Breath And Push: When Women Take To Public Office

By Priyanka Borpujari


As-Salam Aaleikum!

That’s how 36-year-old Ilhan Omar greeted a large audience on November 6 after she had won her seat in the Congress in the midterm elections in the United States. Her choice of greeting is reflective of her identity as a Muslim woman; it bears particular significance because of the time and place: this is the US in 2018, where women’s bodies continue to be policed, Muslims continue to face racial slurs and the Black population continues to shudder at being policed – sometimes at gunpoint, and gunshots that are fired – by White cops.

But USA is also where women were spurred to run for elections when they had enough of a misogynist president and a dominant political party that condones the horrendous actions of politicians and judges accused of sexual assaults. It was coming, the winds of anger metamorphosing as women took charge of their place in society by getting down to politics, to change the nature of the game and rewrite the rules.

And that’s what happened with the midterm elections of 2018 which will go down in history for many firsts. In Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn became the state’s first woman senator. In Massachusetts, Ayanna Pressley is the first African-American woman elected to the House from Massachusetts. In Maine, voters chose Janet Mills to be the state’s first woman governor. Sharice Davids, Deb Haaland, and Yvette Herrell became the first Native American women elected to Congress. Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American in Congress, while Rashida Tlaib became the first Palestinian-American Congresswoman. Both women, Democratic candidates, also share the distinction of being the first Muslim women in Congress. Republican Kristi Noem became South Dakota’s first female governor. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old activist from the Bronx, became the youngest woman elected to Congress.

A total of 273 women were on the ballot in the 2018 midterms, representing both the Democratic and Republican parties. In the previous years’ election, the number hovered around 171.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Rwanda made history once again by breaking its own world record on the  percentage of women in Parliament. In last month’s election, women won 54 of 80 seats, achieving a new record of 67.5 per cent by crossing the previously held world record of 64 per cent. For a country whose Tutsi population was systematically decimated in 1994, and where rape was used as a tool to further the genocide, the strides made by women in the political sphere is particularly significant and admirable. The scarce attention paid to this development over the years is reflective of our attitude towards and ignorance about Africa in general and Rwanda in particular.  The latest election results have made news only because of the new world record (achieved for the second time).

The spectacular electoral wins by women in both countries – separated by an ocean and diverse histories and cultures – speak of a new reckoning worldwide, of women transforming years of discrimination and anger into something powerfully constructive. This was evident in the speeches of the women in the US who made history.


Ocasio-Cortez identifies her politics as “Democrat Socialist” — something that seems radical in a country whose backbone is built on aggressive capitalism. Ilhan Omar, who moved to the US at the age of 12 as a Somali refugee, said in her victory speech, “Here in Minnesota, we don’t only welcome immigrants; we send them to Washington.” Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, said after her Congressional win, “I almost feel like my winning is a shoutout to democracy everywhere.”

Exactly two years ago, a Yale-graduate lawyer was defeated by a pompous businessman who went on to become the President of the US. The presidential campaign was one of the most divisive in history, ferociously fought beyond political debates, with dirty linen being made public. Hillary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy might be exactly what a non-American is wont to recognise as American: elevating fear until it reaches the tall tower from which nothing but invasion appears to be the solution. But whether we agreed or disagreed with her views, it cannot be denied that her erudite polemic were layered and textured in comparison to Trump’s simplistic reduction of both economic and international affairs.

In the end, the seductive reduction of people’s problems to matters that could purportedly be solved through rough and ready solutions won the day. The smear campaign won; narrow nationalism, racism and misogyny won. But this, in turn, galvanized American women to take to the streets, and to eye public office. Push came to shove and, as activist and lawyer Valerie Kaur poetically said, with breath and push, the country was delivered into a day of women whose words – about their own selves and identities, and how that re-framed the way they perceived what ought to be transformed – were more credible than the lies of men.

I look at the photos of these American women who have made history and have been widely hailed, and I think of Jinabai Duduwe, who was elected the sarpanch of Devli village in Sendhwa district in Madhya Pradesh, nearly a decade ago. The younger and the second of two wives of Lakha Duduwe, she brought me tea as her husband waxed eloquent about the various schemes that he was able to implement in the village. I only saw her meek smile from under her sari veil; her “Sarpanch Pati” was the one who had essentially won the election and was now running the show. Her election as Sarpanch was to merely claim a seat through the 50 per cent quota for women in India’s Panchayati Raj (local self-governance) system.

