Shamina Shafiq is the General Secretary of the All India Mahila Congress (AIMC), the women’s wing of the Indian National Congress (INC). She hails from Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh and is a former member of the National Commission for Women (NCW).
Could you brief us a bit about your background, where did you grow up and study?
Shamina: I come from a joint family in Lucknow. In a middle-class Muslim family, the priority is to get the girl married as early as possible. In my case, my father was not keeping well, so I got engaged and got married at 17, just before the first-year exams of my undergraduate studies. Frankly, I had never even thought about it. I was uninterested in politics during my childhood days, rather disliked most of it, not very sure about the reason.
I was also lucky to have progressive in-laws who never put any restrictions on my education. I deeply owe it to my mother because every time she would call me up after my marriage, she would ask me about my studies, books, etc. and not about my cooking and care responsibilities. She was also the one who motivated me to travel independently from early on.
Please tell us about your move from academics to politics. When and why did you choose to take up a political career?
Shamina: See, I thoroughly enjoyed my career as an academician. I was a teacher for a couple of years before becoming a principal. The school was located in a small town, and we closely engaged in social activities and interacted with parents. It often happened that we needed political support to get even the basic things done.
Frankly, even till then, I was not keen on politics, but 2009 changed the entire course of my political career. There was a headline in the newspaper about a political leader who couldn't even read or write. I was sitting with a coffee, discussing with my husband my discomfort with this news. I said, ‘how can we have people presenting us in the parliament or the assemblies who can't even read or write?’ My husband casually replied, “It's people like you, who sit in your drawing rooms and complain about these things over a cup of coffee, but you will always try to stay away from active politics, then it is bound to happen that people like her will acquire the space.” I realised that what he was saying was right! It was a turning point for me. I could not simply sit back and make comments like these, and it was after this, I took up my first post as the State Secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Mahila Congress.
How did you go about deciding the party you want to join initially?
Shamina: I grew up watching discussions about the Indian National Congress. So it was always somewhere in my mind indirectly. After my wedding, my mother in law was also very politically active. And Congress became a natural choice. With few drawing-room conversations generally happening in houses, I grew up with the party's ideology.
What do you think are the current key issues affecting women in politics in India?
Shamina: I don't see any discrimination in my party, but certain people have discriminatory mindsets across party lines in India and one has to continuously fight this mindset. Men think that 'soft politics' is better suited for women and there are certain things that women can do and certain things they can’t.
And yes, there are specific issues that women in politics face, primarily when serving their constituents. I don't think that there is any other challenge bigger than this. There will be no difference by accepting a woman as an individual with the capabilities to lead in politics.
A significant challenge is to get family's support and convince them that a woman can be successful in a political career. Being a woman, whether we are in academics or politics, we have to prove to ourselves much more to establish our capabilities. And you have the double burden of household work too. So I think women excel much more than men, in any profession, at any given point in time.
Is Violence or Discrimination against women prevalent in political parties and the political spaces? How does it impact women who aspire to get into politics today?
Shamina: Initially, it was awkward and difficult for me to work or have conversations with 99% of the men in the room. I feel overcoming this hurdle is a challenge for women entering politics, even today. During political rallies, too, the buses used to be full of men workers, but the moment women would enter the vehicle, the tone and the language of the conversations used to get civil automatically. I feel this is why it is so crucial for women to enter politics. We can drive men in politics towards behavioural change and opening up spaces for women. A colleague used to say that with more women entering our spaces, we have learnt how to behave in a much more civilised manner with our women colleagues.
I find ‘violence’ a bit too harsh a term here, but yes, discrimination is an issue. There are instances where members of a political party or parties have been involved in sexual violence against other women. However, these actions are led by individuals alone and not the party as a whole. Many also feel that women are not there for serious business when they enter politics. Such perception about women might also result from the lack of political awareness, more prevalent among women who have a non-political background or are used by their male family members to acquire reserved seats. And thus, a woman has to prove her worth and commitment initially.
Do you think that the experiences of discrimination in politics are different for women from minority communities?
Shamina: As a member of the National Commission for Women, I once chaired an expert committee on violence against women within the minority communities, including all the religious minority communities. Regardless of which community you come from, if you are a minority woman, you face discrimination and heightened challenges in your political career. Much of these challenges relate to their community values and traditions, sometimes also familial restrictions.
