Named one of Forbes India’s “30 Under 30” in 2017, Angellica Aribam has been working on issues of race, gender, and the democratization of politics for nearly a decade. She is the founder of Femme First Foundation, a non-profit based in India, committed to amplifying women’s leadership in Indian politics. As a first-generation woman politician in India, Angellica has lived experiences of being a woman in politics in a deeply patriarchal society. Femme First Foundation is her of leveling the playing field for women politicians in India.
Angellica was an inaugural VVEngage Fellow for Women Political Leaders at Vital Voices, an American NGO founded by Hillary Clinton, where she was mentored by former women Prime Ministers of Canada, New Zealand, and Peru; and trained by professors of Harvard Kennedy School. She was also an ACYPL delegate, sponsored by the US State Department, in 2020.
Angellica had a sincere, in-depth conversation with Swagata Sen about her mission of improving the representation of women in politics in india.
Angellica, could you please share about your organization, Femme First Foundation and the story behind creation of this organization?
I started Femme First Foundation in 2019. In Femme First Foundation, our goal is not only to increase the representation of women in politics, but also to increase the quality of the representation in politics in India.
I was in politics for five years of my life, between the age of 20 and 25. I came from absolutely no political background and dabbled into it when I contested the college election and was elected in Delhi university. I was All India General Secretary of the students wing of the Indian National Congress party. This enabled me to travel across the country and take charge of states like Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh etc.
Unfortunately, I had to face many challenges because I was a woman. Sexism, in a patriarchal society is quite normalized, but it’s even more normalized in politics. There is no redressal mechanism. For instance, I have had senior politicians making overtures at me, trying to get too comfortable with me when I wasn’t comfortable. I have been censored for the clothes that I was wearing saying, ‘you can’t wear skirts. You can’t wear lipsticks as a woman politician’.
At 25, I was preparing for the Vidhansabha seat (State Legislative Assembly) in the Manipur Assembly elections with a lot of hope and dreams. But, I was denied the assembly ticket at the last minute. Apparently ‘I was too young’ to contest a Vidhansabha election.
I realized that the fact that I was a young woman negated all the hard work that I did in my constituency and for my people.
Additionally, I didn’t come from a rich family. My parents were middle class people who were taking care of my expenses. They told me, ‘now you’re 25 and it’s high time that you get a job that will pay for your bills or get married to a rich person who might be willing to support you.’
That compelled me to think that it was not just me, there must be a lot of other women who don’t come from well to do families, and have to go through the added burden of the sexism, patriarchy, censorship that existed within the system.
I took a sabbatical to study public policy. That was the point where I was thinking how I could contribute and what I could do for the women who are in a similar boat. I came back to India after my studies and started this Foundation with the aim to provide capacity-building, trainings, and mentorship of women in politics. We are also trying to create a network for women in politics, a sisterhood to support each other. Women in politics are in silos, where they are completely disconnected from each other. Because of the political convulsions in the different political parties they don’t have that support system wherein they can come and share their experience with someone else. In our foundation, we wanted to create that sort of network and sisterhood so that they can support and inspire each other.
How are you trying to improve women’s representation and participation in politics through your organization? What are the programs you offer?
Our main idea is about upskilling women politics and changing the discourse, addressing the problem at the root rather than doing just advocacy.
We have one program called She Runs Government Dialogues, which is an international platform where political leaders representing different political parties from across the world come together to discuss and share ideas on how to further advance women’s participation in politics. They brainstorm and share the challenges that they personally underwent. Conversations like this helps normalize the challenges which women in politics face. The fact that these persons have become members of parliament or ministers after overcoming so many challenges, motivates young women and girls to aspire for a career in politics.
Then we have the Gendered Leadership Course, where we bring in prospective future leaders – those who have worked in the development sector or those who have an aspiration to join public service at some point in their life. The course educates and informs how gender practices play out in everyday life, the history and waves of feminism, concept of intersectionality, mainstreaming gender in policy-making, and effective leadership.
We teach how to frame policies, with a gendered lens, how to take decisions, based on the leadership modules and discuss the challenges that women in politics face.
We are launching a fellowship on 12January, 2021 – The Fellowship For Women Politicians. Fellowship recipients will be trained on various aspects of policy making on politics. For example, how to do electioneering, policy analysis, campaign management, public speaking and all other hard and soft skills.
In partnership with Youth Ki Awaaz, we’ve recently launched “She Runs Government Awards 2020″ – India’s first awards for women politicians! With these awards, Femme First Foundation wants to appreciate and acknowledge women politicians across various categories. We feel that highlighting the work being done by women politicians will motivate and encourage more women to follow their path. We received 1700+ nominations for 147 women leaders in 5 categories and 30,000 votes so far. We will announce the winners on January 17, 2021.
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Have you faced any resistance or roadblock in advancing women’s representation in politics?
We haven’t faced any resistance whatsoever from political organizations or political parties. We have been fortunate enough that we have had speakers from the AAP, BJP, BJD, Congress, Shivsena, Samajwadi Party, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Some of them are also part of the advisory committee. So they have been very encouraging about the fact that we need more women leaders. Despite all of them belonging to different political parties, there is that consensus that the time is now.
Do you plan to resume your political career in the near future?
I will be running for office. I have contested elections twice in my life. One was at the college level once at the university level. I was going to contest my third election that unfortunately didn’t happen, but I’ll go back to electoral politics to represent my people, someday. But at the moment, I’m devoting my whole time to my organization as India desperately needs an organization that’s fully committed to nurturing women politicians.
How does success look like to you in the work that you were doing?
I think every person that we have been able to impact is a success in itself. We started the Gendered Leadership Course with a lot of doubts about whether we would be able to impact lives as much as we wanted to through a weekly, two-hour online session. But the feedback has been outstanding. People from different backgrounds – the development sector, policy sector, teachers, politicians, all of them have come up to say that it has taught them to see the world in a completely different light. And that is a success story for us!
Now I see all these young women are looking at everything with a gender lens. Women in the policy spectrum are creating policies with a gendered lens trying to ensure that policies are more gender inclusive in nature, teachers are framing curriculum from a very gendered perspective. I think each person that we have been able to touch, who has been able to create the impact and change within his or her own circle is a success story for us.
I believe that the first step of creating any change is always having the conversation. Once the conversation is established, then it leads to awareness and awareness can then lead to building movements, and then the movements forces the system to change. It’s a four step process. Now we are doing the conversation part and started reaching the awareness part. Change is not that far away!
What would you suggest to aspiring young women leaders?
Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman who ran for the presidency in 1972 in the United States said ‘when they don’t give you a seat at the table, get a folding chair.’
I would like to say to the young women and girls out there that we at the Femme First Foundation, are trying to ensure that we get more women a seat at the table. But even if there is no seat for you at the table, we’ll ensure that we get you a folding chair. So run for office.