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

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."

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