A CHOICE THAT DOES NOT EXIST

Divya Anne Selvaraj
Posted April 26, 2015 from India

On one of my trips down south to Kerala, India last year, I heard a story that is sadly not unique. A woman working at a small organization as a cook and housekeeper came up to my mother to invite her to her daughter’s wedding. An event that should be a cause for great joy and indeed the mother did look happy.

But the girl is only just turning 18 and has just finished high school. I was shocked, a little angry, but soon I discovered I had no right to really feel these things. The girl had been the victim of continued and persistent eve teasing. For those not very familiar to what this involves, in her case it meant a boy following the girl while she walked back from school, pressing letters on her even after being refused, threatening to carry her away (kidnap her), all this under the guise of having fallen in love with her. The girl barely fifteen years of age was at first bewildered, a little flattered and then very quickly it became scary for her and her family. In India the virtue of a woman is considered tantamount. She has a younger sister too. The pursuits were joined and encouraged by the boy’s so called friends, a gang of people known in the locality to be involved in petty crime and other forms of misdemeanours like eve teasing.

In a society and a culture where women are seen to be better when submissive and quiet, it becomes a source of encouragement for elements such as these to ape popular cinema where pursuits like these generally end with the girl giving in and the couple getting married. But reality is very different. Apart from the fact that the girl is underage and that marriage is not a suitable end for her at this stage in life, she is also unwilling to accept those advances and fears for her and her family’s honour.

Even sadder is the girl’s family’s economic and social background. Belonging to a family of four, the mother is the primary bread earner working as a cook and a laundress at a small establishment. The father spends his days drinking and abusing his wife and daughters verbally and physically if he is not given money for his alcohol by his wife or more often when there is no money left. The younger sister younger by just a year is considered by the family to be more academically proficient because of better marks in school. Both the girls are studying vocational computer courses provided by an organization free of cost. The mother has till date managed to scrape the fees required post subsidies provided by the government and scholarships earned by the girls and some help from friends and relatives. The mother, herself a graduate was unable to get a job more fitting to her level of education and had an arranged marriage to her husband.

Kerala is a state in India considered to have the highest rates of literacy at 97.5%[1] and also ironically, the highest levels of unemployment at 7.4% much higher than the national average of 2.3%. [2]

The girl in focus however is to be married very soon because the mother is painfully aware of messages from the boy, his gang and even his family threatening to carry the girl off and force her into marriage if they don’t consent to the give her hand. Ironically in situations like this, the parents decide that the only way to protect the girl from trauma like that is to arrange for her to be married to a “more” suitable boy. And the fiancé is suitable because he has a salaried job making a very mediocre amount, a family which seems to have a good background, and the possibility of inheriting his ancestral home. All this in the eyes of the girl’s parents make her future with him secure. Once the girl is married, the eve teasing will stop. It will stop because the girl will be spoken for and will have moved away from the area and be living under the shelters of a more stable, stronger family and community.

Now while she has consented to the arrangement, she waits for the wedding day generally confined to her mother’s place of work or home, never left alone, always escorted to classes by her mother and sister. The mother is partly relieved because marrying the child will also be the end of a financial burden that a girl’s upkeep and marriage imposes on her limited resources. She says that once the girl is married, she will be able to afford higher education for the younger child. She being “brighter” at academics would do well and deserved a chance to make a better life for herself. Marriage in her community also involves the payment of dowry to the boy, which in her case was lowered because the boy really liked the girl, but still is an extremely steep amount for them to come up with without taking a loan.

Now what are the options they really have as women, as a mother, as a wife of an alcoholic, as a sister?

They could have fought back? There is a law enforcement system, they could approach the police; file an FIR against the boy for eve teasing etc.; they could inform the community to request support. Apparently not; the boy’s criminal connections make him immune to police action and till he actually physically does something, they will not try to restrain him or warn him. Additionally, his arrest if it did take place would place the girl in graver danger from his gang and family. Then there is the question of paying bribes to the police to ensure they stay on your side and the lawyer’s fees if the case goes to court both of which unaffordable.

They could have asked for support? The community like all communities in settings such as these would rather protect their own. They feel weak and helpless especially if they have daughters of their own and would not risk being in the limelight for speaking out against occurrences such as these. The larger family comprised of the mother’s brothers tried to reason things out with the boy’s family, to no avail. The father of course takes no responsibility and is one of the major reasons why the boy and his gang took such liberties with the girl and her pursuit. A man in India is considered essential for a family to be valid and is supposed to be responsible for its upkeep and safety.

They could continue to protect her best they could? Well it would be important to note that the situation started over two years ago. It has been a constant fight. The family even moved to a different locality over 30 km away from where they belonged hoping that the boy would leave her alone. They set up their own house in the suburbs for rent and moved to more expensive rented accommodation in the city, walking distance from the school the child went to. They did all this with all the secrecy they could afford. The boy however found out where they moved to and was back in his pursuit within a week of their shift. They also have to be mindful of the younger sister who may also be in danger if this continued.