While more and more women in India are going out to vote, the number of women running for office, and the number of women actually winning elections, hasn’t increased correspondingly. Currently, women make up a paltry 11.6 per cent of directly elected members of  the Indian Parliament. Even when a woman is elected, her policies – no matter how high they might raise eyebrows – are often ridiculed on the premise of her gender. Never are a man’s policies questioned because of his gender. The video of an erudite Indira Gandhi giving an interview in French is now doing the rounds on social media, even as the Emergency that she imposed in 1975 is an experience even those of us born after her death are able to recognise in the times we live in today, with a range of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution under attack.

The cover of the November 19 edition of the New Yorker magazine illustrated the history made in the midterm elections in the US.  A room full of men, visibly older with sagging cheeks, bald heads and wrinkled square faces – drawn in black pen – indicated business as usual, dull and corrupt.  In one corner of the page was an open door through which several women were waving. The waving women were painted in colour. Ilhan Omar was visible, with her distinctive hijab. A bald, smiling man was also visible entering through the door that separated the black and white room from the colourful group: Jared Polis, the first openly gay Governor (of Colorado) in the US. Change had arrived like a rainbow.

Of course, women in public offices can also be equally sexist, as India’s Smriti Irani has shown; they, too, can champion nationalistic jingoism, as France’s Marie Le Penn has shown. But Cynthia Nixon, a former award-winning actor who ran for governorship of New York state, showed that she was able to hold high her personality, insist on the ability to have two careers in one’s life, and transcend roles to listen to what people want.

As we go into elections in five more states in 2018 and anticipate the general elections in 2019, and notice how a woman’s gender is peddled as fodder to disregard her place in politics, perhaps we could take a leaf out of the books of the scores of women across the world who have, time and again, rolled up their sleeves, tucked up their skirts and saris, to knock on the doors of political power in order to change the system.


Women constitute less than 13% of candidates fielded in Madhya Pradesh

By Raksha Kumar


Illustration by Binay Sinha

In June 2018, during the Karnataka Election campaign, Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi spoke at length about fielding more women as candidates. Admitting he was raised by strong women, Gandhi said he understands that women are better administrators.

However, his party did not seem to take note of his desire back then (Congress wielded 15 women in the 222 seats, only three won). And they seem to have ignored it even now, going by the party’s list of candidates for Madhya Pradesh, the largest central Indian state, which will go to polls on December 11. Of the 155 candidates whose names have been announced, only 21 are women. Names of candidates for 75 more seats are yet to be announced.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which currently rules the state, is even worse. Among the 177 names announced, only 13 are women. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chaohan had sent 5 lakh letters to his “sisters” across the state on Raksha Bandhan, seeking another term from them to “ameliorate their condition”. He could have taken the first step in this direction by fielding more women in these elections.

A common argument put forward by politicians for the gender imbalance among election candidates is that the electorate is not ready for female politicians. It is rather presumptuous to assert that without giving much of the electorate any option.

Read more:

Nowhera Shaikh – Women’s rights in Islam, and also Sania

By Jyoti Punwani

She disagreed with the influential Deoband seminary over its fatwa on Imrana.

Sania Mirza was chief guest at the annual day of her girls’ madrasa.

Nowhera Shaikh, the mystery woman whose All India Mahila Empowerment Party (AIMEP) contested all 224 seats in the just concluded assembly elections in Karnataka, is quite a character, apart from her politics.

Nowhera Shaikh

She is an Aalima, or Islamic scholar. The 45-year-old, herself a madrasa product, has been running one of her own in Tirupati for the last 20 years. This reporter met Shaikh when she had come to Mumbai in 2005 to inaugurate a centre for Islamic studies, the Al Tawheed International Dawah Centre for Women.

The Imrana controversy was at its peak then. Imrana, a resident of Muzaffarnagar, was raped by her father-in-law. The panchayat decided that, by virtue of the rape, the 28-year-old was no longer her husband’s wife.  She was forbidden for him, and was now the wife of his father.  When an Urdu journalist asked the Dar Ul Uloom Deoband seminary for its opinion, the Ulema there agreed that Imrana was now haraam (forbidden) for her husband, but said she could not be considered his father’s wife either.  Nowhera Shaikh rejected both fatwas, calling them a travesty of the teachings of the Koran.

Nowhera has always been keen that Muslim women read and understand the Koran by themselves, without any Ulema interpreting it for them. That’s the reason she started her madrasa. The Heera Madrassa (her business empire is known as the Heera Group), or the Jamiathul Niswan As Salafia, offers free education to needy students. It was at the annual day function of this madrasa that tennis star Sania Mirza, over whose tennis shorts the ulema have seen red, was the chief guest.

