For Nasreen, getting to New Delhi after she ran away from her family and the betrothal they had arranged for her was a daring feat. But surviving there tested her determination.
In the summer, the heat bore down like a steam iron. In the winter, the air pollution was among the worst in the world, clinging to skin and choking lungs. In her family’s flat, she cooked on a stove that added to the heat and smoke. When she could get outside, she had to walk a gantlet of leering men who lined the sidewalks.
Still, she felt it was worth it. Delhi inspired her to dream of a bigger life and connected her to people who could help her reach for it.
Nasreen found a community at the BUDS center, run by a nonprofit aid group, where she studied for the exams she was determined to pass to become her family’s first high-school graduate. Other students offered solidarity in the struggle of being young, poor and female in the city, and a teacher there named Bindu became a mentor and protector.
Nasreen’s father refused to pay for school after she finished 10th grade, but Bindu managed to find a charity to fund most of the remaining fees. Nasreen cleaned houses to scrape together the rest.
“Bindu, she’s my second mother,” Nasreen said. “She has given me everything.”
At BUDS, Nasreen discovered that she had a talent for writing poetry. Her work brimmed with frustration about misogyny and patriarchal limitations.
I am a girl, and if you think I cannot, let me show you that I can, one began.
If you think I am weak, then let my screams tell you my strength.
If you think that I cannot fight for myself, then please leave me and let me touch the heights.
If you think that I am nothing without your support, then please let me rise on my own.
Nasreen began to share her poems publicly, winning some local acclaim.
“If she had been born to a rich family, she would have all the opportunities, because her intellect is very high,” said her mother, Jasmeen. Her eyes welled up with tears. “I feel sad that I have not been able to provide anything to Nasreen.”
But Nasreen still wanted more freedom than her family would permit. After one argument, she said, they deprived her of food for two days.
In those moments, Bindu’s support kept Nasreen going. “She told me, ‘If you need food at all, come to the center, you don’t need to worry about that,’” Nasreen said. “Even if I call her and cry for an hour, she’s there.”
Nasreen knew she needed a way out. But writing poetry could not offer her a steady income, and she was not qualified for professional jobs. She once briefly tried working at a call center but found it so unpleasant and low-paying that she quit after a month.
So she focused her career goals on a field that seemed, to her, more practical: sewing and fashion design. She hoped to open a fashion boutique that would earn enough income to grant her the safety of financial independence.
Then, suddenly, Nasreen saw an opportunity for a different way out, via a path she had never expected: romance.
Aarif was the son of her father’s close friend. He promised that if Nasreen married him and moved to his village in West Bengal, he would help her study and then start the fashion boutique she dreamed of.
Here was the paradox of being a woman in modern India: Sometimes the most direct escape route from the oppression of patriarchy was marriage to a man willing to help challenge that system. A wife could enjoy whatever liberty her husband granted — but he could take it away at any time.
Nasreen knew that the promises of young men were not necessarily bankable currency. But in this case, Aarif’s were backed by a somewhat more reliable guarantee: that of his mother, who had progressive views and also promised to support Nasreen’s dreams.
“She lived in Delhi, and it really changed her mind-set,” Nasreen said of Aarif’s mother. “She’s really supportive of me.”
Nasreen added, “She told me that ‘if your mother doesn’t help you with a fashion design course, I will help you after marriage.’”
Once again, Nasreen was bucking tradition. Marriages in which the bride chooses her partner remain extremely rare in many parts of India. One large-scale study found that less than four percent of brides in northern India chose their spouses.
But the study also noted that increasing numbers of brides reported choosing their spouses with their parents, tracing the outlines of a world in which young women have won enough freedom to stretch the traditional system but not yet enough to break it.
Nasreen and Aarif would not marry without their parents’ permission, but they put heavy pressure on their families to grant it. Aarif’s parents consented immediately.
Nasreen’s parents, however, said no — and tried to arrange a different marriage for her. “They’ve tried to match me up anywhere they could,” she said, but she refused to consider anyone other than Aarif.
To win them over, Aarif found a job in a cloth factory and persuaded his father, who owned two houses in their village, to sell one and buy a plot of land where Nasreen could someday open her boutique. (The name of the shop, she said shyly, would be #Dreams.)
Finally, Nasreen’s parents gave in, and her life changed.
In December, Nasreen emerged from a metro station in central New Delhi a remarkably different figure from the frightened teenager of two years before.
The engagement had placated her parents. And with the support of her fiancé’s family, Nasreen had newfound freedom to dress and act as she chose.
Now, instead of her customary head scarf, her long, dark hair hung exposed, framing dark eye makeup and red lipstick. She wore sparkly earrings and a form-fitting black kurta over jeans with white sandals. In the past, she would have been chaperoned by one of her brothers, but now she traveled alone, in an invisible bubble of permission granted by her faraway fiancé.
She had warned Aarif not to try to restrict her freedom after marriage. “If it comes to my self-respect, I will leave you immediately,” she told him. “Because I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve become Nasreen through a lot of struggle. I’m not going to go back.”
She was proud that Aarif’s parents had set aside the small patch of land for her as mahr, an Islamic symbol of a commitment to marriage. After the wedding, it would belong to her, and Aarif and his family promised to support her studies and her dream to open her shop there.
But a promise is not a guarantee. After the wedding, when Nasreen moves with her new husband to the village in West Bengal where he and his family live, she will be isolated from her support network.
She had sustained herself through the support of other women, including the former landlady who offered her sanctuary when she fled to New Delhi to escape her abusive first engagement, and her teacher Bindu, who encouraged her to finish high school and find her voice as a poet. But she will be starting fresh in an unfamiliar village.
There, she will not have the mobility of life in a big city. Her opportunities to connect with other young married women, away from the gaze of elders, will be limited by conservative village norms. And even if her future husband and his family keep their promises to support her career, any entrepreneurial venture is risky. A village boutique will have a limited market.
In June, a fire tore through her Delhi apartment building. She and her family managed to escape, but their home and possessions were destroyed, including all the gifts and money her parents had gathered for the wedding. With their Delhi life reduced to ashes, her family plans to return to the village she fled years ago. If Nasreen is not yet married, they will expect her to go with them.
But Nasreen, whose extraordinary ability to escape other people’s demands and expectations has gotten her this far, is trying to stay optimistic about her future. She remains determined to marry Aarif early next year.
Her dreams continue to pour out in her poetry.
If you think you can stop me with your anger, then please notice kindness is not my nature. I am soft but not weak.
And please stop imposing rules on my dreams. I was born to fly, not to stand next to you.
Dear world, I am a girl. Your approval is not needed.
I am a girl, and if you think that I cannot, let me show you that I can.