It’s a vicious trap, one that was easy for me to judge because I was lucky enough not to be in so deep and tangled in it. If you need help, you need money, connections, and most importantly a will to be brave and face the consequences if you lose the fight. I don’t have the answers really, only more questions and what if scenarios.

In this situation, the mother with her larger family studied the risk. The girl studied her situation and looked into the future of her life. If she was asked about what she foresaw, maybe she was too young to articulate an ambition and like most girls dreamt that at some point she would have a family of her own. So she consented, like hundreds and hundreds of girls here. It is consent because they have no other alternative future. They are born and conditioned into that one aim of it all ultimately, leading to marriage and motherhood. So for someone with a very limited outlook of the world, of the possibilities of what could lie before that state, after it and even the alternatives of liberation within it, this seems to be an obvious and faultless conclusion. It is the obvious conclusion because the world in which she lives does not allow her the freedom or the possibility to even dream of a life that can be lived in another way.

As a girl and a young woman in her conservative environment, if she makes a public stand, she becomes an outcaste, if she refuses to be married, she risks being labelled immoral and stubborn, if she stands up to her aggressor she risks giving in to exactly what he wants. And at the age of barely eighteen its simply too steep a hill for her to climb on her own, so she resigns herself to tried and tested methods of adjustment, compromise and an assurance that after all this is what her aim as a woman was and she was just achieving it a little earlier and it was all going to be ok in the end.

I am not justifying her decision; my aim is to highlight the lack of empowerment and the level of helplessness experienced in a patriarchal society that occurs when there are added burdens of poverty and lack of equal opportunity. I earlier said I did not have the right to express anger at the arrangement of her marriage and its occurrence; I do not have the right, because I have no alternative to offer her or her family.

She on the other hand, the beautiful young woman who is the centre of this story will smile on her wedding day, be a loving wife and a caring mother and hopefully will not have to make the same decision for her daughter if providence deems it to bless her with one.

[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_states_ranking_by_literacy_rate

[2]http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/kerala-leads-in-unemployment-60-percent-of-them-are-women-says-state-economic-review/1/339218.html

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Comments 19

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Bharti Singh Chauhan
Apr 27, 2015
Apr 27, 2015

Deqr divya i agree to the fact that still girls have to face issues like eve teasing,molestation,abuse etc.But we need to start working together to educate the society and change male mentality. can u share more details what are you doing to get this closed and how we can goahaed to end this issues

alsi take some time and share ur suggestions and feedback for the work we do

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 06, 2015
May 06, 2015

Thank you Bharti for taking the time to read and respond to the post. I think your organization working towards holistic development of children, women's empowerment, and rural development accross Rajasthan is focussing on a core need for a developing country like India.

Maybe similar empowering work could over time and with persistent effort continue to change things for the better for women around the world.  

Pushpa Achanta
Apr 28, 2015
Apr 28, 2015

Dear Divya,

Thanks for this detailed presentation and analysis of sad and shameful realities of girls and women - this could be partly/entirely true in other areas of the world. Many parents get their daughters married early despite knowing that the husband and/or marital family or others could worsen their daughter's life.

Let's continue doing our best to highlight and change the situation as far as possible.

Warmly,

Pushpa

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 06, 2015
May 06, 2015

Thank you Pushpa for taking the time to read and respond to the post and understanding what it means to live in an environment such as this.

Dani26
May 03, 2015
May 03, 2015

Dear Divya

Thanks so much for your sharing your insights - you write very beautifully, and I found myself really feeling for the woman and her family in the situation. I really like how you have highlighted the young woman's strengths as well as the challenging and unjust situation that she is in. I can see from your writing that the young woman's mother is very committed to the education of both of her girls, but that societal expectations and the impunity with which some men act make it a very difficult situation with little choice for the young woman or her family. I really commend the way you have brought such empathy and compassion to your writing, and I hope things turned out well for the young woman in your story. I look forward to reading more blog posts from you in the coming week.

Sending you warm wishes, Dani

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 06, 2015
May 06, 2015

Thank you Dani for taking the time to read and respond to the post and for your positive feedback on my writing.

I, like you, have hoped that things have worked out well for her too. I know that she is married now and at least free from the hounding of eve teasters. The younger sister is continuing her education. Indeed it is the story of three very strong women who have made the best of the circumstances they have been pushed into.

Thank you once again for stopping by,

Warm regards,

Divya

BAJIRA CHISHUBA
May 04, 2015
May 04, 2015

Bonjour chère Divya, jesuis ravis d'écouter cette histoire malgr' qu'elle est choquante, mais c'est on à écouter,mais desolé  pour cette fille et je n'ai qu'à compatir avec elle, et avec vous chère Divya, je vous prièerrai de contunier la semsibilisation et sans frontière

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 06, 2015
May 06, 2015

Thank you Bajira for your empathy and encouragement.

Obisakin Busayo
May 04, 2015
May 04, 2015

Dear Divya,

You have really created a vivid picture of eve teasing, molesation, abuse and oppression still going on in some part of the world. It is so sad that women and girls could still be going through abuse to this level. I will agree with the person that says you write very well and it makes us the readers to go along with you and the feelings behind your words. I hope this situation change for better soon. Every girl has the right to decide when to marry and whom to marry. Thank you for the good work and keep it up

Sending hugs

Busayo

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 06, 2015
May 06, 2015

Thank you Busayo for taking the time to read and respond.

