The choice is hers to make Can we please stop offering unsolicited advice on reproduction to Indian women?

13, Sep 2022 | Shaba

“Do not speak while eating,” said father, when we were having lunch together. He always silences us. But we cannot resist enjoying a meal without chattering and so, to fix our talkative mouths, we slip into whispers.

The doorbell rang at an unexpected moment and alarmed us. Who could it be? Even as we wondered, we fought about who would get up and open the door. Father angrily said, “Hurry up.” Still, my siblings and I continued to look at each other to see who would go. Thinking to myself how lazy my siblings were, I –the shy one among them all–stood up.

CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program is a unique initiative aiming to give voice and agency to the young, from among the communities with whom we work closely. These presently include migrant workers, Dalits, Adivasis and forest workers. CJP Fellows report on issues closest to their hearts and home, and are making impactful change every day. We hope to expand this to include far reaching ethnicities, diverse genders, Muslim artisans, sanitation workers and manual scavengers. Our raison d’etre is to dot India’s vast landscape with the committed human rights workers who carry in their hearts Constitutional values, to transform India into what our nation’s founders dreamt it to be. Please Donate Now to increase the band of CJP Grassroot Fellows.

I called out to the person at the door that I was coming to open it. When I peeped outside the window, I didn’t recognise her. I assumed she must be someone living in the neighbourhood. Letting her in, I locked the door after me. The woman sat down in our living room.

My mother looked so happy to see her. She asked the visitor to have lunch with us. When she declined, mother persuaded her to have a few helpings. “You have come after so long. Is everything fine?” asked mother. “Yes, everything is fine,” she replied, adding,“ I missed you so much. After I got married, my family responsibilities didn’t allow me much time to see you again.”

“Oh, Sameen! I’m so happy to see you,” exclaimed mother. My father and brother left to offer namaz at a neighbourhood mosque. I moved to the kitchen to make coffee. The two women continued talking. The visitor seemed to be a good friend of my mother. I couldn’t overhear their conversation as I was in the kitchen. When I served them coffee, they were talking about how life is a burden after marriage. There were responsibilities, taunts and advice that were tough to bear alone.

“I know how you are coping with family dramas. Your mother told me when I met her. How are you doing now?” asked mother. The visitor replied in grief, “It’s hectic. My husband lost his job during the lockdown and started working in the hardware shop his father had set up, to keep the family going. Those days were full of struggle. Last month he got a new job where the pay is better. The conditions are going back to normal. I’ve been talking for so long . . . tell me, how are days passing for you?”

“Very similar to yours,” said mother. “My husband too is worried about his business. It took a long pause to start back. Now the situation is under control.”

“Yes, it is for me also, to an extent,” said Sameen.

I stood up to clean the table cloth. As the youngest sibling, it was my business to clean it. I then went back to my mother and her friend. I got to know that relatives had been bothering the friend to plan a baby. She was disturbed because she could no longer listen to such advice from anybody.  It was affecting her mental health.

Mother kicked me out of the room. She must have felt I was not ready to know all this. Well, I waited. I was curious to know more. I felt anxious that it would be my fate too, as it was a common fate of many women. It was a disturbing question. In my late teen years, I didn’t hear of women living a happy married life except for a few.

I had to wait for about two hours before I could ask my mother all the questions that were passing my mind. As soon as Sameen left, I joined my mother to investigate the case closely. Sameen, I learnt, was my mother’s friend. She used to live close by. She had moved to Uttar Pradesh from Delhi after marriage and was struggling in life. Her father-in-law had died before she was married. He had been a kind and soft-hearted man who never burdened his son with responsibilities. But after he died during the lockdown, the responsibility of looking after the family fell on Sameen’s husband.

Sameen did not deserve what she was going through. She was well qualified and was looking for a job to support her husband. From what I learnt of her, I would say she is a patient warrior. Her sister-in-law and relatives keep advising her to plan a baby soon. They feel any delay will only cause complications, and having a baby was a way to shut mouths that talk. Sameen seemed smart in tackling all these absurd pressures by ignoring them. I appreciate her patience.

Sameen doesn’t like jewels and makeup. So, relatives from both sides always taunt her by calling her‘ modern bahu’ (modern daughter-in-law). She did not have her nose pierced. And it’s a ritual in almost every community. Since she is different, maybe that’s why they’re imposing everything on her.

“But she has the freedom to choose what’s best for her,” I presented my opinion politely to my mother.

“Here in our country, relatives have the supreme power over the law. I’m telling you this as you may also face a similar situation. But remember, always be patient. Never reply to relatives. Imagine a world without relatives. That’s never going to happen,” mother was full of advice.

“But I look at this situation from a different angle. What will happen if we reply to them? The next time, they’ll think twice before saying anything,” I retorted.

I went into the next room to nag my beloved sister in the hope that I may get a solution to the issue. I asked her how she tackles women who directly ask her such things at almost every event. She replied saying there was no one perfect solution. “I shut them up by saying we’re trying to have a child and they give me worthless advice to see a doctor, take some miraculous medicines and prescriptions. A wise woman always ignores worthless things,” she said smiling and disappointing me totally. We shared the same blood but our opinions differed, probably because of our age difference and mindset.

I’m a woman from this generation .How can I handle them? I began to think. What if the same happens to me? I can’t be patient about my personal life.

Not having a baby is, in fact, a crime in the eyes of people. There are many helpline numbers to help a woman in need. 1091 for domestic abuse and dowry cases; the police also handle eve-teasing. 181 is a 24-hour confidential line. 103 can be used by those facing problems on roads. There are many articles that empower women, like Article 15(1) that prohibits the State from discriminating against any citizen based on any one or more of the aspects such as religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 15 (3) makes it possible for the State to create a special provision for protecting the interests of women and children. Article 39 requires the State to direct its policy towards securing for both men and women the right to adequate means of livelihood and equal pay for equal work.

The biggest responsibility of a woman is not preparing food daily for the family or taking care of each family member. In many cases, her responsibility even includes coping with relatives and giving them the same weightage, she gives to her immediate family. They are automatically considered important to her because they are her husband’s relatives.

A woman may have the required rights, but they are not worth anything if she has no support of other women. Without each other’s help, we will not be able to achieve a life full of our own principles.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by Shaba who uses her unique, sometimes humorous perspective as a modern and educated young Muslim woman to showcase the challenges faced by people around her – friends, family, neighbours and the wider community.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Shaba

Shaba’s family lived in Garhi Pukhta a small town in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. Soon after her birth, they moved to Delhi to give her a good life. She hails from a conservative clan where a girl’s education is not considered a priority. Shaba, who prefers to only use her first name, says she is lucky to have parents who support her.

She wants to be a teacher and is pursuing a Diploma in Elementary Education and has also passed the Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET). Shaba also wants to work to make education accessible to the underprivileged populations, and be part of a system that works towards a welfare state. Her top priority is to make her parents proud.

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