August 08, 2020
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Embers Flicker

The protest marches for Rizwanur and Nitish, the candles lit around their dead faces, the media outrage, the reactions of human rights groups...

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Embers Flicker
Over the past year, we have read and heard a lot about young lovers wanting to marry across boundaries of class and community being thwarted by their families—usually the girl’s family. The most high-profile cases were of Priyanka Todi and her husband Rizwanur, who came up against a police and parental nexus, or Srija, the daughter of Andhra film star Chiranjeevi and her husband, Sirish, who sought police protection, expecting harassment from Srija’s family and her father’s fans. But there were many others, too, in 2007, popping up in the newspapers and on TV screens. The elopement of a Sindhi girl and a Muslim boy caused a near-riot in Bhopal, forcing the couple to run away to Mumbai to escape harassment.

Cases like these make me wonder how much attitudes towards women have really changed, even though girls from conservative families are now able to wear pants, if they want to, instead of saris.

As a university lecturer in a women’s college, I can say with some confidence that the Priyankas, Srijas and Bharati Yadavs (the girlfriend of Nitish Katara, who was allegedly killed by Bharati’s brothers) are not the norm. On a recent English entrance test, we asked about attitudes to arranged marriages and of the thousand-odd students who answered, more than 900 claimed to be in favour of arranged marriages, because their parents knew better. So when we talk about young women wanting to step out of the safe confines of tradition and seek love and marriage outside community and class, we are talking about a minority. As a writer, I write about such women, because it is through their stories that I can explore social fissures.

In being different, these girls test both family and society. These are families and a society that are, on the face of it, more ‘modern’ than before. They are educating their daughters, sending them to study at co-ed institutions, and even allowing them to work. Fifteen years ago, girls from the BA (Pass) course at my college would tell me that they had to get married as soon as they finished their degree; today many of the girls doing the same course say they plan to work after college, although the imperative to marry has not changed.

Is there a paradox here? That traditional families are able to embrace education and professions for their daughters, yet won’t allow them to marry men they meet in college or at the workplace? Perhaps not, once you start exploring why these opportunities are being made available to women. I doubt if parents are educating their daughters in order to enable them to make informed choices about their lives. I rather suspect education is being equated with giving young women a ‘good finish’, to improve their prospects in the marriage market.

And why are women from socially conservative families encouraged to work? Once again, this seems to be a pragmatic choice. We live in a consumerist society, there is a limit to what one salary can buy, so two salaries have become an attractive idea. Perhaps, somewhere, parents also feel that if things go wrong, at least the girl will be able to contribute to her own upkeep. These ‘concessions’ to women can quite comfortably coexist with a patriarchal arrogance that denies women the right to assert individual choice in matters of marriage.

This arrogance is widespread. But the question here is not one of how you feel about what your daughter does, but what you do with those feelings. There are families—usually, metropolitan middle-class families—who don’t take extreme steps to break up ‘illicit’ relationships. They may be appalled at their daughter marrying a Muslim or a Hindu from another caste and will probably do what they can to stop her, but they don’t file police cases against the man or try to kill an unacceptable son-in-law, as the Todi family is alleged to have done, or lock away the daughter, as Chiranjeevi is alleged to have done.

The families that take such steps are usually those who have money, muscle or political power behind them, or very strong support from clan or community for their actions, who feel they can get away with it. There is nothing new about their actions—the Ashok Todi phenomenon has been around for a long time.

What is new are the protest marches for Rizwanur and Nitish, the candles lit around their dead faces, the media outrage, the reactions of human rights groups. What is new is the demand for accountability from a law and order machinery that also seems to believe that adult young women should respect the wishes of their families, even if the law guarantees them freedom of choice in matters of marriage. What is modern and liberating is civil society not allowing these violations of law to completely die down.

Manju Kapur is a novelist whose books include Difficult Daughters (winner of the Commonwealth Prize), A Married Woman and Home

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