“Are you happy with the current government in Gujarat?” I asked a young woman outside a college in Gujarat’s Jetpur town.

It was a question I had asked dozens of young Gujarati voters in the last week of November, and this time, I could almost predict the response. Sure enough, she looked up in surprise, turned to her friend and then burst into a fit of giggles. “I don’t know about all this,” she said with an awkward shrug. “You can ask someone else.”

I went on to interview other students and the only ones who had a response to that question were the men.

I was in the textile town of Jetpur as part of a week-long tour of five districts in Saurashtra and Kutch, three weeks before the Gujarat Assembly election that the Bharatiya Janata Party went on to win on December 18. I was seeking the political views of young men and women from various communities for a series of reports on Gujarat’s under-22 generation: first-time voters who had been born during the BJP’s 22-year reign and had never seen any other party in power in the state.

As the week wore on, however, I found that talking to young rural women about politics – or even their daily lives – was proving to be an impossible task. Those who weren’t hidden away indoors by their family patriarchs were busy labouring on farms, far from the worldly matters of men. Those who were in college in small towns were largely uninterested or clueless about politics, often second-guessing their own opinions.

By comparison, most of the young men I interviewed – in the same age group of 18 to 22 – had strong views on Gujarat’s politics and development. They spoke with conviction, even if they were unaware or misinformed about local matters. When they were surrounded by village elders, particularly elders from other caste groups, many of them faltered. But when they were with their peers, they eagerly shared their opinions.

Where were the opinionated women of rural Gujarat? Why were they so hard to find?

‘I really want to vote’

My reporting trip around Gujarat had actually begun on a positive note. On my first day in Surendranagar district’s Thangadh town, I met 19-year-old Swati Parmar who believes in the importance of voting, is pained by the discrimination she faces as a Dalit and wants a government that can ensure jobs for the youth and justice for her community.

I also met Kesarben Parghi, a 37-year-old housewife who was as excited to be a first-time voter as her 20-year-old son. “When I turned 18, my husband never let me get a voter card. He always said, ‘what do you need to vote for, you work in the house?’” said Kesarben, who claims she often fought with her husband about it but never had her wish. “He died six months ago, so I went and got a voter card made with my son. I don’t know whom I will vote for, but I really want to vote.”

Kesarben Parghi is 37 and a first-time voter in Gujarat. Photo by Aarefa Johari

‘We don’t let our girls talk’

After Thangadh, however, things went downhill. I moved on to Morbi, Jetpur, the fishing town of Salaya and finally the Banni grasslands of Kutch, and at every step, women grew increasingly conspicuous by their absence from my reports.

In Morbi, the only young women visible on the streets were the ones returning home in their college uniforms, and most of them shied away from me. The few who agreed to talk were largely uninformed about the government’s work, had no interest in whom they would vote for and merely nodded when I asked if they supported Patidar community leader Hardik Patel. In the rows of Patidar-owned shops and stores across Morbi, not a single woman could be seen managing sales at the counter.

In the villages around Jetpur, young men from Other Backward Classes explained why they prefer to work in textile factories instead of on their fathers’ farms. “Who wants to work in the sun all day?” one of them said. “At least there are fans in the factory.” But when I asked about their sisters, who are given no choice but to work as agricultural labourers, these men applied different standards: “The factories employ only men because the work is harder. Picking cotton is easy for women’s fingers, so they work in the farms.”

When I asked if I could speak with their sisters, they were dismissive: “They just work at home. They won’t know anything.”

This dismissiveness grew worse on the last days of my reporting trip, in Dwarka district’s Salaya town and in the villages of the pastoral Maldhari tribes of the Banni grasslands. Here, the only females visible in public spaces were little girls playing and older women busy with chores. How little the women mattered to the men was evident in their confusion and surprise every time I asked to speak to their young daughters or sisters: “What will you do speaking to them?” “Yes they vote, but they don’t know about all this.” “What do you want to know? We can tell you on their behalf.”

Contrary to what I had assumed, being a female reporter didn’t help me gain access to these hidden young women, many of whom were married and tending to their babies.

In Salaya, when I was in house of a fishing family interviewing their 22-year-old son, his sister walked in to offer me a cold drink. Mentally crossing my fingers, I asked her if she, too, was a first-time voter. “She is,” her brother answered for her. But even before my heart could leap with joy, she blushed, turned on her heel and hurried away to another room. Smiling politely, her brother said, “We don’t let our girls talk to people like that.”

Should we get used to this?

At the end of my Gujarat tour, I returned to my Mumbai office feeling crushed by the guilt of my sheer, accidental privilege.

This was certainly not the first time I had witnessed glaring gender disparities during my reporting trips around India. As an English-speaking, city-bred woman journalist who could choose to work, stay unmarried and travel alone, I am used to reactions of shock and awe. I am used to men – both in cities and villages – interrupting women and answering for them during interviews. I am also used to women responding to questions with the heart-breaking words, “I wouldn’t know, I am just a housewife.”

But as I sat at my computer writing up my reports from this Gujarat trip, I couldn’t shake away one nagging thought: why should I allow myself to get used to all this? This is an epidemic of gender-based exclusion and suppression infecting the whole country. Why should we just accept it as an unfortunate but commonplace reality of our culture? It needs to be pointed out every time, all the time, as a constant reminder of the distance we need to cover to be an equal society.

In the five reports I wrote on Gujarat’s new generation of first-time voters, I was eventually able to quote 24 young men and just three women. How much longer before we see some balance?

Read Aarefa Johari’s series on Gujarat’s first-time voters here.