As a preteen I learned what it meant to be powerless. I lived in a country where women are oppressed, and as a young girl I found that suffocating. My mother wasn’t allowed to drive. My aunt had to ask my grandfather for permission to travel. A guard sat outside my all-girls school, where he watched over a chained door—the only entrance or exit—to prevent my peers and me from engaging in “immoral” behaviour. We girls sat within concrete walls, under a sign: “A virtuous woman is an obedient one.”
When we immigrated to Canada, my Toronto middle-school was entirely different. Girls could voice their opinions, attend gym and feel valued. I felt a deep sense of responsibility to use the freedoms I had to empower others. But I didn’t know how.
As I grew I realized that although my life as a young woman was much better than it could have been, there was still so far to go, even in Canada. Women were still disproportionately subjected to sexual and domestic violence, earned less than men, and were the primary caregivers in their households. When I turned on the TV or read newspapers I saw few women role models.
I fell into politics in my mid-twenties. Now living in Calgary, I attended a political event out of curiosity and decided to get more engaged. One day a (woman!) party staffer asked me point-blank what I cared about. I pictured the girls in my elementary school, locked away from the world, and said that I wanted to see more women elected to office. Turns out I wasn’t alone. The staffer put me in touch with Kara Levis, who was heading up a women’s commission. Together we rallied women to support that party’s women candidates in the 2015 federal election.
We’d hit a nerve. In 2016 only two out of 15 council seats in Calgary were held by women. That needed to change.
After that election Kara and I went to lunch with our friend Kerry Cundal and talked about the fantastic women we’d met while campaigning. Most of them had never thought about running themselves. We talked about how few women were on Calgary’s city council, and how great it would be if more women ran. We wondered why more women didn’t, and whether it was because so few were asked. And then we had a lightbulb moment—if no one was asking women to run, we would do it. We looped in another friend, Lindsay Amantea, and Ask Her was born.
We built Ask Her around three goals: to generate public awareness about the lack of women on council, to encourage women to run and to provide tangible support to women candidates. We had limited resources, but we were tenacious. I used an app to make a logo. To spread the word, we made our friends and family follow our social media accounts. And when we sent out a release, directly messaging journalists on Twitter, they actually responded.
We’d hit a nerve. In 2016 only two out of 15 council seats in Calgary were held by women. Calgarians knew that needed to change. We aimed to double the number of women who had run in the previous election. We met dozens of women for coffee and asked them to run. Often they had the same hesitation: They were inexperienced, unqualified, unready. They asked me why I wasn’t running. I realized I ought to walk the walk—or run the run. So I resigned from the organization and ran.
In 2013 eight women ran for council; in 2017 over double the number—21—ran. Calgary elected three women to council, a 50 per cent increase. Imagine what council could look like next time…! The current Ask Her board, a group of dynamic women, is working hard to recruit and prepare women for the municipal elections of 2021.
Our world right now can seem bleak. But when I feel hopeless I remember how powerless I felt as a child. We have the freedom to take action. We need to use it and act to build a better world around us. I urge you: Identify what matters to you. Find like-minded people. Get together and brainstorm how to make change. Then do it.
Esmahan Razavi co-founded Ask Her.