At Haiyya, we see democracy, representation, participation and leadership as inextricably interconnected. While women in India gained the right to vote in the 1930s, marking them as equal citizens of an Independent Democratic Republic, representation of India’s women has historically excluded their right as active citizens. Women have often been marginalized to the periphery of politics, taking space within the “private” sphere, whereas male dominate the state-driven “public.” We have seen this phenomenon in the small and disconnected legislative response to the Nirbhaya rape case, to disparate laws on acid attacks, to varying laws about gender discrimination in the workplace.
Many challenges to this order have focused on quantitative representation, in terms of number of women in Parliament or other elected offices. Outside formal political institutions, women’s political learning and apprenticeship happen at social and cultural sites like family and community bodies, or in new democratic spaces like women’s networks, associations, self-help groups, and grassroots groups, which often espouse empowerment and leadership development practices. But without organizing women as informed, active, and demanding electoral constituents, these alternate groups risk perpetuating a system that is unresponsive to women. In order to qualitatively “engender” women’s voice in democracy, we have to increase governmental responsiveness to the varied issues of women, and transform this into decision-making power that challenges a masculinist and heteronormative political culture.
Through this lens, Haiyya organizers used the precepts of community organizing to bring women together in Delhi leading up to the State Assembly Elections on our Rise Up Campaign. Our organizers established voting blocs as a way of wielding alternate power, by aggregating women’s voices together and making their votes conditional as a group upon the candidates’ recognition and action on their issues. Thus, our organizers assisted in empowering these women to vote during the elections by using their shared voice in traditionally male-dominated spaces.
As a part of Rise Up, organizers brought women together in these neighborhood-based alternate spaces where women could discuss their shared needs, increase their political awareness, and demand change by their representatives. In these spaces, women discussed issues from access to services to inflation to safety. Recognizing how these views varied across neighbourhoods and socio-economic strata, our organizers wondered: How can we as organizers strike the balance between creating shared identity to challenge power, and artificially creating a narrative that trivializes or polarizes women’s multiple concerns? How can we organize and activate such a vast group?
A feminist position on policies will be established and sustained only when women band together and demand change. Unless we build solidarity on gender inequity in our communities, bringing women’s issues into public spaces is impossible. In our daily work, we must interrogate the assumption that women in power de facto represent women’s interests or defend feminist positions. Do we see our elected women challenging established norms? Do they feel the responsibility to represent the multiple viewpoints of India’s women? With women leaders in contesting positions, we cannot devolve into an essentialist equation between sex and interests that absolves men from acting as allies for women or assume women are one homogenous group.
We must first build a culture of solidarity and awareness, and then translate that culture into demanding responsive leadership and policy-making. In our political context, the “Us” that we are forming must be far-reaching — not only of our social classes, or neighbourhoods and geographies, but of nuanced gendered understanding. In our upcoming campaign on Women’s Safety in Delhi, our organizers will be doing just that — bringing women from a cross-section of Delhi together, imbuing them with leadership skills and access, and working with them to make the apparatuses of the State as well as our peers in societyÂ accountable to gender-based injustice. The work will be long, and the challenge will be multi-headed: but only through a two-pronged approach of power with and power to, can we truly democratize politics for women.
Think you can be a part of this multifaceted approach? Can you organize to demand better governance and a safer society for women? Visit hereÂ to get involved.
About the author: Aprajita works as a Women’s Safety Campaign Manager with Haiyya in Delhi. Her work and understanding has always been focused towards fighting those power structures with a strong belief that everyone has the strength and potential to liberate themselves. Haiyya inspired her to work with people and locate those sites of silences as well as subversion around every social issue. Her previous work has been on gender based violence, reproductive and sexual rights and women’s political rights and governance. She loves traveling, photography, food and writing. The writer can be contacted at email@example.com