Sana Ahmed is the Councillor of Ward No.62 of Kolkata Municipal Corporation. She led Covid-19 efforts in her ward by forming a volunteer group amidst addressing needs during Amphan cyclone and Ramzan.
Sana spoke to Women for Politics about politics as a career choice for women.
Q. How was your background and upbringing, as a girl in a politician’s family? Where did you grow up?
A. I was born and brought up in Ripon Street, Kolkata. I come from a progressive household where it never mattered if I was a boy or a girl or a Muslim for that matter. I finished my high school and graduation from Kolkata and got married very early, at the age of 23 years.
In a few years, I decided to work for the same cause as my father was working for years. My decision was supported by my family, without any doubts on my social position as a Muslim woman.
My father and his elder brother were both politicians. My father, Mr. Iqbal Ahmed served as the councillor of the same ward for 25 years. And his brother, Mr. Sultan Ahmed also served as a Union Minister in 2009. Their work has inspired me deeply to come into politics. At home, we would often discuss various political events happening in our state, in India or even the world.
There is a general perception amongst many that Muslim women are often encouraged to be ‘housewives’ and any other professions are not promoted. However, in 2015, when I became a first-time councillor for a minority Muslims ward and won with a margin of 18,500 out of the 30,000 total voters in my ward, I was happy to know that people voted for me and did not challenge me on the basis of my gender or religion or other personal matters.
Not only the voters but also the other ward members lovingly welcomed me into the ward. I never felt like I was being treated differently.
For all women in politics in Kolkata, we have our biggest role model, Didi (Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal). The kind of leadership she has is inspiring. Looking at her, I feel if she can control the entire state with such great ease, fearlessness and ferociousness, why can't I? Look at her, she stands like a wall for anyone who tries to damage Bengal. Gender is secondary to her leadership.
Q. Tell us more about the reaction of your men colleagues to your entry into politics and how was the reception by your party men?
A. Didi (Mamata Banerjee) has set an example for each one of us. She is a woman and is leading everyone from the front. I feel things have changed drastically in the last 20-30 years and everybody has accepted her.
All my men colleagues are very supportive and helpful. I have never felt discriminated against on the basis of my gender. Within my ward, there is no male leadership as such and nobody has ever felt that I should get a man’s support.
For any problem, be it political advice or anything, my MP and MLA have been very helpful, open to advice, and supportive.
Q. A few months ago, Maharashtra MLA Namita’s decision to attend the Assembly session in her 8th month of pregnancy made it to the headlines. There are incidents around the world where women politicians are reported to have been asked more questions about their household responsibilities. What do you think about this?
A. We have all seen images and pictures being circulated in the media where women politicians have been managing multiple responsibilities seamlessly. The media is very vocal about everything.
However, what they need to understand is that you need to stop asking questions about a woman’s household or who is taking care of her child or who takes care of her house! Talk to us like a politician and ask about my political standpoint.
There has to be a certain level of awareness and responsibility that should come from the media while asking such questions. And not just limiting it to politicians, but even while addressing any woman professional- be it a doctor, a teacher, a politician, ask about her professional work and goals, not her homemaking responsibilities. We have seen cases around the world where a woman politician is breastfeeding her baby while discharging her duties. She is able to attend to both her duties, being a mother and being a politician because the people around her do not make it uncomfortable for her. They create a safe space.
I luckily never had to face any such question but I believe that there should be an overall understanding within the media and society to address women as more than just being a homemaker and talk beyond their homemaking responsibilities.
Q. Do you find your work challenging and what do you consider your achievement as a politician?
A. I see myself as more of a social worker, catering to what people need. In addition to the normal work of ensuring proper drainage, roads and water, We also ensured people in hospitals are attended to and getting medicines. During lockdown, everyone had returned to their homes and it was a difficult time since no one had work. We arranged and distributed around 5,000-7,000 packets of ration, including essentials like atta, cheeni, sooji, pyaaz, aloo and more to ensure that no one has to stay hungry.
We also distributed Ramzan kits with sewai, chana, fruits, etc., all the things needed for Ramzan. We distributed this to each and every household in the ward. I am proud of the fact that I could serve my people when they needed me.
During these times of pandemic, government hospitals did not have the capacity to cater to usual patients such as those in need of dialysis, those with a blood pressure or those suffering from cancer. This posed a big challenge. With the support of my volunteer team and the mayor, I arranged a few doctors and lab technicians.
We could set up a space in the community for doctors and technicians to support such patients and also arrange mobile units for testing people for coronavirus. We could see around 70-80 people checked every day for 3 months.
I believe that people might work as representatives, but the biggest challenge for a leader is to rise up to action in times of crisis. Addressing the needs of people in my ward during the crisis and being among them, helping them was my biggest achievement.
Q. What gave you the strength to overcome some of the challenges in your political and social life?
A. Inspiring women role models have given me the strength to overcome any challenge I face. My bade mummy (aunt) Sajda Ahma just after her husband passed away, contested from Uluberia constituency and won by a high margin of more than 3 lakh votes. Even though she was new to politics, she took to the challenges and handled everything brilliantly. She became my support system too. Looking at her, I was very inspired and realised that if she can do it, anyone can overcome difficulties and achieve what they want.
Thanks to our Chief Minister, there is a solid reservation system for women to participate in politics in West Bengal. Didi created a very inspiring and encouraging atmosphere for us and made it a point that our voices are heard. She has played a very big role in inspiring many women to be socially and politically active.
All it took was one woman breaking the norm and showing the way. Didi did not fear the existing structure and overcame the challenges without any external support and yet, managed to achieve so much.
Q. What policies and measures would you like to see for women and gender issues?
A. Firstly, initiatives that portray women as victims and helpless have to change. I am not very impressed with many central government initiatives taken for women empowerment, that portray women as tortured, victimised and helpless.
In policy, the mentality that men are better than women and that women are helpless and are dependent on men, needs to be removed. Even though trends are changing in urban areas, there are still instances in rural areas where women are suppressed, oppressed and are not allowed to step out of their domestic spheres. I feel that education is extremely important, and one needs to get educated regardless of their gender.
Women can be better educators, better politicians and better at everything, given a chance. It is 2020, high time people should stop considering women as inferior to men!
Q. What would you like to tell men in politics about becoming allies of women in politics?
A. I would say to the men in politics ‘treat women equally, respect their voice and hear out their opinions.’ In fact, women form a bigger part of the system and should be accorded more importance and respect. This is because they take up double the responsibility from home to work.
Since their responsibility is doubled and the encouragement and respect given to them should be in accordance.
Women politicians around the world have often reported different forms of violence especially while campaigns and afterwards. Such narratives demotivate many women from joining politics. What are your thoughts on it? How safe is politics as a career choice for women?
Yes, such incidents happen today and have happened in the past too.
The only change I see now is that women are raising their voices against this injustice as compared to earlier. The situation is changing and it must change.
Q. What’s the message you would like to give to aspiring young women who want to venture into political life? How would you like to support other women politicians and those who are aspiring to enter politics in India?
A. I am only 31 years old and it's been 5 years for me since I stepped into politics. I find politics a good platform to talk about issues and topics that should be talked about. As politicians, it is our responsibility to work to the best of our abilities so that young girls can get inspired to step in politics. And in any corner of the city or the world, if they feel inspired by my work, I will be very glad.
If something is wrong, you should have the courage to say that it is wrong. Our Chief Minister once said I will bring a change, and she did.
Politics is a great platform to raise your voice. So, all I would want to say is that if girls, Instead of pointing out the system’s flaws, why not join the system to change it.
Aage aao, ghar se niklo, baat karo, bolo and educate yourself. (Come forward, Come out of homes, Speak up and educate yourself)
Pictures used in the article are taken from Sana Ahmed's Facebook page
Worth Asking interview series is aimed at having conversations with men and women politicians at all levels about politics as a career choice for women.