Not one of the fifty chairs is empty. A full house is unusual for council sessions. Most of the seats are occupied by men. As Laila looks around, she sees that Councilmen Hooser’s and Briggs’s wives are present. There are only two other women in the audience and Laila doesn’t recognise either. Both are accompanied by their husbands. Naya Roben isn’t here. It has been two years since the council voted on letting women attend its meetings. But hardly any ever show up.
Laila, though, has attended many such meetings ever since Ahmed has been part of the council. From a young age it inspired her to see how laws were made – the debate, the suspense, the outcome. Laila believes that law has the ability to change mindsets; that the everyday lives of an entire nation can be affected, potentially bettered, by a single sentence.
Laila’s grandfather, Thakur, is sitting three seats to the left of Laila. Councilman Hooser’s wife, brother, and Laila’s uncle Gulzar sit between them. Gulzar gives her a bright smile as their eyes meet. Thakur doesn’t even acknowledge her presence.
The audience settles down when the councilmen enter the room. Councilmen James, Hooser, Briggs, her husband, Raymond Tony, and her father, Ahmed Jagir, are seated at the semicircular podium, in clear view of the audience. Laila catches Ahmed looking at her and averts her gaze quickly.
The Speaker of the house walks inside and takes his seat facing the council members. As the Speaker introduces the bill, Laila takes a deep breath. These past few months and more importantly, the future of women in the nation, all come down to this decision: “The Women Counsellors Bill to Permit Women to Be Elected into the National Council”. The entire courtroom listens intently. The split in the audience is polar, and both sides are waiting for the final votes with bated breath. After the Speaker finishes reading out the bill, he opens the floor to the audience.
First, a woman with a blue scarf tied around her head approaches the stand. Laila sees this with pride; the bill is already making a difference, already giving women a voice. The woman’s face is covered, leaving only her hazel eyes visible.
She positions herself in front of the microphone and begins to recite what sounds like a memorised speech: “If women are allowed to be elected into the council, soon they will start being allowed into other fields of work as well. This additional pressure of performing at work will divert our attention from the household. Do I want to hire someone to take care of my child? To cook food for my husband? To make sure my house is neat and clean? No. Those are my duties and I am happy to be performing them. If society compels me to work, then I will not be able to do the things that I must as a woman. Of what use is such change?”
The woman turns to look at a man who Laila presumes to be her husband. He nods approvingly. Half the audience nods in approval; some even clap. Laila feels her anger rising and has to hold herself back from getting up from her seat and confronting the woman.
Giving women the right to work gives them a choice. Do you understand the meaning of choice? But she knows that the words that were just spoken are not the woman’s, but even though they are not the woman’s, she probably believes them, a chain of realisation that makes Laila even sadder.
A few more people stand up and present their views, both sides speaking to convince the voting councilmen. Laila would have liked to voice her opinion as well, but as the daughter of a councilman and the wife of another, both of whom are going to present their votes, she believes it is best to keep quiet so that later their votes are not questioned as being influenced.
Laila knows, through years of watching Ahmed’s process of deciding on a vote, from everything that she has done to secure Raymond’s vote, that the audience’s words will not add much weight to the councilmen’s decisions. The councilmen have all already made up their minds. Going by the knowledge that Laila is privy to, her father and her husband will both vote for the bill, and the bill will become a law by the end of the day.
The Speaker finally announces, “As there are no more members of the audience who want to voice their views, I announce the floor for opinions closed. The councilmen are now required to vote. As Councilman James has proposed the motion, his vote is taken as an affirmative and he does not have permission to change it. All the other council members must answer when called upon with either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
The councilmen nod to show they understand, and the audience falls silent. The Speaker looks at Councilman Hooser and states, “Councilman Hooser, you have one minute to announce your vote.”
He takes only a few seconds. “No.”
He hasn’t seen her since the day he spotted her outside Councilman Hooser’s house. In the little time that has passed, he cannot believe that she got married. She looks different today, much older, tired and more subdued.
He has made sure to seat himself somewhere in the back. Even though he is here for her, he knows that this is going to be a monumental day. He wishes he could hold Laila in his arms, and give her the comfort that she needs and deserves. He wonders what it would be like if he revealed his identity. But he knows he cannot enter her life and turn it upside down. It’s not like she would even believe him. He watches as she shuts her eyes when the Speaker declares the floor open for voting. He watches as Ahmed looks at his daughter and wipes away the tears forming in his eyes.
As Councilman Hooser votes no, Laila’s eyes remain shut. The Speaker notes his answer down and moves forward to Ahmed.
“Councilman Jagir, you have one minute to announce your vote.”
Laila looks up at her father with pride.
Only two votes left and only one more affirmative needed for the motion to pass. As he looks at Raymond, he starts to fear. He has an inkling as to why Laila might have agreed to marry him. He hopes she hasn’t given away her life in a deal.
Excerpted with permission from Sometimes Ivory, Sometimes Sand, Mahek Jangda, Hachette India.
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