Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Democratic versus Abusive Feminism in India

Rosalind Dixon, Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Gilbert+Tobin Centre of Public Law, UNSW Sydney, and Surbhi Karwa, PhD Candidate, UNSW Sydney

The Indian Parliament recently passed a constitutional amendment bill, the 128th Constitutional Amendment Bill (also called the Women’s Reservation Bill) reserving one-third of the seats in the House of People and state legislative assemblies for women.  The act proposes: (i) reserved seats in the lower house of Parliament and state legislative assemblies across different states; (ii) reservations for women belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; and (iii) the choice of relevant reserved seats by a Delimitation Commission after a Census exercise.  The bill was also passed with near unanimity in both houses of Parliament.

What should we make of these proposed changes in India?  On the one hand, these changes have been a long-standing demand of the Indian feminist movement, and the subject of multiple legislative attempts since it was first introduced in 1996.[1] But on the other, they were passed by a government and Parliament with increasingly authoritarian tendencies. 

On one view, they should therefore be welcomed as a valuable step toward feminist constitutional transformation,[2] or parity democracy,[3] in India.  But on another, they should be viewed with suspicion – as yet another potential instance of what one of us has called “abusive feminism”.[4]  In this blog, we do not seek to reach any definitive view on this question, but rather highlight evidence pointing in both directions, and thus the need for further discussion in these terms. 

Feminist Constitutional Transformation v Abusive Feminism

Legal feminism comes in many variants, each of which implies different understandings of the importance of women’s political representation.  But many feminists also agree on the importance of female political representation for achieving feminist legal, social, and political change. 

Women’s “descriptive” representation in politics has important symbolic virtues.[5] It sends an important message of inclusion, namely: a message that women belong in the political domain and have an equal claim to access and wield political power.   Having women in high political office can also serve to challenge and reset cultural stereotypes and implicit forms of gender bias about women’s preferences and attributes.

Having women in elected office can also advance the goals of substantive representation for women.  It can ensure that political decision-making is made by reference to a broader range of lived experience, including the experiences of women.  In doing so, it can also promote greater public confidence in democracy and democratic decision-making.

Gender targets and quotas can also play an important role in ensuring descriptive and substantive representation.  They can help educate voters about the value of women’s representation in politics. They can help overcome structural obstacles to women running for office – such as lack of access to affordable child-care or income necessary to run a political campaign.  And they can serve as a means of co-ordinating localized efforts to promote women’s representation, so that this overall goal is not sacrificed to a series of localized demands.  At a local or state level, quotas can also help build an effective pipeline of female talent and experience, which can then help reshape representation at higher levels of government.

Constitutional provisions that require this kind of political change, including through quotas, could thus rightly be viewed as feminist and “transformative” in nature.[6] They combine aspirations for gender-based change with the kind of mechanisms that help make it possible.[7]

These democratic advantages, however, also open the door for the bad faith invocation of commitments to women’s descriptive representation[8] – including through political quotas.[9]

Knowing that the mere presence of women in political life can increase the perceived legitimacy of political processes, would-be authoritarian actors may advocate for increased descriptive representation for women – as a means of legitimating their own efforts to shore up authoritarian rather than democratic forms of governance.

The logic of “abusive feminism”[10] of this kind is quite simple: it is that by appointing women to head institutions that are being eroded, or captured, by would-be authoritarians, those actors may be able to diffuse or reduce political opposition to these various forms of abusive constitutional change.  Women’s descriptive representation, in this context, serves not to uphold democratic values of equality and self-government – but rather to undermine these commitments, including the most minimal or “minimum core” notion of constitutional democracy.

 The Women’s Reservation Bill

How should we assess the Women’s Reservation Bill in this context?  India already provides reservations to women in local self-governance bodies under the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act. The evidence from the local body reservations have also identified both challenges and opportunities for women. On the one hand, women report inter-personal confidence building, and potential of higher participation in local bodies. [11]

Yet current women parliamentarians have also struggled with building their own constituency, sexism within political parties, and a lack of allotment of winnable seats.[12] In part because of this, the Bill could be seen as an important next step in realizing a commitment to true constitutional gender transformation in India.