Yes, it is very sad that despite living in the 21st Century when so much has changed in the world of technology, economics and basic human rights, there are still some very dark spots like this one, especially in developing countries.

But I also beleive that things can change, if we are persevering and willing.

Warm regards

Divya

Adanna
May 05, 2015
May 05, 2015

Dear Divya,

I feel for the young girl. Her situation highlights your statement about "the lack of empowerment and the level of helplessness experienced in a patriarchal society that occurs when there are added burdens of poverty and lack of equal opportunity".

Though the 'societal battle' is not an easy one but when more people get involved and speak out about issues like this (notwithstanding societal expectations), I believe more young girls and women will learn to start standing up for themselves.

x

Adanna

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 06, 2015
May 06, 2015

Thank you Adanna for taking the time to read and respond and for your empathy.

Yes the battle is not an easy one, but I stand with you on your beleif that young girls and women will learn to stand up strong for each other and themselves.

Warm regards

Divya

Julia O
May 05, 2015
May 05, 2015

Hi Divya, I was absolutely rivetted by your post. I really liked how you structured it - particularly the part where you listed the different "options" and why those really weren't options at all. I had never heard of the concept of "eve-teasing" before and it sounds scary and awful. It's particularly awful that the boy found the family and girl even after they moved and continued with his unwanted behaviour. Despite the overall bleakness of your post, I liked that you ended it on a more positive note. There is a lot to be upset and frustrated about in it - about the way society can work, gender imbalances, impunity, etc. but at the heart of it the girl about to be married sounds like she will be able to make the best of her situation. I know that's not a great consolation but it is an empowering in a way to see how her mother did the best with the situation her family was in and found a solution of sorts. Thank you very much for sharing and for opening my eyes to stories like this. I learned a lot. All my best wishes, Julia

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 07, 2015
May 07, 2015

Thank you Julia for taking the time to read and respond.

Yes the situation is frustrating and very upsetting. I hope that the day comes soon when we can all call situations and occurances like the one in this girls story, past history in all parts of the world.

On a more positive note, our country seems to be waking up to it, there are more reports regarding such practices, more ouspoken protests against perpetrators, but there is still a lot of ground to be covered on the path to a reformed, just and safe socio-cultural environment for women.

Warm regards

Divya

bitani
May 05, 2015
May 05, 2015

Dear Divya,

This story is heartbreaking. The worst part, it is very common, not only in India but in many other developing countries. Few weeks ago, my mom asked me: "Do you know how old is Mona [a girl who married last summer]?" 

I said, "No, maybe like 16-17?"

Mom said, "No she's 13!"

The girl am speaking about, Mona, has dropped of school, and is the daughter of a very poor old couple in a countryside here in Lebanon. Similar stories are occuring here in the Middle East with Syrian refugees making their daughters marry total strangers just to get rid of financial burdens.

The situation of the mother in the story you wrote is very critical, I hope she will be able to provide the second daughter with a good education and a better future. 

Your story brings to the front the very social complications against women in the society-all women (the girl and the mother). I salute your courage in addressing this story.

best regards,

Bayan

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 07, 2015
May 07, 2015

Thank you Bayan for taking the time to read and respond.

What has happed to Mona is very painful, scary and tragic, she is still very much a child. I hope she finds strength within her circumstance.

The mother in this story, is trying her level best to educate her second daughter.

Warm regards

Divya

coolasas
May 17, 2015
May 17, 2015

Dear Divya, 

I feel for you and your story -- it is sad when someone is left without a choice and just accept what's there even though it is not something she would like. More sad is that there are people above the law that was written to protect the people and yet they do not, especially where there's always stigma attached to when one tries to stand up for her self. 

If only life was easy for the girl and her mother, if only the choices available are enforceable, if only ... if only. 

It is true what you said "empowerment" is very important but also very challenging to achieve especially if the community is not empowered together with you change would be difficult and the vicious cycle of hate, abuse and fear will continue. 

We can keep this going -- keep talking about it and keep supporting each other and hope one day the younger girls from Kerala will have a different experience when it comes to love and life as a girl and woman. 

All the best to you, Coolasas 

Divya Anne Selvaraj
May 07, 2015
May 07, 2015

Thank you Coolsas for taking the time to read and respond to my post.

Yes choices diminish greatly in power without an empowered community. I hope things start transforming for the better, so that women everywhere dont have to fight everyday for basic human respect.

Warm regards

Divya

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
May 12, 2015
May 12, 2015

Dear Divya,

Its is very sad that still in this day and age women and girls are being subjected to abuse which is so demeaning. We still have a lot of work to do and this forum is meant for that cause so let us share ideas and experinces on how we can improve such situations in our countries. Thanks you for sharing and please continue to share these stories so that we can listen and advise but most of all so we can listen. Thank you and stay blessed