Interview by Tanvi Koduru
*Trigger Warning(s): Abuse and infidelity*
Name: Aruna Theeniru
City of Birth: Warangal, India
City you currently reside in: Hyderabad, India
// Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood?
When I was young, I went to school every day. I lived with my parents and my three other siblings. At age six, I saw the financial problems my parents faced. [I] worked hard at school in the hopes that I could improve their living standards.
// How did society treat you?
When I was with my family and friends, I felt happy, but the outside world call[ed] us padhavalu –– which means poor people. When I began understanding that I was poor, it was clear to me that I had to work hard to help my family.
// What was it like growing up as a woman in Warangal?
The culture was nice. My friends and cousins lived together harmoniously. I didn’t enjoy being a woman for too long because child marriage does occur. I was forced into getting married when I was too young. When girls become women, they are usually subjected to getting married in my society.
// What happens if they don’t listen or want to get married?
I remember a girl in my village was studying in the hopes of becoming a doctor. She was in 11th grade, and a boy had been harassing her to marry him for three years. One day, the girl was sitting in an auto, and it stopped at a traffic signal. The boy threw acid on her, and she died instantly. These types of things keep happening, but they have become a little less common. These are real fears we face when we refuse to get married.
// Can you think of a time you felt particularly aware of your gender and how it led you to be treated?
I think the times when I felt most aware of my gender were when I became a teenager. We were being groomed and told that our job was to get married and be a wife. Our job was basically to be dependent on our husbands and become housewives. Unlike boys, we weren’t taught about independence and being self-sufficient.
// Can you tell me about your marriage?
When I was 16, I got married. I didn’t want to get married, but I have two younger sisters and a younger brother. We don’t have a lot of money. If I was married into another family, [then] some of the financial burden[s] would be taken off my parents. So, they wanted me to get married. When I was 15, a lot of boys came to meet with me to see me and potentially get married to me. It was very annoying. At 16, one boy came and told my parents he thought I was pretty and wanted to marry me. I didn’t want to get married at all, but they forced me to. I couldn’t say no or run away because my parents and family would be ashamed of it.
// What is your husband like?
He was 22 when we got married. The first time I spoke to him was the morning after the wedding. Three months after the wedding, I was pregnant. When my daughter was born, we traveled to a famous temple called Tirupati. Many people go here after they are married or after their child is born to bring good to their lives. This is an expensive trip; it wasn’t easy to save up enough money to go. At Tirupati, it is a religious tradition to shave your head. A lot of people do it out of love and devotion to our gods. My mother-in-law made an offer to god when I got pregnant. She said that if it was I had a girl, she and I would shave our heads. I didn’t agree to this but since she said it, I had to do it. I really didn’t have a say in my life. I know it was just hair, but it was so long and beautiful. I had no control over what happened to it.
// What happened when you came back?
After we came back from Tirupati, my husband felt I looked unattractive with my head shaved, and he started having an affair. During this time, he and his mother yelled and fought with me a lot. They felt that I wasn’t a good enough wife and that I wasn’t treating his older siblings properly. His siblings were almost 20 years older than me. I didn’t really have much to speak to them about, and I am very shy. I was disrespected and verbally abused.
// I’m so sorry that happened to you. How did the household tensions progress over the next few years?
The abuse never really stopped. It just became something I had to learn to live with. Two years later, my daughter got sick, but we didn’t have the money to take her to the hospital. My husband worked as a construction worker and didn’t make much money. He asked his mother for money, but she refused to give it to him. She said that she wouldn’t give him any money. She didn’t care if he killed himself, and he got drunk and hung himself. I was the one that found him this way, and it was terrifying. Apparently, you’re not supposed to cut someone who has hung themself down, but I did. The cops came to the house. Even at this point, when I was in tears and my husband had just died, my mother-in-law tried to blame his death on me. She kicked me out of the house the next day.
I was alone with a baby and a mother-in-law that had nothing but hatred for me. Religiously we are not allowed to go to our parents’ house for three months after a spouse's death, so I slept at the temple. It was uncomfortable and exhausting, but the priest took me in. It was better than sleeping on the streets. At this point in my life, I realized how much I had given up and hoped that something like this would never happen to other girls.
// If you could go back in time when you were dealing with that struggle, what would you tell yourself?