There are, however, also several indicators that suggest a much less celebratory account of these changes.   First, the Bill is a reproduction of the last bill presented in the Parliament in 2008 (the 108th Constitutional Amendment Bill) and like its predecessor fails to correct lapses of intersectionality. It contains no provision for reservations for Muslim women, who are one of the most underrepresented groups in the lower House of the Parliament.[13]  Between 1952 and 2004, there have been only eight Muslim women elected to the Parliament.[14] During the debates in 2008, dissenting members and the then Joint Parliamentary Committee had recommended reservations for minority women.[15] Further, even for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe women, the reservation will be provided within the already reserved seats of the community. This means that there is no new quota for SC/ST women, and the act may result in marginalized communities’ seats being shrunk in favour of upper-caste women.

Second, the act will come into force after two important exercises: first, a census for calculating the latest population and the subsequent delimitation of Parliamentary and state constituencies based on census results.[16] India’s latest census due in 2021 has not taken place, and the last delimitation exercise took place per the Delimitation Act, 2002, whereby the number of constituencies in the lower house was froze at 543 till 2026.[17] Even in the best-case scenario, both of these exercises will not take place before 2029. 

This by itself is a powerful warning sign: while the concrete benefits of the Bill will only be realized long into the future, the political benefits accrue much more immediately to Modi and his government. As one opposition Member of Parliament put it: “this bill is a cheque for a future date from a zero-balance account. It is designed solely for keepsakes without any chance of being encashed.”[18]

But perhaps even more important, the delimitation exercise is likely to benefit the ruling party as it will increase the overall seats of more populated, Hindi-speaking Northern Indian states where the BJP enjoys major support.[19] The opposition parties, who are in power in the Southern states have opposed the delimitation exercise, questioning the potential federal dis-balance.[20] Thus, there is real danger that the act may lead to more loyalist women of the ruling party joining the house.

Third, the manner in which the act was passed fits into the growing pattern of democratic backsliding in India. The bill was introduced and passed in a ‘special’ five-day session of Parliament called by the ruling party without timely declaration of agenda.[21] Opposition parties had recommended referring the bill to a Parliamentary Committee for more inclusivity. [22] However, the majority ruling party, the BJP, did not heed this suggestion. The bill is urgent in the sense that all rights are urgent. But it is not clear how a rushed bill with an undetermined future commencement date and serious lapse of intersectionality is helpful for the majority of Indian women.[23]


Overall, there are powerful reasons to pause before celebrating the Women’s Reservation Bill as a sign of democratic progress in India.  It could well prove to have such an effect, especially given the long lead time before it is designed to come into effect. But all the current indicators suggest otherwise.

The Bill offers extremely delayed benefits, yet was rushed through Parliament. It effectively re-allocates reserved seats from lower caste men to women, rather than increases the political representation of India’s most marginalized. It does little to address legitimate questions about intersectionality. And it promises to benefit the BJP practically as well as discursively.

As one of us notes elsewhere, with David Landau, these are also all hallmarks of abusive constitutional borrowing.  By themselves, procedural violations alone do not suggest that the “democratic minimum core” is under threat.[24] But they do suggest the case for closer scrutiny, and that relevant actors may be aware that what they are doing is anti-democratic in nature, and hence cannot withstand scrutiny.  Changes that are superficial rather than substantive are a clear marker for abusive constitutional borrowing. And so too are changes that are selective, or effectively benefit one side of politics and not another. [25]

One of the aims of the international scholarly community should also be to call out instances of abusive constitutional borrowing for what they are – a distortion of the original democratic and egalitarian norms and discourses from which they draw.[26]  The same is true for feminists.

While we should welcome any genuine effort to promote gender equality, we should be cautious before we decide to label a particular effort genuine in character.  Feminist constitutional transformation is one thing, but abusive feminism is quite another.  One benefits both women and democracy, while the other tends to erode commitments to equality and self-government.

Suggested citation: Rosalind Dixon and Surbhi Karwa, Democratic versus Abusive Feminism in India, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 18, 2023, at:

*Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Gilbert+Tobin Centre of Public Law, UNSW Sydney. ** PhD Candidate UNSW Sydney.