As far as my experiences are concerned, I have never encountered any incident where someone was subjected to direct discrimination within the political space because of their community. However, there is a restraint on the opportunities available, but it applies to men and women from a minority community. So in the expert committee I chaired, we had several deliberations involving people from all the corners of India, including all the communities.
As a Muslim woman in politics, I try to pull in as many women as possible from the Muslim community into politics because I feel that I owe this to my community. Suppose I am privileged to have opportunities right from my childhood to now. In that case, it is my responsibility to see that women from minority communities, especially in Uttar Pradesh, come up and join politics.
How can the Minority Commission of India and the National Commission for Women (NCW) play an active role in enabling women from minority communities in the mainstream political processes?
Shamina: The institutions can undoubtedly play a role. However, there is a lot of emphasis on curtailing the violence against women as it is rampant. During my tenure at the National Commission for Women (NCW), I saw the number of cases myself and realised how the priority automatically gets changed. Moreover, I feel that there has to be synergy between the Minority Commission and the NCW to ensure a comprehensive plan to empower women and work on women’s issues. This can improve the political strata of women in India, their participation and the fairness for women in politics improve, which is not the case today.
If these institutions ensure awareness, guidance and assurance of political mentorship, it will enable women to stand on their own feet in politics. Since these are constitutional bodies with no political affiliation, these platforms should give unbiased and fair opportunities to women.
As a first-generation Muslim woman in politics, what support did you get when you stepped into politics? And what is the backing other women joining your party can get today?
Shamina: My role model was Indira Gandhi Ji, someone I admired. While choosing to enter politics, my family, especially my husband, was a great support and motivation source. Besides that, my husband has also been my most prominent critic; he would tell me the areas that need more attention. Within the party, my then district president in Sitapur fully supported me.
The kind of support that you get from the party is fantastic, but you must know there are no shortcuts in politics. I have encouraged and guided some women from non-political backgrounds and different communities to join politics. If they are genuine and serious about their work, people at every level will support you. Having said that, certain people may try to deter you, but it happens everywhere.
Do you feel your work as a woman politician is recognised as that of your men colleagues?
Shamina: I was the District President of the monitoring committee of the MGNREGA for two years in Sitapur. The work that I was doing at that time was getting acknowledged even at the district level. I wasn’t a prominent figure back then, but I did get my due recognition always. Even as a member of the National Commission for Women, I never faced any discrimination.
Some of my friends across regional parties, especially in Uttar Pradesh, feel out of place when it comes to political discourse. It is probably because of the absence of political awareness. However, I have found it a lot easier to engage in such discourses in my party and never felt out of space.
What’s the one thing that you would like to change for women entering politics or those already present in politics?
Shamina: The one thing I would want to change is to have more opportunities at every level for women in politics. Reservations are good, but there needs to be more to provide ample room for women, not just within the women’s wing but across all the sections of the political parties. Political parties would need to change themselves to give women equal and fair opportunity in all sections.
When women are supposed to be treated as equals, why can’t they have equal opportunities within the structure of political parties?
What would you like to tell men in politics to create safe spaces for women entering politics?
Shamina: Women entering politics do not necessarily come from backgrounds where they find it easy to build networks and mingle with their men colleagues. And because politics is also about social intermingling combined with social and political discourse, make your women colleagues feel comfortable within the political space and outside. And for this, I think that men have a greater responsibility.
We say change the system, but what is the system? Men dominate the system, so they need to change how they behave, act and perceive women in politics. Also, they need to get rid of their insecurity about women becoming leaders in a space dominated by them. This will help them become compassionate in sharing the political spaces with their women colleagues.
What is your message to young aspiring women who would want to join politics in future?
Shamina: In politics, you will need to take a strong stand against all difficulties you might face, never feel compelled to compromise your dignity for anything. There are many to take advantage of you, so stand firm against that. To all the girls out there, if you have the slightest idea about serving the society, serving your nation, district, your people, politics is the answer, as it's the only way to clean the system.
[All photographs are taken from Shamina Shafiq's Facebook page]
This interview is a part of the Worth Asking 2021. The series aims to bring conversations with women in politics about politics as a career choice and with men politicians about their role as allies.
Read previous interviews from Worth Asking Series here.