Chapter 2: Chasing Dreams at a Steep Cost

As Nasreen Parveen ran, her mind focused on nothing but putting one foot in front of the other.


Occasionally, for the briefest flash, she remembered the high window ledge and her decision not to jump. That she was alive because she wanted to take her life back rather than to end it. Which meant that right now, Nasreen had only one task on which to focus: escaping before her family realized she was gone.

Vicious feral dogs barked in the distance. If there’s one of them on the path, I’m dead, she thought.

Finally, after more than four miles of running on torn, blistered feet, Nasreen reached the bus station. From there, a bus brought her to a train station in the nearest city. Staring at the ticket counter, Nasreen could think of only one place to go: New Delhi, India’s capital, where she had lived with her family.

She had memories of the city from childhood. But going there now would mean arriving alone, with no home to go to.

What else could she do?


Nasreen had left home to escape the trap of a violent arranged engagement. But she, like millions of other young Indian women, was still caught in a far bigger trap.

Alice Evans, a senior lecturer at King’s College London, studies why some countries have made huge gains in gender equality over the past century while others, including India and many in the Middle East, have remained more patriarchal.

One explanation is what she calls the patrilineal trap. In societies that place a high premium on “family honor” — which depends on female members’ chastity outside marriage — families are reluctant to allow their unmarried daughters to do anything that might make them seem less chaste than their peers. That includes working outside the home or traveling to other cities for secondary education, both of which create opportunities for unsupervised contact with men.

Even many families that would like their daughters to continue their education or get jobs are afraid of the reputational cost of being the first to try.

Nasreen’s family often worries about her walking in Delhi because of the many men on the streets.Credit…Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

In many countries, Dr. Evans said, the patrilineal trap breaks when the economy industrializes and more young women move to cities to take jobs. But that requires women’s wages to be high enough to be worth the reputational risk. And in India, economic growth has remained largely concentrated in small, family-owned firms; industries where people have precarious, informal jobs; or factories that rarely employ women. Although the country has its share of tech unicorns and other companies that have created salaried jobs, those have tended to cluster in a few large cities.

As a result, kinship networks are an important source of income, jobs and social support. And because a family that is perceived as dishonored can find itself ousted from that broader network of blood and marriage ties, the perceived cost of allowing a daughter to risk her reputation can seem too high to bear.

Even women who have jobs often quit as soon as their families can do without the income. The percentage of women in India’s work force has dropped sharply since 2005, to 23.5 percent last year; the country now has one of the lowest rates of formal employment for women in the world. Only about one in five Indian women have paid jobs. In China, that rate is more than twice as high.

That has limited India’s pool of productive workers, which has hampered economic growth.

Nasreen working in her family’s kitchen. As she studied for her high school diploma, she also rose early to complete household chores such as ironing her father’s shirts and cooking lunch for her brothers.Credit…Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

In neighboring Bangladesh, economic growth and per capita income have surged — progress that economists attribute, in significant part, to the country’s greater success in getting women into paid work.

“Every month, I read a statistic somewhere about how our G.D.P. is losing out because we don’t have ‘productive workers’ in the work force, and by that they mean women,” said Shrayana Bhattacharya, an economist at the World Bank and the author of a book about Indian women’s struggle for independence, intimacy and respect in a patriarchal culture.


When her train arrived in New Delhi in the late morning, Nasreen could think of only one person who could help: Nazreen Malik, her family’s former landlady, a kind woman who used to take her on outings to the vegetable market.

To Nasreen’s great relief, Ms. Malik still lived in the same apartment in Kashmere Gate, a neighborhood tucked against a wall of Delhi’s ancient fortifications. She recognized Nasreen immediately and took her in. Over the following weeks, she helped Nasreen negotiate a release from the engagement, partly by threatening to file a police report against her fiancé’s family.

But Nasreen, by not only running away from the engagement her family had chosen for her but also speaking out about the abuse she had suffered, had created bad blood between her nuclear family and the broader network of relatives that formed their community in the village.

Nasreen’s maternal grandmother, mother and brothers moved to Delhi. The family told Nasreen that they had decided to make up for the shoddy treatment they had shown her in Bengal by supporting her efforts to return to school. She believed them, but she also knew that was not the only reason.

For a time, it seemed as if her parents had accepted their new life in Delhi. They rented a three-room apartment, and Nasreen’s father returned from overseas and began driving an auto-rickshaw. Nasreen enrolled in an educational program run by a local women’s empowerment charity, known by the acronym BUDS, and worked toward becoming the first in her family to complete high school.

Nasreen enrolled in an educational program run by BUDS, the local women’s empowerment charity.Credit…Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

But every tiny success required a battle against her parents’ fears about her reputation, and their own. They worried about letting Nasreen leave the house alone, lest a sexual assault jeopardize not just her safety but her marriageability. They worried about letting her get a job or study for a career because people might think that the men in the family were failing to fulfill their proper roles as providers.

The family’s position was too precarious to take economic risks.

When the coronavirus pandemic started, life became even more difficult. As people quarantined at home, demand for auto-rickshaw rides declined, and her father stopped working as much. At the same time, anti-Muslim sentiment and violence were growing. Although Nasreen’s family, who are Muslim, were never victims of sectarian violence, the increasing reports of attacks in the city made her parents nervous about staying in Delhi. The family began to plan for one of her brothers to follow her father’s footsteps and work in the Gulf, and to discuss returning to the village in West Bengal.

Meanwhile, Nasreen’s cousin and his family began pressuring Nasreen’s family to rekindle the engagement. Her parents — perhaps hoping to keep their options open about returning to the village — eventually agreed, then pressured Nasreen into accepting.

Every success for Nasreen has required a battle against her parents’ fears about her reputation, and their own.Credit…Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

She immediately regretted the decision. Nasreen’s fiancé began to stalk her remotely, she said, demanding that she tell him where she was at all times and forbidding her from participating in ordinary activities. If she failed to conform to his exacting demands, he would verbally abuse her over the phone, frequently changing numbers so she could not block his calls.

“‘I have your Delhi address. I can come, and I can do anything,’” she said he told her. “He said, ‘I’ll throw acid on your face, I’ll ruin your life and everything.’”

To escape a second time, Nasreen secretly recorded her fiancé’s threats. Once she had gathered enough material, she played it for her parents. “If this is how he is treating me before marriage, what will he do after marriage?” she asked. Finally, they agreed to break off the engagement for good.

But Nasreen still quarreled with her family. After one fight, she said, her family punished her by locking her in a dark room alone for hours. Desperately afraid of the dark, she felt as if she was suffocating. In a panic, she cut deep slashes in both wrists, leaving permanent scars.

“There were times when I felt like ending my life or running away,” she said. “But I stopped because my parents would have had to answer a lot of people and a lot of questions. I didn’t want to give them that burden.”

She had relied on her wits and will to get out of the violent engagement. Now, she felt she needed to find a way out of her family’s stifling control.

Bhumika Saraswati, Nikita Jain and Andrea Bruce contributed reporting.

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