'Wave of Bigotry, Not Development': What This Election Means For a Muslim, Woman Entrepreneur in Varanasi
Sana Sabah says Prime Minister Narendra Modi has created the start-up culture, but no small businesses have benefited from it in Varanasi.
Sana Sabah, who started as an employee at ShuruArt, a niche online marketplace that strives to showcase and sell original works of art from BHU students, is now the company's CEO.
In every election, there are conversations and analysis on various factors that impact the results: caste, money, unemployment and agrarian crisis among others. In all of these factors, women appear as a footnote. Do women vote according to caste? What do they want from the government? Do they feel a woman politician is better for women? This series is an attempt to find out How Women Vote.
Varanasi: When Sana Sabah enrolled for Banaras Hindu University (BHU), she was warned: "You are a Muslim woman, you will face discrimination". However, for Sana, the experience was quite the contrary. "I would eat beef openly and invite my friends for dinner too. I was never made aware of my Muslim identity," she said. This was until 2014.
Just ahead of the 2014 elections, Sana said, she could sense the hatred against Muslims. "I could tell there was intolerance. There was no space for debate," she said, sitting at a tea shop in Varanasi, the constituency Prime Minister Narendra Modi had won by a huge margin of 3.37 lakh votes. The PM is contesting from Varanasi yet again for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.
Talking about how she has decided to vote over the years, Sana said, "I used to vote for the Congress because my family did." However, in 2014, when Sana was doing her masters in Mass Communication from BHU, the election campaigning reached her institute. One day, she spotted some men wearing saffron-coloured neck scarves outside her institute. When she asked her batchmate about them, she was asked to shut up. "We don't talk to ISIS walas, go to your country and ask them about us," she was told. Sana said that particular incident left an unforgettable mark on her.
Sana said she has made some bad electoral choices in the past. In the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Sana voted for Abdul Samad Ansari, the Congress candidate who contested from Varanasi (North). "It was the worst decision. I later found out he has 9 criminal cases against him," she said. "I had decided I won't vote for the BJP, but I made a big mistake by choosing a criminal candidate. I don't want to do that again," she added.
This time, Sana wants to make the 'right' decision.
Being An Entrepreneur in Varanasi
"When Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of the country, we were told that businesses and startups would boom. I did not get to witness it," the 29-year-old entrepreneur said.
Sana, who started as an employee at ShuruArt, a niche online marketplace that strives to showcase and sell original works of art from BHU students, is now the company's CEO. "We didn't receive any government funding even though we work with the marginal sections of the society. Is this what Modi's startup boom looks like?" she asked.
The organisation is also involved in another ambitious project in which Sana's team members -- Karishma along with Ajay and Neelam, who have pursued their masters and bachelors in BFA respectively from BHU-- go to Government Primary Schools of Varanasi to conduct art workshops for children. “Art is one subject on which government schools focus the least. So we try to encourage the children," Karishma said. Talking about her idea of choosing the right neta, Karishma said, "Religion has now reached schools. I would want to vote for someone who doesn't at least make children fight over religion."
For Sana, the biggest factor this election is economic development. "As an entrepreneur, my job of doing business has not eased. PM Modi has created the start-up culture, but no small businesses in Varanasi have benefited. Unlike the metropolitan cities, we don't get to participate in big events. Nothing is accessible to us. And all this even though we belong to the Prime Minister's own constituency," she said.
Very often, Sana said, she is not even considered as a businesswoman. "We are often called an NGO, no matter how much I explain that we are not a non-profit organisation. We are trying to make money here," she said.
Is Electing Woman Politician the Answer?
When asked if she would want to vote for a female politician, Sana said, "I would vote for a woman if she actually works for us, if she has the potential. Not because she's a woman." Although Sana believes that there is a need for representation of women in politics, she feels there isn't much choice. Pausing for a bit, she asked, "Why do we have to choose between Hema Malini and Uma Bharti? Why don't we have someone in between these two?" Then, answering her own question, she said that this is not the problem of a political party, but that of 'culture'.
"Where were these women politicians when female students were harassed in BHU? None of them came," she said. There was a wave of unmissable anger in her voice.
In September 2017, thousands of students, mostly women, protested when a BHU student was allegedly molested by three men on campus. When the woman went to the proctor and warden to file a complaint, she was turned away and her claims were dismissed.
Instead, she was accused of being responsible for the incident. The peaceful protest eventually turned violent as the police lathi-charged the crowd, injuring several students in the process. The vice-chancellor, G.C. Tripathi, went on indefinite leave. On April 25, 2018, a committee headed by former high court judge V.K Dikshit gave Tripathi a clean chit and stated that the student protest was “politicised and sponsored”.
Is Safety a Concern?
At the beginning of her academic year, Karishma's professors had told the female students to not take certain routes. "We are always asked to not go here and there, but BHU couldn't make its campus and the neighbouring areas safe," Karishma said. Talking about the Congress' manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections, Sana said, "Now politicians want women to be grateful about providing us safety. That's their basic job. We need more than that. We need better education, we need better jobs." The 29-year-old said that she got rejected by five companies during the placement because she didn't know how to respond during interviews. "We need to be groomed for jobs. That is what women need. Safety is something that the government has to provide," she added.
While talking about the politicians’ idea of safety for women, Sana pointed out that she has had to fight with professors, students and even her own family because of her choice of clothing or career. "I was once told that I can wear denims, and sport short hair because I study in BHU and not Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). This is my right, not my privilege," she added.
The fight, however, is endless.
"First, we fight with our family to take up the career we want, then we are asked to stay inside, put on curfew, and are even groped within the campus. Whether its politicians or institutes, the fact remains that they are not being able to ensure basic security of women. In turn, our careers are being ruined," the 29-year-old said. "Perhaps, even a woman politician is facing the same at her home," she added.
The fight also extends to WhatsApp groups, often the ones with family members. Karishma, Sana's colleague, recalls a time when someone in the family WhatsApp group shared a video of Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian Air Force wing-commander who was held captive in Pakistan for 60, dancing to a song. When she pointed out that it's a fake one, she was asked not to be rude to her elders. "There are so many warmongering messages doing the rounds all the time in these groups. Ye leher vikas ki nahi, bigotry ki hai," Sana said.
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