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.
Sweta Bagaria* was not in India in 2014 and was looking forward to voting for the first time in a Lok Sabha election this year. But her father kept trying to dissuade her from doing so.
First, he tried to make it difficult for her to register as a voter. When Bagaria attempted to register online, her father insisted it would not work and that her name would not show up on the electoral rolls. He then made it difficult for her to submit the documentation she needed to register. Bagaria, 26, said her father keeps all the family’s documents and the women are not allowed access to their own documents unless for a reason approved by him.
“The only ID I have always been ‘allowed’ to have is my driver’s license,” she tweeted on election day in Mumbai, where she lives. “So when time came to register, it took me a long time to collect everything I needed to submit online. And I managed to do it just a few hours before the deadline.”
On polling day, Bagaria had not received her voter ID and her father told her she couldn’t vote without it. Bagaria, who had checked what documentation could be shown at the polling booth, set out with her passport and driver’s licence. To her surprise, she discovered that her voter ID had been delivered at her home in her absence when, as the family left for the polling station, her father pulled out the card and handed it to her.
“There was no violence, no force, just a lot of hurdles,” she wrote about her father’s attempts to keep her from voting.
Bagaria’s parents support the Bharatiya Janata Party while she is opposed to the party and its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She believes her father was trying to deter her from voting not because he thought her vote would make a difference to the BJP, which he is anyway convinced will win the election, but because he wanted to exercise control over her political choices.
“It is not about whether my vote will make a difference but about exercising control over me as opposed to me making my own decision,” she told Scroll.in. “The reason for holding me back is not political but rather to suppress my autonomy and my voice. It could have been the other way round – if they supported the Congress and I supported the BJP, they would have still done this.”
Bagaria’s story of the rift with her parents over politics is one that has played out in families across India, especially since the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Family members and friends have fallen out arguing about Modi’s promises of development as against his communal politics. Bagaria’s experiences show how difficult it is for many women, even in rich families in big cities with all the benefits of education and exposure, to express their independent political opinions in deeply patriarchal settings.
After Bagaria shared her story on Twitter, several women narrated similar stories of their families trying to make them vote a certain way and about the lack of access to their own documents.
One woman from Karnataka tweeted:
“I Am M’lorian , Mangalore Is Like Secone Nagpur Now. Most Of The Men Force Their Ladies Whom To Vote When Specially They By Hook Or Crook Want #ButcherOGuj To Win. My Elder Brother Too Dictator Like. I Ask My Mom “Who You Voted ?” She: I Lied To Him (Batana Mat).”
Another identified with Bagaria’s experience of not having access to her documents. She clarified that women in her family are allowed to vote but her father was trying to influence how they vote.
“My dad was trying to force me and my brother till the last moment. I didn’t give up. Even I’m not allowed to have a single id. No one in family in fact. It’s all locked in his safe.”
A woman who was told not to vote for the Congress said:
“My first vote as an adult, my father tried to drill into me not to vote Congress. My mother asked me whom I voted, I said it was a secret. She shook her head and expressed her disappointment in me and how I voted Congress just to troll my parents.”
No documents, no control
That these women have no control over their official documents has ramifications far beyond exercising their franchise. Bagaria, for one, would like to live on her own, but she cannot rent an apartment without all her paperwork.
For her parents, there is no question of her living on her own. “Not unless I move to another city, get married or disown my parents and never speak to them again,” she laughed.
She is also not allowed to invest her savings because it is against the “family rules”. “My brother, who is still in college invests his pocket money, but I can’t do that with the money I have earned,” she said.
To have control over some of her finances, Bagaria has had to hide away cash in her cupboard.
“Demonetisation was a problem for both me and my mother, just like a lot of women stuck in even more abusive homes who were saving for the day they would be able to get out,” said Bagaria.
When Modi announced the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in November 2016, thousands of people across India – women and children in abusive homes, sex workers, runaways, transgender people – who had stashed away cash in the hope of escaping their circumstances were left stranded.
Privilege, but no autonomy
Bagaria recognises the inherent conflict of her situation. She describes herself as being privileged because she comes from an upper class, upper caste Marwari family and leads a very comfortable life. Her father has a business exporting garments and her mother runs the house.
