Yasmin Kidwai is the Municipal Councillor of Daryaganj, the largest municipal constituency in Delhi. She represents the Indian National Congress (INC). She is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker turned politician. Yasmin has made close to 50 documentaries in two decades, with a focus on rural and social development issues.
How did the journey of your grandmother from being a Kashmiri woman to a politician affect you? Tell us more about your family and did their work inspire you in politics?
Yasmin Kidwai: Yes, I come from a political family of freedom fighters on both sides. My maternal grandmother got married to a Pathan at the age of 13. My grandfather was a part of Khan Abdul Ghaffar’s Red Shirt Movement. He also started the Pashto unit in Kashmir, and that's where he met my grandmother. At that time, my grandmother was burqa clad.
When my grandparents shifted to Delhi, my grandfather was the one who pushed his wife into social work and also encouraged her to give up the burqa. My grandmother’s journey has been fascinating, from being a mother at 15 to becoming a three-time MLA. She served as Vice Chairperson for New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC). She also headed the Delhi unit of the Congress Party and led the women's cell and the crime against women cell, so she wore many hats. My grandmother has always been more of a social worker, which is how I have understood politics.
My family on my father’s side is a political one. The Kidwai family from UP is well known. My aunt, Mohsina Kidwai, was also a Union Cabinet Minister, and she fought multiple elections. These are the dominant images of the women I saw growing up. My understanding of women was a bit warped because I thought all women in politics are like those in my family but I also realise that it was such a strong influence because I saw women as naturally strong and multi-tasking. In addition, my grandmother’s influence was especially prominent in my life.
What made you campaign in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections in 2017? How did your family and friends react?
Yasmin Kidwai: I have been working in political campaigns in Delhi since I was 15. I never wanted to join politics, but I would often get asked about joining politics since I am from a political family. I always said no in my response and I had never given it thought quite frankly. My family was very keen on me to do this. My friends had always brought it up year after year, asking, when would I join politics? And I would always be surprised as to why they would say that to me. I am a 'behind the scenes' person. It was not something that I actively wanted to pursue in terms of my activism and sense of social work.
Two things changed my decision. Daryaganj constituency was declared a women’s seat and everyone started approaching me after that. Second, the 74th amendment came and the Congress party was looking for women who would contest, and I was asked for the same. Initially, I said no since my children were really young. But the party asked me to reconsider and told me that I would be an important voice for them.
But, the thing that honestly made me turn my mind was looking at politicians who had a blatant face of violence and aggression getting into leadership positions. At that point, I realised that the division in our society had started running deep. I wanted people like us, especially women who are uneducated or educated to not become invisible and get pushed into a non-existent phase. So, I tried to speak up for people like us, and when I say people like us, I do not mean the categories you would quickly put me into, like a woman or a Muslim. Of course, I am all that, but I have many other different identities as well. So at some point, it is my gender, my education, my city, my role in a family set up, the fact that I am a mother and a documentary filmmaker.
My friends would tell me that I had nothing to lose, and I agreed. I was like, thoda bezzati toh hoga (would be just a bit embarrassing when I fail). I knew nothing about being a municipal councillor or a corporator or the work I am doing now, but I knew that I could learn and do things. My family came together for the campaign, but as much as I had prepared my children about my lack of time because politics is a 24-hour job, it was difficult. For three years, I couldn’t take a break or had a regular summer or winter break. I started taking my kids with me to my work engagements before the pandemic, and you can see their little heads popping up in photos during work on my Facebook page.
As a third-generation politician, do you think having a prior political background helps one enter into politics?
Yasmin Kidwai: In many ways, you perhaps understand politics if you come from a political background. There is no denying that you may know more people, and just like in any other field, things are more accessible to you. But it takes years to nurture a constituency. For someone coming from a non-political background, it might take them some more time to create a name and space for themselves.
When new people enter politics, they want attention, but first, they need to have some content. In a film, we say that the content is the most important thing. Similarly, in politics also, you need to have the substance in you, and then the recognition follows. In politics, to become a leader, you have to be on the ground, amongst people. So, if young people are willing to do all this and spend some time on the ground, in doing real work, they will get noticed, no matter if you are first-generation or second-generation entrant.
Do you see that challenges for women in politics are different? And could you elaborate on women from various backgrounds in politics today?
