(This story was first published on 25 November 2020, and is being republished from The Quint's archives to mark one year since the anti-conversion law in Uttar Pradesh came into effect.)
Paro is running through the fields, trying to get away from a man who has a feud with her family. He catches up with her, abducts her and keeps her in his house. He does not assault her or ill-treat her. In fact, after a day or two, he lets her go and she runs back to her home in the village.
But the news of her abduction by a Muslim man is spread through the village. She keeps banging on the door and begging her parents to let her in. But they refuse. Heartbroken Paro has nowhere to go. Ultimately she returns to her abductor. This is the story of Pinjar – Amritha Pritham’s Punjabi novel set in the times of the Indian freedom struggle and partition. In her writing, she shows that women suffer most at the hands of their own families and traditions.
India’s Terrible Sex Ratio – Why Abused Women Suffer Silently
In the debates about ‘love jihad’, no one asks what the young women concerned want or need. In the talk about ‘our girls’ being lured by ‘their’ boys, everyone forgets to mention that daughters are dispensable in this country. Their deplorable status in their own families make them vulnerable to outside tormenters. The Hindu Code Bill that Dr Ambedkar drafted was blocked by orthodox dominant caste men in the Parliamentary Committee. Enraged they asked, “if we give property to daughters, what will happen to our sons?”
They stated that if daughters get property, they will just leave their husbands. “Why will they remain married?” Conversely, financial dependence and family honour makes women stay on with violent husbands and burn in their matrimonial home rather than return to their parents.
The Jalgaon, Maharashtra sex scandal in my adolescence showed us that girls could be blackmailed by telling them that their nude pictures and videos will be shared with their families. Instead of confiding in their mothers, these young women went back to their rapists for years. What does that tell us about our family system?
Even the top hospitals in Delhi have more boys being born. After knowing the gender of the unborn baby in illegal clinics elsewhere, the family admits the pregnant woman in an expensive hospital for the boy to be born. The female foetus is ‘taken care of’ elsewhere. No wonder we have among the worst sex ratios in the world – of 924 females per 1000 males – as per the 2011 Census.
What other country in the world needs a law prohibiting doctors from disclosing the sex of the child in the womb?
Why Women ‘Choose’ To Die In Abusive Husband’s Home Rather Than Return To Parents
Girl children grow up knowing that they are a burden on their families, as their dowry will cost heavy. It justifies denying them education, health care, even food and mother’s milk. In my rural work, I meet women named Nakusha, which literally means ‘unwanted’ – a name their parents have given them. Or women married off to older men with wives or alcoholics or the village idiot. And then being told that all the violence and sexual exploitation that they face is their naseeb – their own fate. Most are married before the requisite 18 years, despite a law that prohibits child marriage.
Why do young women die in India in the matrimonial homes, rather than return to their parental home?
Hospitals have a burns department, filled with women, specifically daughters-in-law. Parents, helpless while the daughter was alive, become aggressive upon their death. Then they want to run the legal cases, want compensation, demand the dowry back. Why did they not ask their daughter to leave everything and come back home when her life was at peril?
How Women Become Vulnerable To Predatory / Abusive Men
Against such a backdrop, when a girl falls in love, it can be with the first man who pays her attention, shows her empathy or brings her food. This and her lack of exposure to the world outside of home augments the possibility of her literally ‘falling’ in love with a man who is ‘unsuitable’, and at times, downright evil. Once she elopes, the power of this man is absolute. Then he may sell her to a brothel or demand that she changes her religion.
Changing religion after marriage is insulting. Not because any one religion is greater than the other, but because women should not have to let go of their identity and their past for love or marriage.
Not their religion, not their names or surnames, not their jobs, not their family or friends. But we routinely see it happen.
What Women Actually Need: Education, Self-Reliance And Autonomy
We also know that those women who are educated, self-reliant do not need to elope. They talk to their families, try to convince them into accepting their choices. If that does not work, they can – in most cases – afford to walk out with their heads high. If their choices fail, they continue to build their lives rather than hide away in dishonour and misery. Empowered women would be the insurance against failures of love.
UP and Haryana government want to bring in a law to tackle ‘love jihad’. In our society, custom trumps law. We have laws to protect women from rape, dowry, domestic violence, child marriage and yet all of this goes on.
Hindu Marriage Act, Section 12 and Special Marriage Act, Section 25 make any marriage contract voidable for reasons of force or fraud. That means any woman can seek a decree of nullity of marriage if a man frauds or coerces her into marrying him. One wonders what this new law would manage to do? How will it help ‘our girls’?
(Sameena Dalwai is a Professor at the Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)