India's Girl Problem: One Woman's Fight Against Tradition

Varsha hopes education will be her exit ticket from a life of service.

More than 600 students pack in a classroom to get math tutoring for an upcoming college entrance exam in Patna. The competition to get into college is fierce with many students hoping to escape poverty, and women are increasingly railing against societal expectations to join their ranks. Scott Eells/Redux

In her new book, The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India's Young, Somini Sengupta, a former New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times, explores today's India through portraits of seven young people who, despite many obstacles, aspire to mobility and opportunity. Here, Newsweek excerpts the story of Varsha, a high school student and daughter of a laundryman.

The Land of And Yet

Saturday night, suburban Gurgaon, 20 miles southwest of New Delhi. The sky turns from blue to black, the burnt-toast smell of fireworks blows across the ravine, and tall, broad-shouldered Varsha hauls a hot-coal iron over the shimmering finery of others.

Quietly, quickly, she presses the wrinkles out of a brushed pink chiffon salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian outfit of loose trousers and a tunic top, followed by three button-up white dress shirts. Her cellphone trills. "Yes, didi [sister]. It's almost ready. Send your driver in 10 minutes."

Didi is a customer with a wedding to attend, perhaps several, since it is wedding season. Firecrackers begin to boom-snap in the distance. They will go on past midnight. It is Varsha's job to make sure didis don't show up to their parties all rumpled.

And so she presses their clothes, places them on hangers, one after the other, racing against the clock. Left hand on cloth, right hand on iron, she removes every crease, every wrinkle. If only she could press away her worries this way, I think.

Varsha, at 17, every bit the dreamer. She was born to a family of modest means, to a community of dhobis, washermen whose ritual occupation is to clean other people's dirty clothes. The advent of washing machines has tweaked the caste norms. Dhobis have become press-wallahs. They take rumpled piles of machine-washed clothes, press them, fold them and return them to their owners.

Varsha wants to rise. She aspires to go to college and to one day be financially independent. She dreams of being a cop, gold stars on her shoulders, capable of protecting herself from the louts out there who harass and abuse girls. This desire becomes all the more urgent after her country is roiled by the gang rape of a young woman in late 2012.

In her head, day and night, she hears a hot, impatient voice: I am not bound by my past. I make me.

Varsha's ambitions alternately bemuse her father and make him sick with worry. There is no chance of her becoming a cop, as far as he is concerned. By the time she is 20, he intends to find her a husband—from a good family, of course from the same caste, with a capacity to earn and to protect his child.

Varsha regards her papa as her ally, but he is also her obstacle. He loves her, but he also sabotages her. He too wants her to break free of her past—but not too much. She keeps pushing the bounds, and he has to figure out how far to let her go.

Varsha is one among many in this situation. Across India, where for centuries a life's possibilities were circumscribed by the caste into which you were born, housemaids, sharecroppers and bricklayers are sending their children to school like never before. In primary school, there is almost universal enrollment, and for the first time in the country's history, girls are as likely to be enrolled in primary school as boys. On every reporting trip across India, I am struck by this remarkable shift, and when I ask their mothers why they bother, I hear answers as vague as this: I will educate my daughter because I want her life to be different from mine.

The stakes are higher now than ever before. Shortly after 2022, India is expected to surpass China and become the world's most populous nation. In India, the median age in 2015 was 27. (In China, the comparable figure was 35; in the United States, 37.) The freedom that was promised in 1947, when India won its independence from British rule, quietly settled in the Indian imagination. Democracy has anchored itself in the minds of India's young. It speaks to the triumph of an audacious idea.

A million young men and women turn 18 every month. They go out in search of work and dignity. They push their leaders to deliver.

And yet.

India is the land of And Yet. Ramachandra Guha, the leading historian of modern India, calls India a "50-50 democracy." I take this to mean that it works about as well as it doesn't.

By 2030, India is projected to reach its demographic sweet spot. That's when the majority of its population will be working age, with a relatively small share of children and elderly to care for. But India's demographic challenge is complicated by one peculiarity: According to the 2011 census, for every 1,000 boys born, there are only 919 girls. This represents the sharpest gender imbalance in India's history—one measure of the country's steady degradation of daughters that starts in the womb. This degradation is also the source of turmoil, as young women begin to push, in great numbers, against the rules and ways that hold them back. The more they push, the more violently they are pushed back, often by men as young and hungry as they are.

