Angellica Aribam is a political activist who has done tremendous work concerning the democratisation of politics. She is the founder of Femme First Foundation, a non-profit organisation committed to amplifying women’s leadership in Indian politics, by increasing and enhancing the quality of women’s representation in legislative bodies.
Femme First Foundation also offers She Runs Government Fellowship, India’s first fellowship for women in politics. The six-month fellowship programme seeks to enhance and improve the quality of political representation of women. The fellows will be mentored individually by seasoned women politicians, with leading politicians and leaders with diverse political and policy experience, and trainers from Harvard Kennedy School and Emily’s List being a part of the faculty.
Today, FII is in conversation with Angellica Aribam to learn more about her foundation, their work, and their fellowship.
FII: To begin with, please tell me a little about Femme First Foundation’s work.
Angellica: Femme First Foundation is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation which was founded in early 2019 to amplify women’s leadership in Indian politics. We believe that having a diversity of voices at the decision-making table in politics and policy-making will lead to better governance and consequently, a better society. Unfortunately, representation from the marginalised communities is extremely low at the decision-making levels, especially women, due to their intersectional identities. It’s a sad truth that women from marginalised communities be it Dalit, Bahujan, Muslim, Christian, or Tribal communities face higher oppression than men. Keeping this in mind, we aim to nurture and groom women political leaders. Our focus is not limited to merely increasing women’s representation in politics, we are working to improve the quality of their representation as well.
FII: Could you shed some light on the status of women in politics in India?
Angellica: India is currently ranked 142 out of 193 countries when it comes to women’s representation in parliaments. Our Lok Sabha has only 14.3% of women MPs. The number is even lower in our assemblies – with an average of just 8% of women in these legislative bodies. Women face sexism from the voters as well as their political parties. It ranges from outright denial of opportunities to women to tokenism, patriarchal bargaining, physical and sexual violence, online trolling etc. That’s the grim reality across party lines, across ideologies.
One can say that women leaders from political dynasties have it a little easier compared to first-generation politicians due to the existence of their family support system, but the truth remains that all women politicians face sexism due to the patriarchal nature of our society.
FII: She Runs Government is the first fellowship in India for women in politics, what led you to start this?
Angellica: The foundation and the fellowship are the results of my journey. In 2012, I won elections at the college and university levels at the age of 20 and got elevated to national politics. For five years, I lived and breathed politics. It was a great learning curve. But navigating the labyrinth of the political world is tough for everyone, especially for women, as I’ve already mentioned earlier. So, to push back and survive the ever prevalent sexism of the system, I constantly endeavoured to upskill and equip myself with new ideas and the best practices of politicking. With no organisation in India focused on women politicians, it wasn’t easy. Additionally, as a first-generation woman in politics, I wished I had a mentor who could show me the ropes and guide me.
In 2017, as a 25-year old, I was aspiring to contest the Manipur assembly elections. Despite my hard work, I was passed over due to my young age, gender, and lack of money-power. My middle-class family who had supported my aspirations until then asked me to either get a job that’ll pay my bills or get married to someone who can support my ambitions. That’s when I left active politics and went abroad to pursue a Masters in Public Policy.
During this period, I reflected on how to advance women’s participation in politics based on all that I have seen and experienced firsthand – the good and the bad. I decided to commit myself to the cause of amplifying women in politics. Femme First Foundation is the result of years of reflection. She Runs Government Fellowship is my way of paying it forward. It is designed with the opportunities I got and wished more women had in mind, and the opportunities I wished somebody had given me.
FII: Tell us more about how the fellowship works? Is it open to aspiring politicians with no background in politics?
Angellica: She Runs Government is focused on capacity-building, training, and mentorship of women in politics. Our faculty includes eminent leaders like Dr Shashi Tharoor (former Union Minister & diplomat), Nirupama Menon Rao (former Foreign Secretary of India), Prof Rajeev Gowda (former Member of Parliament), Dr Sasmit Patra (Biju Janata Dal MP) etc; trainers and coaches from Harvard Kennedy School and EMILY’s List, and seasoned women politicians like Renuka Chowdhury (former Union Minister), Atishi (AAP MLA), Priyanka Chaturvedi (Shiv Sena MP), Sushmita Dev (former MP), Shaina NC (BJP Spokesperson), and Annu Tandon (Samajwadi Party) who will provide hands-on individual mentoring to the fellows.
