I was born in a mid-sized city in Rajasthan. I grew up in a family progressive enough to not restrict women from going to college and to allow women to work – only certain kinds of jobs, of course – but conservative enough to force women to wear sarees daily and keep a ghunghat (veil) on in front of the elders.
Growing up, I was a rebel. I did things kids and teenagers my age did, things which were unfortunately unacceptable. I was physically and emotionally abused for acting my age. I was sent to a co-ed school because my parents wanted to be progressive but I wasn’t allowed to meet or talk to boys or even watch TV. Many of my friends from similar families were made to drop out of school and were sent back to their villages permanently because they were caught talking to boys.
I was fortunate enough to never get caught and privileged enough to have the resources to get a good education. My education ensured that I got admission into a wonderful college in Delhi. My mother cried every day and claimed that sending me to a bigger city and to a college like mine would corrupt my mind and that I should do a simple degree course closer to home.
I went to Delhi anyway. While like every other student, I had to work towards my education, at every step I also had to prove that I was worthy enough to be in college. Being the first woman in the entire family and the community to do a certain degree or to live in a certain city meant that I had to prove that I deserved this opportunity and that I excelled at it. My desire to pursue a course wouldn’t suffice. Anything less than excellence would be unacceptable and very legitimate threats of withholding college fees, sustenance money etc were given anytime I failed at anything or even refused to do something. The men in my family didn’t have to follow the same protocol of proving that they were worthy.
My biggest fear was that I would fail at something and that the threats would come to life; that I would be forced to live in a city that restrains me, with people that subjugate me. Unfortunately for me, my worst fear came true even without my failure, when the COVID-19 pandemic indefinitely pushed me into the confines of my home.
The days I have spent after that have only been living nightmares.
I have the additional burden to have to make decisions that would not only affect my life but would also affect the lives of many other young women. I have to choose between living a normal life at the cost of offending my family and community or giving up on my aspirations in the hope that other women might be allowed to do the things I got to do. The job I get, the person I marry, the way I behave, and many more factors would be analysed before any other young girl or woman from my community is even considered to be sent to the city I was in or the career path I undertook.
So far, I have done everything for the younger women. I have been respectful, even towards abusive relatives. I have dressed with more modesty than they expected from me. I cook a few meals at home every day along with diligently doing my college work and other co-curricular activities.
So far, my actions haven’t created any trouble for the younger women after me. But how long will this charade last?
My parents started talking seriously about my marriage when I was 19. One of my friends got married at that age. Every year after that, I have received a few proposals from very similar progressive but conservative families from the community and my parents have discussed them with me. Luckily, this didn’t affect me as much because I was at college. I opted for a residential college because I knew it would keep me safe from this problem until 2022. But did it? I’m doing the very things I ran away from. I’m living the very life I detest. The pandemic has taken away my fair shot of freedom.
Every day I spend at home, I’m reminded of a woman I have come to deeply admire. Last year, after constant familial pressure to marry someone against her will, this woman went to Delhi. Her family used the Rajasthan police to trace her and to get her back to her hometown. She, a 26-year-old, highly educated and qualified woman, had to approach the Delhi Commission for Women for her own safety simply because she chose to not marry someone her parents decided on for her.
My entire belief system that a good education, a residence in another city, awareness of one’s legal rights can save a person from unnecessary and unwarranted familial pressure shattered after I read this case. I see myself in this woman. I see a young woman who rebelled and went outside of the confines of her city, got an education, got a job, and despite everything was forced to be what the society desired her to be.
I am in awe of her courage, although I wish she didn’t have to show so much courage. I wish that the free will of an adult woman was enough.
I wonder if I might have to do something similar someday. I wonder if it would drastically impact the freedom young women after me get. I wonder if other people, especially the men in my family and my batchmates in general, have to worry about and work through these anxiety-inducing thoughts.
If not them, why me? Why us?
It means a lot to be a woman from the place I come from. But for a young woman who has hopes and aspirations to be more than what she is allowed to be, it only means suffering.