As I write this, a brave young woman sits in a hospital bed halfway across the world, recovering from a gunshot wound to the head that she received simply for speaking out, for using her young voice to bring about change on an issue that she felt demanded attention. The issue? The state of education for young girls and women in Swat, a conflict-ridden area in northern Pakistan beset with violence in the struggle between the right-wing Taliban and the more moderate-minded.
I’ve listened to her story in anger and frustration, not only because of its tremendous injustice, but also because this story carries a slight twist of fate: the girl could have been me. I could have been a young woman gunned down for insisting to her right to an education in male-dominated Pakistan.
Of the many things I’m grateful to my parents for, perhaps the biggest one is this. Thirty years ago, they left behind family, friends, and a familiar way of life for the unknown, for the sole purpose of giving their baby daughter the very best opportunities and the chance to obtain an education and begin a career that was equal to that of any man. It’s a story replicated across America time and time again, this tale of intrepid immigrants leaving their homes for the United States, a country of opportunity, diversity, and above all, choice.
The American political system makes the “American Dream” possible. Immigrants often leave behind countries where corruption is rampant and bribery is the norm, where citizens have no voice and no means of improving the state of their country, and where elections are rigged or despots rule on the basis of falsified vote counts (as in this instance in Iraq in 2002, when Saddam Hussein claimed to have won the elections by “100% of the vote”). To an ordinary citizen, bringing about change seems impossible in such a political system.
Yet so many of our first and second generation immigrants in the America-Muslim community take their vote for granted. Working in politics and promoting civic engagement, I have run into a mindset that is at best ambivalent to the electoral process, and at worst vehemently opposed to political participation. In a year when America-Muslims are struggling with Islamophobia, egregious civil rights violations by the NYPD, and a dangerous misrepresentation of Muslims by the FBI, this voice is no longer a right we can take for granted – it is a necessity.
Women in our community in particular don’t see the importance of their vote. But this year’s election hinges upon the female electorate. Despite the articles about the rise of women, both in the workforce and in the political sphere, women hold only 78 out of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and 17 out of the 100 seats in the Senate, and women’s issues are still being decided by the men in the room. Although women’s issues loom large over the 2012 election – with debate on contraception, abortion rights, and decisions about women’s healthcare decisions becoming more rancorous by the day – the gender gap in voting focuses more on issues such as education, the economy, and the size of government.
Perfection is elusive. Any country is a work in progress, and the keyword here is “work.” To foster change, one must be the vehicle for change. Malala Yousafzai lives in Pakistan, and fights for the right to an education, the right to make informed decisions in her life and in her country. I live in the United States, where I’m still fighting for equal pay for women, the right to make decisions about my own body, and a domestic and foreign policy that is humane and just. There were women before us who fought for suffrage, and there are women in this day and age around the globe who are still battling for their basic rights as rational, intelligent human beings. We owe it to them. The female electorate must join the conversation and win a seat at the table with that best and most powerful currency of any democracy: their vote.
Zainab Chaudary works in politics by day and is a writer by night. Her blog, The Memorist, ruminates upon travel, religion, science, relationships, and the past, present, and future experiences that make up a life. She tweets at @TheMemorist.
This article is part of the “Election 2012 – American Muslims VOTE!” series, which is running on Altmuslim at Patheos, Altmuslimah, Illume, and Aziz Poonawalla’snews and politics blog on Patheos. Click on this special topics page to view all articles in this series and add your comments. Tweet your thoughts on this article, on the series, and on the 2012 elections at #MuslimVOTE.
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