Sexism in Parliament: On Azam Khan’s remarks in the Lok Sabha

India needs more women in legislatures to combat the likes of Azam Khan.

The triple talaq bill was passed in the Lok Sabha on July 25, silencing Opposition voices that the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019 should not be pushed through in a hurry, and without scrutiny. But the dissent on the nitty-gritty of the bill was overshadowed by the sexist remarks made by Samajawadi Party MP Azam Khan, directed against Bharatiya Janata Party member Rama Devi who was in the Chair. Referring to an intervention by Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Mr. Khan quoted a couplet, “… tu idhar-udhar ki na baat kar (do not digress).” When Ms. Devi asked Mr. Khan to address the Chair, he made an “objectionable” statement, marking a new parliamentary low. The irony that this was said while the House was discussing an issue concerning women was not lost on Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who quipped: “Don’t politicise an issue that affects women.” Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani pointed out that Mr. Khan’s comment was a “blot on all legislators including men”. Mr. Khan, a veteran from the Uttar Pradesh Assembly but a first-time MP who is no stranger to controversy, was banned from campaigning for 72 hours in the recent Lok Sabha polls after his misogynist remarks against BJP candidate Jaya Prada. While Mr. Khan has been asked to apologise to the House, some women members have renewed the pitch for the passage of the women’s reservation bill.

The 17th Lok Sabha has the highest number of women MPs, 78, comprising 14.39% of the House. This is higher than 2014 and a long way from the first election in 1951-52, when they made up only 5% of the House. The global average stands at 24.6%, and neighbours Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal have quotas for women in Parliament. In India, the women’s reservation bill or the Constitution (108th) Amendment Bill to set aside one-third of seats in Parliament and State Assemblies for women was passed in the Rajya Sabha in March 2010. However, the Bill couldn’t overcome odds and the opposition in the Lok Sabha and went into cold storage. Critics have cited several reasons behind the bill being thwarted, not least that the quota for women would be appropriated by powerful stand-ins. But this could hold true for men as well. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha (303 of 543 seats) and has rushed through more than a dozen bills in this session, must take the lead. Slogans such as ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ will sound like mere lip-service if political parties don’t speak out against gender prejudice. Women must have greater political representation in decision-making bodies as a first step towards changing chauvinistic mindsets, and Parliament needs to show the way.

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