Friday, December 27, 2013

Why not Aam Aurat Party?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 22, 2013

Consider the woman voter. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Even as Arvind Kejriwal cogitated about whether he should accept the challenge of forming a government in Delhi, I wondered whether he would consider adding another word to the name of his party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). How about renaming it the Aam Aurat Aadmi Party (AAAP)? I don’t mean to be facile or to brush aside the party’s spectacular performance in Delhi. But given the fact that AAP is projecting itself as a party with a difference, surely it should recognise that even something as mundane as the name of a party should reflect that difference.

Of course, people argue that just because AAP does not specifically mention “aurat” does not mean it is insensitive to gender. Possibly. Some also insist that the term “men” or “aadmi” includes all genders. That is questionable. If that were the case, the middle A in AAP could also be “aurat”. This can become a circular argument but the simple point is this: the words we use do matter. For centuries, the language we use has made women invisible, or at least taken for granted. That must change in visible ways, through our words and our actions.

Even if the AAP does not add another word to its name, we still have to see whether the women in its ranks are equal and relevant players as the male faces we see all the time in the media. Where are the women? We know they are in the party. But why do we not see them, with the exception of Shazia Ilmi (who seems to have temporarily disappeared after losing her election by a very narrow margin)?
It is not unreasonable to ask these questions of a fledgling party that is decidedly attempting to change the tone and content of Indian politics. Gender balance and sensitivity must be a crucial part of the difference and this must be visible. More so as women voters are now becoming a factor in elections. Although their decision to vote for a party like the AAP will not necessarily be affected by the number of women in leadership positions, it could make a critical difference.

In the recently concluded Assembly elections, there was a fractional difference between male and female voters in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In both states, the increase in the percentage of women voting has been remarkable. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, the percentage of women voters was 67.9 per cent in 2003. This year, just a decade later, it was 77.27 per cent. Similarly in Rajasthan in 1998, the percentage of women voters was 58.88 per cent, but this year it jumped to an impressive 75.33 per cent, marginally higher than the percentage of men voting, 75.03 per cent. In Delhi, the rise in women voters is even more dramatic — from a low 46.41 per cent in 1998 to 64.69 per cent in 2013.
Clearly, something is happening that is making more women step out and vote. This does not necessarily mean that there is something called a “women’s vote”. Women are not an undifferentiated mass. Apart from gender, they are also marked by class, caste and creed. These factors affect women’s voting choices as much as they do those of men. Also, there is little empirical evidence to indicate how women vote, whether they make up their own minds, whether they look at candidates or parties, and whether the response of political parties or individual candidates to their concerns affects their choice.

Yet, the very fact that more women are voting is something that needs to be noted. In my own experience as a reporter, I have found that, increasingly in urban areas, poor women are fairly articulate about their choice of candidate. It is possible that they are following the men in their families. But there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to the contrary, of women making up their own minds.

Often what dictates the choice is not so much the party as the individual. For instance, women living on the pavements of central Mumbai justified to me their choice of voting for a known criminal in the municipal elections because he had ensured that they got water. In another instance, Muslim women in a part of Dharavi decided to support a Shiv Sena candidate in the municipal elections after the 1992-93 communal riots because he was the only one who built a public toilet for them. These could be exceptions. But it is an aspect of politics and voting choices that require much closer scrutiny.
In the run-up to the 2014 general election, all political parties will be strategising how to persuade this growing number of women voters to vote for them. It will be interesting to watch how this gender angle of the election game is played out.

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Voice of sanity

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 8, 2013

Palestinian author Suad Amiry. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat
The Hindu Palestinian author Suad Amiry. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

We have also watched the game of competitive politics muddying an issue that should have remained firmly focused on issues of gender. Instead, helped largely by some sections of the media, it has deteriorated into a slanging match, of a kind that is all too familiar in this election season.

Amid all the heat and noise generated, what did we forget? Plenty. For one, we forgot that the issue was violence against women. We forgot, that it is not just these two women but thousands like them who can never speak up because the predators are in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, men they know and even trust. And we in the media forgot that going for the overkill on one case will do nothing to educate our readers and viewers about the reality of sexual violence that women confront.
In the midst of all this madness, it was a relief and inspiring to listen to a voice of sanity. To a woman who can tell you something about the insanity of living daily under the cloud of violence. About the ability of women to work around this state of madness. And about how, despite life’s grimness, you can have a sense of humour.

The woman I refer to is the remarkable Palestinian writer and architect, Suad Amiry. She was in India at the end of last month to release her new book, Golda slept here (published by Women Unlimited).
Amiry is an architect. Her organisation, Riwaq, has done amazing work in restoring and conserving heritage buildings in Palestine. These structures have been restored to create spaces for the local community who live in a perpetual state of siege. Riwaq has created over one hundred such “spaces for change”, as she calls them.

When you listen to Amiry, you get a new perspective on survival, on how to deal with adversity, on how to make people laugh even though what you narrate is heart-wrenchingly tragic.

Born in Damascus to a Syrian mother and Palestinian father, Amiry chose to make her home in Ramallah, on the West Bank. And in addition to her work as a restoration architect, she began to write about living in Palestine where, as she says, you have to forget about logic because “nothing makes sense”. Amiry says she also realised that Palestinians speak about their collective loss but hardly ever about personal loss. Her latest book records the stories of Palestinians who had owned and lived in beautiful homes in Jerusalem but who, like other Palestinians, were turned into refugees overnight in 1948 when Jerusalem was divided. Some of them moved to East Jerusalem, others further, to other cities, other countries.

In 1967, when the Israelis occupied East Jerusalem and made it, once again, one city, many of these Palestinians thought they would be entitled to recover their properties. Instead, they found their homes occupied by Israeli families. What hurt the most was that these families had no idea of the past, of the people who had designed and built these beautiful homes, who had lived in them for generations, and who had to abandon them not out of choice but because of the force of circumstances. As if that was not enough, under Israeli law, these Palestinian home owners were considered “absentee” landlords and therefore had no rights over their own property.

Of course, these stories are familiar from the Partition between India and Pakistan and in other parts of the world where forceful displacements of people have taken place. But the poignancy of the stories that Amiry recounts in her book are special because these are people who now live in the same city, they are not “absent” and yet the law will not acknowledge their presence. As architect Andoni Baramki, who built many beautiful buildings in Jerusalem tells the judge hearing his case for repossession of his home, “Sir, the Palestinians are ‘absentees’ only because you do not allow them to be present. And those of us who are present are considered absent. We can never win.”

Indeed, nothing makes sense in Palestine. Except the lives of those who survive, who “lost the pillars for a sane life, a profound foundation called HOME,” as Amiry puts it. Yet who continue to fight and to hope. They have much to teach us. 

(To read the original, click here.)