What’s Really Behind Female Foeticide
This is an article on female foeticide. And if you’ve come to shake your head in righteous anger and judgment of all the people who practice it, you’ll be disappointed. Because we’re all part of the problem.
We won’t bore you with statistics; there are plenty of other reports that make clear female foeticide isn’t limited to India’s impoverished, uneducated classes. India’s affluent and educated are no less guilty, even if they’re not the ones actually getting abortions; traveling to Thailand for sex-selective IVF procedures amounts to the same thing as female foeticide in the end: a gender imbalance of 943 girls to 1000 boys.
No, we can’t shake our heads at parents who choose a boy child over a girl, when we have told them every single day of their lives that girls are less valuable. Messages of male value are so deeply rooted in our culture that we don’t even recognize how discriminatory they are, how sexist we are.
They are built into our languages – and how do you escape that? Take, for example, the Sanskrit blessing for a young bride: “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.” Or the Tamilian saying: “Bringing up a daughter is like watering a plant in another’s courtyard.” The highest praise most fathers give their daughters is to say, “You’re like a son to me.” Many more languages across India contain similar adages that convey the importance of having a son; few (more likely none) communicate the wish for or advantages of a daughter.
When language isn’t busy explicitly valuing boys, it is denigrating girls. The side that is on the backfoot in any negotiation refers to themselves as the ‘ladkiwaale’ – the girl’s side – a term taken from wedding parties. A reminder that girls are a burden to their families. Hindi movies tell us that, “Saali aadhi gharwaali hai” – to a man, his wife’s sister is half a wife – a reminder that girls are belongings. Even the way we talk about rape bizarrely devalues the (almost always female) victim, not the perpetrator: “Izzat lootna” – literally, “to steal the honour” – is not a commentary on force, or even the rapist’s own honor, but on women as a liability.
Language is incredibly influential. Even at its most banal, it shapes our identity and our thoughts in a way we are seldom conscious of. It imbues our cultural and religious practices with overt messages of male value.
Raksha Bandhan, which literally translates to “knot of protection,” and is a celebration of the bond between brothers and sisters. Superficially and individually, there is nothing wrong with this. But the thread tied by the sister on her brother’s wrist symbolizes her prayers for his wellbeing and his promise to protect her in return. It could be argued that anything in need of protection has value. But anything in need of protection is inherently weaker, a vulnerability, an encumbrance, too.
During Karwa Chauth and Teej women fast for the good health of their husbands, or, if single, to be blessed with a good one, but are not worthy of a day of fasting for their good health in return. It tells us that men’s health is paramount, integral, to a relationship; women’s health is at best an afterthought.
Menstruating women across communities are forbidden from entering temples. Most mosques do not allow Muslim women to enter throughout the year. We hold poojas to pray for boys at the start of life. At the end, priests are on hand to remind grieving families the soul of the departed will not be blessed unless the last rites are performed by a son. Girls are unclean in life; girls are obstacles in death.
Little wonder then, that our family structures reflect this. We give gifts to every member of our daughters’ prospective family-in-law to buy her happiness, expecting and receiving none in return. Joint families nearly always consist of parents, sons, and sons’ families. Living with a daughter and son-in-law is seen as a mark of shame. You don’t water a plant in your neighbour’s garden.
This is the world we have created. This is the world from which we’re surprised 10 million girls are missing.
For the record, we are not anti-language, anti-religion or anti-tradition. We can’t be anti- things that are under our control to change – and language, religious practices and culture are all under our control. It may seem overwhelming at the individual level, but that’s where stopping female foeticide starts.
We see glimmers. It’s no longer unheard of for a husband to join his wife in fasting on Kaurwa Chauth. If you look hard, you may spot a girl sporting a rakhi on Raksha Bandhan. The world is changing, even if it’s never fast enough.
You may not have had a sex-selective abortion. You may not have gone to Thailand just to ensure you have one of each. But maybe you’ve uttered one of these phrases carelessly, followed one of these traditions unthinkingly. Only when we make our world a welcoming place for girls, will girls be able to take their place in it.