When the Glass Ceiling is made of Concrete: Women’s Political Participation in South Asia

As the first female US presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton had brought about wide anticipation that a woman President in the world’s most powerful democracy was within reach. Much was written about the expected shattering of the glass ceiling and what Hilary Clinton might be able to bring to the presidency with the vast experience she has acquired. As someone who has spent most of her life in India, I was less enthused about the prospects of a woman President in the US and its dividends for the global feminist movement; perhaps more interested in the gendered politics of the elections and its similarities or differences with the South Asian region I am most familiar with.


United We Stand: Women across the political spectrum (Communist Party leader Brinda Karat and BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Naima Heptullah celebrate outside the Parliament after the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed by the Upper house (Rajya Sabha) in New Delhi on March 9, 2010. The Bill is yet to be cleared by the Lower House (Lok Sabha)

It has taken the US more than two centuries since its independence in 1776 to come this close to having a woman as the head of state. In my adopted ‘home’ Australia, it took more than 100 hundred years to elect Julia Gillard as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia. This would seem puzzling to anyone from the postcolonial states of South Asia which not only granted suffrage to women at the dawn of independence from colonial rule, but have also had women leaders occupying the highest political positions as President or Prime Ministers since the 1950s. Sri Lanka has had Srimavo Bhandaranaike and Chandrika Kumaratunga while India has had Indira Gandhi and Pratibha Patil. Even Islamic Republics like Pakistan and Bangladesh have had women heads of state like Benazir Bhutto, Khalida Zia and Sheikh Hasina. In 1915 Nepal joined this illustrious list of states with female heads of state, electing Bidhya Devi Bhandari of the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist as its first woman President.

However, at the heart of this significant achievement lies a huge paradox. Women’s political participation in general has a dismal record compared to countries in the Global North or in other parts of Asia and Africa. In India, the number of women parliamentarians in the lower house (Lok Sabha) is 59 out of 545 seats (11%). The Women’s Reservation Bill, which sought to reserve at least one third (and it has been a puzzle as to why this number seems appropriate) of the total number of seats in the Lok-Sabha and in the state Legislative Assemblies for women, has yet to be approved and adopted. Similar problems arise for women in the panchayats and local government whose numbers may look good on paper but their power and impact are still controlled by patriarchal male leadership.

A study in which I participated and contributed to revealed that average women’s political representation is lowest in the Pacific sub region at 3.65% (excluding Australia and New Zealand), then East Asia at 17.6% closely followed by Southeastern Asia at 18.09% (including Brunei) and South Asia with 19.76%. Women’s representation is below the global average in all four sub regions despite affirmative action provisions. Women who are politically active are considered ‘exceptional’ due to their family background or connections. At the grassroots level there are more women in power but it is very difficult to trace the political career of any woman at a higher level who succeeded without kinship ties.

This paradox of having many successful women in politics as heads of state and yet lack of adequate political representation for women at the highest levels of government decision-making demonstrates serious challenges to gender equality in all the states of South Asia. With shared histories and congruent cultures, patriarchal structures and conservative attitudes permeate all aspects of political and social life. Male dominated political parties are always unwilling to include women, unless they are related to their powerful male leaders. This is also reflected in the fact that most women heads of state in the region have been kins of patriarchs such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ziaur Rahman, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike etc.

Women outside powerful families have limited social and financial support to contest elections and gain access to political networks. Literacy levels for women are dismal in many parts, and the education system does little to promote women’s leadership and orient women in politics. Moreover, the high levels of violence against women in society is reflected in the political sphere where high profile assassinations of women leaders have been common along with the violent targeting of women electoral candidates and political leaders.

America didn’t shatter its glass ceiling in 2016. And in South Asia women, the ceiling is made of concrete and thus, impossible to see beyond and break alone. Yet the optimist would say, one blow at a time, one brick at a time.

Swati Parashar is a Lecturer at Monash University