You're in school. Higher secondary, or in the first year of college. Still in your teens. Your parents decide it's time.
You're swaddled in red or white. Maybe you wish someone would put a stop to this. But no one will. You are 18. It's properly legal. It’s so legal that chief ministers have been using up public money to create a little fund, preparing for this day; so that your parents can spend it on clothes and food and a little something for the groom.
You are 18 and locked into a room with a stranger. And it won't matter whether you say “yes” or “no” or “not yet”, for God's sake! It will most likely not be a boy of your own age. The law mandates that the boy be older, at least 21. That you should be equals in body and life experience, is not seen as desirable.
No one says "Stop"! Not the cops, not the law courts. Certainly not the chief minister. You are a girl of 18 and fit to – expected to – take responsibility for running the world. You cook, clean and fetch water. You are expected to relieve yourself indoors, with or without running water, since the national governments are squeamish about the fact of your body.
At 18, you are expected to bear children, keep them healthy and craft a judicious citizenry. You are expected not to die in the process. At 22, you can renounce the world. At 13, you can stop eating food. That's not illegal. At 18, you are expected to be sensible of human, civic, democratic rights. At 25, you can enter Parliament and make laws that govern the land. When you take an oath to uphold the Constitution, you are expected to be equal to this task.
But at 25, you are not deemed fit to choose the man you sleep with or your personal divinity. Indian girls and women, never let yourself forget – the men who rule your nation think you are old enough for sex and childbirth at 18, only as long as you don't get to choose your mate.
There was a time they thought it was okay to have you handed over to a stranger at 12; the law did not see it fit to impose an upper age limit for the groom they picked out. They married you off at eight, or nine, or 12, or 14, or 18, because they wanted to pre-empt you making your own choice.
There are polite ways of saying it: That they are tradition-bound. That they did their best for you. That life is hard and match-making complicated. That they want you to be safe and the neighbourhood is rough. That you don't know enough about the world. But under the polite veneer remains the hard, cold diamond of truth – they want you stripped of choice. The corollary sounds worse: they want you to have sex as per their command. If it sounds ugly, it is.
Since I am not feeling polite these days, I will put in it simple words: this is slavery. A person who does not get to choose her/his sexual mate is a slave.
Slavery. This word sits hidden between other words like capability, sanity, influence, family, guardians, morality. Learn to read the word in a law which requires you to declare your intention to marry in court well before you actually do – so your keepers have time enough to hunt you down, rein you in, strike down your desire. Learn to see the word in the pockets of the uniformed cop, who calls your parents against your wishes, when you are out exercising your choice. Learn to read that word in the eyes of the panchayat. Learn to recognise it between the lines of your schoolbooks as you sit in segregated classrooms. Read it on medical forms.
If you want to choose a mate, you are not deemed old enough at 25, or 35, or 45. They will first speak of your youth and inexperience. Then they will hold you ransom at the altar of community pride, or residential building association 'decency'. Finally, they will shame you for wanting to mate at all. You will never be too old or too young to be raped. But you will never be old enough to decide. When sheer force fails, they will indoctrinate you by saying that you don't understand your own desires. With a judicious mix of fear and shame, you will be taught to obey. Make no mistake. They are training you for slavery.
They thought they had you. It took two millennia for them to be able to pull off a slavery-like system where we turned against each other, anxious for our masters' approval. Now they are raging mad. They have been forced to take a step back over the last 150 years. They are showing you your place and your place involves shackles. On your skin, your lips, your womb.
They will use fists and weapons and your own ignorance against you. They will use the law where possible. They will use murder when nothing else works. They already do. You, Indian girls and women, have been lulled into thinking you could opt out of systemic slavery. At this moment in time, perhaps you can still choose. About tomorrow, I cannot say.