Feminist agendas, democratic processes

Guest article by Tulika Srivastava, Women’s Fund Asia

This contribution to the CIVICUS reimagining democracy report seeks to examine the opportunities and challenges presented by democracy as an enabling context for the realisation of feminist agendas, particularly in Asia.

Our geo-social reality

Asia[1] is home to nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population, with 48 recognised nation-states and three special territories (Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan).[2] Asia offers an interesting amalgam of extreme patriarchy and feudal practices, with a shift toward democratic governance that came almost as a by-product of the overturn of colonialism in the early to mid-20th century.

In order to understand the praxis of democracy as a general political context in this region, it is important to also understand the colonial legacy. As in other countries of the global south, many Asian countries struggled with colonial rule. Even nations that were not colonised still experienced conflict, strife and violence as western influence expanded across the region. The colonialists aggressively pursued their profit-seeking interests not only through military action, but also by vanquishing and humiliating cultures, religions, languages,[3] natural and material wealth, and the very identity of the people.

Emerging from such deep oppression experienced over a long period of time has affected colonised populaces in ways that have been primary and central to the praxis of their cultures, religions and the realisation of their very identities.

Additionally, the redrawing of boundaries as the colonisers went about consolidating territories in the region proved to be the foundation of the ‘nation-building’ project. This consolidation, undertaken chiefly for the ease of their own administration over large tracts of land, changed the relationships amongst people and the state. This, of course, also impacted on the visualisation of nations as they emerged into independence, as is obvious from the emergence of India.

The nation-building effort has been largely mounted upon the notion of ‘one nation, one people’, a rhetoric used to build acceptance amongst people for a common identity, which subsumes one’s individual identity. This, of course, led to the logic that the common identity is a product of shared values, cultures, even aspirations. An example is the independence of Bangladesh, once East Pakistan. Initially in 1947 two nations emerged from the Indian freedom movement, India and Pakistan, with the latter created with the aim of ensuring that the Muslim minority was not discriminated against. The areas identified to be Pakistan were on the west and the east side of India, with the west being the larger tract of land and population, as well as the seat of the leadership that had successfully demanded the creation of Pakistan.[4]

As the seat of the government was in West Pakistan, the dominant culture in the country was that which was familiar in West Pakistan, which was often presented as the ‘Islamic’ way forward. The imposition of Urdu - inspired by the ‘one nation’ theory - as the national language by the West Pakistan-based government was seen as an assault by the predominantly Bangla-speaking people of East Pakistan, who also felt their culture being undermined on grounds of ‘Islamic’ practice. This led to the demand for independence by East Pakistan, with people feeling that they were being discriminated against: the same grounds on which Pakistan was created initially. The people of East Pakistan faced the might of the state as it sought to crush their movement for independence, including by killing many of their intellectuals and leaders. Despite this repression, Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971.

It appears that all states take the ‘one nation, one country’ approach, even those emerging from struggles rooted in diversity. In present-day Bangladesh, the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts seek to preserve their culture and language as the state goes about trying to create ‘one people’ in a nation where there are many.[5] Our democracy is placed within this context, of conflicted and multiple identities, of people displaced from themselves, who are seeking some notion of power and control, at least in the way they see themselves. Therefore, we have to understand that democracy must go beyond the issue of ‘free and fair elections’ being held or a government being elected by a majority.  

Democracy: definitions and practice

The last few years, in fact the last two decades, have showed us an increasing right-wing trend in governance. The term ‘right-wing’ denotes an ideology based on ideas that certain groups are superior, national identity should be homogenous and people should be controlled, particularly those who are identified as falling outside the homogenous identity, whose rights should be negated, among other characteristics.

At the same time, we are seeing a strong outpouring of protest and dissent, as people of all generations express their views as loudly as they can, with social media their chosen tool. These voices are, of course, facing a strong pushback from states that follow a right-wing agenda, and the agents of these states. As recently as August 2018, Bangladesh saw the unjust and brutal police arrest of Md. Shahidul Alam, a well-known scholar and activist, after he published a Facebook post protesting about violence against students in the capital, Dhaka.[6] In India, there have been mob lynchings of people from minority groups[7] and dalit communities,[8] in the name of protecting cows by the self-styled ‘cow-protectors’, who are closely linked with the ideology of the present Hindutva-minded government.[9] These actions on the part of the state - or inactions, as demonstrated in the latter example - challenge the very notion of a democracy based on the idea of majority voices ruling a nation.

