How women are revolutionizing politics in India's villages: A new book explores 

In conversation with Rachel E. Brulé, author of 'Women, Power, and Property: the Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India'

#WomenLead Conversations is a series of interviews with leading experts who help us better understand the world of women in politics. Subscribe to #WomenLead, a one-of-its-kind weekly newsletter that brings you the most important and exciting updates about women in politics from around the world.

Odds were stacked against Padmawathi when she became the sarpanch (elected head) of her village in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, India. Coming from a scheduled caste community, she came to office with a pretty clear agenda: she wanted to help women overcome the many challenges they faced in their everyday lives. 

Padmawathi’s exemplary work to empower women in her village now finds mention in a recent book by US academic Rachel Brulé. One of her innovations was to intervene in marriage negotiations, nudging parents to give daughters a share in land inheritance instead of monetary dowry. She began keeping marriage records of all women in her office, even if they were moving out after their wedding.

In doing so, Brulé says, Padmawathi was actively pushing back against established norms, where as soon as women are married, they become the property of their husband’s family. “Women who have experienced some kind of dispossession in their lives are often the most powerful advocates for other women,” Brulé tells #WomenLead.

Brulé, an assistant professor of Global Development Policy at Boston University, met Padmawathi during research for her book Women, Power, and Property: the Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India released in October. The book documents Brulé’s research where she explores the links between political representation and economic empowerment.

In a virtual interview, Brulé tells #WomenLead that she got into investigating this while exploring the broader question of how to undercut “inegalitarian social conventions”. While looking at various Indian laws, Brulé chanced upon land reforms, and when she read the Hindu Succession Act, she found herself saying, “What a beautiful law and idea!”

As a political scientist, Brulé knew that when it comes to property rights, not just economics, but power is at stake too. This is how she got into exploring how these rights are negotiated, and how access to property rights could be broadened.

Her research, which uses Indian government data, shows that improved political representation of women ensures enforcement of their economic rights, but this also leads to backlash. Caste continues to play a role in these negotiations: women from the highest caste groups find it easier to claim property rights when they get political representation, Brulé finds.

In a conversation on women’s political representation, Brulé shares her apprehension about potentially “greater resistance to women’s reservations - not less” in the near future, “unless something changes”, such as a disruption in women’s shrinking labour force participation. 

Here are some edited excerpts from the full conversation: 

Q: Your research shows that improved political representation of women (owing to political quotas) leads to improved economic - especially property - rights for women in India. How is this relationship impacted by caste? Does it hold true across caste groups, or does the caste of the women elected make a difference?

Rachel Brulé:  I analysed data from the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER)’s rural economic and demographic survey, 2006 to 2009. 

I found the strongest positive relationship between political representation and the ability to claim property rights amongst the relatively advantaged castes...there's a nine to 10 percentage point improvement in the likelihood that women will inherit land, if they're from these forward castes, conditional on having a female gatekeeper (a female pradhan or sarpanch).

But these are also the groups that see the strongest backlash. When gender-equal property rights are introduced, in addition to a woman elected leader, we see a decline of somewhere between 21 and 24 percentage points in the probability that women from forward castes will inherit any land. And that's significant at the 99% confidence intervals. 

So that's a really robust statistical relationship, and we see something similar but slightly less strong statistically for other backward castes (OBCs). 

We see something different with members of scheduled castes. For these groups, there's actually a negative relationship between claims to even symbolic property rights and female representation. So there, even the claim of symbolic property rights results in backlash.

To summarize that would be to say, we see backlash to female representation as a channel to claim property, inheritance rights across caste. But it's the strongest, and the kind of most statistically robust amongst the forward castes. 

When we look back at Irma Clots-Figueras’ 2011 research on women in state legislatures, she found that among women legislators, women coming from scheduled caste and scheduled tribe backgrounds were much more likely to promote legislation that favours women. They are strong proponents of these amendments to the Hindu Succession Act, and to similar kinds of gender progressive laws. And we don't see that kind of relationship/support from forward caste women.

It does seem like the most traditionally dispossessed women are the ones who are the strongest advocates for radical progressive change.

And I see something similar in my research (ongoing with Aliz Tóth). So, caste matters. And, certain women are more committed to these broader projects of egalitarian change than others. We could do more to advance the voices and the influence of the most disadvantaged women for everyone's benefit.

