its history, we also seek to answer the question about its representativeness. What narratives of equality and citizenship framed the issue of representativeness? This allows us to reflect upon why women Members in the Constituent Assembly rejected special measures such as reservations for women and how this position has changed over a period of time. There has been much excellent theoretical work published on debates on gender and representation; building on this our starting point was and continues to be that the problem is not one of representing women but that of structural inequality whereby women are rendered marginal in political institutions at all levels. Our study suggests that the form that this exclusion takes is both formal and informal – it starts within the home with expectations of appropriate behaviour, access to public spaces and disciplining of women through enforcing patriarchal gender norms. It then continues to restrict women’s access to politics through the threat of or infliction of violence against women in public spaces – violence which is both physical and discursive; it is here that the role of family becomes important in ways that are not often analysed – promoting women’s careers, providing everyday support to enable women to pursue their careers in politics, ensuring some protection against media trolling and violence (see Chapter 2). Structural violence then generates particular modes of political performance which are visible not just outside parliament but inside too.

Our research showed that, despite the rigours of political life, most women we interviewed enjoyed being MPs; they wanted to continue to serve their constituencies and to participate in policy debates in parliament. The social and political importance that they secured through their position as MPs and the influence that they garnered in their constituencies no doubt underpins this commitment to continue working in political life. There is also for some a genuine interest in promoting the interests of their constituency, their caste or linguistic group. However, our research also showed that, while women MPs across the party spectrum, relished their work, this was framed very differently by women on the Right- and the Left-wings of party politics (see Chapter 8). This led us to emphasise the political ideologies that affect party articulations of gender equality – not all parties use the same discursive tropes to address women’s representation in parliament and, depending upon their political party and their own ideological framework, women MPs understand, represent and perform their politics differently.

Our analysis challenges the view that women bring a different set of (more womanist?) values on two counts – first, we need to take into account different ideological positions of women MPs; not all women MPs are feminists, even though many support women’s equality discourse, especially in the context of political and electoral mobilisation and increasingly in terms of women’s representation in legislative bodies such as parliament. Second, we demonstrate that institutional constraints do not always allow women MPs to pursue a woman-friendly politics; parliament itself is a gendered institution that needs reform in order for women to be able to participate fully and equally in its functioning. While one some issues women MPs have collaborated, in particular on Women’s Reservation Bill, a focus on party ideologies also means that while the possibilities of collaboration across party lines on specific issues related to women is a possibility, it is not easy (Chapter 9) given the hard boundaries of party politics in parliament. So, while increased representation of women in parliament matters a great deal, their work within parliament is highly dependent upon their parties, ideologies and commitment to feminist politics.

What generalizable conclusions do we reach? What tentative, speculative and strategic suppositions can we put forward for consideration to a gender and politics community of scholars? First, we need to be wary of the decline of parliament thesis. The narrative about parliamentary decline, we argue, is complex and somewhat flawed; as new bodies marked by gender and caste appear on stage, new forms of performances of politics take shape.

Taking the example of MPs’ behaviour in the Chambers, we have argued that disruptive legislative protest can be viewed not simply as inappropriate and inefficient, bringing into disrepute the reputations of legislative bodies, it can also be read in performance register through which we can productively map the changing cultural and historical development of representative politics. The criticism of parliamentary working is important but we argue that if parliament is analysed through the lens of performance, this criticism need not undermine the position of parliament as a necessary institution for democracy– especially in the context of the rise of a strong and strengthening executive and a populist leadership.

Second, we found that the access to parliament remains highly gendered, both socially and institutionally. Women are discouraged to participate in politics, have to take long gendered detours and continue to remain dependent upon their families to be able to do so. What our interviews revealed however was also that most women MPs are aware of this institutional and political bias against women. They are convinced that for parliament to be a space of equality for women, more women need to work in parliament, and that this can only happen with the introduction of quotas.

Third, in the context of critical mass v critical actors debate, we found that while critical actors are extremely important where the issue of induction of women candidates is concerned – see for example, the role Sonia Gandhi played in introducing the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha – critical mass (or rather the lack of) is also important in terms of women MPs’ work and their sustainability in in parliament. The small number of women in parliament means that they cannot effectively participate in debates, for example, without being interrupted, or overlooked or discursively framed in gendered ways.

Fourth, by combining performance, feminist and political economy approaches we have reflected upon not only the symbolic nature of parliament, but have also analysed parliament as a work site (Chapter 9). This allowed us to explore both legal and behavioural obligations of both the institutional actors and elected Members to make parliaments gender sensitive, which in turn can contribute to a sustainable participation in its work by all Members of parliament. While legal approaches to the workplace can provide a punitive framework for gender abusive behaviour, informal and behavioural reform can ensure that parliament becomes a gender sensitive work site.

Fifth, our study treats parliament as an institution where representative democracy is performed, and which therefore has great symbolic significance as a receptacle of certain public values that are valued and which need defending (see for example, Kymlicka, 1995). What we emphasise in our work is that representative democracy, encapsulated in the working of parliament is symbolically important for a democracy itself – it is ‘a place of work, a site for celebration, a democratic space…’ (Parkinson, 2012: 142).

Finally, if we view parliaments as diverse and conflictual spaces of work, women MPs  also cannot and must not be treated as a homogenous group in parliament even as their descriptive status (as women) places them collectively at the margins of the institution. We provide sufficient evidence for this position in the study of women in parliament.

We concluded the institution of parliament is not static – it is unfolding and developing in different performative modes (Rai, 2017); it is flawed and at times weak and even corrupt – the vernacularisation of its politics is often represented as its decline. Women remain marginalised within its portals. At the same time, however, it is an institution that makes claims for India’s democracy that is increasingly valuable in a context of the danger of increasing populism, of Executive predominance and of narrow nationalism even as neoliberal India faces challenges of increasing inequality.

Shirin M. Rai is Professor in the department of Politics and International Studies at Warwick University. She has written extensively on issues of gender, governance and development in journals such as SignsHypatiaNew Political EconomyInternational Feminist Journal of Politics and Political Studies. She has consulted with the United Nations’ Division for the Advancement of Women and UNDP. She is a founder member of the South Asia Research Network on Gender, Law and Governance, and she was Director of the Leverhulme Trust programme on Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament (2007-2011). 

Carole Spary is Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. Her research and teaching focuses on aspects of democratic politics and development, particularly gender, development, political representation and political institutions, with special reference to politics and policy in India. She is the former convenor (2008-2016) of the Politics of South Asia Specialist Group of the UK’s Political Studies Association.