In spite of this privilege, she pointed out, women in her family have little say about their lives while the men have all the authority.
Until she was 12, Bagaria, her parents and her father’s parents lived together. Then her father’s brother and grandfather’s brother also moved to Mumbai. They all lived in different apartments in the same building.
“We used to be a joint family in the financial sense and in every sense possible up to two or three years ago,” she said. “We would have to go through my grandfather or my dad’s eldest brother to get things we wanted or needed – definitely when it came to anything about money but even with smaller things.”
Bagaria describes how her mother was only allowed to wear saris for the first couple of years after she was married. She was eventually allowed to wear salwar suits, but could not wear western clothes until about five years ago. “All these decisions were made by the patriarch of the family,” said Bagaria. “So, it is a typical traditional Marwari family.”
Since they stopped living in a joint family three years ago, Bagaria said, she and her mother have acquired a semblance of independence. “I have tattoos and wear shorts and crop tops but it has been a struggle to get to this point,” she said. “It has not come easy for me.”
Bagaria’s parents paid for her education in the United States, but not without a fight. After she finished Class 12, Bagaria’s father wanted her to study architecture. Though he never said so expressly, she suspects it was a step towards getting her married into a builder’s family and, thereby, getting a foot in the door of the real estate business.
Bagaria was adamant she wanted to be a journalist and convinced her parents to let her go to the US to study. With a Bachelors of Science in journalism and a Bachelors of Arts in economics, she moved to New York where she worked at a business news publication.
“One of the reasons I did not want to live in India was that I did not have autonomy in my life,” said Bagaria. “My father had no control over my finances once I started working [in the US]. I wasn’t really answerable to him. The fact that I was living on my own and not at home allowed me to be myself.”
But a combination of factors led to her giving it all up – getting her visa renewed was proving too expensive, she had to deal with racist microaggressions at her office, and Donald Trump was about to be elected president.
She returned to Mumbai and moved back in with her parents. Since her return, she has worked as a freelance writer and video editor. She has her own feminist-focused brand and website that runs podcasts, and on which she plans to eventually sell merchandise. But she worries about situations in which her monthly income would dry up or her savings run out.
“I would go back to being entirely dependent on my father like my mother is,” she explained. “If my mother has a disagreement with my father, he holds back on the money she needs to run the house.”
Rift over politics
Bagaria said from what she has observed of her parents, her father’s support for the BJP comes from a sense of Hindu pride, her mother’s stems from a fear of Muslims.
“Because of the way my family is structured and because I know my mother, I know for a fact that she has been brainwashed into believing that Muslims are dangerous,” she said.
Bagaria herself believes the BJP is a fascist and divisive party that needs to be voted out. “At this point, I can tell you with confidence, that anyone who is voting for Modi is voting because of their hate for minority communities,” she said. “There is no debate in my mind.”
She attributes her political views to the fact that she read widely growing up, which helped her to think independently. She is thankful that her parents never censored what she read. It also helped that she lived away from her parents for five years.
Bagaria had countless arguments with her parents over their political differences when she returned to India from the US in 2016. “I was really naive and I would argue with him about how it is hateful to say that Muslims are bad people, how it is hateful to vote for Modi, how it is hateful to support BJP and it just never went well,” she explained. “I had to join therapy because my anxiety levels would just shoot up every time I had this conversation with them. Any disagreement leads to silent treatment or verbal abuse.”
She has now decided that it is better to stay silent and avoid conflict as far as possible.
After her struggle to register as a voter, Bagaria grappled with deciding who to vote for and did not make her mind up until 20 minutes before going to the booth. She would have liked to vote for a woman, but none of the major parties had fielded women candidates in her constituency. She said she had read and thought about the manifestos of all major parties. In the end, the decision boiled down to who was most likely to beat the BJP.
“BJP winning or losing isn’t going to change my financially and emotionally abusive situation at home,” she said. “As an upper caste Hindu woman from an upper middle class family, my life outside of my home environment will continue the way it is. But BJP winning will make all the difference to the country and a lot of people who do not have the same privileges I have and that is why it was important for me to vote more than anything else.”
After she cast her ballot, her father asked Bagaria who she had voted for. She refused to tell him.
Sweta Bagaria is an assumed name to protect her identity.
Read more in the series: