Why Loving Freely Is The Most Dangerous Thing An Indian Woman Can Do

As things stand right now, the freedom to make your own choices is bought with total and complete cutting of ties from the family unit, and that's not easy, it is not even possible for a lot of people.


“It is better I leave him now, before things get too serious,” my friend explained, “My parents will never agree.”

“But you love him, no?” I asked.

“Yes,” she responded, “But I don’t love him enough to leave my family.”

The first time I had this conversation with a friend I was a teenager, but over the years, it has reoccurred dozens of times. The characters changed but the choice always remained the same.

Losing family is the price paid for freedom of choice

Shivani couldn’t marry Madan because they belonged to different castes and it was either Madan or her family. Theresa couldn’t be with Shivansh because of the difference of religion and it was either Shivansh or her family. Nahar couldn’t marry Azar because Azar’s family “eats meat” so it was either Azar or her family. Ramneek couldn’t be with Pavitra because it was either loving another woman or her family. Natasha couldn’t be with Ansh because he came from a “weak economic background” so it was either Ansh or her family.

The price of the right to love freely in India is your family.

India is not a country of freely-dispensed unconditional parental love. They love you, that is understood without words, but they also let you know, in explicit terms, the limits of your freedoms and the consequences of going past that.

These consequences vary from family-to-family, ranging from physical or mortal threat to lifelong passive-aggression but they almost always exist. Marriage is one of those spheres in which the extent of the control becomes visible. My friends — Shivani, Nahar, Ramneek, Natasha — they were all “allowed” to have love marriages, but the parameters of who they were allowed to love were taught way before they were allowed to date.

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Are ‘love’ marriages truly through free choice?

In India, 93% of marriages are arranged marriages, 5-11% are inter-caste, 2% of marriages are interfaith, and while there is no reliable data on inter-class marriage, let’s allow the social script to inform us about that.

What are the odds that most people who ever fell in love accidentally did so, somehow, with someone who fit perfectly within the specs of who their family would have chosen for them?

When I was a teenager I used to play a game where I would guess which couple had a love marriage and which one had an arranged marriage. To my alarm, I guessed wrong almost every single time. I was operating under the assumption that freely made choices of love would indicate more diversity, but repeatedly, I found that even when we pick our own partners, we pick ones who our families would approve of.

We take it upon ourselves to discard the ones who would cause our parents to put their feet down and cause strife. We discard the ones who would cause us to take a stand which may lead to choosing between your lover and your family.

However, if we just love the way our families would prefer, everyone gets what they want. We get to pretend we are ‘modern’ women, our families get to pretend they are ‘liberal’ and society gets to pretend that it is ‘progressing’.

However, this form of choice, it is an illusion

Many people I know insist that their families had nothing to do with their life choices — they wanted to marry this person, they wanted to sport sindoor every day, they see the value in being with someone from the same background as them. And that may well be the case for some of these people, but the truth often emerges when you refuse to conform.

At my wedding, I was insistent that I did not want to engage in any religious or sexist ceremony, I marry in court or not at all. My family is very liberal for Indian standards, but ultimately even that discussion had to come down to the same ultimatum: Family members saying “Either I get what I want or I don’t attend the wedding.” Either I get to love the way I want or I lose my family.

From my incredibly privileged standpoint, I was able and prepared to make that decision, which is why I got what I wanted. It was not a threat, it was the presentation of the inevitable consequence. I just could not participate in the theatre of oppression dressed up as choice. If you put on the chooda, that is your choice, if you refuse, that is blasphemous. I refuse to pretend that is true choice.

True choice is being able to say yes and no. True choice is being able to choose Shivansh, Anjali or Azar, and having those choices accepted the same way.

Family love is subject to how much you toe the line of their control

This noxious web of control permeates so deep and we often say that education is what will get us out of this mindset. But I wonder if that is another one of those delusions we harbour.

My extremely successful, gorgeous, intelligent, divorced friend is relegated to not only marrying, but even dating only within divorced circles.

Someone I know well had to work years at convincing their parents to allow her to marry a “South Indian”.

Almost all of my friends who had inter-faith marriages are estranged from their families over that decision.

The most educated man I know refused to ever see his daughter again unless she left the “poor, low caste” man she married and returned home. She did.

At many points in my life, I’ve had to tell young couples, that the choice they make will be radical either way. They can choose to be together and never go back home again, or they can go back home, and choose not to be together. A pandit at an Arya Samaj Mandir once told me the other choice is to get married first and then beg for acceptance and forgiveness within your family. I’ve had those friends too, but most of them are still waiting for that acceptance, and still wondering if they should be begging forgiveness for their choices.

I want to live in a different version of this country, I really do, but unfortunately I cannot pretend that most of our grandstanding about how much things are changing is announced by a false prophet. As things stand right now, the freedom to make your own choices is bought with total and complete cutting of ties from the family unit, and that’s not easy, it is not even possible for a lot of people. We want to be strong, independent women, I know, but it comes at the price of our families.

Image source: a still from the film Sairat

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About the Author

Aarushi Ahluwalia

Aarushi Ahluwalia is an author, journalist and columnist. She has been covering women's issues and rights for various news organisations throughout her career of almost a decade, and now runs a women's media read more...

11 Posts | 39,300 Views

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