Like many others, I too have been thinking of this election the past month or so. A lot has been said about the repercussions a Trump presidency will have on immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community, non-Whites…the list is endless. But in this post, I would like to talk about personal matters, and what it meant for a first-time voter like me to vote in the US elections. I have been living in the United States for over seventeen years, but only recently – in April this year – did I apply for citizenship.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t know much about Hillary Clinton or American politics. But the good thing that has come out of this cycle is that it has made me want to learn more about governance, elected representatives and what they are doing (or not) for the people they claim to represent. It has made me want to learn about why people hate Hillary so much. I don’t understand the refrain, “She’s a liar”; why she has been singled out for so much hatred when clearly the opposition isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue.
Despite being relatively apolitical prior to this election season, however, there was one thing I was really excited about – the fact that, for the first time in American history, a woman was running for president as a candidate of a major party, that too with a good chance of winning. Now, of course, being from India I was cautious about what this could actually mean for the ordinary American woman. After all, did Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s rise to power necessarily create a dent in the patriarchal nature of Indian culture and society?
Comparing the two situations would, in many ways, be like comparing apples and oranges; the environments within which the two women were operating were vastly different. Indian women, in general, did not pose a threat to the establishment or male dominance simply with the ascent of a lone woman leader. In the United States on the other hand, Hillary Clinton was symbolic of the need to quell the rising tide of ordinary women who were beginning to fight for their rights – over their bodies, in the work place, the judicial system…but I’ll leave that for another post.
Seeing Hillary run for president struck a chord personally. I began to sense that nothing was impossible, that the fact I was born female did not necessarily mean I needed to contort my body, with all its imperfect curves and dimples and arches, in order to fit into a little box that squished the womanly life out of me. You see, for years and years, I did exactly that. I didn’t necessarily start out as someone who consciously tried to adhere to expectations and roles meant exclusively for women. But moving back to India as a teenager and expected to become “Indian” overnight, I tried my very best to fit in. Fit in to not just a new culture, but also to family politics, competition and drama.
The result of it all was that I lost myself completely. I tried to erase myself to the point that the boundaries between me and society evaporated. I became whoever people wanted me to be, so that eventually I didn’t even know who I was anymore. But perhaps most devastating was the message I got as a woman. I came to realize that in India I was far too outspoken, too “Western,” too questioning, and therefore, too shameless. The only way to redeem myself would be to begin an indefinite quest to erase myself, most importantly, my womanhood, that it soon reached ridiculous proportions; the more astute among my friends began to wonder who this imposter within their midst was.
I had never been encouraged to look up to strong women, never had female role models except pativratas or those devoted to being slaves to their husbands (even if it was the fakest of devotions designed to cope with the “destiny” of being born a woman, I now realize). I found myself being critical of strong women while secretly admiring them. I began a schizophrenic relationship with myself that would always end in confusion, guilt, and, worst of all, self hatred.
But moving to America away from that dysfunctional environment made me realize I didn’t have to pretend anymore. It took a while – more than a decade – but I slowly began to breathe naturally again. I opened up the tightly bolted windows and doors of my gendered box, a peep at a time, and I as I gingerly walked out, I gradually began to realize I didn’t always have to look over my shoulder to see if someone was going to whisper in my ear that I needed to behave myself.
The change had begun, and it reached a climax earlier this year when I felt like I was finally entering acceptance mode as far as many events and people were concerned. But most importantly I started becoming kinder and gentler towards myself. I began to realize that it was okay to try – and fail – than not try at all for fear of failing. And then Hillary came onto the scene to reinforce the idea that I need not feel inadequate simply because I was a woman. I felt doubly empowered as I cast my vote as an American citizen.
A few weeks ago I attended a rally at UNM initiated by the Islamic Center of New Mexico. The point of it was not so much of anti-this or that, but of standing in solidarity against intolerance and prejudice. It had been a difficult ten days after the election. An environment of loss, bewilderment, heartbreak and shock had set in, and many of us were still trying to cope with what had happened, and with the sense of trepidation about what was to come next. At the rally there were moments when I found myself tearing up. But they were not the tears I had expected; they were tears of hope. Seeing people of different colours and backgrounds gathered together, vowing to never let hatred and bigotry get in the way, made me realize that there was much goodness left in the world, that we must never give up against any and all odds.
The initial shock of seeing Hillary lose and what her loss meant to me specifically as a woman has gradually begun to set in, not as dismay and fear, but in the belief that we must not lose hope. That we must keep on fighting. That I must keep on fighting. I will never let the spirited and feisty woman in me die, as I did once. I will continue even in the darkest of hours and – reinforced by the rally – I know there will be people to support and encourage me along the way.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.