Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Palwasha A.
I remember the first time I, and so many others across the globe, got swept up by the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She became America’s youngest congresswoman and watching her beat out her stale, comfortable-in-his-position older white male counterpart at only 29 completely changed the way I looked at my own government. Watching her Instagram story tours through the previously hidden chambers of congress, the behind-the-scenes look at the swearing-in gift bags and late-night assembling of her IKEA tables as she did hard-hitting political Q&A on Instagram Live, all had their intended effect. All of a sudden, a door had opened in my head, a possibility that had never existed before.
If she can, so can we.
The success of this one person for me, her commitment to pushing for the rights of the lower and middle-class and advocating for the previously voiceless on the formidable stages of American congress with the background that she had, was igniting. She wasn’t another Harvard-bred contender claiming struggle - she’d been a young woman in college, who had to support her family through her father’s death, a hardship that could have been eased but for the country’s poor healthcare system. A product of the failings of her own government. For the first time, I could visualise a bridge between me and my own government: changing them in my head from this impenetrable, monolithic institution to something with gaps in its structure, holes that could work in our favour.
What is representation and who cares?
Australian politics has morphed into trying to keep out the greater of two evils. We are consistently having to decide between two options that have become almost exactly the same. So, what does representation in politics mean? We are not just referring to individuals who represent a particular marginalised group, physically, but who also represent interests broader than their individual selves and those of the maintained status quo. “Standing for” is not the same as “acting for” - it cannot be assumed that individuals who embody certain group characteristics will also act in the interest of that group.
As writer and activist Hoda Katebi argues, “our faces are being included more but our voices are still not”. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, is often used to demonstrate how a woman entering politics doesn't mean that she made policies benefiting women. In fact, her hardline stances on issues such as equal pay, work and childcare served to drive women away from her political party in droves. Even the archaic Alabama abortion laws that recently caused waves across the globe for the fact that they would force a minor to bear a child, regardless of incest or rape, were signed into law by a woman. Therefore, this type of shallow representation is not the goal we are aiming for. The goal is to have the right voices in positions of power that have the interests of their community at the forefront of their agenda.
So, you might ask - why can’t we have people who aren’t from our communities represent our interests?
Why do we need to do the work to get in or support our representatives who are already doing the work? Why can’t an able-bodied person create policies for the betterment of disabled people or men create laws that cater to women? In short, they can. But the research says they aren’t.
What Does The Research Say?
I think one of the best and most easily understood examples of why representation in positions of power is so needed, is a social experiment by educator Jane Elliott. Jane asked the room to please stand if they would be happy to receive the same treatment as a black person. No one stood. She reiterated her question, saying they must not have heard her correctly. “If you white folks, want to be treated the way black people are in this society, stand.” Again, no one stood. Jane said, “Nobody’s standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening; you know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.” Essentially, the people that are protected by the status quo know that the policies are for their benefit. They will not be the first to try and stand up against it.
A common fear of increasing representation for marginalised groups in government is that it will take away from the rights of those already in power. In the usual context, the true meaning of this argument is that the interests of the traditionally powerful - often white, cis, heterosexual men and those who ride the coattails of their privilege, won’t be at the forefront anymore. Research by Dr Clare Burton (a prominent advocate and activist for social change) found that powerful groups assume patterns regarding “equal opportunity and merit-based progression” while those from underrepresented groups will identify patterns “of discriminations and bias”. This proves how equity - a true levelling of the playing field - is so important to address first in discussions of representation.
New emerging political philosophy, as illustrated in the work of Anne Phillips (a professor of political science) has found that reflecting different lived experiences, particularly as related to experiences of subordination, exclusion, and denial are extremely important. What this means is that we need people who have lived through and are familiar with the experiences we are creating policies around, to have the most active voices in their creation and carry-through. An Australian example of this is the original paternalistic policies surrounding the removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. Aboriginal Australians were not consulted in the creation, implementation or execution of these policies, resulting in further harm done by them than good.
Additionally, people from groups marked by these differences are often perceived lacking necessary objectivity. It has been a continual argument made against appropriate representation in parliament, that those from marginalised groups of society are unable to “transcend their identity” to achieve common goals. So, even when representation happens, their identity is seen as a deficit, something that removes the validity of what they have to say - they aren’t taken seriously enough and therefore, they are not listened to.
“The dawning realisation came to me slowly and painfully: many of my male colleagues had not actually heard what I had said in the previous 12 years, whether in Parliament, in the joint party room or in committee meetings. Nonetheless, they all thought they knew what I had said.” - Kathy Martin Sullivan MP
Let’s look at women as an example. It’s been consistently proven, even on such small-scale examples as local councils, that having members of the groups that policies pertain to, is most beneficial to the success of those projects. For example, in Norway, it was found that there was a direct causal relationship between the representation of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage. While, research on Indian panchayats (local councils) found that those with women-led councils had a 62% higher number of drinking water projects that those with men-led councils (UN Women, 2020). Equity obviously works, so let’s move the conversation forward. It’s no longer about proving whether representation works but HOW we are going to get to meaningful representation.
The Final Word
So, with all the obstacles that exist on our pathway towards greater representation within our governments, it’s easy to become disheartened by the difficulty of creating truly lasting structural change. However, the examples of those fighting for us today should not be seen as failures, but rather as setting a solid foundation, and paving the way for more meaningful change in the future.
Proper representation in government is the key to unlocking the potential of our collective future. We understand now that levelling the playing field and ensuring our voices are heard are what’s needed and we’re closer to that goal than ever before. AOC was the one who made clear to me for the first time that a young, brown woman from the kind of tumultuous life experience that her current government had had a hand in creating for so many people, could rise to the challenge of changing that structure from within. She was not just an example of physical representation, but meaningful representation, not just for her own Latinx community but for all underrepresented people in her country.
We know now that we are not going to get what we need from those that are benefiting from being at the forefront of the agenda. We all have the ability to be in these positions of power to create meaningful change; we need to be able to see ourselves in them to strive for them.
Lead editor: Irisa R.
UN Women. (2020). Facts and figures: Leadership and political participation. [online] Available at: https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and-figures [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020].
O’Toole, T. & Gale, R. T. (2013) Political engagement amongst ethnic minority young people : making a difference . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bishin, B. G. (2009) Tyranny of the Minority The Subconstituency Politics Theory of Representation . Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Bird, K. et al. (2010) ‘The political representation of immigrants and minorities : voters, parties and parliaments in liberal democracies ’, in 2010 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ;: Routledge. P.
Youtube (2020). Being Black By Jane Elliott. [image] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yrg7vV4a5o [Accessed 27 Feb. 2020].
Nytimes.com. (2020). A Muslim Fashion Blogger With a Fierce Message. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/07/fashion/muslim-fashion-blogger-hoda-katebi.html [Accessed 14 Feb. 2020].