Beyond Padmavati: How Chittor’s Young Child Brides Brave the Odds
Why isn’t Rajasthan fighting to protect the honour of these young brides?
Usha* can easily pass off as someone much younger than her 18-year-old self. With a shy smile, inquisitive eyes, and vermillion on her forehead, she hesitantly raises her hand when asked who would find it difficult to pursue higher education.
At 17, Anju* firmly believes that men and women should be treated equally by law and stands by the concept of "justice for all." But when she was given a task to familiarise herself with the “duties” of a bahu, she wasn’t given a choice.
Karishma* was only 11-years-old when her mother passed away and that changed her life for the worse. She has been forced into the shoes of her mother, taking care of her younger siblings and running the household when her father is out earning money. But despite her ordeal, she manages to attend her classes at school. Haunted by the prospects of marriage that could put an end to her education, Karishma struggles to catch some sleep at the end of a long day.
(*Names of the girls have been changed to protect their identity)
Girls like Usha, Anju and Karishma are not very difficult to spot in the sleepy town of Rajasthan. They were married off as children, without their consent. Now uncertainty looms large as their “commitments” could put an early end to their education. And this, they are told from a very young age, is “normal” in their samaj. A practice they have come to follow, unquestioningly, in the name of women’s honour.
The town in question, which was the epicenter of protests against the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati, is located about 30 km from Chittorgarh. Groups in and around the fort-town started protesting against the film’s release after the trailer was released, but it soon snowballed into a protest of gigantic proportions.
Alauddin Khilji never saw Padmavati’s reflection, they said. No Rajput woman would show her midriff while performing the Ghoomar, they said. Not just Devi Padmavati but women’s honour is under threat if the film releases, they said.
The protest against the film was soon projected as the fight for women’s honour. It became a larger protest to protect women’s honour. Let’s talk about the honour of girls like the trio – who are married as minors, forced to forgo their education, and confine to to their ‘duties’ – they NEVER mention. It is this women’s honour they NEVER questioned.
And those who dared to question, were not spared.
Gangraped For Preventing Child Marriage
In 1992, Bhanwari Devi was gangraped in Bhateri village, only 50 km away from the state’s capital Jaipur, for educating other women about the perils of child marriage.
Devi was working as a Saathin (friend) of the Rajasthan government’s Women’s Development Programme. She was to go from door-to-door in the village and campaign against child marriages, dowry, discourage female foeticide and encourage sending daughters to school. Devi herself was married to her husband when she was just six-years-old, and he was about eight.
According to her interview to BBC, Devi stopped a child marriage in 1992 and the family accused her of “humiliating” them.
Days after, a gang of five men appeared on the field where Devi was working with her husband. While two men pinned her husband down, other three took turns raping her. The report says that Devi was “not trying to challenge” patriarchy, but was simply doing her job.
Today, 25 years later, she is still awaiting justice. What about the honour of women like Devi, who was nothing but a fighter, they NEVER ask.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), Rajasthan has reported the highest incidence of child marriages. The study, based on the 2011 Census, stated that only 2.5 percent of marriages of minor girls were reported in Rajasthan, and that the rest remained under a veil.
The Annual Health Survey for 2012-13 states that 51.2 percent of women in Rajasthan, aged between 20 and 25, were married off well before the age of 18. The numbers are startling, no doubt, but the lives of young girls – some of whom are married and running the family – ambivalent over the shift to their in-laws’ house, and worrying about marriage at 16, are even more startling.
“I Don't Remember How or Whom I Got Married To”
Eighteen-year-old Usha has already been married for 14 years now. At four, she did not understand what marriage meant. At eight, she took cognisance of her marriage. At 12, she had already moved in with her in-laws.
I don’t remember how I got married and I did not know who I was married to. My family would talk about how I was married to this man. But I did not understand what ‘marriage’ was until I grew up.
A typical day in Usha’s life starts at 4 am in the morning, right at the crack of dawn. As the bahu, she is expected to cook for the family before she leaves for school. She then takes a private bus to cover the half-an-hour distance between her house and her school in Bhadesar.