And this is the tension that prevails in India. Today's youth are a tipping-point generation that makes new demands on India's democracy in at least three important ways: genuine equality of opportunity, dignity for girls and civil liberties for all. It pushes India to keep its promise.

Aspiration is like water. It needs a place to go, or else it drowns everything in its path.

Geeta, right, who has been ostracized for working at a meat-processing factory in defiance of the village elders' decision that no women should hold a job, walks down an unfriendly street in Peepli Khera, India, on June 27, 2015. The Indian Constitution guarantees equality under the law, but for women facing a patriarchal social order, strict caste rules and centuries of traditions, that guarantee means little. Andrea Bruce/The New York Times/Redux

Her Exit Ticket

Varsha's father, Madan Mohan, is a pioneer in Gurgaon. He moves to the new city in 1998. Varsha is a baby then, and Gurgaon is too. The very first suburban villas come up. A smattering of gated communities are under construction. In the pressing business, location is everything. And being first in this emerging suburb gives Madan Mohan a chance to corner the market early. He establishes a press stand, which is no more than a flat piece of tin held up by four sturdy bamboo poles.

Madan Mohan is sure of one thing about the dhobi business. He wants none of his children to inherit it. Nor does he want his daughters to marry into it. A dhobi's wife must work all day, standing over a hot iron, which means that by the time she gets home, she is too tired to do much housework. A woman is better off staying in the house, in his view, looking after the children. And anyway, a dhobi's work is neither easy nor valued. You work outside all day—in the heat, in the rain, in the cold. And at the end of it, he says, a greedy developer can come and toss you out.

"I have been pressing clothes all my life," he says. "The main thing I want for my children is that they do something better." It is a bland answer to a bland question about his hopes for Varsha, but it fills Varsha's eyes with tears to hear her father speak this way. She turns around and buries her head in his shoulder, which catches him by surprise. He awkwardly pats her on the back.

When Varsha is 6, he finds a school for her. It is ideal for his purposes. It is nearby. It costs nothing. And classes are held in afternoons, which means Varsha can help her mother in the mornings and then go to school.

What a boon it turns out to be for Varsha. The school is run by a charity. And the reason it holds classes in the afternoons is that it borrows space from one of the posh private schools serving Gurgaon's privileged. In the morning come the children of bankers and ad executives. In the afternoon stream in the children of dhobis and drivers. The school is blessed with all the things that the neighborhood government-run school lacks: tables and chairs, educational posters on the walls, teachers who show up. Classes are conducted in English. Varsha loves it.

School becomes her refuge. It is where she can prove her mettle. It is where she finds beauty, in song and dance and poetry. School becomes her exit ticket from the press stand.

By the time Varsha is 14 (which was when I first met her), in the winter of 2010, she and her mother do most of the pressing. Her younger sisters, Neetu and Megha, pick up and deliver. Badal, the first son in the family, born after three daughters, mostly plays. The baby suckles at his mummy's breast.

Varsha juggles the pressing among her many other obligations. It falls on her to roll chapatis [flatbread] every evening, dozens of them, one after the other—and so many do they all eat, she says, her family of seven, that by the time she is done, she has little energy left for homework. She worries about exams. She worries about the useless government school where Badal and Megha are enrolled. She worries about a useless boy she likes, who has no ambition to speak of, but whom she talks to quietly on her cellphone every night. She worries that if she keeps on with it, there will be terrible consequences. "Papa will kill me," she says.

Varsha's father takes his responsibilities seriously. He tries to protect her from harm. At the same time, he is the chief enforcer of the very traditions that circumscribe her dreams. He keeps putting up fences around her. He keeps stopping her from becoming who she can be.

Varsha is a child in an impossible situation. She has gulped the Kool-Aid of aspirational India. Deep inside, she believes she can make something of herself. She is convinced school is her best exit strategy. And so she has risen to all its demands: studied, scored well on the critical exams, become captain of the girls volleyball team. She has risen to the demands of family too: hung towels to dry, helped with dinner, made sure her siblings do their homework, made sure Mummy takes her medicines and smoothed out crease after crease after crease. Not a child and still a child.