Before delving into the working of democratic processes, we therefore need to unpack the meaning of democracy. For most part - as seen for example in the Democracy Index - democracy broadly refers to the holding of elections that are fair and inclusive.[10] This includes the ability of all to participate in elections, decision-making that reflects the will of the majority and the formation of a government elected by the majority, but one that is committed to the implementation of the constitution and to serving the entire populace. Some other identified characteristics often include the existence and functioning of ‘governance institutions’ and the freedom of expression, particularly for the media. 

In broad terms, this has been the framework for the implementation of democracy in Asia, and perhaps one of the reasons why the region continues to be in conflict. Even nations with more homogenous populations, such as Cambodia, have gone through egregious struggles, based on particular notions about the nature and look of the country.    

However dependent it is upon the voice of majority, democracy should also require two further critical actions:

  • Laws, policies and programmes should be built upon the mandate of the constitution of the country in question, enabling intervention for and reform in the status of all populations that are discriminated against; .
  • There should be an opportunity to participate at every level for every citizen.

The most important element that should define democracy is that every voice should count, whether within a majority, or as a single, dissenting voice. This enables minorities, even individuals, to stand against tides, in a hostile environment, and claim their rights on the grounds of dissent, objection and freedom.

Women in democracies

While women have been at the forefront of struggles for freedom across Asia, their role has largely been that of ‘identity bearers’. By seeing women only as part of communities, we do not see their lack of decision-making, or their inability to negotiate their interests within the community or family.

Change efforts, ranging from nation building to the introduction of present-day economies that are driven by the market interests of the few, have in general not included women’s citizenry, even though women in Asia have had the same right to vote as men since colonial rule ended. Women have been cast as citizens when constitutions have been articulated, but the struggle to change their status in society and families still continues, and is still often met with violent backlash.

Women’s voices are not the prevailing voices, and more often than not, they are subsumed or made invisible among the mass, as part of communities. The more we move toward a homogenous identity, the feebler become the voices of those who are different, including women, as well as people with minority, race and caste identities.

An example can be seen in the emerging democracy of Nepal, where the struggle against the 240-year-old monarchy was fought equally by women and men. And yet while we do see women as leaders in Nepal - at one time both the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice were women[11] - women are still not citizens on a par with men. A small example is their continued inability to pass citizenship onto their children in the same manner as Nepali men.[12]

Women’s rights agendas in Asia have not emerged from a struggle that has focused on democratic processes and voting rights. Rather, they have emerged from deep concern about the status of women amongst law-makers and policy-makers, as well as women’s rights development programmes, which have been more nationally driven. A concern over women’s political participation has emerged from community development and women’s empowerment programmes, as well as mandates created through the adoption of normative standards worldwide.

Perhaps a clear example of this latter trend comes from United Nations processes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948. Following this, the Convention against Torture came into power in 1960, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1969. Women realised that these instruments were not at all effective in ensuring the fulfilment of women’s human rights, and therefore effort was put into creating the mandate for and building their own treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, which came into force in 1981. In many ways, strangely, the international framework of universal standards has perhaps been a more critical driver of national agendas for women’s rights than national democratic processes.

But women still have a long way to go before they come together as a ‘political community’ in Asia, even though their political nature cannot be questioned. However, in the present context, for women to benefit from the opportunity to participate in the democratic process, their vision has to go beyond voting, party loyalty and seeking political office.

The ideology of feminism or feminisms is not geared towards obtaining advantage on the grounds of ‘womanhood’ alone. It is rather based on understanding the rationale for discrimination against and the inequality of women, and challenging this. However, the change that feminism seeks is not to turn the tables or to advantage women. It seeks the transformation of the social system, to ensure equality and end discrimination against all. It is rooted in understanding the process through which discrimination and inequality happens: for women, men, LGBTIQ people, indigenous people, racially marginalised and exploited people, and those exploited on the grounds of caste identities, nomadic life patterns and disabilities - in fact, all of humanity. Therefore, feminism puts forward process-driven ways of responding to discrimination and inequality to end the grounds on which manifestations such as violence against women, extreme exploitation, marginalisation and vulnerability are based.

