Shahida Banu’s decision to run for the seat of a sarpanch of Kuraj panchayat in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan was met with great resistance from the people of Kuraj. Banu, a 33 year old Muslim woman, was one of the nine women candidates running for the seat. She wanted to use the Gram Panchayat elections as an opportunity to address issues that had been hitherto ignored by the previous sarpanch.
Images 1, 2, 3: From left to right: Shahida files her nomination papers early in the morning; waits with other women candidates inside the polling station for election symbols to be allotted; Shahida holding up the allotted election symbol of a batswoman.
“Why are you so bent on ruffling feathers unnecessarily and disturbing the peace,” the elders of her community asked her. Since Kuraj has been a communally sensitive area electorally, Banu faced backlash from members of both the majority and minority communities, due to her religious identity. Additionally she lacked higher education, political backing and other resources to garner popular support in comparison to her fellow contestants.
Banu lives in a joint family with her husband Raju Muhammed, their two children, Raju’s two brothers and their respective families.
‘While it can be difficult living in a big family, it has also been my biggest support system. They stood right behind me in my decision to contest elections,” said Banu.
Banu was married off at 12 and had to drop out of school in 6th standard as a result. But after having children, she decided to complete her secondary education. With the support of her husband, she completed her 8th grade from an open school.
“It is not like I did not want to finish school, but the circumstances were difficult. My father passed away, and I did not have much of a choice. However, I will make sure that my daughter and son get a proper and complete education,” she said.
“Every citizen has the right to stand and contest. We live in a free country,” said Raju on Banu’s decision to run for public office.
“They think she is young and inexperienced, a complete novice, she will be unable to handle political matters. Well, so is the case with other candidates. They are equally new. But they have social and political backing as well as money. We, on the other hand, are standing independently,” he added.
Through the two weeks of intensive campaigning, Shahida and Raju experienced aggressive backlash from the opposing camps and were even offered bribes.
In one such incident, one of Banu’s only three banners was torn down in one of the villages just two days before the election. In another, the ex-president, whose wife was also contesting for the office and eventually won, personally paid a visit to ‘request’ her and her husband to suspend their campaign.
“Firstly, it’s my right to contest, and it is not like anybody is doing anything for us,” Banu remarked firmly. “We had asked the last president to build a concrete road in our village as the area fills with water every monsoon season. It creates health risks and limits access to other parts of the panchayat, especially schools and hospitals. But our voices have been ignored for years now. One will have to stand up for oneself.”
The excessive influence of party politics and the influx of huge amounts of money in panchayat election campaigns has ‘spoilt the whole environment, said the older men of the community, who feel that people are intimidated to vote in a certain manner. ‘Where is the question of fair and free elections? Especially when there is unequal access to resources,’ they say.
These men believe that reservations are important to ensure women’s political participation. “We are happy to see more and more women entering the political scene. Else, there is no other way women can participate with so much dirty politics being played and men still occupying seats, holding on to power, and doing nothing,” they added.
Banu’s campaign started out slow and picked up momentum only after she made the final announcement not to step down. Her entourage consisted of her three sisters-in-law, Hina, Ruksana and Ashiyana, who went from one village to another to distribute pamphlets and encourage people, especially women, to come out and vote on the election day.
“I can safely say it is not about winning or losing. Yes, who doesn’t like a victory?,” said Ashiyana.
Women turned up in huge numbers on polling day
Shahida lost by a large margin to Deu Jat, the newly elected president. However this did not dishearten her. “This entire experience has given me the confidence and courage I did not know I had,” she said.
Before contesting again, Banu wants to understand the needs of the people. “Only then I can make other people see and acknowledge my presence,” she said.
Banu believes in the need for equitable gender roles and shared household responsibilities. “Men should stay inside and do some household chores; it will make life easier for women and girls. They will be and should be able to move around more easily without veiling all the time.”
Even though Banu wanted to assert her identity through participation in the electoral process, she did not let her minority status interfere with her campaign. Her assertion was against patriarchal and communal stereotypes.
“They want to show us our ‘place’, we will continue to show up. We refuse to be overlooked,” said Banu.
[In 2020, THP India undertook an elaborate photo project of visualising women’s representation and participation in local governance. The six-part series includes profiles of women candidates and elected women representatives refusing to bow down to the status quo. The work is currently on display at the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, Sweden.]