Nod to India's female lawmakers highlights how few there are

NEW DELHI: What was meant as a gesture of respect toward women ended up reminding India that it needed to improve female representation in politics.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call for only female lawmakers to address the Indian parliament on International Women's Day included silence — because there weren't enough women to speak.

Of 543 elected members in the lower house, only 62 are women — or just 12 percent. The global average is 22 percent for women in Parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union

The women who spoke in the assembly Tuesday raised issues including allowing women's entry into Hindu temples and better education for girls. They also demanded renewed effort in passing long-stalled legislation to require that 33 percent of lawmakers be women.

"Surely, maximum governance also means giving us women our legitimate due, namely the much-awaited Women's Reservation Bill," opposition Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi said, chided her colleagues for failing to push it through since it was first floated in Parliament at least two decades ago.

The legislation aims to correct some of the social imbalance between genders, but has been blocked by powerful socialist groups and political leaders worried that a female quota system would cost their male-dominated parties seats.

Communist lawmaker K. Sreemathi Teacher sought to shame her male colleagues by noting that Afghanistan's parliament is 28 percent female, even with the Taliban presenting a constant threat to women.

Her colleague from West Bengal state's Trinamool Congress party agreed.

"We don't want a separate seat in the bus. We want to drive that bus. We don't want separate queues. I want to earn money and pay my taxes," said Shatabdi Roy.

Meanwhile, Bhavna Gawali from the Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena party said male priests were being ridiculous in holding to the ancient, sexist practice of barring women from the inner sanctum of the Shani temple in the western state of Maharashtra. "While we talk of equality, we can't go to temples," she said.

Not all of the women in the assembly were prepared to speak, but after all those who wanted to speak had taken their turns, there was enough time left for the Speaker to ask the men in the house for input on the day's agenda.