The Al Tawheed centre was also started for the same reason, in partnership with Dr Shehnaz Shaikh, founder principal of the Al Muminah Islamic Girls school in Mumbai.

Nowhera also runs a helpline for women in Dubai, said Dr Shehnaz Shaikh. A close associate of Nowhera, Shehnaz revealed that the latter had registered the AIMEP as a national party four years ago. She therefore had to fight elections this year. The original plan was to fight the Gujarat elections, but she had not been allotted a symbol by then. That finally came through in December 2017.  As soon as she was allotted the symbol, she decided to fight the first Assembly election that came up – and that happened to be in Karnataka.

Won’t this party, run by a burqa-clad woman, ultimately help the BJP by dividing the Muslim vote? (Of course, this theory presumes that the Muslims would vote en bloc for the Congress.) “I don’t ​think so,” replied Shehnaz. “There’s no way Nowhera will do anything to consciously help the BJP.”


Where are transgender persons in the Karnataka Assembly elections?

By Pushpa Achanta

In April 2014, in the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) versus of Union of India case, the verdict from the Supreme Court of India recognised transgender persons and allowed them to choose their gender. This reporter had accompanied the then Chief Election Commissioner of Namibia and his team to a polling station where transgender women had enthusiastically turned out to exercise their franchise in the general election held the next month. Despite the progressive NALSA case judgement, the voter identity cards of the trans women showed their gender as female, which was not necessarily the preference for some of them. (The same was true of Veena S who became the first trans person in southern India to run for public office when she contested the BBMP elections held in 2010 as an independent candidate). However, there were also many trans persons who said that they could not obtain voter ID cards as they lacked documentary evidence of their changed gender or residential address. And this reporter could not spot any transgender men among the voters on that day – an unfortunate yet unsurprising fact as trans men are much more marginalided and invisible than transgender women.

Sadly, not much has changed four years later. This insightful report states that while the number of voters registered in Karnataka under the “other” gender category is 4552 in 2018, up from 2100 in 2013,  no trans person is contesting the election this time, unlike the previous election when there were two. In this story, Uma, a trans person and founder of Jeeva, a Bangalore based non-profit organisation that champions the rights of sexual and gender minorities and particularly transpersons, says she was uncomfortable when her earlier voter identity card identified her gender as male. But she adds, “I am ready to vote with pride as my voter identity card now identifies my gender as transgender. However, the absence of a valid proof of address is a hurdle for obtaining voter identity cards. This is because trans persons cannot easily rent houses nor are home owners willing to identify them as tenants in lease agreements or other documents.”


Parveen, a transgender candidate, created history by winning the election to Ballari Municipal Corporation on a Congress ticket in 2013

Importantly, the report also highlights that some trans persons wonder why they should vote when the government and political parties have done nothing for them – they still lack housing and are compelled to earn their livelihood from begging and/or sex work. Further, in voters’ queues, others mock them. Uma remarks, “When we raised this issue with the previous Chief Electoral Officer, Karnataka, he suggested that separate polling booths could be set up for trans persons. But we do not want to be isolated from society as it will not let us participate in the political process. Society and state agencies must be adequately sensitised about the realities of trans persons. We need a separate Commission, budgetary allocations and community friendly schemes. There must be monitoring, evaluation and annual reports published on the status of government benefits and schemes that exist for the transgender community.”


The headline, introduction and text of this story has used the word “transgenders” instead of “transgender persons” or “trans persons” – it is important for reporters and editors to be aware that the term is considered dehumanising and disrespectful, besides being linguistically incorrect.

Rural women in Karnataka have a mind of their own. And they plan to use it.

By Nisha Susan
One of the funniest and most prescient images from the last American election were the near identical photos of (then candidate) Donald Trump and son Eric Trump both peeking at their respective wives as they filled out their ballots.
Prescient because attempts to limit the freedoms of women has been a key feature of Trump’s proto-tinpot administration so far. Prescient also because men are right to suspect that left to themselves, women may well vote in their own interests and not follow the diktats of the men in their families.
To read a example of this much closer home read Sowmya Aji’s recent reportage from Karnataka. While men still want to control who their women relatives vote for, women in rural Karnataka seem to have other plans.
In a typically guerrilla quote from the piece, 70-year-old Virupakshamma from Moka village in Ballari confirms “that her son was not within earshot and said, “He wants me to vote for BJP. But I am boting for his (showed her uplifted palm, the symbol of Congress). For more on what women voters are thinking about in Karnataka read Aji’s full report.

