As I look out my bedroom window into the neighbor’s garden, I see a young, beautiful girl getting henna put on her hand. It is the day before her wedding, and tomorrow she will move into a new family with a different lifestyle and expectations. She is 19 — only one year older than the legal age in India to get married. She began college but dropped out a few months later when her parents decided to wed her off upon receiving the “best” proposal possible. Tomorrow, a new life will begin for her, where her comfort, well-being, and happiness will be controlled by a group of people she has known only for a few months.
In a few years, I could easily be sitting in her place. After all, getting married at such a young age without completing one’s education is common in India. Marriage to a wealthy husband is the “perfect life” that many girls in my town aim for. However, they do not realize that they are trapping themselves in a dangerous situation — a situation that makes them dependent on everyone around them except themselves.
That is why, as a young girl, I dream of a country where girls are strong, independent, and free to pursue their ambitions. They are not limited by the heavy burden of marriage and household duties. I dream of empowering women where the female-to-male ratio in my country’s economy is not as disappointing as it is today.
Glancing out the window, I wonder about this woman and what her life will be like after she gets married; I realize that she may never get to enter the workforce. It is situations like these that make me feel so worried about the strange, traditional ways of my society.
Recently, I read an article in the Economist that examined women in the workforce. A shocking statement was: “Were India to rebalance its workforce, the world’s biggest democracy would be 27 percent richer.” The rate of women working in India is falling away at an “alarming pace,” with a dramatic drop from 35 percent to low 26 percent in the past five years. A rise in “female employment rates will provide India with an extra 235m [million] workers.” It is clear that this country needs more opportunities for women in areas such as their participation in the labor force, which will also contribute to the overall economic benefits. The graph below shows the percentage of women as compared to men in the workforce in India.
According to India Briefing, “industries estimate that women in India only make up five to six percent of directorships,” which is after the amendments of Section 149 of the Companies Act that required at least one woman to be on the board team. The Parliament of India has a committee for the empowerment of women, but it is limited to “suggesting minor improvements to already existing women welfare programmes.”
Furthermore, a recent study by Deloitte has shown that “only 12 percent of the boards are filled with woman representatives.” However, in order for them to acquire high-level positions, they need the skills which are only obtainable through education.
At the young age of 10, while her brother was handed books and pencils, my neighbor was distracted from her homework when her parents handed her a pile of dirty clothes and soap. She didn’t receive equal opportunities as her brother such as access to proper education, in order to pursue her dreams. Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Hence, an exclusive focus on her education will be most effective in making her economically empowered. The economic benefits will make her “more likely to invest in their child’s upbringing and have more say over how they lead their lives.”
Now that she is getting married, she is expected to think that she needs to adjust her lifestyle according to her husband, according to her family, according to their choices. But what about her life, our lives? What about her future, her hopes, her dreams? Do they just wash off like her henna? Perhaps, the kitchen will end up as her perennial home and chopping vegetables will be her job. Eventually, the vividly designed henna will disappear off her hands but the damage done to her potential will be permanent.
The country I once loved is now the country I want to escape. I’m not the only one who thinks that India has disappointed its women. Just a few days ago, I was intrigued by an article written by a Woodstock alumnus, Abhinanda Bhattacharyya, titled “India failed women and India failed me.” She felt oppressed by the “weight of being a female” in a country that didn’t know what to do with its women.
In an instant, I am distracted by the chan-chan of the red and white, evergreen chooriyan (bangles) that she will wear on her wedding night. Her mother has a sparkling smile on her face, yet a sense of sadness in giving her daughter away. Little does she realize that these chooriyan are handcuffs that her daughter will stay trapped in for the rest of her life. Perhaps she will want to break out from these handcuffs, just like Bhattacharya did. Bhattacharya wanted to “get the hell out of India.” After all, nobody wants to live in a country “where you are treated less than a human.”
Her monotonous lifestyle will consist of constantly depending on her husband for income that will last her a lifetime. Soon, she will become like other married women who decided to pay the deadly “marriage penalty” and become stay-at-home mothers, against their choices. Data on women participation in the Indian labor force shows that “while unmarried women had a rise in workforce participation from 15 percent to 50 percent over the last 20 years, rates for married women have stayed stagnant for over 20 years now” (BBC News). Women are finding it easier dropping out than standing up for their rights. I worry that my neighbor will end up like these married women who gave up on their ambitions.
There are several reasons why she might be unwilling to join the workforce. The obstacles that she might face can be summarized in the form of three meals. The first meal of a married woman is to convince her parents and her family that she should be “allowed” to have a job. Once that’s done, lunchtime consists of her trying to protect herself from her in-laws “yanking her into social isolation.” as The Economist article stated. The water consumed to digest the meals consists of trying to persuade her husband to let her join the workforce. However, her husband makes her feel inferior to him. Thus, it becomes her responsibility right before dinner to follow and meet all the standards of an ideal Indian bahu — clean the kitchen, feed her new family, take care of the house and on top of that, go to work (if she gets the “permission”).
We need to change this mentality. We need the extra push for women to achieve their dreams, to get a suitable job. If they love being at home and taking care of their families, that’s alright, as long as they are not being forced to do so. But if their dream is to work and they cannot focus on it because of family, we need “female-friendly workplaces, generous maternity leaves,” and a step ahead from the orthodox way of expectations of a woman. We need what Bhattacharya has asked for: “equal work distribution between both the genders and a two-income household” (Quartz) so that both husband and wife can be financially independent.
I never want to look back again at another girl and think that she has to choose between her choodiyan and her dreams where either one will get shattered. I don’t want another girl to either let her henna or her independence fade away. I want her to have a say in how to lead her own life. I want her voice to be heard, for her to have access to opportunities and embrace herself.
As I momentarily look away from the window, at the stack of SAT prep books that I detested just a few hours ago, I realize that I actually want this access to education. I aspire to be able to make use of this opportunity available to achieve my dreams. And I believe that each and every woman deserves these opportunities to fulfil her ambitions.
Edited by Arina Amatya