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Feminism, Marriage, and the Dilemma

A bride and her mother holding hands face-to-face during the wedding celebration. Their faces are cut from the picture - we can see from their neck to their knees, dressed in a bride's lehnga, and a heavy Indian suit.

Before I was introduced to theatre and the arts in the 11th standard, the future I saw for myself was a B.Com degree followed by an MBA and a decent job in my hometown of Jaipur. My exposure to theatre changed everything for me; most importantly, it showed me how to rebel. The future I dreamed for myself rapidly began to change course. My uncle, who was a decision maker in our joint family, was quite angry at my decision to apply to drama school after I passed the 12th standard. He said, “Naachne wali banna hai kya?” (“Do you want to become a sleazy dancer?”). I come from a very career-oriented family. They wanted us kids to be engineers and architects or, as in my case, a chartered accountant. I remember boldly retorting, “Yes, I want to become a naachne wali.”

When I left home to eventually study in film school in Bangalore, I was leaving behind a life governed by patriarchal values. My mother, who had accompanied me to get me settled, was shocked to see that in a class of 11 students, I was the only girl. Her first reaction was to say, “Let’s go back.” I knew she didn’t mean it, and I also knew I was never going to go back.

Once I found PG (paying guest) accommodation, my mother told me before she went back that a woman has to strive every single day to make a place for herself at home and at the workplace. Over the next few years, my feminist ideas seemed to naturally grow out of lived experience.

My sister got engaged a couple of years later to her handsome and loving long-time boyfriend. Two months later, we had a class trip to the India International Film Festival in Goa. The entire class was going, and naturally I was excited about going too. When I shared it with my family, they became very sceptical about ‘sending’ me there because I was the only girl in the group. It was upsetting to hear them talk like this, but what enraged me was that this decision that I was not to go was taken by my to-be brother-in-law who until a month ago had absolutely no say in my family matters, let alone my personal matters. I remember yelling that he was nobody to tell me where I should be going.

My family is not very happy about my hatred of this male-dominated culture.

I’m 29 now, and my mother is going crazy about finding a guy for me to marry. It’s not as if I don’t want to get married and have children. I would love to do it, but the values I have built for myself (you could call them feminist values) are being called into question. There have been a lot of prospective families we have come across who have rejected my life choices and ideas, saying they cannot work for marriage.

My best friend is marrying into a typical Punjabi family, and unfortunately her family is giving into every wedding demand that the in-laws have raised. I see how she is accepting all of it, assuring me and herself that it won’t last for long; that this will all be over once the wedding is done. But I can guarantee that this is only the beginning.

It seems that if I have to live in this society with a husband and children, I have to give up my ideas of life. For instance, I asked every prospective groom I met if they knew how to cook. It seemed a natural enough question, but some of them took quite an offence to it. My own cousin told me that I shouldn’t ask this question because my world is too utopian, and, in ‘reality’ men just don’t cook.

My uncle once told me that it was time we started looking for a boy for my younger sister. Traditionally, sisters get married by seniority in age, but he said he thinks it is too difficult to find a guy for me because of the kind of work I do and the life I lead. By the way, I am a homely girl. I like to cook, take care of my home, and water my plants. I also love making documentary films about child trafficking from different parts of the country. I have spent the last few years chasing traffickers with the Delhi Police, witnessing raids and rescues, spending sleepless nights at police stations recording victims’ statements, and working obsessively on my scripts and edits. I also love the mountains, and try to take at least two hiking trips every year. But the idea of ‘homely’, as we all should know, is apparently to do what your in-laws and husband want.

My mother registered me in a Sindhi marriage bureau in Delhi (which has been my home for the past five years). As soon as you enter the place, you find sad-looking parents (literally, they seem like they just refuse to be happy till their child is married off and the goal is fulfilled) looking through profile folders to find a suitable match for their child. The files are named according to category: manglik boys/girls, non-manglik boys/girls, divorced boys/girls, and widows.

Now, under pressure from my family, I went there with my cousin and I was given some five files of unmarried, non-manglik boys (the category that is apparently suitable for me). I looked through them, and to make my mother happy, I selected all five boys.

The next step was the phone calls. The politics of these calls is quite fascinating. My uncle told us that the girl is not supposed to be the one to call. I was supposed to wait for a boy to call because if I called him it might seem like I was too outgoing – something that the prospective in-laws wouldn’t like. Thankfully, my mother found this ridiculous and told me to make some calls.

With the first man I spoke to, I started by joking about how weird it is that our parents make us have awkward conversations with strangers. To which he replied, “All that is fine, but I hear that you travel a lot on work and you’re into films and stuff.” I said, “Yes, I love travelling and it’s great that my work allows me to do that.” He said, “According to me, marriage is about togetherness, and if you travel so much after marriage, there is no point in getting married.” He found me to be too “advanced”. It honestly left me quite baffled.

What astonishes me is the guy’s family’s entitlement to question my mother or me about my work even before I have met the guy! This issue seems to always pop up in the very first call they make after checking my profile on the matrimonial websites.

With another prospective spouse, his mother told my mother that they didn’t like the fact that I was living by myself and not in a paying guest accommodation (i.e. under watch). It’s absurd! What gives them the right to question a stranger about her daughter’s choice of abode (aka morality)!

Then there have been some potential suitors who I have not been interested in despite their ‘being okay’ with my work and lifestyle. My family has then asked me what the problem is if the guy’s family has explicitly said that they have no issues with my work. But that is also problematic, isn’t it? What makes them assume the right to even say that they are ‘okay’ with me travelling and making films? I never said I was ‘okay’ with the guy being a drab yuppie in an IT firm. I don’t even get a chance to comment on that.

Again, I am not against the idea of marriage. But the more I see of arranged alliances, the more I’m repulsed by it. When one is put in such situations, it’s made to seem as though one’s feminist ideals are standing in the way of marital bliss. Society is telling me that if I want a happy family life, I have to forget everything I have built in my adult life so far and regress to where I was in 11th standard all those years ago. I wonder what future awaits me!

Image courtesy: Pixabay