Think positively. It is hard right now to do so, but the only way you can come out of this is if you stay positive about the future. Don’t think about what has gone wrong. Think about what you can do going forward that will keep you happy. Widows are told not to wear bangles or bindis. They are told there is no reason to look nice because they have nothing to live for. Society tells us we have to look sad and emotionless. All I say is to be happy. You can only come out of the bad stuff if you look forward to the good stuff.
// If you could tell society anything about the way they treat women, what would you say?
In life, girls have to reach their goals before they get married. It’s not as if I didn’t know that before my wedding, but I didn’t know how to fight for my own freedom. If you want to live in this society, you have to be really strong to survive it. There is a lot of bad energy in this world, and you have to be strong enough to face it. This society also needs to change. The boys need to change the way they treat women. The government needs to change the way they prosecute sex offenders and criminals because they let them get away with a lot of crimes. We need to change the fact that we still have a caste system. When we are making friends, we don’t look at caste. So why do we do it when we are discussing who we love and will potentially marry? It’s not healthy.
// What would you say you are most passionate about/are interested in/enjoy doing?
I really enjoy dancing and music. I also like to go out with my family and play with my daughter. I am passionate about becoming an Indian Information Service Officer. I am currently working during the time that I would like to attend school, but I am hoping to save up enough money to pay for my classes.
// Do you have any advice for girls who are also trying to realize their power and empower themselves and how should they practice that in their daily life?
It’s tough to give advice to women who are in the same situation as me because we are trapped. Our society needs to change first in order for them to empower themselves. I feel empowered when I help other people. I feel empowered when my parents try to convince my sisters to get married and I fight them on it. My sister is just 15; it is too soon for her. I am a perfect example of that. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to her.
// Who taught you the importance of empowerment?
I had to teach it to myself. I’m not sure our society teaches empowerment to women. We really focus on giving men power in our world. We don’t teach this to women because we don’t think they need to be empowered. We think they need to be dependent. I learned after my marriage ended that I needed to be strong for my daughter and for myself. I learned that if I wasn’t empowered, I would be nothing.
// Why do you think empowerment is important to you as an individual?
It is important to be empowered so we can save ourselves from our own problems. Having an empowered mindset allows you to live freely and the way you want.
// Why do you enjoy and appreciate being a woman and experiencing “girlhood?”
I did not enjoy the process of girlhood. I barely had any freedom to make my own decisions. I was robbed of my childhood because of my child marriage. If I hadn’t gotten married so young, I would have studied and become something. I see my daughter now experiencing girlhood, and I can see how important it is to empower poor women at a young age with the confidence they need to achieve their goals.
// How can the international community help you and your community in a legitimate way? Is there anything you’d like us to know so we can share it with our Global Girlhood community?
The international community can help my community by helping empower girls who are widows at such a young age. Having a safe house where they can go and rest. Have meetings in order to discuss their future and be reminded that they have one. Doing this will help a lot of them avoid being forced into prostitution. I was able to avoid this because my family was always there for me. I was never threatened or harmed, but a lot of women are. They need help. - GGH
CONNECTIVITY CONTRIBUTORS REACTIONS
After hearing this story, I learned that women are still being looked down upon all over the world and are still expected to live up to the expectation of obeying a man, and how our voices have no say. We have fought for women's rights for years and they are still not being respected around the world, women are still being bashed and abused in their households and marriages. Mental and physical abuse is still occurring with women, making them afraid to speak up. I saw a similarity between me and Aruna in our drive to help our families out of poverty and our passion for working hard in school. My family works hard every day to provide for us and put food on the table. I continue to work hard in school so that I can make my family proud and, hopefully, one day be able to support them financially as well. I also saw myself in Aruna, when she said that the outside world labelled her “padhavalu” which means poor person. Our society today puts labels on people of different classes. My family being labelled ‘low income’ was upsetting for me as well. Being ‘low income’ does not make us lesser than anyone else. Aruna and I both believe in the power of positivity as well. When she said “Don’t think about what has gone wrong, think about what you can do going forward that will keep you happy,” that resonated with me. Aruna inspires me in many ways, moved me by how strong she is, and by how she pushed forward for herself and her daughter. She taught herself what empowerment means, and how important it is to have an empowered mindset because it allows us to live freely and the way that we want since society doesn’t teach us this. Aruna’s interview motivated me to keep fighting for women's rights and spread awareness about stories like her’s so that these women can receive recognition and have their voices heard. There are hundreds of women being wronged worldwide in this way worldwide, and we need to keep fighting and spreading the word around to bring about change.