Chapter 1: To take control, he had to run | ET REALITY

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Nasreen Parveen decided to run for her life while also deciding not to end it.

She had come to the edge of the high window of her mother’s house, her feet on the final dividing line between the solid world behind her and the drop in air in front of her.

But as he prepared to jump, he looked outside and received a surprising and seemingly impossible vision of the future. As Nasreen looked on in horror, another girl her age jumped from the roof of a nearby house. The young woman fell to the ground, hit her back hard and then lay on the ground, seriously injured.

Nasreen decided that mid-air, fall and land were not for her. But she was equally sure that she couldn’t live the life her family was trying to force her into.

Nasreen was only 16 years old, but her family had already arranged an engagement for her with a cousin on her father’s side whom she had never met before getting engaged. The bruises that covered her body, inflicted by her future in-laws while she worked for them, she said, were evidence that a future of violence and pain awaited her.

That another young woman attempted to take her own life, in the same manner as Nasreen was considering and just seconds before Nasreen had made her own attempt, was a coincidence that defied explanation. But she did more than save Nasreen’s life in that moment: she offered a crucial opportunity to escape just hours later.

This is the first part of the Daughters of India series.about one of the deepest fault lines in Indian politics and society: the conflict over the future of young women as they seek the new opportunities offered by a rapidly changing country.

India’s struggle to bring millions of people into the middle class now depends, in part, on whether young women can delay marriage to take up paid work, or break with tradition by working outside the home after marriage. More and more Indian women are leaving the workforce, or never entering it.

Expectations that women be limited to caring roles in the home, both to preserve their reputation and so that their unpaid work can serve as a social and economic safety net, prevent many women from participating in public life. But even those who manage to achieve escape velocity from the domestic sphere often discover that there are few opportunities available to them.

Nasreen hoped for a life beyond her village. in the state of West Bengal, where his family had moved from New Delhi after his father went to work as a laborer in Saudi Arabia. He had worked hard to educate himself. Despite the objections of her mother and grandmother, she enrolled in the local school, even though her lessons were in Bengali, a language she did not speak.

In the village, Nasreen studied as many hours as she could between her exhausting household chores, which included fetching water from a distant well, repairing the mud walls of her family’s home, and the daily tasks of cooking and cleaning.

Nasreen’s mother and grandmother expected her to follow their paths: dropping out of school, teenage marriage and then a life at home, confined to the traditional roles of wife, daughter-in-law and mother. The education Nasreen had worked so hard for would not be used.

Going ahead with the marriage seemed impossible to him. However, escaping her would mean leaving her home and her family, possibly forever.

In India, poor families with ambitious daughters face a pressing reckoning: How much should they invest and how much risk should they accept to obtain an uncertain reward in the future? And, just as important, who should make that decision?

From the perspective of parents, especially fathers, the high-risk option is to allow their daughters to delay marriage, finish their education, and find a job that gives them financial independence.

A daughter who gets a white-collar job can lift her family out of poverty and into the growing ranks of India’s middle class. She could also mate with a higher-status boyfriend, raising the family’s social standing.

But that option comes with high upfront costs, in the form of school fees and additional years of supporting a daughter at home. And what happens if the job, the goal of all that investment and risk, never materializes?

When Nasreen was 15, her parents got her engaged to a man 10 years older. who worked in Saudi Arabia, a first cousin whom he had never met and whose family lived in his village.

Immediately, his life changed. Her fiancé’s family treated Nasreen as if she were already a member of her family and she had to respect the decisions of her not-yet-in-laws. They insisted that Nasreen drop out of school, told her to stop talking to her best friend, and finally banned her from going outside. Instead, she was forced to wake up at five in the morning and go to her future in-laws’ house, where she spent her days doing household chores in order to learn the tasks she would be responsible for after the death. marriage.

One night, Nasreen said, her fiancé’s brother cornered her after she served him dinner, pushed her onto a bed and began grabbing her body until her screams made her aunt run.

A few weeks later, that same brother searched Nasreen’s phone and found messages that he wrongly concluded were evidence that she had been unfaithful to her fiancé. Nasreen didn’t have time to explain before he started hitting her, she said.

Once again, the aunt heard Nasreen’s screams and ran away. But this time she also started hitting Nasreen. As fist blows and a block of wood rained down, Nasreen thought she would be killed.

Since 1978, the legal age for women to marry in India has been 18.. Underage marriage has become less common since then, and more legal protections for girls were added in 2006. But almost 1 in 4 women still get married before the age of 18, according to Unicef ​​data, and 1 in 20 before the age of 15.

Older brides, even if they are still in their 20s, are often perceived as less desirable by the grooms’ families, so delaying marriage risks the women’s families paying much higher dowry rates. And the longer a girl remains single, the more time there is for her chance of marriage to be harmed by rumors about her chastity.

For the young women themselves, there is even more to fear. The wrong marriage could lead to catastrophic risks: domestic violence, marital rape (which is not a crime in India), or even murder. Even in many of the best scenarios, brides may remain confined to the home and their ambitions confined to the tasks assigned by their husbands and in-laws.

The night Nasreen’s neighbor jumped out of the window, all the other members of her family went to the neighbor’s house, leaving Nasreen alone at home. She hurriedly packed a bag, stuffed sanitary pads and 5,000 rupees (about $60) in savings from the gifts her mother and other members of her family had given her when she got engaged. It was cold, so she put on a sweater and then a blanket. She hid everything under a bush outside the house before her family returned. She then she waited.

Around 3am, Nasreen quietly got out of bed, being careful not to wake her mother, who was sleeping next to her. She left the house, picked up her purse from her hiding place, and ran.

It was about half a mile from Nasreen’s house to the main road, along a pitch-black road through the dark village. Nasreen knew that dangers could lurk at night: snakes, violent men, wild dogs known to attack and kill people. He could hear the dogs barking, but he didn’t know where they were.

He only had a few hours left before his family woke up and discovered he was missing. If he was not far away when they raised the alarm, his escape attempt would fail.

He focused his mind and body on a single goal: Just run.

Bhumika Saraswati, Nikita Jain and Andrea Bruce contributed with reports.

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