Sunday, October 28, 2007

The freedom not to choose

How much freedom should our daughters have? This is the question that has become the topic of discussion nationwide thanks to the media attention given to two young women, Telugu actor Chiranjivi’s daughter, Shriji and Kolkata industrialist Ashok Todi’s daughter, Priyanka.

Both chose the men they wanted to marry. They did not wait for their family’s approval. They considered all the possibilities, expected opposition, and chose to go ahead and get married. In one case, this free choice has ended in a terrible tragedy with the mysterious death of Priyanka’s husband Rizanwur Rehman in Kolkata. The truth has yet to unravel. But its repercussions are being felt in Kolkata society and in West Bengal’s politics.

We don’t know yet whether there will be a happy ending to Shriji’s story. But both these incidents illustrate something that is happening in Indian society. Parents are bringing up daughters to believe that they can do anything, are capable of doing anything. For a young woman who is sent to university today, the possibilities seem immense. Gone are the days when the only choice before girls was to choose to become a doctor or a teacher. Even engineers were rare. If you were not interested in either, then you did a “pass” course and waited for marriage proposals. Instead today, women are making diverse choices are entering fields that were closed to their mothers.

Proof of this is available in the many stories you read about the “first” woman in a particular career. Last week, at a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, I heard Sreelekha, the “first” Indian Police Service officer in Kerala speak. She was addressing a group of young women engineers working for an American software company. Sreelekha’s story was inspiring. With disarming honesty, she admitted to the women how she was not a particularly bright student. Her father expected her to choose science. Instead, she followed her heart and chose the humanities, particularly literature. Career options then were limited. Inevitably she ended up being a teacher. But not satisfied with this, she joined a bank. And after that decided to try for the Indian Administrative Service. There again, she did not get a high enough rank to enter the IAS. But she did qualify for the IPS. Could she join the police, she asked herself? She abhorred violence. Her background was arts. She loved literature. What would she do in the police? But eventually, she accepted the position and today she stands out as an exceptional police officer. She is also known in Kerala as much as a writer as a police officer.

Sreelekha’s story is remarkable because it still remains an exception to the rule. She made her own choices and luckily for her, no one stood in her way. But millions of girls in India today are led to believe that they can choose only to realise that their choices are severely constrained by what society thinks they should do and above all what their families believe is best for them.

The tragedy is that even if in their choice of careers they get their way, when it comes to the most important decision in their lives – that of marriage – they still do not have the freedom to choose. The family knows best. The girl’s own judgment is not respected. She is not given the freedom to make a mistake.

Why is this one part of life denied choice? Girls have to agree to marry, and to choose a “suitable boy” acceptable to the family. They cannot, for instance, choose to remain single. And they cannot choose a groom who the parents don’t like. So in other words, they really have no choice.

Marriage and family honour remain deeply entwined. Somehow, the individual, or individuals, are forgotten in an institution that should be based on mutual love and respect between two people. What we are seeing today is the obvious contradiction between permitting choice in one area and denying it in another.

What is even more unfortunate is that those young people who have followed the logic of freedom – that is having the right to make life choices – are the ones being penalised.

Of course, for every one Priyanka or Shriji, there are many who have followed their hearts and are happy, as also are their parents. But in 21st Century India, such instances continue to be very rare. Many girls, even after receiving a modern education, have created a separate compartment in their heads when it comes to marriage. Even as they enjoy the freedom they get in colleges and universities, and in jobs – such as the new IT sector – they accept that their freedom is limited in their choice of groom, and in their choices after marriage.

You find today that even women in modern careers, such as software engineers in the IT sectors, speak of the pressures they face from society and in their homes. They have to get married by a certain age. And after marriage, they have to set aside their careers for children and the upward mobility of their spouses. Their own ambitions, careers, dreams, don’t even enter the picture.

This is an issue that we as a society have to confront. Why does the middle class in particular, irrespective of community or religion, place the question of marriage on a completely different pedestal? Why are people willing to accept anything except a couple that defies family and community for love? Why should young people, who are led to believe that they are free individuals, be forced to pay such a heavy price for this terrible contradiction?

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