New Internationalist

Desperately Seeking Democracy

Issue 324

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Democracy / LIVING IT

Desperately seeking democracy
Pramila Aggarwal has been searching for the real thing
since her youth in India and then her arrival in Canada.

Pramila Aggarwal. I feel I can say something about democracy, having been born and raised in the world's largest democracy - a Socialist Republic, no less. As a child, along with the other neighbourhood children, I would hang around and sometimes harass political candidates who came seeking votes. We had lyrics, which we sang to the melody of popular film songs, where we challenged their party loyalty and false promises. All I got was trouble - trouble from my mother. She was stuck with darning the holes made by the political buttons I wore.

Elections were a special time, more like a picnic - a celebration, I reckon, of democracy! The buses would hum not just with the usual bad engine noise but with animated discussion and argument. Who to vote for and why? My father would have these long and tedious arguments with my mother or with his friends over the phone. I often remember hearing: 'They are all a bunch of crooks. Congress or Janata. Where is this country going? They will sell even their mother, let alone their country, for a chance to accumulate power and wealth.' But they all went to line up and cast their votes, even my grandmother. They firmly believed in the hard-won freedom of their country and the right to participate in a democracy. It was their duty to honour the long struggle which now allowed them to choose their own government.

Several decades later I got another lesson in democracy. From the airport to my home, the taxi driver presented a clear distinction between the two major contenders for power. He said: 'The difference between Congress and BJP is that when BJP is in power only their relatives benefit, but when Congress is in power both their relatives and friends get a part of the loot. I vote for Congress, not because I am a Muslim but because they spread the money around more than the BJP.'

What do I make of democracy? How does it affect my everyday life, as a girl/woman in India? Is it any different in Canada?

I would like to submit that, other than at election time, my life as a girl was more directly governed by patriarchy than by democracy. We had formal political democracy but none of it found its way into our everyday lives. The attitudes of our elected political representatives and bureaucrats remain steeped not only in patriarchal values but are liberally spiced with values of the dominant caste, class, region, language and religion. Until recently, a woman had to have her husband's or parents' permission to get an abortion at government-run hospitals, in a country where abortion is legal. There is no law against divorce either. But the stigma is so great that a woman is forced to suffer violence rather than leave.

As far as I could see and experience, the advent of democracy did very little to enhance the everyday lives of most women, including mine. We remained untouched by equality, dignity or freedom, all the things which I believed democracy would bring. Whether in a public space such as travelling by mass transport or in the private domain of family, neighbourhood and community - democracy was absent. Women could not travel without being harassed by men; they had to bow to the wishes and demands of family and community at every step. All this made me question the paper democracy we had. As I grew older it became apparent that democracy for women cannot coexist with patriarchy. And patriarchy had a much stronger hold over my society than did democracy.

Keeping an eye on the outcome - patriarchy rules in India though the vote is still taken seriously.
TEIT HORNBAK / STILL PICTURES

For me, however, it was not the lack of democracy but the stifling heat of patriarchy which I rescued myself from. I came to Canada, to a Dominion state from a former colony - both a part of the Commonwealth - from Common India to Wealthy Canada. I came alone on a one-way ticket, on a Continuous Passage from India to Toronto. I had no friends, contacts or relatives. I made my home in a university residence. I had come prepared for student life with no expectations of building a career. I was just parking, in a high-priced lot, till the meter ran out.

The first year I felt I was in the land of 'white' magic. I was stunned by the smoothness of the roads, the newness of the cars, the sheer number of titles in the library, the working elevators and coffee-dispensing machines. In my mind, democracy became synonymous with prosperity. Even on a student budget I could buy an enormous carton of ice cream. If democracy was defined by how much ice cream one could buy, and how much hydropower and newsprint a country used, Canada would certainly rank amongst the top.

However, more important to me was the freedom and personal safety that I felt as a woman. I felt normal, neither gendered nor endangered; I was no longer the 'unwelcome' second daughter, dark to boot, hence a bigger liability for her parents. My parents and I have not heard the last of how nice it would have been if I had been born a son! I guess I did try to resist and sabotage the expectations of my community in ad hoc and ineffectual ways: like staying out in the sun to get darker and developing a friendship with a boy from another religion before a Suitable Boy was arranged for me. This at least got me out of the arranged marriage and dowry routine.

