The Rajasthan Police has taken into custody a young woman named Sheena Choudhary whose parents alleged she was kidnapped after she refused to marry a man of their choosing. Everyday women are emotionally and financially held hostage under the garb of familial love, is leaving your family the only path to freedom that remains?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
This is a strange story. It’s a story that screams India and a story that makes half of India want to scream. It’s a story of no woman and somehow a story of every woman. It’s the story of a 26-year old by the name of Sheena Choudhary. Sheena is an impressive young woman. She is a graduate of both Miranda House and The Delhi School of Social Work. She’s a Mahatma Gandhi National Fellow associated with IIM Bangalore at the zila parishad in Dholpur, Rajasthan. The Rajasthan police have just taken Sheena into custody to produce her before a magistrate on the basis of an abduction report filed by her parents (who live in Delhi) that alleged that Sheena had been kidnapped. Immediately, I think to wonder, who is the accused in this crime? Well, that’s Sheena as well. This is the case of Sheena v/s Sheena.
Over Diwali, Sheena visited her parents in Delhi and was told that she was going to get married because that’s just how it works, she was forced to meet a guy and agree to settling down with him. Sheena though, is a badass and instead of just taking it, she wrote to the chief of the Delhi Commission for Women stating the lack of her intent to marry (it’s so satisfying when the education your parents blindly tortured you to get good grades in is actually useful against them someday) and how she is being forced to do it. She also submitted a letter to DCP Eish Singhal in Delhi stating that she left Dholpur of her own accord because her family threatened to force her to get married, to take her away forcefully, stop her work and stop her from getting an education. She stated that she has contacted the National Federation for Indian Women (NFIW) for protection. I don’t know her but I have great respect for how thorough her approach is. Her family subsequently contacted the police about their daughter being kidnapped, it is not known whether they were aware that she was leaving Dholpur but I suppose you don’t tell the people you are running away from that you are doing it. The police acted on a complaint of kidnapping which I suppose they are within their rights to do.
It’s too soon in this matter to take a call on what exactly happened. I’m biased to always believe the badass woman so I believe her but that’s a personal opinion. It’s not so personal an opinion that the police in India help enforce cultural expectations onto women, sometimes in support of complaints by parents. That being said I can actually see why the police in this case found who they (at least by all outward appearances) knew to be the victim. Whether the police were aware of the background here or not in not known so I cannot definitively state that they were siding with the parents. All of that being said, it’s a rather marvellous manipulation of the system on the part of the parents to locate their daughter who had clearly stated she had no desire to marry or be traced by her parents. Which brings me to my actual point of discussion (which is not “justice for Sheena” though I do believe Sheena should get justice but I don’t think there’s even a case against her), it’s that the system of cultural enforcement is instituted through Indian parenting in a way that ultimate the cost of liberty for a woman is family. Time and time again, we hear women explain their life “choice” with the phrase, “I did it because my family wanted me to,” but the part of this sentence that is unspoken is this — If I hadn’t done it, my family would have stopped talking to me/being in my life/try to have me arrested.
Indian parenting sees womanhood (and in a different way also boyhood) as a state of constant infancy. Let’s tell the truth about childhood and adolescence (or you know, an alternate truth, those are a thing now), it’s awful. You can’t go anywhere, no one takes you seriously, everyone is always telling you what to do even when you have evidence that they don’t know better, you can’t vote, can’t drive, you can’t move whenever you want, every little mistake you make is such a big deal and then there’s all the bodily development. If it wasn’t clear, i hated childhood. I don’t even like it in that wistful “kaagaz ki kashti” way, if I want to sail a boat in a puddle, I’ll do it in my courtyard with a boat I made from paper taken from a notebook I bought, at age twenty-nine, thank you. I don’t care for prescribed innocence and I hate feeling powerless, and that’s all childhood is. Everyone around you telling you what to do and how they know better because they have more rings in their trunks. Nah, pass. The worst thing about this treatment is that in India, it doesn’t go away just because you turned eighteen. You have to wrangle your freedom and liberty from the hands of people who hold your throat and call it protection and love.
