Do not fall in love with somebody who does not belong to our caste. Of all the rules I had to follow as a girl, this was the most important.
I was born in a small town in Haryana, India. I was taught to be obedient and to say yes to everything my parents asked me to do. This three letter word defined my life.
The day I reached puberty, the perspective of people around me suddenly changed. It started with people telling me not to play with boys anymore. I said yes, I won’t play because I want to be an obedient girl. This yes followed me like a ghost everywhere, every day. But my soul never agreed.
Relatives would advise my parents to lock me inside the house to show me my right place in the kitchen. They never forgot to remind me that I could not even think of a marriage built on love. Family friends would advise my parents to quickly have me married so that I would not be their responsibility anymore.
I live in a state where the ratio of girls to boys is 873 females for every 1,000 males. This is the result of parents illegally determining the sex of the baby in the womb and aborting if it’s a girl. I live in a state where “honor killing” is widespread. I grew up reading stories in newspapers about parents who killed their own children to protect their honor. And I belong to a caste that has always valued protecting the community and traditions over a family member’s feelings, emotions, and decisions.
Whenever I tried to gather the courage to say no, I was labeled stubborn and disobedient. The girls around me were saying yes. The only rebels I remember who said no to their parents were outcast by society, their friends, and even their families. I wanted to be the best girl and a good example. Eventually, I became a “yes girl.”
But as I got older, my soul battled with that yes. I started to listen and say no. No rewarded me with some of the best things in my life: my graduation, my job and my independent life miles away from home. But I knew there was still one hard rule I could never break: Do not fall in love with somebody who does not belong to our caste.
The more you fear something, the bigger it appears in your life. Eventually, my worst nightmare came true—I fell in love, and the man of my dreams was from the wrong caste.
When I met him, I was still meeting boys for an arranged marriage because I wanted to be the yes girl and follow the rule book. That feeling of being in a stranger’s house where you are being judged still scares me. Sometimes the mother would touch me because she wanted to check my skin and hair. Those meetings were nothing less than a terrifying flea market.
I was 23 when I met my soul mate. I could see he had so much love in his heart and support for my ambitions. But my mind would never fail to remind me of the consequences of even thinking of us being together.
I was afraid I was inviting chaos and breaking my parent’s hearts, that I was risking my own life. What I wanted is the most beautiful feeling on this planet: love. And it’s what I deserve.
It’s not that my parents didn’t love me. But, I think they had learned to love that “yes girl.” My soul mate was the first person who ever asked me, “What is your dream?” I had no answer. I didn’t know I was allowed to have a dream. And if I had a dream, I didn’t know I could talk openly about it.
With that one question, my inner soul cried tears of joy. My soul was yelling, say yes to him. After a long two-year battle between my soul and my head, I finally said yes to marriage, knowing that this yes would mean saying no to my family and community.
I somehow collected my strength and broke the news to my family. I still remember the moment I told them. The lights in the room started flickering. I was scared to death because I couldn’t even see their reaction. I was preparing myself to be hit. My heart still races when I think of those fearful flickering minutes of my life.
My parents didn’t hit me. Instead, they warned me that they would go and kill him. I answered, “You need to kill me first.” They put me under house arrest and would not allow me to go back to work. Every day I would wake up to the words that their biggest mistake in life was to educate me. This hurt deeply. Every hour of every day, I would negotiate. “Please let me go back to my job,” I’d say. “My professional life has nothing to do with my personal life.”
One day, after promising that I loved them and would never do anything to bring them shame, my family finally allowed me to leave. I was back to work, thankful to God that I was in one piece, but filled with so many fearful thoughts.
This battle to get one yes from my parents went on for four more years. They stopped talking to me. They warned me that they would disown me if I married him. Every time they threatened or warned me, I would leave everything and travel two days by train just to hug them and tell them I loved them. They fired every warning and threat at me that they could.
I felt hurt every single time and felt like giving up on them. But I believed they loved me, and they just needed to believe that they would be okay and society would also be OK if I married the man I love. My soul mate joined me in showering love on my parents. He started sending them flowers and cards with handwritten notes.
It took four years, but this one no to my parents has changed my life completely. My parents finally said yes. Because my parents finally supported me, society followed.
Now, everyone accepts us. So many people tell me they have never met such an outstanding person as the man I love. Our wedding was the most joyful wedding in our family. We have opened the doors for all my sisters and friends. They now know that it’s okay to get married to the one you love.
There are laws now against honor killing in our state, but do you think those laws are what stopped my family from killing me? No. It’s the love and support of people around us that allowed our family to take a bold step and be an example for others. We need to say no to societal laws and yes to implementing governmental laws.
My story changed completely the day I said no to the environment I grew up in; the day I said no to all my worst fears; the day I said no to an arranged life partner and yes to my life. If every single girl learns to stand up for herself and say no to what she doesn’t feel is right for her future—the whole dynamics of her future can change.
Upasana Chauhan is a contributor from India. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.