Story by Bethany Trueblood
On a summer night in 1973 in Patna, Bihar, a 15-year-old girl has a decision to make.
She has passed her school exams and awaits entrance into a university. But her orthodox Hindu parents from conservative Rajasthan won’t permit her to continue her education. If she stays at home, an arranged marriage will be her fate. Her duty will be to her home and she will never attend college.
This is not the life she wants.
At about 11:30 p.m. the house is quiet. The servant with the gate keys is asleep. The girl, who looks hardly older than a child, has made her decision: Her heart thumping rapidly against her ribcage, she cautiously draws the keys from the sleeping guard and slips out of the house without anything but the clothes she is wearing. She will never see her family again.
Today, at 55 years old, Kiran Shaheen remains a single woman and works as a journalist, teacher and activist. She completed her education at Magadh Women’s College, where she was admitted after spending an entire day outside of the minister of education’s office.
“I told him I escaped from my home and I want to continue my study,” she said. “I want to do something for my society and I want admission in the college and the hostel.”
The minister wrote letters for her, admitting her to the university and to the hostel.
Different kind of life
When Shaheen decided to leave home at 15, the decision was not based entirely on whether her education was more important than marriage.
“I think that in our society this whole business of marriage is very misunderstood,” she said. “It’s not that marriage and education or marriage and personal goals are standing in competition with each other – they’re not in place of, they have nothing to do with each other.”
In Shaheen’s family, tradition requires a girl to marry in her teens and become a homemaker, but she didn’t want to be tied to her home, have four or five children and dress herself in ornaments like the women of her family.
“My life would be finished,” she said, “so I made the choice that marriage is not on my agenda. That kind of life is not on my agenda.”
Shaheen sees marriage as a controlling institution where women are subordinated.
“I don’t see marriage as a mark of love or as a mark of the public relationship,” she said. “It is a social need, or an institutional need, created by the society and institutions to control the society in the way they want to.”
Even without being married, Shaheen built a family by adopting a daughter, Tanya, while living with a friend.
“We both could not adopt her, so I had to adopt,” she said. “People like me also get married sometimes because you need some legal sanctity. So in law the girl has only one parent, but in practice she has two parents.”
While Shaheen has never married, she has fallen in love. “I had my relationships and they were stronger than marriage. Still I’m in a relationship that is stronger than marriage,” she said. “I don’t think marriage would be more romantic and more enjoyable than what I am living now.”
Life of activism
Shaheen’s inspiration to become an activist came during the Total Revolution Movement in 1974, which started in Bihar as a reaction to rising price levels. Shaheen and several of her college classmates spent a month in jail for their involvement in demonstrations.
“Still you will find many political activists and ministers and other people who will say that I am a product of 1974 movement,” she said.
Reflecting back on that time, Shaheen realizes that her passion for contributing to the betterment of others was great, although she could not understand it at the time.
Today, Shaheen is active in civil rights and tribal movements. Her biggest project is the Right to Water campaign, a group comprised of 60 organizations across Delhi. She also works with a new group she formed of journalists called Media Action Group. Her campaign is geared toward covering poor people’s news. Soon she will launch a web edition called “Tomorrow” with the slug line “losers will inherit the world.”
In 2000 Shaheen worked for Action Aid, a nongovernmental organization focused on women and gender issues. She oversaw the media aspects of the NGO. While working there she met her friend Dr. Ramani Sundaresan, a psycho therapist involved in another department.
Sundaresan said she admires Shaheen’s passion.
“She is different, she is very courageous,” Sundarsen said. “She believes in what she does. That is the nicest thing about her. She wants to change the world.”
Earlier in her life Shaheen used to feel rejected by her society.
“But now I have become matured to feel that it’s their problem,” she said.
Traditional Indian society might disapprove of the choices she has made, but she does not see it that way.
“Everywhere there is a husband and a wife, a mother and a father,” she said. “Here I am coming out with my child who is adopted and I’m single. But I don’t call it a challenge because I don’t believe in this culture.”