Jan 28, 2009

'Off' you go, girl!

I have strong objections to the phrase 'married off', which is commonly and liberally used without as much as a thought to how it sounds or what it implies. It means (at least to me) that a daughter is a burden that needs to be disposed off (for the cause of holy matrimony) as soon as possible. Such a liability cannot be borne for long. What will the relatives/ neighbours/ society say? "Abhi tak ladki ko ghar pe bitha ke rakha hai?" Shuddering gasp with one hand clutching at the heart and the other the open mouth. Worse, daughters are dispensable, and need to be dispensed as soon as possible.

This mentality, of thinking of women as commodities being passed around from one male to the other (father to husband), comes from patriarchy. And not even the Law thinks otherwise! Last February, the Bombay High Court has held that every father is under obligation to 'maintain' his daughter and get her married off. Maintain?

We hear of parents saving money for their son's education and their daughter's marriage. This mindset is propagated far and wide by popular media. What everyone conveniently forgets in these arrangements for the future is the daughter's education. Was any money saved for that? Was it enough for her to pursue all her dreams? Or was she taught to see just one dream - getting married 'off' - day after day and night after night? To be a 'good' and 'cultured' girl who will dream only of being a 'virtuous' and 'homely' wife to some benevolent Angel of Mercy who will agree to 'take' her if bribed with enough dowry.

Not just that. It suddenly becomes her duty to 'stay' married as well. Even at the cost of her happiness and peace of mind. Even at the cost of her individuality and independence. Even at the cost of her life. After all, her parents are done with marrying her 'off', what more can they do? Why don't they educate her to settle into a profession and empower her to provide for herself, instead of and before embarking on a search for a 'settled' guy who can?

The findings of the National Family Health Survey III reveal that, in rural areas, 52.5 per cent of girls aged between 20-24 get married before they turn 18. The corresponding figure for urban India is 28.1 per cent. Is that shocking? Yes, it is, for someone who has lived in a posh locality, received the best of education, and would not think of marriage before the age of 25 or even more.

Yet, with the rise in the age at which daughters get married, investment in them has also risen due to a longer period for which her natal family must support her. Investment in her education becomes important to enable a better match, which will likely be more expensive too. All this becomes a vicious circle which spins the web of dowry.

At first glance, a tiny part of the world with good schools and colleges, malls and multiplexes seems to symbolise development. The person who collects garbage; that newspaper guy who leaves a daily at your doorstep; the milkman, the grocery boy: they are the inhabitants of a much larger space where a girl’s marriage before the age of 18 happens because it does. If at all such individuals are surprised by the survey’s findings, that would be since half the women of today’s India are getting married after 18!

Why do we not allow our daughters to marry as and when they meet the right kind of person? Why is there an age limit fixed for a decision that has nothing to do with age and everything to do with how the couple work as a team? Why do we not support her when she chooses to marry someone who respects her, as an equal, and not someone who tries to change her in accordance with his view of life? Why do we not let her be someone who uses her own mind to think what's best for her, and not be told about who she should spend her life with?

The old mindsets can change only when the onus of choosing a life partner is on the man and woman concerned. It is about being responsible for your own decisions and working together to implement them. Some of our glorious traditions need to be broken. For starters, the practice of arranging a marriage which leads to any kind of demand - expressed or implicit, needs to be changed.

As parents, you can begin by dissociating yourself from choosing the spouse of your children - and the expenses for and after the choice. Assume the role of a friend and confidante, instead, to guide your children through the path they choose and to lend an ear. Restore - completely, unequivocally - to your children, especially your daughters, their inalienable right to select their mates. Let them take responsibility of their lives before they become responsible towards each other. If they're mature enough to marry, aren't they equally wise to decide who they want in their lives?

A daughter is not the property of her parents to be donated or dispensed to some obscure unknown fellow who simply happens to have the astronomical bodies in the right position at the right time. She does not need to feel obliged just to have been born to you. Accept her adulthood. You may not be able to save her from a heartbreak or a failed marriage, but let her make her own mistakes and learn from them. Support and console her without saying 'I told you so'. Be there for her at all times, and yet do not interfere in her life. A fine balance indeed!

So she can't be your son? Why does she have to? Just let her be your daughter. Is that too hard?


सुजाता said...

dear Surbhi ,

chokherbali has copleted one year and we have planned a pannel discussion on gender discourse on 6 Feb.2009 at univ.centre Atrs Fac.

I need your e mail for sending invitation .


Surbhi said...

Sujataji, many congratulations on one successful year of Chokher Bali. You're doing some amazing work. Keep it up!
Thanks for the information on the panel discussion. I am honoured to be considered for attendance.
I have sent you an email from my personal id, and you can send back the invitation and other details to me.
Thanks also for dropping by here. Again, I am honoured. I'd love to receive both bouquets and brickbats on my efforts here.

Solilo said...

Girls are addressed as 'beta' when she does something extraordinary.
Why can't girls be 'beti' and still do everything that she could?

Also the redudant dialogues like 'now your home is your inlaws house' and that's why we have married 'off'

Surbhi said...

You are so right. Girls are always addressed as "beta", but have you ever heard boys being addressed as "beti"? It so freaks me out since I am addressed in the very same way. And it is so deep-rooted that it is second nature to people.
True, the entire concept of "paraya dhan" and "amaanat" (daughter as commodity) and "apna ghar" and all that crap is responsible for the way daughters are looked at in India.