(Opinion Column in Khaleej Times dated 24 January, 2023)
To be able to retire in the forties, with a lifetime’s accolades in the kitty, is a dream that many cherish but fail to accomplish. But Jacinda Arden has just done it, not at a point where people ask, ‘why not, yet?’ but at a peak where people wonder, ‘why, after all?’ She had everything going for her, at least in the public arena; she was the cynosure of all political eyes, she was noncontroversial, and above all, she was an undisputed icon. She symbolised gentle but persuasive woman power, represented the idea of success by dint of performance alone, and when everyone thought she was here for the long haul, she hung up the boots by merely saying, ‘no more in the tank.’
I found the reason for her ‘stepping aside’ more noteworthy than the announcement itself. It made me take a harder look at what life entailed for a successful woman who apparently had it all yet felt compelled to toss everything in a trice. I felt it was time to take stock of what women wanted in life at the end of the day, and how much load they could take to put themselves on the map and be counted in a lopsided world that grudged them their dues.
Many years ago, when I graduated with a journalism degree, I had a choice - to plunge into a world hitherto dominated by men and held little promise for their counterparts or adopt a safer vocation that would keep me sheltered from the rough and tumble of reportage. At that time, when women were still taking baby steps in the media world, I made an informed decision to stay away from it because the ‘breaking news’ life that I was staring at seemed to be a recipe for an early burnout. Despite the grand career avenues, I renounced it before it sucked me into its vortex, and I took an alternative path in the world of words.
In deciding so, I may have probably jettisoned the basic tenets of feminism and women’s empowerment that call for pushing the envelope and breaking the bounds, but I am better off today. What I did many years ago is what Arden has probably done today - putting her priorities as a human and a woman with a personal life in order, and making a call that may not precisely be popular with the women’s lib advocates but fits perfectly into her own scheme of things.
For all the glorious din we women make about gender equality, and for all the moves we make towards empowering ourselves in a milieu of conservative social mores, the truth remains – there is a lot at stake for the ‘women of true substance’. There are trade-offs and hard bargains that they do not speak of often for the fear of being labelled infirm and wasted by a constantly scrutinising gender militia.
There are no two ways about the amount of sacrifice women in the higher echelons make, be it in politics, business or any other domain that they are claiming a rightful and equal place in. Their successes carry hefty price tags, and their lives bear battle scars that they cleverly conceal under high-end cosmetic brands. Their homes are an ensemble of half-met expectations and unspoken letdowns; their mind space is a roulette constantly betting on the outcomes of their empowered existence, the end game is never clear till they make a final call.
At some stage of their advancement, women will have to come to terms with the fact that life is not about being equal, invincible or entitled, but about knowing what is worth wagering and what is not. It is about knowing how far they can stretch themselves to prove their mettle to the world and to themselves. To many the awakening happens earlier, and to the others, it comes when they are on the precipice of self-destruction.
Five years may not be a long span in a politician’s life, but it is enough time for a woman who counts herself as human first to know which way her life must go. It is long enough to snuff the zest out of her personal life and reduce her to a shadow of what she originally had been. The right to decide whether she wants to spend a major part of her stint on this planet in professional duress or in the pleasant company of her dear ones is entirely hers. It is when every woman takes the courage to decide what is right for her, irrespective of how the world might judge her, that a woman becomes truly empowered. To that end, Arden’s decision deserves a standing ovation. In my view, she didn’t quit; she merely ‘stepped aside’ to make room for things she deemed important in her life.