See when I put it like that it all sounds very demonic. That’s not how it actually happens when you break it down by incident. It starts with simple things like your mother telling you not to wear something because ‘it doesn’t suit you” because you have big boobs and people must not know it. Then they tell you not to study law because ‘that’s a profession for boys’ and investment banking is better for women who want to have careers and husbands both someday (see how the husband is just a given here?). Then you start developing a personality and they tell you it’s okay to have this personality and live out your passions as hobbies as long as you do it privately and before marriage. Then you start asking for more freedom and they tell you that you can do everything you want after marriage, presumably in the hope that you start seeing marriage as freedom from the prison that is designed to do that. Of course it isn’t, it’s just changing leashes. Then we dispense education and the right to work on women like privileges in exchange for conformity in other spheres. You can see it in the language — “We allowed out daughter to move out to study. We allowed our daughter to have a job.” They tell you things like that so frequently and as if it was so hard for them to “allow” their daughter to have basic rights that by the time you’re 26, you think you should compromise for them too and you marry whoever they choose as payback for being allowed to have a life. Then there’s a woman like Sheena who says, fuck the compromise (please note, she didn’t actually say this).
Eventually this is about the autonomy and liberty of an individual in a democratic country. I mean if you didn’t want your kids to know about rights and democracy, you shouldn’t have beat them so much to get more marks in political science. “Scoring subjects” are dangerous to the patriarchy. We have rights and we don’t have to do anything we are being forced to do (except like, follow the law). For instance, I am a working, tax-paying, child-raising, voting, cat-having member of society, I do not need anyone to tell me what’s right for me. If I do something “wrong”, I answer to the law, not my parents nor my husband nor his father nor my professors. No one. I’m not living my life like a government project that needs seven layers of approval before I can act on my own will. Whether that is about a sweater I like or who I marry or what I study.
Unfortunately, there is a cost to this attitude. At some point you either come up with a compromise with your parents on how you will live or you face the possibility that you may lose your family in the pursuit of your liberty. It’s very Bhagat Singh if you think about it (but not that much) and just like all concepts of revolution it’s much easier to stomach in concept than when a live example of civil disobedience is blocking your train routes. It’s much easier to idolize the concept of a women who says fuck it to society and cuts everyone off and goes off by herself, than it is to be that woman or support her in real life. There is a lot conspiring against these women.
The first thing is that the idea of womanhood itself in this country is that there is eventual unhappiness that awaits you. Women’s lives are governed like the lives of pets (see Netanyahu? That’s how it’s okay to call women animals and still have it come off as a scathing indictment and not a mindless gaffe), you just put them anywhere and explain to them that ultimately, love or arranged or career or motherhood, it’s all misery. Strength is pain. Endurance is grace. Smile when you sacrifice for your husband and kids. Love looks like abuse and that’s okay, men are possessive creatures and everything is okay when they do it anyway. All of it sucks but you’ll get the privilege of being called a goddess every now and then. The second part is stuff like being able to call the police when your daughter goes away because she doesn’t wish to partake in a forced marriage. Or you know, being able to kill her if she does that and describe it as defending your honour. You know when you’re a kid and you’re in school and your teachers tell you about “social evils” and then they say that they are things of the past and the world is different now? Yeah I got some news for these kids. Even today we tell women to dream within a set format, it’s the jazz of dreaming. Find the melody within the shackles.
When ideology and legality aren’t enough, we do it through emotional manipulation (otherwise known as love) and financial control. Those that need financial assistance in terms of education or living expenses while they get an education and struggle through their first jobs, have to consider the money they get from their parents as a factor in the decisions that make and the Indian economy, I think deliberately, does not pay young people enough to be truly independent. Thence the trap is complete.
And when the trap doesn’t work and you realise your daughter is determined to be free even at the cost of family, you bring out the big guns.
You know, actual guns.
As I said, it’s a strange story.