Women are slowly but steadily taking over the place they deserve in Indian politics. The road to equal representation may not be quick and easy but we have made a start. Women are leading public lives and taking up important political positions setting examples of how they can juggle the home and the outside world. SheThePeople recently spoke to Aam Aadmi Party Leader Abhinandita Dayal Mathur who is an advisor to Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia on art, culture, languages and tourism.
Mathur, who also teaches Public and Community Art at Ambedkar University, spoke to us about her foray into politics, how her life changed, the people she looks up to, the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic, the disaster response and bringing in a change in the society. Here are some edited snippets from the conversation.
Abhinandita Dayal Mathur comes from a middle-class family in Old Delhi. She believes her upbringing, education and professional work contributed to shaping her understanding of politics in India, and Delhi particularly. The St Stephen’s (Delhi University) alumna throughout her college life, participated in social campaigns and protests.
On Joining AAP
“When AAP was formed, I was excited about the promise of a political party that offered a different model of leadership and governance and focused on issues such as bijli, paani, education and health, that directly affect the everyday lives of people,” she says.
Her work took her to Goa in 2011 but her heart was still in Delhi. Mathur says, “I was closely following the Nirbhaya protests and India Against Corruption movement. In 2014, I saw a video of a flashmob by young AAP volunteers. I felt so proud of Delhi and its people.”
Challenges Young Women Are facing
Mathur believes today young women are facing way to many challenges. Feeling safe is a challenge. The day-to-day patriarchy at home, lack of opportunity, lack of access to technology and knowledge, lack of basic freedoms to be out and about, lower wages as compared to men and keeping women out of a place of decision making, are perhaps common challenges for women in India. The other, of course, is the failure of getting justice legally and socially. It’s amazing that despite all the odds, women don’t give up.
The day-to-day patriarchy at home, lack of opportunity, lack of access to technology and knowledge, lack of basic freedoms to be out and about, lower wages as compared to men and keeping women out of a place of decision making, are perhaps common challenges for women in India.
Why Is active participation of women in politics important
Mathur thinks women’s participation in politics is changing. “I think there has been a slow but continuous shift in women’s participation in politics, most significantly in terms of women becoming informed voters. Until some time ago, the families of women would decide for them. Now women and women’s issues are part of the discourse,” she says, adding, “When public goods such as education, health, public transport, and basic amenities such as electricity and water become accessible and affordable for families, women become direct beneficiaries. It is bound to have a long-term impact in addressing gender inequality.”
On women’s participation in active politics, she feels India as well as the rest of the world are significantly behind. She feels newly formed political parties which are born out of a social movement, offers an environment and a platform for women to think and do politics, without any prior political connections. She adds, “My personal focus is on encouraging and involving young women to be part of my political engagements so that they can voice their concerns and issues.”
From childhood Mathur was driven towards music and the arts and encouraged by her mother, she learnt classical music, on and off. She enjoys people’s company and humour is a big part of her living.
Talking about the support she received from her family, Mathur shares, “My parents probably wanted me to become a civil servant, but even though not opposed to the idea, I set about exploring other frontiers. After graduating from St. Stephen’s college in 2002, I moved to Bombay where I worked for six years, as a researcher and visual artist. Through my projects as varied as doing an incredible India photography campaign and co-authoring a book with sex workers about their journey, I have learnt how important it is to listen, to pay attention to others around us, to our environment. I am fortunate to have had the opportunities that have made my life richer and made me come closer to people. My interests in social justice, gender, and community building have defined my politics and have converged quite organically into my work now.”
Women She Looks Up to
Mathur is deeply influenced by her grandmother and says, “ My nani was and is one of my most favourite women. She had a quest for life, for independent thinking, for learning. I remember her as an affectionate, resilient and fierce woman, who challenged the status quo of a patriarchal society, on an almost daily basis. I hope it has rubbed off on me, a little.
So who are her political heroes? Mathur says, “I am awed by women in politics, both in India and internationally. Irrespective of ideology, I think women in public life have had spectacular journeys and there is a lot to learn from. I deeply admire Mamta Banerjee, her achievements are tremendous. I was young when she came into politics but I have followed her story and her political arc with fascination. I find her vigour, her perseverance, her resolve to be infectious. It is no small feat to become so close to people’s hearts and to stand up to political opponents and parties of such strong backings.”
