CRUSADER

How a 10-year-old schoolgirl in India fought against child marriage—and won

Quartz india
Quartz india

When I get back home, the subject of marriage is the centre of the conversation again. The son of one of my uncles has asked to marry me. Ma tries to convince me to meet him.

“He’s a relative and is ready to accept the dowry that we’re offering.”

“I don’t care where he comes from and what he’s ready to accept. I don’t want to get married, and that’s final!”

“Don’t be selfish. Think of your family. You think that your father can keep on working in these conditions? His back hurts constantly and he has trouble breathing because of inhaling tobacco for years, and he does all that to feed you. Do you realise the sacrifices that he has been making all this time?”

“I’ll help him. I’m quite willing to work after school so that he can make his daily quota of cigarettes.”

“You understand nothing, my girl. You cost us too much, and if we don’t get you married while you are young and attractive nobody else will want you.”

“I don’t want to get married, do you hear me? I am enrolled at the school, and I intend to keep going there!”

“You’re not the one who decides! The Kalindis all marry at your age. If you want to keep on studying, you can sort that out with your husband. Our duty as parents is to find you a husband before it’s too late.”

“I don’t want to get married!”

The conversation breaks down into yelling. My father interrupts us: “Stop carrying on like that, both of you! Do you want the whole village to hear you?”…

***

The next day I went straight to school without going to our house. It was out of the question to meet my mother, who I imagined must be furious with me. When I got home after school, a boy accompanied by his parents was in the house. My mother introduced them to me. I understood what was being plotted and when they asked me what I thought of the young man I didn’t answer.

“Are you sure she agrees?” asked the boy’s mother.

“Yes, yes!” replied my mother. “She is shy and reserved, but we spoke to her yesterday. She knows what she ought to do…” I hid out in a corner of the yard, my legs doubled up against my stomach.

“And how old is she?” the mother asked.

“She’s coming up for ten. She is very gifted, you know. We’ve sent her to school so that she will be educated, and she’s top of the class. Her teachers are very proud of her. They say that she is much more intelligent than the other pupils.”

“Ah! Very good! Nowadays children should go to school. It’s very useful…”

I wonder how this woman can know what is said or done in a school – especially as I suspect that her son has never set foot in one.

“I don’t know how to cook, and I don’t like children,” I say in a cold and determined tone.

“Oh yes?” replies the mother sharply. “But you are going to learn, I’m sure of it…”

“I don’t think so. I eat very little, and neither my older sister nor my mother has taught me.”

“She exaggerates. She lacks confidence in herself,” my mother says, trying to reassure the other woman. “She has taken care of her brothers and sisters since she was quite small… I know what she’s worth. She’s very gifted.”

“Yes, she seems gifted, but my problem is that she’s too dark… you see? Compared with my son, who is lighter… How much is the dowry? I mean, bearing in mind this difference in skin colour?”

I continued to listen to this discussion—or, rather, negotiation, I should say—that was all about me. I felt that Ma wanted a firm commitment on their part. That’s enough. I couldn’t bear this masquerade any longer. I got up and headed for the young man, who must have been five or six years older than I.

“You know the story of Kishalaya?”

“No. What is it?”

“He’s a brahmin who frees a tiger from its cage and makes it promise not to eat him in exchange for its freedom. It’s a traditional tale of Bengal, but never mind. You know how to sing Baul?”

“No.”

“I am always chosen to perform the Indian national anthem and the traditional songs of Bengal. Do you know that most children’s diseases are spread by mosquito bites?”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“I learned all that at school, just as I learned the importance of hygiene, reading and mathematics, and I can’t see myself abandoning all that to marry you!”

With that I turned on my heel and went back into the room where the parents were still arguing about the wedding and the dowry.

“Your son is an idiot! I won’t marry him whatever my parents say!”

I knew that my parents were going to be embarrassed and get a bad reputation, but I couldn’t see any other way to get me out of this trap. The family went away. My mother gave me a furious look, and my father took the villagers back home, all the time offering profuse apologies.

Excerpted from The Strength To Say No: One Girl’s Fight against Forced Marriage, Rekha Kalindi with Mouhssine Ennaimi, translated from the French by Sarah Lawson, Penguin Viking.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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