Asrina Khatun grew up in a large family – with her parents, four older siblings and two younger ones – in the village of Madanpur in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district. Her father worked as a stone grinder and her mother distributed ration supplies for the local panchayat. It wasA a somewhat repressive environment for girls, with many social and religious dictates on how they should lead their lives. Girls were not allowed to dress as they liked, Asrina said. And If they talked to boys, they were pulled up harshly by the community’s moral police.
There was a school in the village that went upto grade 10 but most girls had to drop out by the time they reached 8th grade. The expectation was that they marry and have children. “None of my friends in the village have managed to leave,” she said. “They have all stayed there – to be housewives and mothers.”
Asrina herself found that she could not escape the societal pressure for an early marriage. In 2017, at the age of 19, she got married but her husband died in a tragic accident just three months later.
Things then got harder for the young woman who was expected to do physically demanding work in the village, such as spreading cow dung in different areas. The general feeling was that she shouldn’t aspire to anything else. She was a widow after all. A symbol of bad luck.
But there was a part of Asrina that rebelled against being forced into this mould. Luckily, her parents were supportive and gave her room to explore becoming financially independent. She was allowed to go out to look for a job and even enroll in a computer course – but that didn’t quite deliver on its promise. That’s when she found out about the Head Held High program at Maithon, about 20 km away. She joined and then over the next four months, found herself exposed to not just new ideas and skills but a different way of thinking about herself.
“There was something about the training. I felt proud to be there. Although in the beginning I also felt angry and disappointed with myself for the person I was. But over the next few weeks, I gradually began to feel better about myself. My self-confidence grew and I began to dream of a different kind of a life – with a job, respect, dignity…”
She opted to drop out after about four months (two thirds of the way into the program), again because of intense pressure from people in the village who were beginning to ‘talk’ about a woman like her wearing man’s clothing and overstepping her boundaries. There was also some talk of arranging another marriage for her – this time with an almost 50 year old, someone more than twice her age.
Asrina knew she had to get out of this toxic environment that was threatening to put an end to any personal dreams or aspirations she had for herself. That’s when she left for Bangalore where the Head Held High placement team was able to connect her with the Shell Petrol organization. Now she has finished a three day training program with them, and is waiting to get her uniform and a start date from them, at a respectable starting salary of around Rs 12,000 a month.
At 22, Asrina is currently looking forward to a fresh start in a new place that seems to reward hard work and determination. But there is a part of her that is still trying to shake off ingrained ways of thinking about her life. When asked about her goals, she talked about her elder sister’s daughter whom she hopes to see become a doctor. “From the time she was a little girl, we’ve always called her Dr. Saina,” she said. “I really want her to be a doctor.” On being prodded to focus on herself, Asrina hesitated for a moment before continuing in a more determined tone: “There is hope now. I have options.”
One thing I really like about Asrina is that she’s not one to give up easily. She’s very determined. Her general attitude is that things happen in life but that doesn’t mean that you have to accept defeat meekly. I think the program really opened her eyes to what’s possible in life. She is very clear that she does not want to go back to her village right now for fear of getting caught in the same trap again. She really wants to make this new life work.Rajesh Ranjan, Asrina’s trainer in Maithon (Jharkhand)