What the COVID crisis taught her
As we are emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic what are some of the positive shifts that will emerge out of this crisis? Mathur says, “The COVID crisis was extraordinary, to say the least. No one was untouched by it. And as much as people struggled personally, they came together to help each other. I think this experience of vulnerability lead to a sense of empathy and compassion. The pandemic exposed inadequacies of systems of government, of institutions (both private and public) and of the inherent hypocrisy of society. It hopefully made people think of their place in politics, that we play a role in shaping society and are complicit and often complacent until something hits home. This might change and should change and the takeaway from this experience is self-reflection and better participation. In the least, I think and hope, people will not forget this and demand better accountability, better governance, and basic human rights.”
Women And Delhi
Any discussion about Delhi cannot be complete without talking about the safety situation of women in the national capital. Mathur agrees, “There is no doubt that women’s safety is a major issue in Delhi NCR and should be one of the key political concerns. Women should feel safe at home, in public spaces and at the workplace. Negotiating the day to day experience is tiring and dangerous for women. I feel it has to be addressed at all levels.”
She feels, “On one hand, we need the Delhi Police to be more responsive, more sensitive and more accountable. On the other hand, we should examine and strengthen response systems, short term and long term for survivors of abuse and/crime. All structures of power, be it the criminal justice system, governments, corporations, and the family, play a role in determining whether women feel safe, or whether men feel they have impunity; gender inequality being a major factor.”
There is no doubt that women’s safety is a major issue in Delhi NCR and should be one of the key political concerns.
As the cultural advisor, she has spearheaded several policies to democratize the cultural landscape of Delhi so we asked her how can our art and culture be used in creating more awareness about social issues such as dowry deaths, domestic violence etc?
Mathur says, “Art has the quality of touching people, of stirring something in the soul. Art can evoke empathy, self-reflection, contemplation, it can inspire and transform. In that sense, I think it can be an impactful medium to help us see the pain and suffering of others and to think about our own morality and actions. The elements of ambiguity, of different perspectives that are embodied in any good art, can create a space for us to think and feel with open minds and hearts, and I feel that is how we grow together as a society. By making good, sensitive art on social issues such including dowry deaths, domestic violence, art can speak to everyone (including the victims and perpetrators), it has the power to heal and to question. Similarly, culture is a dynamic, living thing, being shaped by shared experiences and shared meanings, it fosters a sense of belonging, community and safety. Promoting art and culture offers people an opportunity to creatively address and resolve social issues.”
Given the cultural diversity in the national capital region and what are some of the typical challenges that she has faced with your work. “Delhi is amazing and fascinating because of its history and economical relevance. It’s a city of continuity, that is a melting pot of cultural diversity. Everyone has a stake from Tibetan refugees to Bihari migrants, to the generations of Punjabis after the partition. The lived histories, the shared co-existence of communities to me is breathing example of what pluralism looks like. The real test and one of the challenges of any political party is are balance the demands, the needs of different communities, and to work from the ground up. Aam Admi Party, particularly Arvind Kejriwal, has tried to do that by making policies that have an impact on everyone and strengthen the social, economic and political structure of Delhi,” says Mathur.
Talking about gender-responsive governance Mathur shares with us a snippet, “I had worked as a researcher on a really intriguing Gender and Space Project curated by an organisation called Pukar, and the entire study was about comprehending women’s relationship with the city. In that regard, we conducted a thorough study from the viewpoint of governance, that how governance failure affects women’s mobility. For example, if there is a governance failure that the street lights are not working or there are no public toilets available for women, then how does this limit women’s outside activities. Similarly, in any other policy, such as water or electricity, women’s participation as beneficiaries is not considered. A good example of Gender Responsive Governance is AAP giving free bus service to women, that is a great example of nuanced understanding, solid intent and quick impact.”
She hopes more and more women will participate in active politics because we need more women leaders because we are under-represented (imagine a world where the stage is shared equally between all groups of people). Also, real inclusion means putting women in positions of power. Not only should women have the power to solve issues or make decisions (specially about themselves) but also have the agency to decide how to do it. More women leaders would translate into more women participation in active politics and that has the potential to transform politics and society.