The fellowship is a niche program and open to women who have already shown their commitment to public service. It can be women who have contested elections at any level, political party office-bearers, or women who are working in civil society organisations but want to transition to politics.
FII: You have trainers from Emily’s List mentoring your fellows. In a country like India where over half the abortions performed are unsafe, is the fellowship also focused on teaching fellows to centre reproductive rights and women’s healthcare in their politics? If so, how?
Angellica: We take pride in saying that we are India’s first and only organisation that is nurturing feminist leadership. One of our programs called the Gendered Leadership course is based on the feminist model of leadership and is currently into its fourth cohort. We have enrolled and engaged with more than 100 learners in the past three cohorts. This 6-week program focuses on the history and waves of feminism, intersectionality, gender-mainstreaming in policy-making and politics, and various leadership models. It’s all-encompassing in nature, including not just reproductive rights and healthcare but also lesser talk subjects like the effect of the climate crisis on women, empathy in leadership and so on. Our alumni are journalists, politicians, policy-makers, academicians, activists, and development professionals, basically the people who shape public opinion. We will incorporate all these themes in the fellowship, as well, so that our women political leaders understand and value feminist approaches to leadership.
FII: You wrote a riveting piece for She The People about why Indian politics needs a sisterhood, which is an interesting idea. We think of politics as being combative, so could you elaborate on the idea of this bipartisan political sisterhood?
Angellica: That image of politicians being combative is a product of our television debate. Once the cameras are off, politicians across party-lines can be good friends. In my years in active politics, I have seen male political leaders bond deeply despite ideological differences which is why I wrote the piece about the need for sisterhood amongst women politicians. Like I mentioned in the article for She The People, women traditionally see other women as competitors. We have been fed since time immemorial that ‘two women cannot work with each other’ or a woman is another woman’s enemy’ so much so that it has become ingrained in our mindset. This is a result of patriarchy that women have been led to believe that we have just a piece of the pie (say 33%) to share amongst ourselves. When in reality, women have as much right as men over the whole pie. We have to tell women that we can have the whole pie for ourselves instead of fighting for crumbs amongst ourselves. This is what we need to normalise amongst women, not just women politicians but women all over. Women need to uplift each other.
I am thrilled to say that in the few years of Femme First Foundation, I have seen women politicians who are mentors and advisory board members of the organisation bonding despite their ideological differences. I see that as the beginning of a sisterhood! Further, the fellowship will bring all of them and the fellows together for a 4-day residential retreat that will help in forming and strengthening bonds.
FII: Studies show that bills introduced by women concerning women’s rights, civil rights, educational reforms, healthcare accessibility, and social welfare rarely find enough support in legislative bodies to pass, does the fellowship address this is anyway?
Angellica: Studies across the world have seen that women politicians form coalitions and support causes that concern women’s rights overall. In India too, when the Women’s Reservation Bill was discussed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010, women politicians from across political parties stood together and pushed for it. It’s another story that the Bill never made it to the Lok Sabha and has lapsed now. But the fact remains that our women politicians have united in the past and will do so again when the need arises. The fellowship will be working in two ways towards this direction: a) Legislating and stakeholder mapping will be taught as subjects to the fellows so that they’d know how to look for allies and advocate for bills they believe in when they become law-makers, and b) All the fellows will become a powerful community amongst themselves, strengthened by the bonds formed during the programme and support each other in their political goals.
FII: Femme First Foundation is said to be a non-partisan organisation, but given your long-standing affiliation with the INC and the current political climate where the seeds of authoritarianism and fascism are being sown, do you think organisations can, or for that matter, should be non-partisan?
Angellica: Femme First Foundation is, of course, non-partisan. I was the All India General Secretary of the students’ wing of the Congress for five years but I resigned in 2017 and left the country. We all have our pasts – some happy, some sad, and some life-long lessons. Congress is my past with all of these elements and I have happily moved on.
My goal with Femme First Foundation was to build a platform that works exclusively to advance women’s political representation, given how sexist and patriarchal all our political parties are. I’m proud to say that our advisory board is representative of India’s democracy, and comprises politicians from different political parties – Congress, Samajwadi Party, Shiv Sena, Biju Janata Dal, and Bhartiya Janata Party. These are all political leaders who understand that we need to work together to give women what they rightfully deserve and to make our political systems more women-centric, instead of tokenism. With our shared vision firmly in place, we work together towards achieving it. I can say that Femme First Foundation is proof that organisations can be truly non-partisan.
All images are provided by Angellica Aribam.