I get Varsha. She is like so many girls I have known. Obedient and dutiful, we keep our heads down and do as we're told. We mostly follow the rules, but we dream of escape. Despair catches us when we least expect it, and we wonder why.

Do Not Defy

Varsha grows into a young woman at a time when the safety of women and girls takes center stage in the public life of her country. It fills her father with foreboding, and he tries to rein her in even more. And it makes her all the more determined to become a cop. It suits her personality, she tells me. It's true. She's bossy—in a really good way. Fearless and tough. A girl born to more privilege might be described as a leader.

Varsha's father is pleased with her progress at school, but not always. He worries she is becoming too independent. "She is growing wings," he complains to her school principal, Raji Nambissan. "She's talking back."

He also tells the principal what happened to his niece who got too much schooling, went off to college and fell in love with a boy from another caste. The girl ran away and eloped with him. It caused a scandal in the family.

Nambissan, an unflappable woman with nearly three decades of experience in dealing with parents of many varieties, tells me there is little she can do to change the minds of men like Varsha's father. Education is a double-edged sword for men like him, she says. They want their girls to be educated, but they don't want their girls to think for themselves. Nambissan takes pains to point out that this applies not just to Varsha's class of poor people. It is also true of her own, more privileged social class.

"Choop raho ghar-pay. That's the attitude," she says. It literally means "be quiet at home," which also means: do not defy. "I call it a civilized way of slavery," the principal continues. "They're ready to give exposure to education. But there's a limit. They don't want them to argue."

Nambissan is not starry-eyed. This is what I most like about her. She says the school tries its best to arm its students with basic skills to survive in the modern economy—chiefly, the ability to communicate in English. Most of these kids want to graduate from college, but Nambissan knows they will need much more. A college degree is no guarantee of a steady paycheck for most Indians of Varsha's generation.

Nambissan is convinced they will need to learn a marketable trade, which is not part of the formal school curriculum. A few of them, perhaps a handful of the truly gifted kids, will triumph academically, she says. Not many.

So what about Varsha? I ask. Nambissan is blunt. Varsha is a hard worker, she tells me, but she is not intellectually exceptional. She is a leader, but also a hothead. In the end, Nambissan says, her fate depends on what her father has in store for her—and how hard she pushes back.

Nambissan's school does not nurture idle dreams. So when Varsha first tells her teachers she wants to be a psychologist, as a way to help women like her mother, her teachers discourage her. Too much math, they warn, too much studying. You won't be able to manage, they say.

For a while, Varsha wants to be a dancer. "My heart's dream is to be a dancer" is how she puts it. "I forget that dream. My father won't allow it."

It becomes a pattern. A burst of ambition. A splash of cold water. A new burst of ambition. Kindly adjust. Tamp down your dreams.

"First, Papa said no to college," she says quietly. "Then my feelings also changed." The policewoman idea is sealed into her brain after she and Papa listen to a speech by one of Gurgaon's assistant police commissioners, a woman who describes growing up in a mud house in a village, studying hard for the police service exam, rising up the ranks. Varsha thinks: If she can do it, why can't I? She looks over at Papa. She sees that he is applauding enthusiastically when the policewoman finishes speaking. He is beaming.

But when she broaches the idea of taking the Indian Police Service examination, Papa is the opposite of beaming. No way, he tells her. How would he find a husband for her? Imagine. A daughter-in-law packing a pistol! No respectable family would allow that.

Female commuters travel inside the women's compartment of a suburban train while heading towards Mumbai, India on November 3, 2012. In India some train compartments, and sometimes whole trains, are reserved specifically for female passengers in an effort to make their travel easier and more secure. The role and treatment of women in society has recently become a hot political issue in the country. Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

Freedom at Day! Freedom at Night!

Varsha is 16 when she learns that a young woman, just a few years older than her, was gang-raped not far from Varsha's home, on the southern edge of Delhi. The woman was not so different from Varsha: ambitious, smart, hard-working, studying to be a physiotherapist and poised to leap from a life of working with hands to working with head.

