By: Aliya Bhatia
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to tell my late grandfather about my interest in politics. An eternal optimist, we spoke to great lengths about what exactly I was interested in, the political landscape of Canada, and planned my future campaigns in jest. But it was a humorous remark he made that I couldn’t get out of my head—could I get elected in Canada as a young, single, woman of colour?
Last week, WiTOpoli started the #countrywewant campaign to counter the hateful rhetoric that has characterized so much of this election cycle.The campaign was inspired by WiTOpoli Equity Lead Farah Mawani’s experience with Islamophobia while shopping at the Eaton Centre. These experiences have become all too common. The #countrywewant campaign is a manifestation of what racialized women want across the country: change.
As a serial campaign volunteer and former campaign staffer, I’ve repeatedly been told not to work in politics.
I’ve lived in Canada, albeit on and off, since 2001. But it was only when I found myself unemployed and bored, during the summer of May 2014, that I decided to volunteer for a candidate in Toronto Centre. Blame it on Marisa Tomei’s glamour and sartorial choices in Ides of March for turning me into a political hack. I contacted a friend who was working on an Ontario Provincial Campaign. Volunteering and then being hired to work as a full-time handler was an eye-opening experience. All of a sudden, POLI 101 became tangible and real.
I ended up working 12 hour days with an amazing, young campaign team. I spoke to thousands of residents, from disenfranchised voters in Regent Park and St. James Town to affluent residents in Rosedale and King East. It was during this campaign that I became painfully acquainted with the phrase “I’m not racist but.” Voters of all ages, gender identities, backgrounds, and political interests were quick to disclose that they were not in fact prejudicial, despite the hurtful language they used. They were oh-so-tolerating of people of colour, but you know, that one little thing. These were the folks who were supposedly “colourblind”. In one instance, I watched one of these voters point out a poll station clerk who was “obviously non-Canadian”.
Maybe it was my sleep-deprived daze, but all these experiences began to blur together. During one canvassing experience, a King East condo resident looked at me and asked me questions as if I didn’t belong, despite the fact that I was standing beside the candidate. It was his let-me-be-clear attitude, which I had grown so accustomed to on the campaign trail, that expressed a certain incredulity that a young Indian woman was working on a provincial campaign.
These experiences became quaint stories I told over drinks to friends to prove that I was involved. Those I-have-it-worse-humble-brag stories that one tells their friends to demonstrate how engaged one is. Maybe it didn’t matter though. I was lucky to be a well-dressed campaign aide, learning new things, and I knew I was significantly more privileged than many of the residents who visited our office on a daily basis. I had no right to say anything. And even if I did, who would listen?
A story I don’t tell so often, however, is how one night, as I was walking to the bus stop after a particularly long day at work, I was pulled into an alley and solicited. An interesting thing about wearing a politician’s campaign button on your lapel proudly is that many people start a conversation with you. This could be the start of a “how to make friends in a new city” story (I do suggest signing up to volunteer on your local campaign if you are looking for like-minded individuals), but this particular man was not one of these like-minded individuals. He walked up to me and pointed at my button, and I, perhaps naively, asked him whether he had visited our office.
This man did not want to talk about politics with me. And once that became abundantly clear, I ran.
These are just some of the ways women, young women, and women of colour are repeatedly reminded that they don’t belong. That they aren’t equal to men. That their voices don’t matter in our ‘democracy’.
These experiences, ranging from micro-agressions to out-right hateful and bigoted responses, is what women face everyday and deters them from running for office. In addition to financial and accessibility barriers, women are often socialized to see their role in the private sphere, or working behind the scenes, and not in the public eye.
But what about the women who do decide to run? We have seen inspiring women run for public office, only to receive a barrage of hate in returns. Last year, we had two young Muslim women who ran for office. Both Munira Abukar and Ausma Malik, had their signs vandalized with Islamophobic slurs. When Olivia Chow, a respected local politician, ran for Mayor last year, she was the recipient of everything from outright hatred, blatant sexism claiming that she was running on the coat-tails of her late husband Jack Layton, and everyday xenophobic remarks on her accent and presentation skills, even in the press coverage endorsing her.
It seems that Toronto voters have become desensitized to hate-fuelled politics. Our former mayor had to apologize for racist and sexist and remarks made publicly. Many have expressed concerns about how legislation such as Bill C-51 and Bill S-7 can be used to target marginalized communities. When our leaders support such bigotry, it gives the public license to do the same.
Judging women politicians and campaign aides for their looks has become par for the course. Male politicians never receive comments, and much less their male aides. Trust me, I’ve worked with them too. On a daily basis, I received “Does your blue [piece of clothing] mean you’re a Tory” or “Your dress makes you look pregnant.” God, I shouldn’t have eaten that last doughnut.
In this Federal Election alone, despite women being celebrated for running they are the confronted with blatant misogyny that goes largely unnoticed. Conservative candidate Valerie Assouline had her signs vandalized with sexist graffiti, and another sign had a used condom tacked onto it. These acts that recall Shauna Hunt’s workplace harassment å la FHRITP, are a reminder to women day in and day out that they do not belong. Furthermore, the fact that the discussion that surrounding FHRITP was more concerned about whether it was right to publicly shame the perpetrators, once again reminds women that there is more to say around male dignity and integrity than respect for women and their safety.
These are not isolated incidents. These are incidents that women face every day and more so when they seek to enter public service. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who offers the only female perspective amongst the Big Four Candidates, referred to the House of Commons as the most “male-dominated” environment she has ever worked at.
When everyday misogyny is hard enough to deal with, I completely understand why a women of colour would want to keep her sanity in tact instead of pasting a smile on her face as she answers yet another misogynistic question about their looks. Or thanking the voter when they say that the female candidate looks “Great, for an Indian lady,” or shaking hands with a voter who on their own time, advocates for more barriers to the immigration process. I have all the respect in the world for women who do run, and who spend their time constantly questioning and challenging bigotry, but when it comes to me, it’ll definitely be a a hard pill to swallow.