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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.

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."

In the last election, the sarpanch position was assigned to a Dalit, or "untouchable" woman from the bottom of the caste system. Unable to seek re-election, Ms. Barupal backed the successful campaign of Jamana Patel, also illiterate and ambitious, as her successor.

Some women in the village grumble about Ms. Patel, saying she doesn't pay them for public works schemes and doesn't listen to them any more than the old, male sarpanchs did. But everyone agrees that even a few years ago, it would have been impossible to conceive of a sarpanch like this one - chunky silver coils around her ankles, buffalo nudging the door of her small mud-brick house.

Across the state, across the country, this story is repeated. "When I was little, I used to see Indira Gandhi and I thought, somewhere in my heart, 'What if I could go for a big position in politics?' But I never thought it would be possible," says Rajendra Kawar.

Ms. Kawar lives near Jodhpur, a sleepy city in the east of Rajasthan. She grew up in strict purdah as the member of a high caste that confines its women to the home; she left school before she was 13.

But when she was grown with a family of her own, a women's seat came up on her district council. At first she had no idea how to speak in public, or to strangers; the idea petrified her. But she ran for the seat and won. After five years on the council, she served from 2005-09 as her village's sarpanch. Last year, she addressed a crowd of 20,000 at an event attended by India's vice-president.

"Many people in society were opposing her going forward for this: Men were coming to me and saying, 'Why are you letting your wife do these things?' " recalls her husband, an avuncular businessman named Shyam Singh. Sniggering men questioned her morals, she adds, and said terrible things. But her husband delighted in her new independence. "I supported her," he says, adding, "She was very bold." Ms. Kawar looks down modestly, but grins.

A study of the reservations' impact in India - funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre - found that candidates almost universally faced "gossip and sexual slander," and all said they would not have been able to participate in politics had their husbands and families been opposed.

Alice Morris, a governance specialist with Unnati who authored the Rajasthan portion of the study, says that, if nothing else, the fact that women are required to attend meetings and training sessions outside the home upends the domestic balance, sometimes causing a rethink of roles.

"The men used to help me with the housework, so I could go to all these meetings," Ms. Barupal says, clearly delighted with that turn of events. In another modest home, Ms. Kawar grins at her teenage sons and says her time in politics meant "everyone had to learn to do new things in our house."

Today in Rajasthan, half of panchayat seats and sarpanch positions are reserved for women. A law now under consideration would do the same for half the seats in the state legislature, but the upper house of the national parliament has been sitting for nearly a year on a bill to allot a third of its seats to women.

Why the delay? "Because men are afraid women will come to power and take away all their red-light cars," says Ms. Kawar, mocking the ubiquitous ministerial cars that push through traffic across India, a much-hated symbol of power.

The reservations have not brought political change to every village: Ms. Morris found that members of upper-caste land-owning families have been the greatest beneficiaries and their new lock on power keeps low-caste women marginalized. But even they can advance an agenda that brings change for women.

Damayanti Paliwal, for example, comes from a high-caste family, and has a father and uncles who have served as sarpanch. She was elected to her district council in 2001 and then spent five years as sarpanch in Hopardi, a village of 7,000 in central Rajasthan. Though she describes herself as an incorruptible and visionary leader, she needed that seat set aside for women. "Without reservations, a woman with my personality could have been sarpanch," she says. "But it would have taken another 50 years."

Ms. Paliwal tours Hopardi's sand streets with her head bare and her silk sari rustling; she proudly points out the girls' latrines she built at the primary school. When that failed to have much of an impact on enrolment, she persuaded the government to construct a separate school for girls. That, she says, boosted attendance of girls from 40 per cent to nearly 90 per cent.

In 2008, she held a women-only village assembly, the first time many of the women had ever spoken in a public forum, and the first time there had ever been a list of requests and plans to which women had contributed.

But when Ms. Paliwal embarked on that agenda, men in the village organized to oust her. She was only narrowly rescued by the intervention of higher officials. That, Ms. Morris says, is not unusual: "As soon as women try to wield real power, men try to move them out through no-confidence motions - or worse." Her research found repeated reports of women who faced violence in their homes - or outside them - when they refused to carry out a proxy agenda.

And today Hopardi has a male sarpanch, Ms. Paliwal reports with a sigh. The women on the panchayat are all proxies who don't attend the meetings.

Nevertheless, the reservations have created irrevocable change: Everyone has seen a woman run things, now, and there can be no debate about whether that is possible.

Jamana Patel, the Dalit sarpanch in Mogara Kala, says that when she was young, she never dreamed that she could be an authority in her village. But for her daughter-in-law, Nirmala, it's not even a question.

"Women have power now and the way people treat them changes - they get a say in society now," the younger Ms. Patel insists. She keeps her sari over her face - there are men outside. But her voice is strong and certain. "When it's a woman, they say it's 'just' a woman - but when it's a woman sarpanch, that's different - she has an identity. I think girls today think, I can go beyond even what my mother-in-law has achieved."

Women her age - at 22, she is half as old as her mother-in-law - must focus on home and family, she says, but her time will come.

"When I'm sarpanch, you come and see whether I do a good job."

Countries mandate seats for women in government

Dozens of governments - led by strongmen, monarchs and Marxists or prodded by the World Bank - have set aside political space for women, mandating that either a percentage of an electoral ticket or actual seats in the legislature be reserved for them.

Rwanda may have seen the most dramatic impact: Since 2003, it has allocated 30 per cent of seats in parliament to women, who now make up more than half of all legislators elected.

In Argentina, a third of national candidates must be women while, in both Afghanistan and Eritrea, it's one-third of all seats in the lower house of parliament. Uganda also sets aside seats (61 of 214) as do Bangladesh (45 of 345) and Tanzania (75 of 324). Nepal introduced a quota in 2008 that holds 32 per cent of parliament for women.

However, India's immediate neighbours have been less successful.

In 2000, Pakistan's president at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, decreed that women fill a third of the seats on local councils, plus 20 per cent of the National Assembly and 18 per cent of the Senate. But Pakistan's entrenched feudal system has relegated women to the roles of political proxies for men.

Sri Lanka has encouraged women to take part in local politics, conducting an intense training program to prepare them for public office, for example. But despite years of workshops, the number of women elected has barely increased.

India, however, now wants to take the practice beyond politics - to business. This month Minister for Corporate Affairs Murli Deora said he will table legislation to reserve at least one seat on the board of any company with more than five directors. At present, more than 70 per cent of Indian businesses don't have a female director - unless she's a family member of the owner.

Stephanie Nolen