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Women in India: The long road from purdah to power Add to ...

The first time Mumal Barupal went to a meeting of her village council, she sat on the floor, off to the side of the benches occupied by the other members, in purdah - her face completely veiled by the end of her sari.

Then she ran the meeting: She was the newly elected mayor.

Back in 2005, Ms. Barupal won a tense local election; others in her low-caste group believed she might champion their causes, and used caste and family alliances to propel her to victory. But a few hundred votes did not change the social codes of rural Rajasthan, where no low-caste interloper seats herself up high, and no woman speaks when her face is covered or dares look at men without a veil.

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Over the following months, though, she found a way to shift a bit at each meeting until she was sitting at the same level as everyone else. At first, she spoke from beneath the veil, but gradually drew her sari back inch by inch until her face was uncovered.

"Nobody wanted me there, but they couldn't stop me," she says, recalling the first days of her dominion in the dingy, cinderblock room. "You have to go and get your rights."

The story of this mayor - or sarpanch - is one of extraordinary personal achievement. But the gradual pulling back of her veil also represents a wider change that has occurred across India over the past 15 years, a change that is profound and yet so gradual as to have come almost unremarked.

Affirmative-action quotas - known here as reservations - were introduced in local government in the mid-1990s. The new laws reserved a third of council, or panchayat, seats for women. In addition, statewide lotteries were used to assign a third of all sarpanch positions to women, a portion of whom must belong to low castes.

At first, the immediate impact was less than revolutionary: Although a million women instantly entered electoral politics through the reservations, most of those elected were proxies for their husbands or fathers. They either sat mute beside the male family member who made the decisions at meetings, or did not even attend.

But today in villages such as this one, there is a perceptible opening in the political space for women: not the earthquake anticipated by activists, but a thousand tiny changes, each of which was inconceivable in the era before the quotas.

"Many women get into their seats the first time from the reservations, but then come back and fight in general constituencies and win," says Devaki Jain, a feminist economist who has written on power and politics in India since the 1960s. "Real women are entering politics through this system - and politics is power."

Mogara Kala is a sleepy community of 5,000 surrounded by fields of mustard and onions on the edge of the Thar Desert in the heart of India. Villagers report that the first female sarpanch here rarely showed up at meetings; her husband stamped her initials on the paperwork. When her term ended, and the seat was again open to men, the men did not expect a woman to stand in their way.

But Ms. Barupal, the wife of a respected local teacher whose job bars him from politics, saw an opportunity. She ran - and won. And she was no proxy. "My husband didn't come to meetings," she says, laughing at the idea. "The things I had to say were mine and I said them. I'm uneducated and I don't know how to write. So the secretary wrote. But talking, I did that myself."

In her five years in office, Ms. Barupal worked to improve water-collection points, since much of a woman's day here is spent fetching water. But she says her greatest accomplishment was a road connecting a remote part of her ward with the village centre - making a safe way for 40 girls to come to school, and allowing her to persuade their parents to enroll them.

"It's not unusual for a sarpanch to build a road; that's the kind of thing they do," says Arvind Agarwal, a program officer with Unnati, an organization that works on citizenship and governance issues in Rajasthan. "But to build a road that would bring girls to school - that was totally her idea."

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