Many a times, I have come across inspirational quotes about life and choices. One such quote says, “I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday”. But is it really quite as simple as that? Aren’t the choices in our lives influenced by our surroundings, gender, culture, and socio-economic realities?
I have been working with out-of-school girls for quite some time, which has given me the opportunity to closely observe and interact with girls living in urban poor communities of Delhi. As part of a project called Parwaaz Adolescent Centre for Education (PACE), aiming to provide alternative learning opportunities for girls, I have been associated with Nirantar, which has been working with out-of-school girls from urban resettlement colonies and unorganised colonies of Delhi and Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh) under partnership with community-based organisations.
These centres have emerged as important safe spaces for the girls to talk about their lives, feelings, and experiences, and to develop friendships. During our regular sessions with the girls at PACE, we organised theatre sessions to initiate conversations around love, relationships, choices and sexuality. Most of the girls seemed very excited about the sessions and showed an interest in talking about love and relationships, but they often diverted the conversation when I asked them about the first love or crush of their lives. Instead, they requested me to talk about the first crush of my life and when I would talk with them about my first crush, most of them would laugh and start talking about their experiences with enthusiasm.
At one such session, a few girls were not showing much interest in the on-going conversation. When I asked them to share their experiences one of them said, “Didi, I have nothing to share. In my caste, girls get married at an early age. I was very young when I got married without understanding anything about it. After marriage, I started to have a sexual relationship with my husband without falling in love. Gradually, I got used to married life and I do not have many complaints. I think if this is called love, the first love of my life is my husband.”
Another young girl named Ruksaar (name changed) was silent for some time and later jumped into the discussion to share her experiences. When she began speaking, the other girls were observing her closely because she had been married off at an early age and had filed for divorce from her husband a few years ago. She had never talked about her emotional experiences before in the group and always wanted to focus more on educational discussions.
Ruksaar said softly, with a smile, “During adolescence, I really liked one young boy from my village because he was very attractive as compared to other boys of his age group. In the beginning, I tried to look for opportunities to see him around my muhalla (neighbourhood) and made excuses to have a word with him. I never shared my feelings with him despite knowing that he was Muslim like me. My dreams and desire for togetherness blossomed over the months but they never got fulfilled. Gradually, I came to know more about him and realised that he was an alcoholic with no control over his anger. He was considered a leader among the young boys who were involved in criminal activities. I was really shocked to get to know these details and my feelings and desires changed slowly. Then, my life moved on like that of any other Muslim girl from my village and I was forced to get married at an early age, even before I could understand what love means in life. After marriage, I learnt to play the role of a daughter-in-law who follows orders without uttering a word. I worked as bonded labour for the family; I had to do all the household work, support the family in the field, take care of the animals and my day ended with a forced sexual relationship with my husband at night. My sexual relationship with my husband began with violence and it gave me a very traumatic and horrifying experience, where I had no role to play, except continue doing what my husband commanded for his sexual pleasure. Many women like us have limited choices in their lives where love, desire and pleasure have completely no meaning in women’s lives.”Everyone in the group fell silent after listening to her experiences.
Ruksaar continued, “During my relationship with my husband, I never experienced love in my life, and I associated sexual relationships with violence where there was no room for pleasure, exploration and care for the partner. My husband was always violent while having sex, beat me up over small matters, and the family members used to observe everything like spectators, without saying a word. After listening to many other love stories, I want to experience the feeling of love in my life again but I do not want to get married to anyone. Like other young girls, I want to have a boyfriend who will care for me and have a relationship built on love and affection, even if it is a short term relationship.”
I was completely lost in my thoughts after listening to her experiences. On the one hand I was stunned to know about the level of sexual violence women have to experience in marriage where people hardly question violent relationships among couples, and on the other hand I was happy to know that Ruksaar once again showed an interest in falling in love and exploring her life in her own way. The whole discussion triggered another internal conversation in my mind. I remembered Ruksaar as one of the shyest girls in the group who always focused on studies and never discussed her personal feelings with others. Relationship after marriage, attraction and love were words that did not have much meaning in her life because she had internalised that only ‘bad’ women love anyone after marriage irrespective of how violent that marriage may have been. Once, she said, “I am living my life just for my daughter and will educate her well in the future. I have nothing else in life except my daughter. I will never break the trust of my parents who are taking care of me in my difficult times.”
After that session, I started to interact more with Ruksaar and she enjoyed most of the theatre sessions. She used to work as a domestic help in the nearby colony, and that sometimes made it difficult for her to take time out and come for a few hours for the theatre sessions, but she still managed to come on a regular basis. I could see a stark difference between the Ruksaar who first joined the PACE centre and the one who started to participate in the theatre activities.
During one such session, she was continuously laughing and singing Hindi Bollywood songs with the other girls. When I asked the secret behind her laughter, she smiled and said, “Didi, I feel happy these days. I want to enjoy my life and have some fun. Why do people keep tracking other women and girls from their areas? Why can women not have a romantic relationship even after divorce?” During the course period, those theatre sessions had changed her perspective towards her own self and she could be true to herself without being forced to perform like a ‘good’ divorced young woman who had to think about what people might say about any step that she took. Gradually, she started to dress up and wears some makeup while coming to the PACE centre. During exposure visits to different parts of Delhi, she used to dress well, apply make-up, and tease the other girls by pointing out any young boy roaming around on the road. She requested the other girls to share the phone numbers of a few boys from their own networks, so that she could make friends with them.
In the beginning, the other girls were really surprised by the change in her behaviour and tried to judge her from the perspective of social norms defined for married women in our society. As part of patriarchal society, when unmarried girls like to dress up and wear some make up, they are not considered ‘good’, but immediately after marriage, irrespective of their individual desires, young girls are forced to dress up as newly-wed women. On the other hand, young widows are not allowed to wear bright clothes or make up, to control their sexuality. Similarly, a divorced woman like Ruksaar, especially belonging to a disadvantaged class and caste, has more restrictions put on her in order to uphold patriarchal norms. Life decisions, choices, and desires are all defined and guided by these norms.
A divorced woman from a ‘higher’ class has the privilege to claim her own choices and desires to challenge the prevalent norms as compare to ‘lower’ class women, but women from ‘lower’ caste backgrounds have more space to explore choices and sexuality as compared to ‘upper’ caste women who merely become symbols of purity. When we analyse choices and sexuality, it is important to explore how it operates differently within different castes and classes.
When we started the conversation around love, desires and relationships, the girls shared their diverse experiences and this helped group members to be more open to accepting each other. Are we able to create spaces for young girls to have a dialogue around these complexities related to desire, and romantic relationships in their lives without putting it in a box marked ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?
The gradual changes in Ruksaar’s behaviour and perspective also provoked me to reflect on her context and neighbourhood. Choices about life, relationships and desires are all defined based on socio-economic background, caste, class, gender and sexuality. When these young girls found a comfortable and safe space, they openly talked about their desires and experiences and how they negotiated their existing environments in order to pursue their desires. As described in their narratives, women have very limited choices to continue doing what they want to do in their lives and it becomes worse in the case of young women who are divorced, have kids and live in urban poor communities with their parents.
We are conditioned in such a manner that the so-called ‘choices’ that define our relationships, are also constructed. However, as we have observed, despite all these challenges, women also develop strategies to negotiate with their environment and family members when they start perceiving themselves to be important as individuals. So it is not enough to say that yesterday’s choices shape our today; we should also question what defined those choices in the first place.