As part of communities that are discriminated against, exploited and violated, the feminist praxis of democracy depends on the freedom of expression, which is the freedom, capacity and the right to offer dissent: freedoms that must be central to the very notion of democracy. 

We recognise that we may never have the power of majority. However, we have the right to refuse to submit, to borrow John Stuart Mill’s words, to “the tyranny of the majority.” Women across Asia have used access to platforms and laws strategically to make their claims, without depending on claiming the power of the majority, and have placed their support for feminist agendas as central to human development and progress. Therefore, a democracy that emphasises the claim and voice of the majority will fail the feminist test of ensuring that the concerns of the most discriminated against, violated, disadvantaged and vulnerable should be front and centre in all governance and administration, from framing laws, policies and programmes to their implementation.

In many struggles, violence against women has been used a weapon by the opposition. This has been in addition to on-going intra-community violence. Women have often been instructed to be silent about intra-community violence, even familial violence, on the basis that ‘the time is not right’ to raise the issue. Women have been repeatedly asked to wait, on the grounds that the bigger fight for rights is far more critical than their individual experience. Mostly, women have not been able to access justice, then or later. Evidence of this exists in so many places around the world that one would not want to give an example that focuses on any particular group while risking making the others invisible. But perhaps typically, after a conflict to free itself from Indonesia marked by violence, Timor-Leste has yet to deliver on women’s rights. While promised in name, the state’s current focus is on “development, infrastructure, and progress,” with few resources for anything else.[13]

If we look back in history, the seeds of bringing women in as identity bearers were sown quite firmly in the struggles for independence. Women leaders, in their goal to mobilise women for the revolution, echoed the demands of the revolution and instructed women on their roles as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, their central importance in families, and their role as ‘mothers of a nation’.

Enduring and new challenges

The right to vote and the holding of free and fair elections should therefore be only the first steps in a combination of processes needed to unleash the full potential of democracy. For democracy to work, the state must instil a nuanced understanding of the definition of rights and invest in mechanisms that accelerate access to the enjoyment of rights by citizens. This is a particular challenge for Asian countries, as political parties are generally focused on maintaining power and continue to use identity politics to guide their administration and governance, rather than advance human rights for all.

Modern states adopting democratic processes, even those with progressive constitutions, have struggled to end discrimination based on sex and gender, as there is limited understanding about the status of women. And in many ways, the social contract of silence amongst the beneficiaries of the exploitation of women allow states to hide behind appeals to ‘culture’, ‘tradition’, ‘religion’, and a ‘lack of resources’, allowing women’s rights to lapse with impunity.

One can almost see the link between women’s status as secondary citizens of a country and the need the state has of their labour, both low-paid and unpaid. The inability of women to claim their rights - universal human rights, and those guaranteed by their constitutions - is linked to their limited access to public spheres and their continued ghettoisation in unorganised sectors of work. We know that our sparse and trembling economies are surviving on the unpaid or grossly underpaid labour of women, particularly in care work. An International Labour Organization study states that in Asia and the Pacific: “men perform the lowest share of unpaid care work of all regions (1 hour and 4 minutes), with 28 minutes in Pakistan (or 8.0 per cent of men’s total working time) and only 31 minutes in India (7.9 per cent).”[14]

It seems that it serves the state to put formal laws in place, sometimes even going so far as to ensure a quota for women’s political participation, without ensuring that there is a conducive environment in which women can access and enjoy all their rights, including that of political participation.

The challenge we face today is not merely about the form of government, but also the direction that governance can lead us in. The USA is almost universally accepted as a practising democracy. But when the President of USA believes and acts as if climate change is not true, it poses a threat to the entire world.[15]

As the world struggles with a range of environmental and survival challenges, can the practice of democracy contribute to building an idea of a world citizenry that is not only about majority voices, but also has a nuanced understanding of individuals, without sacrificing communities? The question is particularly pressing in this day and age of migrant communities, who often live in countries where they have no power to even question the decisions being made about them and in spaces they cannot claim as their own, even when they have been brought there to perform work that citizens of that country would not.

