As soon as a girl child is born in India, parents start buying gold. It is a continuous process, every occasion an excuse to buy gold jewelry - a chain for birthday, earrings for graduation, bracelets for religious occasions, and of course - when the price of gold dips. Streets lined with jewelry stores and goldsmith shops are bursting with women, young girls in tow. Mom fingers a 22-carat bracelet, intricately patterned, one inch wide.
"Now, this would look lovely on my Anita on her wedding day,” she declares.
Anita is only seven. She is bored to death. She wants to scream and run out of the store. She looks at the crazy traffic and mob outside, thousands of people in buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, rickshaws, bullock carts, on foot. All these people, yet she knows no one. All these people, yet she is the loneliest girl in city. She inches close to her mom and holds onto her. It is her destiny.
As soon as a girl child is born in India, parents start buying gold and saving money - for her wedding. And for dowry, an unmentionable word, yet sometimes inevitable in the lives of many women who go through arranged marriages. Illegal by law in a land where regulations and social customs disregard each other with impunity, the birth of a girl child sobers up young parents. We have to save money for dowry, buy gold, put her through a good school, the best college. She should learn how to sing, dance, paint, cook, be respectful of elders. Anxious parents hover above her, every step calculated, watched, analyzed. All around her, society does the same. Under the watchful eyes of hundreds, she studies, sings, dances. She is never seen with a non-relative of the opposite gender. She is an obedient girl, virtuous, possesses an unblemished reputation. She fulfills everyone’s expectations and awaits her salvation. Through marriage. It is her destiny.
Advertisements in matrimonial columns of national and international newspapers read: Wanted, a well-educated, well-established groom in his late 20s - doctor, engineer, accountant preferred. Girl, 23, fair complexioned, convent-educated, homely, bachelor´s degree in philosophy, well versed in Indian classical music and an accomplished dancer.
Anita is at college now. Her perhaps-boyfriend is sweet, solicitous, an intellectual, has excellent manners. She secretly hopes that he is the one. He is different, she thinks. Not like the man at her cousin’s workplace who requested their company HR that on no account should they pay his wife a salary that exceeds his own. College midterm grades are posted; Anita’s are higher. Anxiously, she looks across the crowd. He looks back unsmilingly, turns around and walks away. The air of finality says it all.
One Wednesday evening, the year of her graduation, a call from mom.
"We want you home this weekend."
"Nothing special, but make sure you come home.”
She knows exactly what the call is about, and has been dreading it for some time. All around her, dorm-mates are getting their summons. They return with horror stories. Translated into English, the term literally means "bride-viewing." An educated, accomplished woman, with probably more common sense than all of her guests combined, is "viewed" by her prospective in-laws, the prospective groom, the friends of the groom, and whoever else, to be appraised if she is suitable enough to join their family and conform to the rules of their household. The air of superiority that envelops the interview is palpable. The group is here to scrutinize, to critique, to examine - if the girl is docile enough, deferential enough, the family obsequious enough, if they know their place in the totem pole of life. Small talk ensues, comments fly back and forth, comparisons are made with the girl from so-and-so town who has a lighter skin, is taller by three inches, has a degree in computer science and a cushy job, yet cooks elaborate meals like a chef. The girl’s parents paste on ingratiating smiles until the keepers of Y-chromosome depart. Their daughter is to return the next weekend for another demeaning session. She sobs as her friends gather around and watch her work her way through pain and indignity. She did not like the man or his family either, but she did not get the opportunity to tell them so. It is her destiny.
Anita tosses and turns in her bed. Her parents will lose face; will be disappointed in her. She now knows that a man from the USA is coming to “view her.” He works at NASA, has a brilliant future, she could study for her post-graduate degree in the US.
“But I don’t know him,” she says on the phone.
“He is in India on a twenty day leave. He is viewing a number of girls. If things work out, you’ll see each other a few more times before he leaves,” replies her mom.
“How could you and dad go behind my back and do such a thing?”
“We are worried about your future, can´t sleep at night. You know how it is. Our relatives blame us every day for not finding a groom for you.”
“You expect me to respect a person whose idea of vacation is a nationwide bride-viewing tour?”
“How else will people find each other? All your cousins had arranged marriages, they are all happy.”
“I know all about their happiness, I don’t know how they can stand it. I am not going home.”
The weekend comes and goes. Anita remains at her dorm, riddled with waves of guilt, remorse - an ungrateful daughter. Her heart longs to apologize, but she remains detached, defiant. A few months later, she calls her mother.
“Maybe, just maybe, I have found someone.”
It is her destiny.
Fast-forward three years. Multinational companies set up shops in India. Anita works nights at a call center. She has a job, economic independence, far more freedom than her elder sister does; yet carries pepper spray in her handbag. As a surging tide of Indian women flood the workplace, society resists, grappling to come to terms with the seismic changes that turn their customary lives upside down. Crimes and assaults against women rise dramatically. A generation of empowered women breaks the shackles of conformity, as they start to shun arranged marriages. Women initiate divorces - unheard of, two decades ago. The web reverberates with comments from outraged male bloggers lamenting the loss of their entitled lives, the decline of traditional domestic values. Constitution enacts a law aimed at protecting women from domestic violence.
At New Delhi, the capital, young women rally for the right to wear clothing of their choice, and to be able to walk in public without being harassed. Amidst hooting and hollering from the roadside crowd, Anita leads the rally. Her banner reads, “Slut Walk Delhi.” Thousands of miles away, in Toronto, Canada, where the worldwide movement started following a police officer’s comment that women should avoid dressing like sluts to avoid assaults, Anita’s former classmate watches her on the evening news.
Anita claims her destiny.