It happened on December 16, 2012, when the city shivered from a cold spell and the smell of coal fires hung low in the night air. The woman was home from college for the holidays that Sunday. She had met a friend, a young man who worked as an information technology specialist. They had gone to the mall to see a movie everyone was talking about, Life of Pi. On the way home, she was assaulted by five men, plus a juvenile, who had been joyriding all night on a private bus. They jammed a steel rod inside her, which perforated her intestines. They beat her male friend. They threw them both on the road, naked.

The woman on the bus lived long enough to tell her story to the police. Two weeks later, she suffered massive organ failure and died. By then, protests have broken out in city after city. Day after day, women and men, most of them young, braved the cold to come out into the streets of Delhi and sometimes also braved the water cannons of riot police. "Azaadi," they chanted, which is the word for "freedom" in Hindi. "Freedom at day. Freedom at night."

There had been other widely publicized sexual assaults before. The streets of the country's capital are notoriously unfriendly for women. A 2010 study by an advocacy group called Jagori found that two out of three women in New Delhi said they were subjected to sexual harassment between two and five times during the previous year.

Still, the December 2012 gang rape resonated widely because the woman on the bus was so much like so many of her generation—the very portrait of aspiration. She was raised in a working-class warren in Delhi. Her father worked as a baggage handler at the airport. In newspaper accounts, neighbors described her as a studious child, the family's hope, the one who was on her way to getting out of the ghetto and making something of herself. Her parents believed in her. They had sold a patch of land back in their village to pay her college fees. One of her college professors described her as "punctual and hardworking." I make a note of this, and think about Varsha.

It isn't just the woman on the bus who was emblematic of her generation. So too were her rapists. They lived in a tin-roof ghetto in the center of Delhi, encircled by five-star hotels. They were mostly in their 20s. They had all come from the countryside for a better life in the city. They were all uneducated and marginally employed. "There was nothing very extraordinary about them," The Guardian pointed out in a richly reported portrait of these men.

Police arrested the six almost immediately. There were angry calls for them to be hanged. One was found dead in a Delhi jail cell. Four were sentenced to death; they are appealing. The juvenile among them was sentenced to a maximum jail term of three years.

The protests that sprang from the gang rape seem to catch politicians completely off guard. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the father of three accomplished daughters, didn't speak out for the first several days, nor did the head of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi. The depth of outrage, especially among the young, seemed lost on them.

Several other politicians, when they did speak out, showed themselves to be woefully out of touch with the sentiments of a generation. A politician in Rajasthan, where Varsha's people are from, proposed that skirts be outlawed as part of school uniforms. (A poll conducted in late 2012 by the Hindustan Times found that half of all Indian men between the ages of 18 and 25 said a woman in a short skirt was inviting trouble.) A Hindu religious leader suggested that the victim was to blame too, because she didn't sufficiently implore her attackers to stop. Penetration, he asserted, requires the actions of two individuals. "Can one hand clap? I don't think so."

With public anger boiling, the government appointed a committee of retired jurists to recommend how to address violence against women. The committee produced a remarkable report. It called out political and religious leaders for "gender bias"; it faulted police and courts for failing to protect women from harassment and assault; and it recommended overhauling laws dealing with rape and sexual harassment.

It went on to remind India's leaders of the promise made at independence and listed all the ways in which women had been cheated, concluding bluntly: "de facto equality guaranteed by the Constitution has not become a reality for them." In the face of persistent protests, the Parliament quickly passed a batch of new laws to stiffen penalties for assaults against women.

The protests drew attention to campaigns by women's groups to make Indian cities safer by doing simple things: installing better streetlights near bus stops and subway entrances, repairing sidewalks, making sure public toilets are clean. And the protesters called for female cops—many, many more female cops.

Police detain demonstrators during a protest against the release of a juvenile rape convict in New Delhi, India on December 20, 2015. He was the youngest of six people convicted of the 2012 gang rape of a woman on a bus—a case that shocked India and turned a global spotlight on the treatment of women in the country. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Aborted Female Fetuses

In May 2013, Varsha nails her Class 10 exams, earning the second highest score in her class. Papa agrees to let her enroll in a local high school, but insists that she wear only trousers. He softens that stance after a few months, but keeps a tight leash on her. No going to the library after school. No going to a friend's house, not even to do homework together.

Varsha does not stop goading Papa to let her take the police service exams. There are practical upsides, she tells him. Women are in high demand in the police force since the December 2012 gang rape. The Delhi government alone promises to hire thousands of female cops, so each police station in the city can be staffed by at least a dozen policewomen.

It is hard to imagine another profession in which a grown-up Varsha would feel safer. Varsha makes this case to Papa too. He is not convinced. No daughter of his is going to become a cop.

It is not that he doesn't love her. He loves her fiercely. He wants her to have a good life. He wants no harm to come to her, which is precisely why he cannot let her pursue this foolishness. He tells her he will find a husband for her by the time she is 20. If the in-laws let her work—say, at a bank—she can work.

She pleads with Papa to let her take a dance class. He says no; it won't fetch a job. She wants to learn to play guitar. Waste of time, he tells her. Varsha seeks beauty. Papa is consumed by fear. That evening, during wedding season, when the burnt-toast smell of fireworks lingers in the air, she seems more dejected than I have ever seen her.

"Now I've changed my dreams. In my heart, it's still there: Can I become a police officer?" she said. "But when I see my family situation, my confidence gets down."

The Constitution of India, which went into effect in 1950, enshrined equal franchise for men and women. This was an extraordinary edict for a society in which women like my grandmother ate only after the men of the family—and then the children—had had their fill. Many women still do. Equally extraordinary is that, since then, India's lawmakers have passed specific measures designed to redress the marginalization of women in life and politics.

The economic reforms that began in 1991 created new private-sector job opportunities, for men and women both, and with it, new social norms. Education was the most obvious example. Illiterate mothers began to send their girls to school, knowing that only an education could improve the girls' chances of getting a job and of getting a husband with a job.

The opening of the economy also created new kinds of jobs. As private airlines sprouted, women could work as flight attendants as well as pilots. They could legally work as bartenders, after the Supreme Court in 2007 overturned a colonial-era law that had prohibited women in New Delhi, from mixing drinks. Armies of women went to work at call centers.

But social norms for women working outside the home were oddly slow to change. While girls' education soared and the economy grew rapidly, women's participation in the labor force actually went down. Less than 30 percent of women worked for a living in 2011, placing India near the bottom among 131 countries with available data.

When I posted an essay on Facebook about how this would hold back India's economic advance, Varsha clicked "like."

For every story that testified to improvements, there was another that spoke of degradation. India has one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world. A study published in The Lancet, an international public-health journal, estimated that between 1990 and 2005, up to 12 million female fetuses were aborted. That was the period when ultrasound machines became increasingly accessible, enabling many more parents to learn the sex of the fetus. Sex determination tests are illegal, but this law, like so many others, seems to have been flouted routinely.

Girls are also far more likely to be abandoned and put up for adoption. A girl's chances of surviving past her fifth birthday are slimmer than a boy's. That could be because she is not fed as well or is not as likely to be taken to the doctor when she falls sick.

I find it hard to be hopeful about whether this attitude will turn around. Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, two academics who study gender issues worldwide, conclude that the status of women and girls in India reflects "the profound devaluation of female life."

Students in Ahmedabad, India hold candles as they pray during a candlelight vigil on December 31, 2012. The gang rape and murder of a medical student caught Indian authorities and political parties flat-footed as the assault came to symbolize an epidemic of crime against women. Amit Dave/Reuters

Sharing Horror Stories

Ever since the 2012 gang rape, I have been asked repeatedly: Are women more likely to be raped in India than in other countries?

No. There is no data to suggest that's the case. It is pretty much impossible to get sound data on the incidence of rape and other forms of violence against women—in India and in many, many other countries. Stigma runs high. Reporting remains low. Police and prosecutors can be ignorant or insensitive or both.

What we do know is that the reported rates of violence against women in India roughly mirror the rates of violence women face worldwide. The World Health Organization, which looked at survey data from around the world, found that roughly one in three women—35 percent—said that in their lifetimes they had experienced "intimate partner violence and/or non-partner sexual violence." One in 10 girls under the age of 18 was forced to have sex, a separate study found.

