While reading the book  called I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) by BrenĂ© Brown, I was reminded that for women the standards such as ‘how to be’ and ‘how to act’ are quite different from that for men, even unrealistic at times. We are supposed to have perfect bodies, perfect jobs, perfect house management skills, excellent culinary skills, be good mothers, sisters and daughters… the list goes on. What’s more, failure to live upto any of these standards results in more guilt and shame for her compared to him (this is a strong statement but backed by research in the book).

I was born and raised in a very conservative village in Haryana. Most girls there had a set path: Pursue BA, get married or become a teacher and then get married. There were numerous child marriages in my neighbourhood where girls were 16 or 17.

When preparing for CAT exam, I would visit my uncle on the weekends, to avoid distractions at my own house. But mainly, I started going there because of the warm and welcoming nature of their family. They are a family of six: uncle, aunt, their son and a daughter. Another cousin, who was a teacher, lived with them. She was the eldest among the siblings and stayed for sometime to help children with their studies.

Younger sister, Sonakshi, was the quiet one; the elder one, Poonam, was always chirping about something or other. I was closer to Sonakshi because she exuded innocence. She was in 10th grade and was coping with the stress that comes with board exams.

I had forged a bond with both the sisters I tried inculcating the habit of reading into them but couldn’t succeeded. Poonam wasn’t interested in reading anything other than fashion blogs and magazines. Sonakshi was very clear that she didn’t want to even come close to books.

However, for some naive reason, I was convinced that they would get maturity by reading some quality literature; not realising what works for one, might not work for another, and that this is just my opinion, I might be wrong. Both the sisters were very pretty and were the centre of attraction at all the family functions. There were strict rules as to what they could and couldn’t wear. For eg, cut sleeves, dresses, anything that revealed any skin was a big no-no in their house. Sonakshi didn’t care much, but Poonam was visibly distressed about these things. She used to design clothes and was fond of fancy dresses and makeup.

Fast forward four months, one day, Poonam came back from a nearby kirana shop, and a guy from the neighbourhood followed her into the house. The moment he stepped into the house, he was flushed with anger and started screaming on the top of his voice: ‘Ye bahar gulchare udda ke aa rahi hain, koi ladka aaya tha isse milne, dono kiss kar rahe the gaon ke beech mein, sharam nahi hai isko zara bhi (She is painting the town red with her antics, some boy came to meet her, both of them were kissing in the middle of the village, she is absolutely shameless). 

He went on for a while even as she tried to deny the allegations. Meanwhile, two more guys came in to join the first guy in this rude moral policing fest. Eventually, Poonam’s family was convinced that she did meet some boy and the allegations were true. Meenakshi didi drove those boys out, but started yelling at her afterwards. To them, it was unthinkable that someone could do such a thing, their honour was at stake.

Poonam’s elder brother and father weren’t home at the time. Her mother starting crying and cursing her for bringing dishonour to the family. They first locked her up inside a room. Then her didi (sister) and mother started beating her badly. They beat her up non-stop for more than 30 minutes. Later that night, her brother came home and went into a rage the moment he heard the news. He picked up a broom and hit her with it 3-4 times. How do I know all this? Poonam told me about it in detail, as she too went into shock from this extreme reaction of her family.

This boy was her 10th grade classmate in DPS RK Puram, Delhi. Her family was sending their children all the way to RK Puram in Delhi from their village with the thought that they will get better education there compared to nearby schools. From the very next of this incident, her parents barred her from going to the school, in fact, they decided to discontinue her studies.

Meenakshi didi told me, “Isko bahar nahi bhej sakte, ispe bharosa nahi kar sakte ab (Now she can’t be allowed to step out of the house, she can’t be trusted anymore).” I couldn’t believe that something this small could have such an extreme consequence for her, when the guy was left unaffected (at least socially). I tried to convince them, but my mother later said. “Don’t go to their house now, study here only or people will talk about you as well.”

It has been around 5 years and that girl is still under house arrest. She completed schooling via distance learning, and is now pursuing Bachelors of Arts through correspondence from a nearby government college. Now her family wants to marry off the two girls into a “good family”. They had waited this long only because an astrologer had advised that the elder daughter should be married off only after she turns 26 because of some dosha.

We, girls, have been receiving these silent messages since childhood: don’t do this, don’t do that or else face the grave consequences.

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Sonia Kataria

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