She smiles shyly as she starts talking about her husband, Ramesh*, who works as a teacher in a private school in the district. She is proud of her husband, one can tell from her voice, but it suddenly catches a hitch when asked about her own plans to study further.
It is not easy to manage my studies and live with my in-laws. I must do household chores, no matter what, even during exams. I finish them, then study and go to bed late. They have ruined my life (marriage and parents). I get very angry sometimes. When I complain, I am told household chores have to be done.
However, she admits that her decision to study does not remain hers alone, and says one has to “keep in mind the married life and responsibilities.”
“Feel Tied Down In A Saree”
The child in her resurfaces, almost as if she has forgotten about her marriage, and her eyes light up as she elaborates on her plan to visit her mother and brother, in Chittorgarh, over the weekend. My in-laws don't let me go too often, she complains, adding that she misses her home and hates living away from her mother.
When asked what else does she not like about living with her in-laws, she almost instantly says, "I have to wear a saree."
She says she is mandated to wear a saree and a veil, in her in-laws' house, as per Rajput tradition. She likens "tying a saree" to being "tied down" in life.
“I have to wear a saree... put a veil. I can’t live freely. I cannot do whatever I want.”
Usha and Rani Padmavati may have lived in Chittorgarh in two different eras, but both have been tied down by 'Rajput Honour'. But Usha too, says that she will "not tolerate" any distortion against Rani Padmavati.
Will Usha commit jauhar for her Ramesh? She bursts out laughing, denying vehemently, even the possibility of it.
She says that she is proud of the fact that the entire Chittorgarh is standing up for Rani Padmavati. But who is standing up for Usha’s honour? There is no answer.
“Not A Good Feeling to Be Married At 13”
Anju knows exactly what career she wants to pursue. The 17-year-old firmly believes that men and women should be treated equally by law and aspires to wear the black coat and fight for justice as a lawyer, one day.
Anju is vociferous about her dream and asserts education alone improves life, but her voice is almost inaudible when the topic of discussion moves away from her aspirations and towards her marriage.
As a daughter of a farmer, Anju was forced to familiarise herself with the institution of marriage when she turned 13. That fateful summer, when school was closed for vacation, and all children were looking forward to the freedom, her wings were clipped and she was wed-locked.
But she didn’t really mind it at that time. She says that is the fate of most girls in Rajasthan.
In our society, girls aren’t told who they are marrying, or even about their own marriage. Parents pick their partners and just inform them. It is not a good feeling to get married at 13.
Her only way to communicate with her husband is when he calls on her mother’s phone. While she remains skeptical of moving in with her in-laws' soon after she turns 18, she has come to accept it, and is unwilling to question the practice.
“I Won’t Be Allowed to Study Once I’m Married”
At least Karishma is not married yet. But the ‘yet’ holds more significance in this teenager’s life than one can imagine.
Every day, for the last five years, she has been managing her studies, pursuing her penchant for singing, taking care of her siblings and managing the household. Every day she goes to bed, accepting that it has not been easy. Every day, she goes to bed fearing the she too, will get married, without any knowledge or consent.
But Karishma fears that things will only get worse from here.
Papa says I won’t be allowed to study further. I want to. I am always scared that we might be forced into marriage. My papa and nana keep mentioning it and I am terrified of how I will manage. I am concerned about how I will manage in the new house, how the in-laws will be, and how will they treat me. I don’t want to leave the house and get married.Karishma
In her neighbourhood, she says, she sees how her friend lives at the mercy of their husbands, and that is not the kind of life she fancies for herself.
She has to leave if her husband asks her to. I don’t want to live like that. I want to marry someone who understands my family, and most importantly, someone who is employed. I want to study and become a teacher.
However, the fact remains that Karishma doesn’t really have a choice.
And the honour of the ‘real’ Ranis? No protest groups marching against that, yet.
Producer: Vatsala Singh
Camera: Athar Rather
Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia
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