Politics is for Everyone, Juhie Singh on Women’s Political Participation
Juhie Singh is an entrepreneur turned politician from Uttar Pradesh. She is the National Spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and a former Chairperson of the Uttar Pradesh State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (UPSCPCR). She also contested in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly Elections twice from Lucknow East in 2012 and 2014 (by-election).
Can you tell us more about your background and how was your upbringing as a girl child?
Juhie Singh: I grew up in the 70s and 80s’ where people did not discuss politics openly in their households. Excelling in academics, doing extracurricular activities, reading and playing games were what filled our days. The one value which we were always supposed to live by was to earn our economic independence. My mother was also keen on us learning Hindi well, so we read Hindi literature as kids. My sister and I were allowed to make our own choices and learn from our mistakes. In 1967, my father cleared the Civil services, so my sister and I grew up in various towns and cities all over India. Some of these places had no schools at all. Nothing comes as a surprise to me now because I have already lived in so many different environments. When I was in the 7th class, my father gave me two things, a manual typewriter and a copy of one of the first editions of the Indian Constitution.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce, I joined Chartered Accountancy (CA). My sister also went on to complete her management degree from IIM Ahmedabad. We both wanted to start an agriculture-oriented business around our home in Lucknow, which we eventually did.
We were exporting to the Middle East and the Netherlands. After working for 10-15 years, we both decided that the venture was well-settled, so I decided to pursue higher education.
What led you to join politics? How did your family react to this?
Juhie Singh: I graduated from the University of London, but when I came back to India, I always complained about things not happening correctly in my state. Once my husband said, “You complain so much about things; why don’t you join politics?”
Around the same time, Akhilesh Yadav had become the Youth Head of the Samajwadi Party. While we were younger, Mulayam Singh Yadav Ji and my family were neighbours. So, when I went to discuss this issue with him, he encouraged me to join politics emphasising that he needed people like me. Akhilesh Yadav Ji was highly supportive even then and although I was not a practising politician, he was always there for any advice and guidance.
I didn’t know much about politics, but I agreed to join it. I worked in the party organisation for about eight months, and then in 2012, I was offered to contest the elections from Lucknow. I was still exploring the dynamics of caste, religion and gender in politics. And my father also encouraged me to take it up and said, “You have been very sheltered in mainstream politics. Lucknow would be a great place to know whether you will survive politics or not.” He knew that politics involves some serious talking and listening, and I did not have that exposure.
One day, I watched a television debate, and I saw people fighting and arguing with each other. Nobody was making sense out there, but it did change my mind. I decided that I want to become a spokesperson for the party.
What challenges did you face as a first-generation woman politician entering into politics?
Juhie Singh: Politics is a very insecure space and like an exam where one cannot predict the results. Also, there are no well-defined issues or roles in politics. So when you come from a non-political background, you may have the baggage of seeing things in a certain way and in politics, things evolve quickly, so it isn't easy to define your role or decisions.
Looking back at my journey as a woman in politics, I realise how I had to dress up in a certain way or behave in a certain way. Certain things may be said about you that may hurt you. Someone from a famous newspaper once wrote an article about me and my political opponent right before the elections. The writer described me as a homely looking woman in the article. I saw it and was amazed at how one can depict me only through my physical appearance and not write a single word about the looks of my male opponent. So people do identify women by the way they look or behave. Positive adjectives like ‘ambitious’ and ‘go-getter’ get used to define men, but the connotations are always negative when talking about women in politics. People would say the same things for both genders professionally, but we can clearly sense personal bias in the language used for women.
I have also fought with news channels because whenever there is a gender-based debate or debates on violence against women, their first instinct is to call me. I tell them that I want to give my views on the budget and other financial issues. Economics was my core subject, so I ask them why they don’t call me for other debates. It has been difficult getting that space. I mean, that sort of unconscious gender bias is there. Some men are sensitive about violence against women and children, and many women can easily discuss economic concepts, so the synergy is needed.
What have been your main learnings in politics?
Juhie Singh: Politics is a disciplinary process that involves both physical and mental toiling. During my campaigning period, not many people were there and I would be exhausted physically after campaigning round the clock. Eventually, one becomes a little thick-skinned later on.
I have slowly realised that politics is a table, and I have to occupy my space around it. And there is nothing wrong with women occupying their own space. We were taught in schools and colleges that if someone older than you steps into the room, you get up and leave your seat for them to sit, but in politics, nobody does that. My basic mantra would be to bring one’s own unique experience to the table and be a little generous in your political approach. I would ask women to be comfortable in this profession and be a little more empathetic than usual.
I know that I speak from a privileged position where I am doing politics by choice. I may also back out from this field anytime. Women and young girls are aspiring to enter politics, and the least that the politicians can do is mentor them. I believe that there is space for everyone in politics, and people shouldn’t fight for this.
Taking a cue from women’s political caucuses in South Asia, do you think that the same concept of networking can be applied in India to advance women’s agenda in politics?
Juhie Singh: At the moment, I do not think there is anything such as a caucus where women would get together and share issues that haven't been done; we are yet to take a concrete shape. Particularly in the North, I feel we have caste, religion and many other factors that divide us.
But, yes, a public display of unity and solidarity is missing, and this is where we are going wrong. Women do support each other individually, whether on social media or any other issue. But, someone has to take the lead in this. We have younger parliamentarians who are passionate about politics and it’s a great idea, and it should be taken forward by everyone.
How would you like to extend support to women who aspire to enter mainstream politics?
Juhie Singh: In an open house, any girl or woman who wants to stand in elections could easily come in and talk to me about it. Though I am not the person who can guarantee them a ticket, I ensure they have active participation. Even if politics requires much of your time and energy and could be exhausting, I want the younger generation of women to do it and experience it too.
I want to tell the young women to apply for the ticket and fight for their success. Of course, one might receive rejections, and there may be instances where women don’t get the chance to fight in the tougher constituencies. So build yourself economically and education-wise. In such cases, women candidates may have a lower possibility of winning because of the neck-breaking competition. But you can still find a way to make a difference in politics.
What’s the one thing that you would like to change for women in Indian politics?
Juhie Singh: I want to get more women into active politics and women who have worked for some time to have more opportunities. I have seen that just getting a reservation for women is not the answer. Even if it is 6-8 months in the field for them, give them a ticket to stand in elections. The women Pradhans and Sarpanch in the Gram Panchayats may take other family members in their initial days. But once they are in the chair, they would develop a sense of responsibility. I have seen women representatives transforming after their first tenure in Panchayati Raj Institutions. They evolve, grow and become much more authoritative. In their subsequent term, things get better when they become more independent.
What’s your message to the men in politics to become better allies for their women counterparts?
Juhie Singh: I want to tell the men that they shouldn’t get threatened by the women’s entry and presence in politics. Do not let a woman’s leadership and wisdom intimidate you. Women have a right to occupy political spaces too. If a woman is addressing specific issues, then listen to her and be comfortable with her presence.
Women do not need any sympathy from men. With more women actively joining politics, it will become a better space, perhaps a more professional space for everyone. It is still not enough from the men’s side.
[All the photographs are taken from Juhie Singh's Facebook page]
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.