19 March 2015

Engendering representation

Women are clearly under-represented in Parliament.  Are farmers adequately represented? Fishermen?
And who is 'over-represented'?  Lawyers, racketeers, thugs, idiots?
This was first published five years ago, i.e. March 21, 2010, in the now defunct Sunday Lakbima News.  As electoral reform is being debated right now, it is good to look at the less talked issue pertaining to 'representation'.
Whenever an American from the USA or someone from Europe talks about ‘progress’ and indulges in neo-colonial speak of whatever kind, I have a standard response, said half in jst half seriously.  
Sri Lanka produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister. There was a time when we had a woman President and a woman Prime Minister.  We have had Prime Ministers who were gay and who were bi-sexual.  We have had Leaders of the Opposition who are gay. We have senior ministers who are openly gay.’ 

I do this mostly to liberals and they almost always respond, ‘really?’  I add that a person’s gender or sexual orientation has little bearing on ‘electability’, subject of course to the qualification that if a woman is the widow or daughter of a slain politicians it would improve her chances a notch.  Even here, though, there is nothing to say that a son whose father was assassinated would fare no better than his sister.   

There is a huge mismatch in terms of percentages in Parliament.  Women make up a little more than half the population but there were only 13 in the last Parliament against 212 men.  That’s just 5.8%.  The first parliament had 3 women out of a total of 95 or just 3.1%.  The percentages have fluctuated and it is not a case where there’s slow/gradual improvement.   

Now some think this is a horrendous state of affairs. Statements are issued periodically by women’s rights organizations saying that there is gross under-representation of women and there’s been a call articulated now and then for seat-allocation, i.e. a certain number of seats in parliament reserved for women.  The United National Party in what is clearly a populist move launched a Women’s Charter of sorts the other day, reiterating the call for better representation.  I think this is an important move, populism notwithstanding.  More important of course is the pledge to ensure same salaries for equal remuneration for performing similar tasks.   But let’s consider this matter of better representation by way of correcting gender mismatch. 

I think that it is nonsense to think that someone from category A will look after the interests of all those in that category.  Men don’t represent men.  Women don’t represent women. Muslims don’t represent Muslims.  The govigama will not look after the govigama. People are multi-dimensional.  At various times various dimensions of overall character will come to the fore.  History has shown, for example, that the lot of women did not improve just because a country had a woman as chief executive.  Sinhalese leaders have betrayed Sinhalese, just as Tamil leaders have betrayed that community.  Men have seldom sought power to consolidate the patriarchy and women who aspired to political office rarely had women’s liberation as No. 1 priority item on their agenda.   

Reserving places in parliament can correct an outward anomaly, I agree. That is not the solution for a number of reasons.  First of all, if women really want to be in parliament and believe that there should be ‘FEMALE representation’ (i.e. women representing women and nobody else, representing women’s issues and nothing else), they can easily use the strength of numbers to collect the half-a-pound of flesh from first party and then the Parliament. They have not done that and the onus is on all those who advocate ‘better representation’ to do so, i.e. answer the question.  Asking for allotment is the easy/cheap way out and smacks of argumentative sloth.   

Secondly, it would open a can of worms called ‘precedent’.  Farmers, for example, can say that lawyers are over-represented in Parliament.  What is the ratio of farmer to lawyer in this country, does anyone know?  Let’s say it is 100: 1.  (probably much higher, let me hasten to add).  Now how many lawyers were in the last Parliament?  I don’t know, but I am pretty sure the number would be more than 50.  Let’s be conservative.  Let’s say there were only 25. How many farmers? I mean, how many MPs who actually till the field, do the weeding, harvest, thresh and take the paddy to mill and market?  None!  That’s gross under-representation isn’t it? Sorry, not under-representation but non-representation!  Will the good-representation-seekers do something to correct this injustice?  I doubt it.   

How many fishermen?  How many teachers? How many servicemen? Are we going to have a parliament which accommodates by law all social categories in accordance with numerical strength? Will someone who is really good with numbers tell us how to accommodate in this manner categories of gender, ethnicity, religious faith, class, occupation and age?  What if left-handed people suddenly find themselves under-represented?  What if people above or below a certain height want to be adequately represented?  Fat people? Thin people? Beggars, anyone?   

How about crooks?  Would the honest complain they are being under-represented?  Would Ranil Wickremesinghe bring out a Charter for the Marginalized?  How about a Charter for People with Disabilities?  How about a Parliamentary Quota for them?  Should we have a quota for kudukaarayas?  How do we work out the relevant mathematics?   

It is silly to think that increased representation will solve the problems women in our society suffer from and even if some gains can be obtained it would leave as painful side-effect the vexed issue of category-representation.  There are serious disparities in our society, especially on lines of gender.  There have been many attempts to correct these and some have floundered simply because advocates and practitioners have assumed that gender is a synonym for women and ignore the fact that women, in many instances, are locked in relationships that are intimate and/or extremely close for reasons of kinship with men.  The lives of the ‘protagonists’, if you want to use such language, are not neatly separable, as would be the case of distinctions in caste, religious faith, ethnic identity etc.  

I am not a woman. The charge can be made, ‘well let us decide what’s good for us’.  Fine.  But ladies (and gentlemen who advocate this ‘solution’) please understand that you can put all the make up you like but in the end there’s a real woman beneath all that and that’s what counts. The same thing holds for the issue of ‘representation’.  Us men have had a good time in terms of representation in Parliament, right?  We can ask, ‘how come only a certain class of men have benefited?’ There’s more to it than playing with percentages, I think, correct me if I am wrong. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com