Women and horses. At the races, they vie with each other and among themselves—as much in pulchritude and in punch as for the clicks and flashes of camera attention. Stepping past those facile, fashionable associations, 33-year-old Yumna Harisingh has become the first woman to be elected a member of the Bangalore Turf Club. Her count of 212 votes out of 350 carves right through its air of heavy male clubbiness. “When I first thought of running for the club election, a lot of people said it was impossible—some believed women were barred membership,” says Yumna. “But I felt that, if we never tried, how would we ever know?”
Yumna’s campaign took months. She met almost all the members, spending time with them, tying to convince them to vote for her. What was worrying, says Yumna, was that there were quite a few youngsters among those of the view that the club shouldn’t have woman members at all. Only two women have tried before Yumna, one in 1992, another in 1993: both were blackballed.
The Bangalore Turf Club is the only one in India that selects members by election. (The four others—in Calcutta, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad—follow a system of proposals and nominations.) Membership is for life, so a vacancy arises only on a member’s death. And the club holds elections only when there are five or more vacancies. This year, there were six spots. As a member, Yumna will have a say in all decisions of the club. Many of these decisions can influence racing regulations in India and are regarded as passed by the club only if all 350 members are in assent.
Only two women before her have tried for membership of the Banglore Turf Club. They were both black-balled.
Yumna is the daughter of Subir Harisingh, the bureaucrat-chief of the Bangalore Development Authoriy, and Jiga Harisingh, a former director-general of police. She says she had the whole-hearted support of her family. “My father came with me to almost all the members’ homes,” she says of her canvassing. “On some days, we would leave early in the morning and return late in the evenings. We also had to travel to Chikmagalur frequently, as many of the club members live there. The whole process was very challenging.” There was a lot of resistance, and what she found interesting was that the voters slowly changed their minds and came round to supporting her membership. “I was there to prove a point. And I did it.”
Riding and horses have been Yumna’s passion since childhood because her mother, as a police officer, was a keen rider. Yumna has ridden competitively since her schooldays, especially her time at the Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty. Further studies were in the US, where she could nurture her riding interests. Her husband Vineet Jawa is also a riding enthusiast. She counts among her fondest memories two rides: one, by herself, across Texas, right to the Rio Grande, and another in Wales, accompanied by her husband. “My association with riding is long,” she says. “As for the turf club, I’ve been going there with my parents since 2006.”
Yumna’s education and career speak of an active mind that has cultivated a range of interests and an easy self-assuredness. After some time in the US, she studied journalism at the Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. She was active with AIESEC, an international students’ network. After some freelance journalism, she took a second degree in comparative politics from the LSE. Then she worked as a research analyst and project manager at the London HQ of Cadbury’s.
She now divides her time between Delhi and Bangalore. While in Delhi she focuses on her writing interests. In Bangalore, she joins her mother in promoting struggling artists by organising shows. Of late, they have been organising sporting events for communities, such as galli cricket. Every team has woman players, and the captain is always a woman. It’s their little giddyap for women’s empowerment across classes, a difficult race. In her own clique-chic clique, Yumna’s progress has taken some bounding and galloping to achieve.