[1] The Constitution (Eighty-First Amendment) Bill, 1996; The Constitution (Eighty-Fourth Amendment) Bill, 1998; The Constitution (Eighty-Fifth Amendment) Bill, 1999; and latest being The Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2008.

[2] Ruth Rubio-Marin, Global Gender Constitutionalism and Women’s Citizenship: A Struggle for Transformative Inclusion (2022).

[3] For this discussion of this concept, see Rosalind Dixon and Marcela Prieto Rudolphy, Parity Constitutionalism, Glob. Const. (forthcoming 2023). See also Hanna Bäck and Marc Debus, When Do Women Speak? A Comparative Analysis of the Role of Gender in Legislative Debates 67(3) Polit. Stud. 576 (2019); Karen Celis, Gendering Representation in Politics, Gender, and Concepts: Theory and Methodology (Gary Goertz and Amy Mazur eds., 2008).

[4] Rosalind Dixon, Abusive Feminism, Int. J. Const. L. Blog. (Apr. 6, 2022),

[5] On the idea of descriptive representation, as compared to more substantive notions of representation, see Hanna F. Pitkin, The Concept of Representation (1972).

[6] Rubio-Marin, supra note 2.

[7] David Landau and Rosalind Dixon, Utopian Constitutionalism in Chile (forthcoming 2024) (emphasizing this structural dimension as usefully distinguishing transformative from utopian models of constitutional change).

[8]On bad faith in constitutional law, see David E. Pozen, Constitutional Bad Faith, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 885 (2016).

[9] On the abusive use of gender quotas as a form of abusive borrowing, see Rosalind Dixon and David Landau, Abusive Constitutional Borrowing: Legal Globalization and the Subversion of Liberal Democracy (2021).

[10] Dixon, supra note 4.

[11] See generally, Nirmala Buch, Women’s Experience in Panchayats: The Emerging Leadership of Rural Women (Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Occasional Paper No. 35, 1999).

[12] Shirin M. Rai and Carole Spray, Performing Representation: Women Members in the Indian Parliament 80–122, 274–297 (2019).

[13] Id. 131. See generally on socio-economic status of Muslims community in India: Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India: A Report (Government of India, Ministry of Minority Affairs, November 2006),

[14] Rai and Spray, supra note 12, 131.

[15] Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, Thirty Sixth Report on The Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment Bell, 2008),

[16] The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth) Amendment Bill, 2023 s 5.

[17] Delimitation Act, 2006.

[18] See the speech by MP Mausam Noor: Mausam Noor’s speech on The Constitution (128th) Amendment Bill, 2023 (Women’s Reservation Bill) in the Rajya Sabha (Sept. 21, 2023),

[19] Modi’s New Parliament could see Hindi Belt Gain, South lose Power at the Centre (Scroll, May. 27, 2023), ; Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson, India’s Emerging Crisis of Representation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Mar. 14, 2019),

[20] Divya Chandrababu, ‘Delimitation a sword hanging over southern states’: Stalin seeks PM’s help, Hindustan Times (Sep. 21, 2023),; Meenakshy Sasikumar, ‘A Sword Hanging Over Us…’: Why Are Southern States Opposed to Delimitation?, Quint World (Sep. 22, 2023),

[21] Spell out Parl session’s agenda, not keep country in dark: ‘INDIA’ bloc, Business Standard (Sep. 6, 2023),

[22] Speech by MP Dr. Manoj Jha, Rajya Sabha: Rajya Sabha LIVE: Women Reservation Bill cleared, Youtube (Sept. 21, 2023)

[23] Dixon and Landau, supra note 9; Rosalind Dixon and David Landau, 1989–2019: From Democratic to Abusive Constitutional Borrowing, 17(2) Int. J. Const. L. 489 (2019).

[24] On procedural violations and their link to abusive constitutionalism and borrowing, see Dixon and Landau, supra note 9.  On the democratic minimum core, see Rosalind Dixon and David Landau, Competitive Democracy and the Constitutional Minimum Core in Assessing Constitutional Performance (Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq eds., 2016).

[25] Dixon and Landau, supra note 9; Dixon and Landau, supra note 23.

[26] Dixon and Landau, supra note 9.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *