South Asian women in politics: the top 3 myths & solutions

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Mita Naidu
Mita Naidu
Mita Naidu

Whether running in a municipal, provincial or federal election—we know now that Canada does not have gender equality in leadership.

Women are over 50% of Canada’s population and currently comprise an average of 25% of Canada’s municipal councils, 18% of mayors, 29% of provincial legislatures and 26% of the House of Commons.

My parents always taught me that democracy should be a genuine partnership between men and women, and between communities. So how can a democracy be deemed legitimate if it fails to represent half its population? Clearly the playing field is not level.

Lack of support, lack of funding, demands of motherhood, old societal attitudes about leadership, privilege, systemic sexism and sexual harassment are just a FEW of the obstacles, that men don’t face.

Because of these, there are many highly qualified women who do not enter Canadian politics, or are discouraged early on, or face huge barriers to success even if they pursue it.  And this is a problem because competent women are being pushed aside by an old boys network. Politics truly fails if it’s not capable of integrating women into democracy.

For South Asian women, all the research shows that we are even more highly underrepresented in Canadian politics. I, for one, tend to think, it’s because we have a few more items to overcome that other women candidates don’t have to necessarily worry about.

Let’s unpack these barriers:

  1. “South Asian women do not tend to seek leadership positions as elected officials, because their main duties centre in the home (marriage, kids, family).”

UNPACKED: This is a big generalization that lives throughout the systems that we move in- and informs people’s assumptions about our capabilities. While duties in the home may be a large part of our unpaid work- many women do have the privilege of seeking leadership positions in a variety of fields based on INDIVIDUAL choices about family, and/or support systems. Political parties can often overlook the successes of South Asian women, and minimize their potential contributions because of this.

  1. “South Asian women tend to be timid, innocent, meek and submissive.”

UNPACKED: This is myth often perpetuated in the mainstream media, film and tv and is ALWAYS left to the individual woman to prove herself ambitious and worthy. In fact, the stereotype functions as a dichotomy:  on the one hand, South Asian women are considered very intelligent and technically adept. But on the other, they’re labeled as passive and unassertive. In the political world at least, these perceived qualities can hinder a woman’s professional growth amongst all gendered circles.

  1. “South Asian women are the product of conservative and intolerant families.”

UNPACKED: An incredibly complex topic, influenced by education, racism, notions of patriarchy, religious views, rural/urban economics, immigration, notions of safety, izzat/family honour, colonial history, etc.- make it impossible to universalize. In fact, the multitude factors make South Asian families incredibly diverse. For women interested in politics, this type of baggage can difficult to shed when it comes to the perceptions of what a candidate may believe or fight for.

Why Should We Bother?

Representation matters. It tells us we belong, that we’re normal and desired. South Asian women have been so starved for reflection, so invisible for so long in the mainstream that we are desperate for you to see us and to finally see ourselves.

All too often, I see us being sidelined in conversations surrounding issues that affect our entry in the political arena. Western-European ideas of patriarchy, individualism, womanhood, and feminism are imposed all the time. And yes, while there are segments of South Asian communities that enjoy privileges that other communities of color are not afforded, the current structures of power and privilege negatively and dangerously impact the experiences of South Asian women in unique ways.

Top 3 Solutions:

  1. The best solution of course, is to begin the conversation. Only by listening to the multi-vocal and contextualized narratives and visions of personhood of South Asian women themselves do we stand a chance of breaking out of Western ideas of modernity and articulating new frameworks of Indian womanhood.
  2. Allies need to step up and support more South Asian women politicians and prospects and recognize the power dynamics at play. This goes further than simply insisting they will make a fine candidate. Allies must support them throughout the process. Mentor them, help them fundraise, invest time, celebrate them, introduce them, etc.
  3. Political systems, parties, and representatives need to stop tokenizing. One South Asian woman per slate or party is simply NOT acceptable anymore when there are many more qualified women around. Tokenism has become not just tolerated, but celebrated by mainstream politicos. Tokenism tells us that everything is peachy keen; and that we’re making progress! But elevating one member of a marginalized group to legitimize the status quo, is more non-racial than post-racial—and it certainly doesn’t break down the real barriers.

Women’s exclusion from public spaces, and particularly the political realm, is systematic. It is structural in nature and is intensified by attitudes, cultures, norms and practices that seek to explain rather than address their exclusion from positions of power.

Unpacking this for South Asian women, is a continual journey in self-reflection.

Mita Naidu is running for Delta School Board in the upcoming municipal elections on Oct 20, 2018.  www.deltavoices.ca