I was recently asked by a friend if I was going to vote in the upcoming elections.
No, I replied, explaining that there was no candidate I felt strongly enough about.
‘But you must,’ she said.
I told her I lived in a marginal constituency, where the candidate representing the ‘least worst party’ was certain to win. My vote wasn’t even required from marginal considerations.
‘But you must,’ she repeated passionately. ‘As a woman you have to vote.’
We fell into a discussion about how recently women had won – no, wrought – the right to vote less than a century ago. We spoke of the sacrifices they had made, the violence they had faced, and how they had to fight against their own social mores. We discussed the many parts of the world where women still struggled to get their voices heard. There were the obvious examples like Saudi Arabia, where women can’t so much as drive a car, but also the India I originate from – a vibrant democracy – where women often bear the shame of being raped. They are chastised for wearing inappropriate clothes or for being out of their homes after dark. The rapists’ actions are excused away by their feudal, patriarchal apologists – boys will be boys.
In these societies there is much work to be done to further female empowerment. Empowerment, perhaps, is an ambitious term. In many cases, work needs to be done to just keep women alive and safe. Girl foetuses need to be allowed to live; girl children need to gain access to food, healthcare and education; young girls need to be able to leave home for work or for leisure without fear; they need to be able to marry without the stain of dowry; they need to not be punished for infertility or for bearing girl children; and after old age descends on them and their husbands pass away, they need to not fear being thrown out of the homes they have created for their children.
These worries, these struggles they face, they seem so different from those that concern us in the developed world. I worry that I am expected to take on more of the duties around the home than my husband is. I worry about my daughter’s burgeoning love for dolls, even though I delight in her nurturing character. When I worked in investment banking, I rankled at the sexist office culture. Out of an analyst intake of 50, only 6 were women. Of course there are more serious infractions taking place against women in the developed world. Women are raped in the West too. They are groomed for sex too. They meet with violence too. But they are treated – for the most part – like the blameless, innocent victims that they are.
I have a foot in both worlds – as an Indian living in England, I identify with the issues faced by women in both cultures. There is no denying there is more work to be done in the developing world than in the developed. There is more absolute inequality in the developing world. There are more human rights infringed, and more women placed in daily danger.
But does this mean that I run the risk of forgetting the work that still needs to be done in the interests of equality in the West? Am I forgetting that work practices in the developed world still need to be improved, or that the everyday sexism that pervades our society still needs to be eradicated? Should I, as my friend suggested, be exercising my franchise as a duty to my gender?
On the whole, I think not. And this, I feel, is not an abandonment of my feminist duty. I greatly admire the women who went before me, the fearless trailblazers who often sacrificed family for career, all in order to achieve the rights that we now are able to take for granted. I truly appreciate all they did.
But my present apathy is a function of their achievement. The suffragettes and the feminists of the 20th century won us the freedoms we see as our birth right. My decision to vote or to abstain is as personal a calculation today as that of a man. My decision to study for a degree or to gain employment is just that, a private decision unprejudiced by my gender, even though these were hard fought freedoms too. True liberty is the freedom to choose. My greatest feminist endeavour now lies in campaigning for a woman’s voice when it goes unheard. Voting for an uninspiring candidate in a non-marginal constituency in an unexciting election – this mercifully no longer forms the greatest exercise of my strength.