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Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament

By Shirin Rai

Despite continuing and, some would say, growing attacks on parliamentary institutions as weak, corrupt and out of touch, they continue to be important to the politics of states. Parliaments make laws and develop public norms and also legitimise political systems. For citizens in democratic systems, state openings, debates in parliaments, no-confidence motions or resignation speeches all make for grand theatre. Parliaments are symbolic of the national state and its political system. As representative bodies, they are markers of the developing modes of political activity in a country. Parliamentary institutions seek to legitimise their representative characteristic through invoking historical and nationalist aspirations of the modern nation-state in tandem. While this provides a powerful framework of legitimacy, it also creates tensions in the functioning of parliament leading to a fractured identity of the institution. These tensions are often visible in ways in which ceremony seems to synthesise the historical and everyday rituals of contemporary politics, while at the same time to reveal the gaps between this synthesis and the ever changing political landscape. Often parliaments are housed in grand buildings that symbolise the power of these institutions as well as that of the nation. These spectacles, ceremonies and rituals become markers of recognition of us as ‘national’ subjects as well as of the distance between ordinary citizens and political elites or within sections of political elites and institutional nodes of power.

Parliaments are often presented as undifferentiated institutions although they are historically marked with deep divisions of class, race, gender, (dis)ability and sexuality. In most cases, parliaments remain privileged spaces dominated by men from the upper classes, castes or dominant religions and races. For example, men constitute on average 83% of all members of parliaments world wide (in our current research, 66% in South Africa, 92% in India and 80% in the UK). This privilege finds shape, colour and voice in parliamentary ceremony and ritual as they make visible links with the past, renew a sense of identity of ‘the nation’ as well as the nation-state and construct/reproduce historical privilege.

Despite significant contribution towards analysing political institutions and their workings, little attempt has been made by political scientists to map out, understand and analyse the significance of the ceremony and rituals through which political institutions take shape and through which they shape political practice. The contemporary study of parliament is dominated by political scientists mainly concerned with policy making and effectiveness in holding the executive to account and few have explored the links between structures of formal and informal power, symbolic communication, and rituals and ceremonies. Only a handful of anthropologists have undertaken ethnographic research into Parliaments and most comparative studies focus on Europe and the US. The Leverhulme Trust Programme seeks to address this gap in the study of political institutions.

It suggests that in order to understand representative institutions we need to understand not only their institutional form, but also the way a particular form takes shape – through modes of behaviour, negotiating the political and physical space and creating an institution specific culture which socialises members in their participation. Through the performance of ceremony and ritual, such institutions create and maintain powerful symbols of democracy and of power. The Programme inquires into how the socialisation of marginalised groups through the performativity of ceremony and ritual within parliaments secures the elite status of these groups on the one hand, and perpetuates their peripheral position as political actors on the other. It explores how traditional analyses of institutions can be complicated by focusing on not just preferences of those who are members but also how these preferences ‘play out’ within institutions and what this tells us about the evolving nature of institutions. By opening up the field of parliamentary studies, and politics in general, to the study of ceremony and ritual, we can examine how ceremony and ritual in parliament are deployed both to awe and to put beyond contestation the everyday workings of institutions and in so doing secure the dominant social relations that obtain within it.

The Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament Programme, through a comparative examination of three important parliaments (India, South Africa and Westminster) over space and time explores how ritual and ceremony interact to produce, maintain and undermine the reputations of parliaments and parliamentarians, or how ceremony and ritual frame the functioning of their members – disciplining them through these rituals and ceremonies to function within the parameters of ‘reasonableness’, accommodation and bargaining. Thus, through its work it posits that studying ceremony and ritual in politics challenges the utilitarian and rational choice understanding of political scope, decision-making and policy-outcomes. It highlights the role of emotion, sentiment and affect in politics and helps us understand how everyday rituals and ceremonial performances hold disparate interests, histories and visions of the future together against all odds, while at the same time embodying the possibilities of evolutionary, transgressive and disruptive change.

‘Cultures are built on the edge of an abyss.
Ceremony is a declaration against indeterminancy.’
(Kenneth Burke)


Why does power need glory? Why do representative institutions feel the need to cling on to historical traditions that seem at odds with the spirit of our times? Why do we feel the need to invent traditions and, paradoxically, to reform or reject these? Do ceremony and ritual play a part in cohering societies or underlining social differences? Is coherence another form of social disciplining and is disruption of ceremony and ritual a form of democratic refusal to conform? These are some of the questions that are being addressed by the Leverhulme Trust Programme on Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament: India, South Africa and Westminster.’

Professor Shirin Rai, Department of Politics and International Studies, is Director of the Leverhulme Trust programme on Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament. She has written extensively on issues of gender, governance and development and has been a consultant for The United Nations’ Division for the Advancement of Women and for The United Nations’ Development Programme.


Professor Shirin Rai

Department of Politics & International Studies

Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament