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In 1993, the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India granted the reservation of at least 33 percent of elected positions in village councils to women, resulting in the election of nearly one million women every five years. In spite of many imperfections, this is a significant institutional step in promoting grassroots democracy in India where about 70 percent of the people reside in rural areas (Sekhon 2000, 9). However, translating a legal measure into effective change at the grassroots level remains a key issue in empowering women as independent agents in the democratic social process. For this reason, this paper explores women's participation in panchayats, as these village councils are called, with an analysis located in feminist politics and participatory democracy. I specifically discuss how feminist rethinking of politics and democracy can be a catalyst for women's effective participation in local politics in India, particularly by redefining community involvement and activism as political work. I also discuss the possibilities for challenging structures of patriarchy that limit women's political engagement and social mobility.
I begin with a description of the context in which the constitutional amendment was passed in India and follow with an analysis of the work of social movement groups and organizations, particularly one women's organization, that are working to effect participatory democratic change at the grassroots level. I argue that feminist action research, training programs, and networking constitute an effective strategy for enabling political and social change and enhancing democracy. My analysis underscores the contribution of feminist scholarship and activism to the theoretical understanding of politics in the social sciences and Women's Studies. Feminist activism discussed in this paper bridges the gap between formal electoral politics and women's political participation in women's movement groups and organizations, focusing on women's participation in electoral politics at the local grassroots level. Furthermore, this study contributes to the comparative understanding of feminist politics and women's political participation.
Feminist Politics and Grassroots Democracy
Women's community-based grassroots organizing and actions signify the profoundly political nature of these forms of activism (Bystydzienski and Sekhon 1999; Cohen, Jones, and Tronto 1997; Naples 1998). Whether acting to protect their communities from toxic waste dumping or fighting for better schools and education for their children, campaigning for better wages and working conditions or challenging authorities to provide improved services to the community, or resisting domestic abuse, many women challenge patriarchal and inequitable gender relations and institutions. In so doing, they draw attention to many aspects of what are conventionally seen as private matters, redefining them as politically relevant issues of public concern. They also redefine politics to include women's grassroots organizing. Women's actions also challenge the dominant liberal definition of democratic politics, a definition that limits democracy to individual rights and electoral politics related to the formation and regulation of government and state institutions. This narrow and formal definition of democratic politics maintains the invisibility of patriarchal structures in society, especially in community and domestic life, that are inherent in institutions, and that have a significant influence on the ability of humans to participate effectively in public life and exercise their rights. Historically, women and minority groups in particular have been limited in this respect. Feminist rethinking of politics and democracy allows us to re-envision democracy as a broad participatory process in which citizens (and women) "take part directly in decisions affecting them, their community, their work, their interpersonal relationships, and, of course, their formal political institutions" (Sekhon 2001, 880-1).
However, many significant decisions are made within the context of formal institutional and political structures. A key objective for feminist politics and organizing, then, is to translate women's community activism into real power to make institutional changes that improve the quality of private and public life. This necessitates greater participation by women in formal political institutions at the local, state, and national levels. Given that much of women's political action is community-based, it is at the local level that women's participation in electoral politics can have a significant impact on challenging and changing patriarchal structures. Women's participation in electoral politics remains low worldwide, and India is no exception (Burn 2000, 187-91; United Nations 2000, 163-5). By the late 1990s, women accounted for 11 percent of seats in elected legislatures, an actual decline of 3 percent from the 1980s. While women's representation has increased in many parts of the world and is highest in the Scandinavian countries, the trend has been uneven at best. The lowest representation is in East Asia and North Africa, with declines in both Eastern Europe and East Asia. In India the percentage of women in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, has ranged from 2.8 percent in 1952, to 3.5 percent in 1977, 8.10 percent in 1984, and in 1998 it was 7.9 percent (Santha 1999, 15). Though accurate statistics are not available, women's participation in state and local elected offices in India is also very low. The reservation of seats in electoral politics at the local village council level instituted through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment in India, therefore, assumes significance in ensuring that female candidates are elected.
A formal right to stand for elections, however, is no guarantee that an individual, in this case a woman, can participate effectively. Not only do women need to be prepared for participation in formal electoral politics, they also need to be enabled to act independently and be confident in setting and implementing policies. This usually requires challenging traditional patriarchal institutions that limit political participation and activism. For example, Bystydzienski and Sekhon (1999), Dietz (1992), and Pateman (1989) note that the assumption of a separation between private and public spheres of life in the conventional approaches to democracy tends "to ignore the patriarchal structure of domestic life that translates into the unequal position of women and men in public life" (Sekhon 2001, 884).
In recent decades, numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including women's groups, have emerged as important players at local, national, and global levels (Civicus 1999; Fisher 1998; Carroll 1992). Working at the intermediate level between the community and the state, NGOs derive, develop, and change their agendas through cooperation and interaction with people at the grassroots level. In India, which has had a formal, if imperfect democratic system of government since independence in 1947, NGOs have played a significant role in expanding spaces for public participation (Kothari 1993; Kothari 2002, 195-203). Activists, academics, and intellectuals associated with organizations, such as Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), the Indian Social Institute, Aalochana Centre for Documentation and Research on Women, Multiple Action Research Group (MARG), and Institute for Social Sciences, are engaged in participatory action research, training, and advocacy with and for women at the local level. Broadly, in participatory action research, knowledge is generated from people in the communities through an interactive research process. Action on the basis of this knowledge and analysis may be directed back to the residents through training programs, and used for networking with other groups, disseminating information, and advocating with government and NGO agencies for assistance and implementation of policies and programs (Participatory Research in Asia 2000).
Focusing on the work of the above organizations generates information about the experiences of people who live and work in villages, and creates a space where their voices are more likely to be heard. In the last decade or so, NGOs have been working to enable effective participation by women in local politics, especially in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) or "rule of the panchayats" as the local council system is called. Their work provides a unique insight into the ways in which civil society organizations can work to improve the formal electoral process and enhance the potential for a more participatory representative democracy. I will illustrate my argument primarily through an exposition and analysis of the work of Aalochana, an organization that self-consciously engages in feminist politics to achieve more effective participation of women in panchayats. The work of Aalochana may be termed as what Naples describes as feminist activist research on behalf of progressive social change (1998). As scholar activists, the Aalochana team members have engaged in participatory research using dialogue and conversation, have developed a training program, and have created a network to "sustain and promote progressive …