 Women’s images sold everything from toilet

I guess once in Canada I was so eager to see real democracy that I was looking for it everywhere. Once, in the subway, a friend pointed out a man to me and said: 'This man is a Member of Parliament.' I almost fell out of my seat. No minister would ever travel by public transit in Delhi. This was surely a democracy!

I constructed my own image of Canada - a vast land, a lot of water, clean, where women had reached equality. It was a shock to see that women still wore high-heel shoes and shaved their legs. Women's images sold everything from toilet paper to cars and homes. And there were fewer women in the Canadian Parliament than in the Indian Parliament. Well, that was sobering! Canadian democracy also espoused patriarchal values and here it was further coloured by class and race.

I realized that if I wanted to survive I had to stop living in a fool's paradise. This was no haven for women either. The expression 'wake up and smell the coffee' was appropriate for me. I had to learn on my feet the limits of this democracy. My life as a foreigner was severely restricted by this democratic state. I had to learn this not for any academic reason, but to survive.

In less than a year I had been changed, from a regular woman to an immigrant, a visible minority woman, Paki, South Asian, Woman of Colour. It took a while to understand that these epithets were meant for me. These descriptors, together and separately, helped me see how I was seen by Canadians and, more importantly, that I was not only 'the other', different but inferior. I was one of the categories excluded from the right to vote in general elections. A right I had taken for granted in India.

I felt powerless. I threw caution to the winds. I ran for office for a students' association and organized against the higher Visa Tuition Fee we foreign students were forced to pay. I learnt that we do democracy differently in Canada. Some of my suggestions for getting the authorities to listen appeared quaintly militant to my fellow students. Here things were done politely. Letters were sent to the right people. After a series of polite letters in response and some meetings, we found that the democratic 'process' was occupying our time. But we achieved less than a tenth of what we had set out to. At least in university we students had illusions of equality - we called professors by their first names and even went for a coffee or a beer. The world outside the university was different. There was no pretence of equality. No first names. No beers. Worker-boss relations were no different than in India.

Scaffolding of power behind the democratic facade. Elections do little for women at the bottom in Madras.
PIERS BENATAR / PANOS

I grew bolder in my search for democracy. My first job, as an interpreter for a union, took me to where my fellow Indians worked in Toronto - factories with no windows, where a hundred workers shared one toilet, where the phone in the cafeteria didn't even work, and where buses came only twice a day. The women I met were my age but looked ten years older due to the stress, hard work and lack of sunlight. But these women were fighting back! They were taking their employer on because he was paying them less than other workers. The safety standards and equipment were so pitiful that the women's hands were constantly burnt by handling hot metal trays with frayed gloves. They were making Pizza Crust. This surely could not happen in a democracy!

Such blatant violation of the law! Such injustice! Where is everybody? The Ministry of Labour? The unions? The women took matters into their own hands. They sought help from their community and approached a union to organize their workplace. They refused to let the rudeness of the union organizer or the patronizing bureaucrats deter them. Day after day we crowded into the cafeteria at the Ministry of Labour, husbands in tow, drinking tea from thermos flasks and waiting for the officer to bring back news. I translated into Punjabi for the workers.

Eight months later they lost the union drive by one vote. Consequently most lost their jobs. The experience took away any vestiges of the 'white magic' I still clung to. It was all a sleight of hand -
a case of Democracy Ltd, where business interests were made legitimate by democratic institutional processes.

But I hadn't finished with it yet. I eagerly accepted an offer to teach English as a Second Language to a group of Punjabi women in a sewing factory. They worked on my Punjabi and it improved. I do not know how much English I taught them. I did discover that their lives, even in Canada, were held in the strong vice of both the Indian-style overt and oppressive patriarchy and the Canadian-style institutional patriarchy. Their position as the main income-earners for the most part didn't alter their family and community status.

For some though, the workplace provided a site for political action, a place from which to assert their democratic rights. They used this space, creatively and joyfully. They took active part in the election of their union executive, the first time in the history of the union that there was an open election. At times they were able to sneak this liberation home, quietly, by opening a bank account in their own names or getting a diaphragm fitted with the help of a mobile health unit.

So I am still desperately seeking democracy. Please call me or send me an e-mail if any fellow seekers find it. I will be forever grateful.

click here to email Pramila teaches in the community program of George Brown College in Toronto.
If you find democracy you can e-mail her at Carmen_Schifellite@campuslife.utoronto.ca


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