Nasreen Parveen decided to run for her life at the same moment she decided not to end it.
She had made it all the way out to the ledge of the high window in her mother’s house, her feet on that final dividing line between the solid world behind her and the drop into thin air in front.
But as she prepared to jump, she looked out and received a stunning, seemingly impossible glimpse into the future. As Nasreen watched in horror, another girl her age jumped from the roof of a nearby house. The young woman plummeted to the ground, hit hard on her back and then lay in the dirt, grievously injured.
Nasreen decided that the step into thin air, the drop and the dirt were not for her. But she was equally certain that she could not live the life that her family was trying to bind her to.
Nasreen was just 16, but her family had already arranged an engagement for her, to a cousin on her father’s side whom she had never met before they were betrothed. The bruises that covered her body, inflicted by her future in-laws while she worked for them, she said, were evidence that a future of violence and pain lay before her.
That another young woman attempted to take her own life, in the same manner Nasreen was considering and just seconds before Nasreen would have made her own attempt, was a coincidence that defied explanation. But it did more than save Nasreen’s life at that moment — it offered a crucial opportunity for escape just a few hours later.
This is part one in the series India’s Daughters, about one of the deepest fault lines in India’s politics and society: the conflict over young women’s futures as they reach for the new opportunities offered by a rapidly changing country.
India’s struggle to raise millions of people into the middle class now hinges, in part, on whether young women can delay marriage in order to do paid work, or buck tradition by working outside the home after marriage. More and more Indian women are leaving the work force — or never entering it at all.
Expectations that women will confine themselves to caregiving roles at home, both to preserve their reputations and so that their unpaid labor can serve as a social and economic safety net, prevent many women from participating in public life. But even those who do manage to achieve escape velocity from the domestic sphere often find that there are few opportunities available to them.
Nasreen was hoping for a life beyond her village in the state of West Bengal, where her family had moved, from New Delhi, after her father left to work as a laborer in Saudi Arabia. She had worked hard to educate herself. Over her mother’s and grandmother’s objections, she enrolled herself in the local school, even though the lessons were in Bengali, a language that she did not speak.
In the village, Nasreen studied in whatever hours she could snatch between her backbreaking household duties, which included hauling water from a faraway well, repairing the mud walls of her family’s home and the daily chores of cooking and cleaning.
Nasreen’s mother and grandmother expected her to follow in their paths: dropping out of school, a teenage marriage and then a life spent at home, secluded in the traditional roles of wife, daughter-in-law and mother. The education that Nasreen had worked so hard for would go unused.
Going through with the marriage seemed out of the question to her. Escaping it, however, would mean leaving her home and family, possibly forever.
In India, poor families with ambitious daughters must grapple with a pressing calculation: How much should they invest, and how much risk should they accept, for an uncertain reward in the future? And, just as important, who should make that decision?
From the perspective of parents, especially fathers, the high-risk option is to allow their daughters to delay marriage, finish their education and find work that brings them financial independence.
A daughter who wins a white-collar job can lift her family out of poverty and into the swelling ranks of India’s middle class. She might also be able to match with a higher-status groom, raising the family’s social standing.
But that option has high upfront costs, in the form of school fees and extra years of supporting a daughter at home. And what if the job, the goal of all that investment and risk, never materializes at all?
When Nasreen was 15, her parents betrothed her to a man 10 years older who was working in Saudi Arabia, a first cousin whom she had never met and whose family lived in her village.
Immediately, her life changed. Her fiancé’s family treated Nasreen as if she were already a member of their household, required to respect the decisions of her not-yet-in-laws. They insisted that Nasreen leave school, told her to stop speaking to her best friend and eventually forbade her from going outside at all. Instead, she was forced to wake at 5 a.m. and go to her future in-laws’ house, where she spent her days doing household labor in the name of learning the tasks she would be responsible for after marriage.
One night, Nasreen said, her fiancé’s brother cornered her after she served him dinner, pushed her onto a bed and began grabbing her body until her screams brought her aunt running.
A few weeks later, that same brother searched Nasreen’s phone and found messages that he wrongly concluded were evidence she had been unfaithful to her fiancé. There was no time for Nasreen to explain before he started to beat her, she said.
Once again, the aunt heard Nasreen’s screams and came running. But this time, she began to beat Nasreen, too. As the blows from fists and a block of wood rained down, Nasreen thought they would kill her.
Since 1978, the legal age for women to marry in India has been 18. Underage marriage has become less common since then, and more legal protections for girls were added in 2006. But nearly 1 in 4 women still marry before they are 18, according to Unicef data, and 1 in 20 before age 15.
Older brides, even if still in their 20s, are often perceived as less desirable by grooms’ families, so delaying marriage brings a risk of sharply higher dowry fees paid by the women’s families. And the longer a girl remains unmarried, the more time there is for her marriageability to be damaged by rumors about her chastity.
For the young women themselves, there is even more to fear. The wrong marriage could bring catastrophic risks: domestic violence, marital rape — which is not criminalized in India — or even murder. Even in many of the better scenarios, brides can still be confined to the home, their ambitions confined to the tasks set forth by their husbands and in-laws.
The night that Nasreen’s neighbor leaped from the window, everyone else in her family went over to the neighbor’s house, leaving Nasreen alone at home. She hurriedly packed a bag, putting in sanitary pads and 5,000 rupees (about $60) of savings from gifts that her mother and other family members had given her when she got engaged. It was cold, so she added a sweater, then a bedsheet. She hid everything under a shrub outside the house before her family returned. Then she waited.
Around 3 a.m., Nasreen crept out of bed, taking care not to wake her mother, who slept beside her. She slipped out of the house, picked up her bag from its hiding place and began to run.
It was about a half mile from Nasreen’s house to the main road, via a pitch-dark path through the unlit village. Nasreen knew that dangers could lurk in the night: snakes, violent men, wild dogs that were known to attack and kill people. She could hear the dogs barking, but couldn’t tell where they were.
She had just a few hours before her family would wake up and find that she was missing. If she was not far away by the time they raised the alarm, her escape attempt would fail.
She focused her mind and body on a single goal: Just run.
Bhumika Saraswati, Nikita Jain and Andrea Bruce contributed reporting.
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