When Shahid Kapoor confirmed his engagement to Delhi-based college girl Mira Rajput in early 2015, fans around the world went through the typical stages of grief: denial, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance. And once the tears had dried and the reality that one of Bollywood’s hottest hunks was off the market had set in, one sentiment began to echo across the internet: at just 21 years old, was Mira Rajput too young to marry the 34-year-old actor?
At first, this concern was expressed almost apologetically. After all, Mira is an adult, and only those who know her personally can accurately judge whether she was truly prepared to settle down. But in a country where 47% of young women marry before the age of 18, even the mere discussion of the appropriate marriageable age for women can be seen as revolutionary.
Most young women in their early 20s have experienced the frustration that comes with the steadily increasing number of engagement announcements on Facebook that begin to stream in as soon as they come of age. It seems like one day, you still have to ask for your parents’ permission to stay out after dark and the next, you’re expected to possess the maturity and experience required to make a lifelong commitment to your husband. This is a burden that only young women seem to carry; we are infantilized one moment, then pressured into becoming wives and mothers the next.
Shahid Kapoor, for example, had the benefit of 13 extra years of growth and experience before choosing to settle down that his young wife did not. After a high-profile relationship with Kareena Kapoor, he was romantically linked to several other actresses, including Priyanka Chopra and Vidya Balan. He built a successful career for himself, entering Bollywood as a sweet-faced young hero and going on to become a versatile and bankable actor with some serious critical acclaim under his belt. He traveled the world, experienced personal and professional highs and lows, and most importantly, he was not expected to transition from boyhood to manhood overnight. He was allowed to grow, change, and mature into a person who fully understands the responsibility that comes along with married life.
As an outside observer, I cannot speak to Mira Rajput’s motivations for marrying at such a young age. What I can confidently speak on, however, is how much a person can change from their late teens to their mid-twenties. When I was Mira’s age, I thought I had all the answers. Three years later, I think back to the girl I was and laugh at how much I didn’t know, and how much I still have left to learn in the years ahead. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by family and friends who understood the uncertainty that comes with entering adulthood, and who kept me from making any foolish decisions I almost certainly would have regretted. Their influence was important, as they had to work extra hard to contradict the messages that society sends its daughters. Everywhere you look, pop culture has paired off a very young woman with a man several years her senior. No one batted an eye when Katrina Kaif, barely into her 20s, was linked up with Salman Khan, a notorious Bollywood bad boy 17 years older than his protege-turned-girlfriend. It comes as no surprise that grown men chase girls young enough to be their daughters, but it begs the question: who was looking out for Katrina’s best interests at that time? Is there anyone around these girls to ensure that their naivety is not being taken advantage of? Do they even realize that they might need guidance and protection? A relationship is, after all, an exercise in equal partnership; a partner who doubles as a paternalistic figure is no partner at all, but a poor substitution for a larger familial support system.
There is no “right” age to get married, nor is there a formula that allows us to calculate how much of an age gap is acceptable between romantic partners. These things are unique to each individual, to each couple. But there is no doubting that society overwhelmingly favors pairing very young women up with significantly older men. No amount of wealth, education, or fame can act as a foolproof safeguard against making an ill-informed decision at a time in your life when you’re still figuring out who you are, and who you want to become.
My plea to families is this: before accepting rishtas for your daughters, find out what kind of future she envisions for herself, and whether she will be able to accomplish her goals with a husband by her side. Then imagine all the things you never had the chance to experience before you settled down and had a family. If you’re able to, give her the opportunities you wish your parents had given you. At such a young age, she might not understand the importance of those opportunities now, but she will certainly thank you for them later.