Just an hour before her scheduled wedding in July, 22-year old Chennaiite Janathulla Firdose successfully staged an intervention that prevented it from happening. She had been engaged against her will to her maternal uncle. Undaunted, she lodged a complaint with the All Women Police Station in Puzhal against her parents and the groom’s other relatives, and circulated a video detailing how she felt about being forced to get married. The police showed up on the appointed date, and the event was called off.
I looked askance at the tone of some of the reports on this incident, which highlighted the police’s efforts, including how they “convinced” the woman’s parents and gave her further advice on her future. This is real life, not Brooklyn Nine-Nine. There are good people who happen to be cops, certainly, but law enforcement as an institution has been responsible for a great deal of harm. The institution doesn’t need a PR favour – especially when an incident isn’t even about them.
Ms. Firdose is the hero of her own story. It wasn’t that the police rescued her as much as that she rescued herself by reaching out, taking a risk and finding the resources she needed. That her escape seemed unusual enough to draw attention says something about how rarely we feel we can do what she did – ask for help, and be supported by services and systems. Even where our rights are technically protected, to actually take a further step and exercise them takes gumption. Part of this comes from a warranted distrust of institutions, but most of it comes from knowledge of systemic and public apathy or complicity. Imagine if every person being forced into a marriage, as well as every person being pressured out of a relationship, felt assured that they could rely on legal rights and human decency to protect them.
I wonder: would the police – or indeed, anyone – still have intervened if the video had not contained a threat of suicide? Generally speaking, beyond this single case: could someone reaching out and simply stating that she did not consent to a marriage have stirred the same reaction? Mostly, “well-wishers” may counsel the complainant about respecting their elders, the exciting possibilities that come with marriage, or how they are too young to know what’s good for them. All this probably happened in this case as well, prior to the video and the police involvement, but fortunately, she didn’t cave.
“I thought sports would be my ticket to a job and avoiding marriage,” Kamalpreet Kaur, Indian discus-throwing Olympian, told the press this week. It is wonderful to see more women speaking out openly about how they do not want to succumb to marital pressure, and about the choices they made to stay true to themselves. Stories like these are footpaths that cut through the grass, away from the paved track. Someone else who needs to break away sees a possible alternate trajectory for themselves. Gradually, the landscape changes as the new path becomes more well-worn. It becomes easier to traverse, and there are footprints – and maybe even friends – that make it less lonely, even if (for some) ultimately solitary.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 5th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.