Yasmin Kidwai: If you had asked me this question 5 years back, I would’ve said, “No, of course not” but I realise that things are complicated. Unfortunately, I think there are many inherent biases I see in the way officers and my colleagues react towards a woman leader. I have seen many women turning 20 times more aggressive than they are just to fit into the patriarchal space and to be heard. There are inherent biases in everyone, and I don’t think that will go away very easily.
Women in politics face enormous challenges. I don’t think that just because we have women’s reservations now, everything will be okay. Also, we need to understand that when one woman comes into power, you’re empowering all the women. All the women in that specific area get more access, and a sense of having a public life. It’s like a change happening for everybody. But I am surprised that most people don’t see it that way.
What do you think about the representation of women politicians in the media and culture?
Yasmin Kidwai: We are aware that women politicians don’t get much coverage in the media discourse. It is also ironic because the media industry has a large number of women working in it. So they should ideally do profiles on women candidates during the elections, but that also doesn’t happen. Considering that we live in a developed and educated society, one would think that the accomplishments of women in politics would be interesting to follow up. But there is no focus or even follow-up whatsoever. These are things that the media should look into, at all times, not just once during the elections.
The media can help put a spotlight on women leaders and encourage them. We can also use the media as a tool to learn about each other’s initiatives. These things can further encourage more women. I think that the space for women politicians is notably lacking. You may have to pursue a journalist actively to cover a story, and a woman leader might find it challenging to do that. Therefore, it would be nice if they (media) themselves give that space for women leaders.
People always talk and comment on a woman leader’s appearance, and everyone feels that it’s okay to do that. People love discussing a woman leader’s background and her marital status or the lack of it. These are the subjects of an effortless conversation. Of course, there are men politicians who, unfortunately, would comment on women very loosely. When you are in this position of power, sometimes in the beginning maybe, people look at you as a woman, but eventually they realise you are their superior and respect you for your responsibilities.
How has your experience on social media platforms been as a public representative?
Yasmin Kidwai: Honestly, I did not engage much on social media platforms. Even as a filmmaker, my colleagues used social media to create an impact, but I honestly did not know how to use it well. I started using it only during my political campaign, particularly for my work and my campaigns.
My work requires me to be on the ground most of the time. Hence, a lot of my social media presence is about the work that I do. Nowadays, I talk a little strongly about issues that I feel. Still my fieldwork keeps me away from actively engaging much. I consciously do not feel the need to engage, so I get saved from a lot of trolling. What is the point of wasting your time with bots anyway? People have vitriolic discussions on Twitter. As a result, I keep myself away from such discussions and use social media to just share my work.
With your initiative Artists for Artists, you have worked on bringing artists from all regions and genres together. Do you think the same is possible for women in politics to build solidarity with each other?
Yasmin Kidwai: I have always felt a sense of support in my interaction with other women politicians. But unfortunately, I don’t see the women politicians coming together on any issue beyond their party lines. We have problems, like the access to toilets or sanitary napkins for women during the pandemic, but women don’t want to talk about it. I have tried to do these kinds of things to bring about some small change.
It’s so unfortunate that even when you hear of the most brutal violence inflicted on a woman or a child, so many women leaders talk as per their party lines. Women need not be ashamed to think about women’s issues and come together to talk about them. But this doesn’t mean that they should only talk about women’s issues. Even in the local bodies and corporations, it is hugely disappointing to see women not coming together for anything.
What is your message to young women who are aspiring to enter politics?
Yasmin Kidwai: Women should not be defensive about being a woman. We have all gone through this dilemma. Women leaders also try to kill their femininity and try to become like men. I would say that is not needed. You can become the voice, be it in the media or the social space.
Also, politics is not only about contesting elections. There is policy, research and even groundwork where women can get in. They should not think that without any constituency, it's nothing. So all those who are looking to enter into politics should not look for multiple opportunities in the field.
What is your message to the men in Indian politics to become better allies of women?
Yasmin Kidwai: To become better allies of women in politics, men just have to be better partners overall. I don’t want the men in politics to become condescending and give women anything. Men have to understand that women in politics are evolving, so men also have to keep up with them.
As more and more women keep coming to the public spaces, and rather than denying their womanhood, they start accepting it, that’s when the change will start happening for women. I can say that it would be great for men to stand together with women for causes. It will only add to what we have to do together for society. It has to be an inclusive society, and that’s the only way it will work.
[All photogtaphs are taken are Yasmin's Social Media pages]
This interview is a part of the Worth Asking Series 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 in the Worth Asking Series here