To me, trying to think about it all together, how do we think about the relationship between the caste system, political representation and property.  When we look early in the pre-independence days across these Dalit movements, particularly in southern and western India, they understood this struggle for equality to require overturning both caste and gender hierarchies.

To me, that is the broader project that we really need. Without equality in one domain, it's almost impossible to reach equality in the other domain. 

Q: How does the impact of political quotas for women vary by different states? Did you find a north-south/east-west divide? 

Rachel Brulé: It's a bit too soon to answer that. This particular set of reforms to equalize property rights came from the South, so the first states - Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka...reforms were happening from the late 70s to the mid 90s, in many cases before we had reservations for women in local politics. Nationally, we see reform (on inheritance rights) only as of 2005. 

So, we have a longer time period to look at how reforms are working in the south, but we do see evidence of women's inheritance when they have this bargaining power across the country. This isn't just a story about what's happening in the south, but I would say it's a question to keep returning to, I think it will take one or two generations to really have a clear sense of what the net impact would be of these reforms. 

Q: In 1992, India mandated that one-third of those elected at the local level be women. Several states have even gone on to increase that quota. As we saw with Padmawathi’s example, once elected, many women are working actively to make the lives of women better.

How do we quantify the scale of the impact that political quotas are creating? 

Rachel Brulé: The first Minister of Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Aiyar, had told me during a conversation for my book, “It's important to remember that there are more women in elected office in India than anywhere else in the world, and in fact, probably more than the rest of the world combined.”

I don't know how you can’t think about that as a revolution...the scale of change is massive. And I think we have to keep paying attention to what’s happening. 

Q: But we don’t see that revolution translating to increased representation at the state and national level. If political quotas lead to improved lives for women at the local level, could this act as a disincentive for (our very patriarchal political system) introducing similar quotas at the state and central levels? 

Rachel Brulé: We're still in the early days of female representation. But at this point, I think the most consistent response we see is a backlash - a sense of pushback - against attempts to legislate reservations for women at higher levels of office, at the state or national parliament. 

What we are seeing, there is this reigning popular discourse about proxy politics about the Sarpanch-pati or Pradhan-pati (husband of a village head), and this was particularly widespread in the run up to the first round of reserved seats for women.  

This was sort of men telling themselves, “We don’t need to worry too much, because we are still going to be in control. We can symbolically give away these seats to women, we know it’s going to be their brothers/husbands/fathers who are going to be pulling the strings.”

What we see from this early experience in local governance for women is that women really are effective political agents, and they really are revolutionizing how politics works at the local level. 

But I imagine that we are going to see greater resistance to women’s reservations - not less - in the near future unless something changes. 

And the place where we see this resistance even more powerfully, is in women’s entry into the labour force. The female labor force is actually declining across the country - not rising - despite the fact that in terms of education, women have parity with men, and in some cases even better levels of education than men.

So, this really is about the exit of excellent women from the labour force, and from the political spectrum as a result of resistance to a systemic altering of power relations. 

Q: So, what could be a way forward? Are there examples from around the world we could learn from?

Rachel Brulé: Ideally, what we need is more work to collectively mobilize not just women, but also men in support of greater equality. If I were to look outside of India, I think Scandinavia presents the most hopeful case. And there, if we go back 100 years, we saw radical activism, jump started by women but with great support from men as well. 

They started early on, from giving women access, paid maternity leave, and paternity leave, and getting men to take paternity leave - basically, changing relationships within the household.

And that requires putting money into families, not just into individuals who can scale the corporate ladder. I think it’s a different way of investing in egalitarian social systems that can lead to a more egalitarian politics. 

Though of course, the direction can go either way - egalitarian politics can help us build more egalitarian social and economic systems. 

When we try to think of how we can create incremental change, one possible way is to see how we can build female mentorship networks among elected female politicians. If we can start to create small scale networks that enable women within them to flourish, and then enable women to actually start to move up the ladder of politics, and to really bring like meaningful agendas for change into the policy world as they go.

If women can help support other women, in all processes within and outside the household, we can provide incredible resources for each other to think about solutions to various challenges as they emerge on a daily basis.

Follow Rachel Brulé on Twitter.

Subscribe to #WomenLead, a one-of-its-kind weekly newsletter that brings you the most important and exciting updates about women in politics from around the world.

#WomenLead Conversations is a series of interviews with leading experts who help us better understand the world of women in politics. If you’d like to recommend someone whom we should interview, please write to us at: