The summer after my friends and I appeared for our 12th grade exams was a relaxing one even though we were filled with anxiety about the results. While most of us expected to do quite well, my best friend Rekha was hoping for better than average results.

I asked her about this and she confided that her parents and elders in her traditional Hindu family wanted her to marry after getting her results.

No more studying for her. But Rekha wanted to be at least a graduate. So she negotiated with them that if she got a first class grade she could carry on studying and get her degree. Rekha did better than she hoped. She got a distinction grade. I was incredibly proud of her as her result meant she could persuade her parents to put marriage plans on hold and more importantly concentrate on studying.

These negotiations continued, however, for the next few years. After she completed her graduation, Rekha wanted to do a Master’s. She also wanted to work, have a career and her own money. At each step of the way she had to stridently convince her family that her plans for herself were more important and worthy than their stereotypical and community-mandated plans for her were. I have had a ringside view of the struggles my best friend went through. While I was able to chart my own course in life, unhindered, my friend had to dodge the constant marriage demands.

She was told she couldn’t be more educated than the prospective grooms – it was detrimental to getting ‘good guys’.

She was told she didn’t need to have a career to have a good marriage. She was told her husband’s money would be her money. There were many times these discussions and negotiations at home left her in tears. When we got together I would do my best to comfort and encourage her. Being constantly pressured to meet her community’s expectations for her and of her as a woman were eroding my best friend’s self-esteem, self-respect, ambition and confidence.

Through these struggles, Rekha’s greatest strength has been her self-belief.

She believed she deserved to study as much as she wanted, a career and independence. Most importantly, she believed the choice of when she chose to marry, was hers alone.

Eventually, Rekha received two Master’s degrees, one in Commerce and the other an MBA. She went on to have a more than 14 year career in India’s leading ratings company and holds a mid-level management position. She got married in her late twenties, when she felt she was finally ready. She now has a successful career, a beautiful young daughter and a happy marriage.

Today, years after that desperate summer, Rekha stands vindicated for waging this lonely and frustrating battle.

Her family respects her for standing up for what she believed she deserved, and for fighting for it. They are proud of the successful and independent woman she is. She is a role model for her young daughter and for other young women battling similar stereotypical expectations and gender-based barriers in their families and communities. I am so proud that this strong, confident, beautiful woman is my friend. I have been privileged to see her successfully overcome the barriers that have overwhelmed other women and girls. Rekha is a beacon in the fight against gender discrimination.

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