Women demand freedom, water and toilets

By Vasanthi Hariprakash
Three women, three regions of the same State; each with a battle of her own to fight everyday.
Pickle Jar, a small but independent-spirited platform that creates and curates programs of social relevance, travelled across 9 districts of Karnataka to check the pulse of the state as it goes to polls, to hear out voices unheard this far.
In central Karnataka, a woman whose daughter has suffered an abusive marriage struggles to have her voice heard by her own community and Jamaat.
In rocky Chitradurga district where water levels get dangerously low, taps press out water rarely and when they do, the quality of water often makes people fall sick . Whose political agenda is it to provide safe water for people?
The Swachch Bharat Abhiyan has swept across the country with an allocation of Rs. 15,343 crore for Rural Sanitation in 2018. But how much of all that has fulfilled the simple wish for a toilet of a farm labourer called Ambika in a village in Gulbarga?

Vasanthi on the Karnataka Poll Express

Hitting below the belt with a blitzkrieg of ads

By Aimee Pandit

Ahead of the Assembly elections in Karnataka on 12 May, the two major rivals, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been trading punches through an ad blitzkrieg. The print ads, placed strategically – either on Page 1 (usually below the mast head ) or on the City pages of most newspapers – do not mince words in their attacks against each other.  On 5 May the BJP’s political ads took over from the customary commercial ads that now often precede the front page in almost all the newspapers published in Bangalore.

While the first few ads from the Congress and the BJP assailed each other on failure of governance, they changed tack immediately after the rape and murder of a little girl in Kathua made headlines.  Suddenly the safety and security of women and girls became a stick with which to beat the adversary.

The BJP’s ad talked of how the incumbent Congress government in the state had failed to create safe spaces for women: “Women and children gripped by anxiety and fear. Siddha Sarkara is in deep slumber.” The Congress shot back with, “In Jammu, BJP Ministers rallied in favour of the rape accused. Will you still say you are with rape victims when your people do the opposite? BJP Government we want answers.” The BJP’s repartee the next day was this: “Modi Sarkara punishes child rapists with death penalty, Siddha Sarkara still asleep.”

IMG_20180507_175355The safety and security of women theme dominated the ads for a while.

The next day, a teaser ad from the BJP said this: “10% commission Sarkara makes Karnataka No 1 in corruption.” On the inside page the ad went on to quote a survey and list Karnataka as “No 1 in goondaraj, crime, killing lakes, potholes, floods of sewage, garbage mess and crimes against women and children.” Other ads from the BJP made digs at the steel flyover project initiated by the Karnataka government to much opposition from the public, calling it “Siddha Sarkara’s many ways to steal.” On 1 May the BJP’s ad bringing to light farmer suicides had a graphic silhouette of a farmer’s corpse hanging from a tree.


Acting on a complaint by the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) banned three video advertisements by the BJP against the ruling Congress, on the grounds that they violated the Election Commission’s guidelines. The video ads were titled ‘Jana Virodhi Sarkara’ (anti-people government), ‘Viphala Sarkara’ (failed government) and ‘Mooru Bhagya’ (three fortunes).

The Congress filed another complaint with the EC against the BJP on 4 May for publishing false and misleading advertisements in newspapers, saying it maligned the image of Congress party president Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah.

While the copy in the ads from both parties is a copy editor’s delight (clunky sentences, random and unnecessary capital letters), what stands out are the large images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP party president Amit Shah on one side of the ads and BS Yeddyurappa, the party’s Chief Ministerial candidate from Karnataka, on the right. The Congress ads generally have Rahul Gandhi and Siddaramaiah in the same frame. The ads were big on accusations against opponents until recently; it was only close to the end of April that they began to highlight each party’s plans for the state.

IMG_20180507_175318Front page teaser ads like this greet readers of most newspapers every morning.

The ads are clearly a progression from the slugfest that has been on between the Congress and the BJP, with Modi calling the incumbent government the Sidda Rupaiya Sarkar (a twist on Siddaramaiah’s name and an implication that his government works only for money). Rahul Gandhi added to the slugfest by saying that Modi has brought the Gabbar gang to the state (a nod to the popular movie, Sholay, which was shot near Bengaluru).

Only when the manifestos were launched did the conversation turn to some affirmative action.  If election campaigns are similar to marketing pitches made to win contracts, why are they so negative? Why do they focus only on the failures of the opponent and not on one’s own game plan? Marketing gurus have always said that bad mouthing competition is one of the lowest tactics that one can be employed. Clearly the strategists for political parties do not seem to think so.