This emerging challenge of building a world community is coming to us at a time when we are least prepared. As conversations rise about ethnicity, we risk forgetting the poor, whose struggles are as real. Yet the danger is that democracy would have us decide only on the grounds of citizenship and the view of the majority. While democracy has the potential for giving a voice to all, we need to ask, how do we ensure human rights for all?


[1] This contribution to the CIVICUS reimagining democracy report largely limits its scope to South and South East Asia, with some reference to East Asia. It largely does not address the specific contexts of Central or West Asia, except in general terms as part of Asia.

[2] ‘Population trends in Asia and the Pacific’, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/SPPS-Factsheet-Population-Trends-v3.pdf.

[3] Today, for example, Bahasa Malay and Bahasa Indonesian are written in the Latin script.

[4] ‘How India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were formed’, Shakeeb Asrar, Al Jazeera, 10 August 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/08/india-pakistan-bangladesh-formed-170807142655673.html.

[5] ‘Twenty years after peace accord, indigenous Bangladeshis still attacked over land’, Sohara Mehroze Shachi and Eva Gerharz, Reuters, 18 September 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bangladesh-landrights/twenty-years-after-peace-accord-indigenous-bangladeshis-still-attacked-over-land-idUSKCN1BT1K0.

[6] ‘An Acclaimed Photographer in Bangladesh Says He Was Tortured’, Rod Nordland, New York Times, 8 August 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/08/world/asia/bangladesh-photographer-shahidul-alam.html.

[7] ‘84% Dead In Cow-Related Violence Since 2010 Are Muslim; 97% Attacks After 2014’, Delna Abraham and Ojaswi Rao, India Spend, 28 June 2017, http://www.indiaspend.com/cover-story/86-dead-in-cow-related-violence-since-2010-are-muslim-97-attacks-after-2014-2014.

[8] ‘Mob lynchings in India: A look at data and the story behind the numbers’, Sandipan Baksi and Aravindhan Nagarajan, NewsLaundry, 4 July 2017, https://www.newslaundry.com/2017/07/04/mob-lynchings-in-india-a-look-at-data-and-the-story-behind-the-numbers.

[9] ‘Has India become ‘Lynchistan’?’, Rupa Subramanya, Observer Research Foundation, 1 July 2017, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/has-india-become-lynchistan. See also ‘Fraternity and a Caravan of Love in India’, Harsh Mander, CIVICUS Reimagining Democracy Report, 2018, https://www.civicus.org/index.php/re-imagining-democracy/stories-from-the-frontlines/3280-fraternity-and-a-caravan-of-love-in-india.

[10] ‘Democracy Index 2017: Free Speech Under Attack’, The Economist, https://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=DemocracyIndex2017; See also the infographic on the Democracy Index 2017, https://infographics.economist.com/2018/DemocracyIndex.

[11] ‘Women in National Government’, Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017, http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/arc/classif010117.htm.

[12] ‘Will Nepal Give Equal Citizenship Rights to Women?’ Catherine Harrington and Amal De Chickera, openDemocracy 50.50, 9 March 2017, https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/amal-de-chickera-catherine-harrington/will-nepal-give-equal-citizenship-rights-to-women.

[13] CEDAW Committee’s Concluding Observations on Timor Leste’s periodic reports, CEDAW/C/TLS/CO/2-3, 2015, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fTLS%2fCO%2f2-3&Lang=en.

[14] ‘Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work’, Laura Addati, Umberto Cattaneo, Valeria Esquivel and Isabel Valarino, International Labour Organization, June 2018, https://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_633135/lang--en/index.htm.

[15] ‘What position does the Trump administration take on climate change? All of them’, Chris Mooney, The Washington Post, 29 December 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/12/29/the-trump-administrations-position-on-climate-change-is-all-over-the-place/?utm_term=.85073b5ea84e.