What is true about rape in India is also true about rape elsewhere. First, rape survivors are not always keen to file a crime report. And second, their assaulters are usually men they know—friends, neighbors or family members.

What is notable about India is that rape in particular—and violence against women in general—has seized the public imagination. Girls and women are refusing to keep quiet about it anymore. They are pouring into the streets to protest, sometimes braving water cannons. And many more of them are filing police reports.

In Delhi, there were 1,493 rapes reported to police in the first 11 months of 2013, more than double the number reported in the same period of 2012. Complaints of sexual harassment went up sharply too.

Nationally, there was already a steady uptick in reported crimes against women. Between 2006 and 2010, the total number of reported crimes against women, including rape, increased by 29.6 percent, according to national crime records. That did not necessarily mean that incidents of rape had gone up. It likely signaled that women reported them more often.

All of which is to say, a once hidden problem—particularly in the countryside, where rape has long been a way for upper-caste men to subjugate lower-caste women—was becoming less hidden. The December 2012 gang rape seemed to have emboldened survivors. In June 2013, a 37-year-old Calcutta woman appeared on television and described how she had been gang-raped over a year ago, and how she had only now felt brave enough to speak about it. In August, a photojournalist in Mumbai went to police to report that she was gang-raped by five men at an abandoned industrial building. A receptionist came forward and said she had been assaulted by the same men but hadn't filed a report out of shame. (The men said they were innocent in court.)

My friend, the writer and editor Priya Ramani, wrote pointedly in the financial paper Mint: "This will be known as the year rapists, sexual molesters, perverts, predators and assorted other Indian creeps realized they can no longer count on that one big assumption that makes them so brazen: Indian women don't like sharing horror stories."

Aanchal Sukhija, 19 and a fashion media communications student, waits for an auto rickshaw outside a metro station in Gurgaon, India on the outskirts of New Delhi on January 16, 2013. Whenever she hires an auto rickshaw she has to send a short message to her father giving details of the auto in order to feel secure, posing an additional challenge to her ability to receive an education as a woman. Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

Unexpectedly Good News

Varsha, at 18, says the one thing she wants the new government to focus on is women's safety. "I want that girls should be able to walk on the road at any time," is how she puts it.

I could tell you about the many girls in India who are so anemic, hungry or beaten down—or all of the above—that they can't even imagine studying psychology or learning to dance or enforcing the law. I tell you about Varsha because she does imagine it. Vividly.

Varsha is bright and headstrong, but her ambitions are repeatedly doused. Her resilience is repeatedly tested. She has had to rewrite her dreams, again and again, all because it would be unthinkable for her to cross the line, to defy her papa.

I try to be sympathetic to her father but find it difficult. He knows she is special, that she is smarter and more driven than all his other children. He relies on her to help run the household. He guards her. He also thwarts her at every turn. He is a product of the very traditions that she is trying to outrun. School isn't enough of an exit strategy.

Reluctantly, Varsha signs up to take business and economics classes in Class 11. Papa has it in his mind that bank jobs are good jobs for young women. A teacher mentions there are jobs in accounting. So she signs up for an accounting class. It is a breeze for her. It is also boring. Every hour spent on accounting homework, she begins to see as an hour away from preparing for her police service exams.

I briefly consider printing out a police application for Varsha—and then decide against it. It is her life. This is her father.

She tells me she intends to finish Class 12 and look for a job as soon as possible. She intends to enjoy a year or two of freedom before her father marries her off. Maybe, just maybe, she can persuade her would-be in-laws to let her continue to work. That way, she could at least stand on her own two feet. That will have to be her escape.

Ah, but stubborn, smart Varsha. At the end of May 2015, she nails her final exams, scoring well above the 80th percentile, which nudges her papa to let her chase her dreams a bit longer. He says she can go to a university in Delhi! This is unexpectedly good news, and they are discussing the details of her commute. She is trying to allay his fears about when and how she will walk back home from the metro station.

In the back of her mind, she is still plotting to take the Indian Police Service exam, still pushing Papa every step of the way.