Indian women are voting more than ever before. In many states, their turnout is now higher than that of men. But political discussions in the country rarely feature women – even in the media.
What are women thinking on the eve of the 2019 election?
Aarefa Johari and Nayantara Narayanan travel to find out in Half the Vote, a series that brings you the stories and perspectives of women – only women – on life and politics.
For most Muslims in Godhra, the year 2002 will forever be associated with the burning of the Sabarmati Express on the outskirts of the town and the deadly communal violence that took over Gujarat in its aftermath.
Raheema Bibi Bhochu remembers the terror that had gripped the Muslim community at the time. But the mention of 2002 also evokes a different set memories. She was 17 at the time, one year into an arranged marriage with a rickshaw driver from the Ghanchi Muslim community in Godhra, in Gujarat’s Panchmahal district. “That was a very difficult time for me,” said Bhochu, now 34. “I was struggling in my new house and I had just had a couple of misses.”
By “misses” Bhochu meant miscarriages. She had four of them in the first few years of marriage, because her body was too thin and overworked to handle a pregnancy. “We did not have a water connection back then, so I had to fetch water from the river or the well all day,” she said. “It was exhausting.”
Today, Bhochu is healthy, well-built and happy with the water and electricity connections that the Godhra municipality provides the low-income settlement where she lives. Her workload, though, does not leave her much time to keep up with current affairs or local news. “I don’t really read the papers or watch the news on TV or my phone. I am too busy with work,” said Bhochu, who runs a small tailoring business from home and is a part-time domestic worker for a middle-class Muslim family living up her street.
She also raises two sons, aged 16 and seven, and a 14-year-old daughter. She is determined not to get them married early.
While her husband and other men from her community discuss the 2019 Lok Sabha election outdoors, Bhochu has no interest in political issues, parties or the politicians who “come and go”. But as a woman who spends most of her days indoors, she is excited about the opportunity to go out to caste her vote with the rest of Gujarat on April 23.
“I like going to the voting booth and seeing all the people there,” said Bhochu, her eyes lighting up. “I don’t understand politics so I give my vote to whoever I feel like after entering the booth. But voting is very important. It gives you an ID card to prove your identity.”
‘Women do as much hard work as men’
The Ghanchi Muslim community to which Bhochu belongs is a caste of traditional oil-pressers categorised as Other Backward Classes. Living in north Gujarat and parts of Rajasthan, the Ghanchis have their own mosques and are conservative in their practice of Islam. Bhochu did not want to be photographed by Scroll.in because she believes her faith does not permit it for women.
But Bhochu takes pride in her community’s reputation for being hardworking. “We Ghanchi women do just as much physical hard work as the men,” she said, adjusting the dupatta that frequently slipped from her head.
Bhochu also shares a unusual relationship with her husband, Anwar. Unlike many other women from traditional Indian households, she did not consult with her husband before agreeing to speak to Scroll.in, and Anwar did not interrupt or try to speak on her behalf during the interview.
Bhochu earns less than Rs 3,000 a month through her tailoring and domestic work, while Anwar makes between Rs 5,000 and Rs 6,000 a month. “It is not enough to give three children good education, but we have put our youngest son in an English school,” she said, even though it costs Rs 21,000 a year. “If you want to improve your children’s lives, you just have to work very hard and forget that you are tired.”
‘What is Hindutva?’
One of five sisters and two brothers, Bhochu studied up to Class 7 in an Urdu school in Godhra before financial constraints forced her to give up studies. “My father had lost his feet in an accident before I was born, so he could not work. My mother worked as a maid and earned very little,” said Bhochu, whose family spent years applying to the state government for a disability pension for her father and for a wheelchair that he could operate on his own. “We never got a wheelchair. But three years ago, the government finally started giving my father a pension of Rs 400 a month.”
This is one of the reasons why Bhochu is fairly satisfied with the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “From what I know, the BJP has also done good work in building roads. A road was built in my husband’s village around five years ago,” said Bhochu. “His village also got many houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana [the BJP’s scheme for universal housing]. I have seen the logo on the walls.”
Bhochu does not remember whether she voted for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, but claims she was happy when Modi became the Prime Minister. “As a Gujarati, I felt a sense of pride to see a Gujarati as the PM,” she said.
Her perspective is starkly different from that of many other Muslim men and women Scroll.in met in Godhra, who blame the BJP for fuelling communal divides before, during and after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Bhochu claims she had never heard of these allegations against the BJP. She is also completely unfamiliar with many of the terms that Muslims around her associate with the BJP today, such as “Hindutva” or “gau raksha” (cow protection). “What is Hindutva?” she asked. “It must be the bahuvachan [plural] of Hindu, right?”
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