“Abla Jeevan Hai Teree Yahee kahanee
Aanchal mein hai doodh aur aankhon mein paani”…
I detest this quote now, although I must confess it was one of my favorite ones during school days, likely because it sounded “rich” from a literary perspective, and because I did not understand the meaning well. Regardless, my write up here is not about this quote. It is in some ways related and in other ways different from it.
It was all auntie’s fault. Had to be. It began after my brief visit with her during my recent India trip. I vividly remember her precise words, “It is a great responsibility and liability to raise a daughter as opposed to a son, Cuckoo. I never wish for any of my near and dear ones to have a daughter.” Okay, I thought. “Was I really listening to an educated woman?” Before I could open my mouth, she continued, “For instance, one can sleep at night even if the son comes home late as it really does not matter where he is and what he is doing. On the other hand, if the daughter is late, that is a major problem, because what she does away from home late at might end up becoming your responsibility.” I guess one does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the “responsibility” she was referring to. It had nothing to do with crime against women, in either Delhi or elsewhere. I was amazed, ashamed, and dumbfounded. My head started to spin. Why this double standards against female gender in ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’, even in 2012? I always hoped people would worry about both sons and daughters in regards to what they were doing away from home late at night. How come what a son does outside the home with, or to someone else’s daughter does not matter? Are we that selfish and shameless? Or was I just over-reacting? The conversation left a very sour taste in my mouth, but I could not give it further thought till I boarded my plane back to Philadelphia that night. Her monologue stayed with me throughout my journey back home, and I was very uncomfortable and depressed. No wonder, I thought, discrimination still exists against female children in India to the degree that female feticide is still occurring there. Disgusting. I hated it. I was ashamed to be an Indian. But, how would that help me find a solution?. I had a strong urge to do something about it, right that day, right at that moment.
Lo and behold, I come back home and become busy with the mundane, and the not so mundane activities till a few days later when I come across an article on female feticide in a magazine. Auntie’s voice resonates in my ears, and it is not very pleasant. I start reading the article which states that in the year1992, 37 million women were reported as ‘missing’ in India, and in 2001, the number rose to 44 million. The article made reference to another report published in December 2006 which stated that India had killed about 10 million Girls in the last twenty Years. It read, “Ten million girls have been killed by their parents in India in the past 20 years, either before they were born, or immediately after, and a minister referred to it as a "national crisis". What absolutely amazed me is that this was happening despite a law in India that bans ultrasounds and other prenatal tests from predicting the sex of the unborn child. “The United Nations says an estimated 2,000 unborn girls are illegally aborted every day in India,” the article continued. I could feel the warmth in my face, my ears turning red and my blood pressure rise as I somehow managed to scramble through the remainder of the article. I continued to read, “Punjab loses every fourth girl, and was reported as being the leading state in female feticide, followed closely by Rajasthan. Haryana had witnessed a dip in sex ratio as well; 618 girls for 1,000 boys, in all probability as a result of female feticide.” The article also described and commented on other ways in which women were being abused in our country including bridal burning, etc, but to me that was not important. What was vital was that these hideous crimes were still happening, I needed to find out why, and that they needed to stop.
Despite all advances in science, it is still not uncommon to see couples in India offer prayers to God in order to be blessed with a child. Not to say that a baby is not a blessing from God, but for many, if the child happens to be a girl, the blessing soon becomes a curse and the ‘precious gift’ is done away with as soon as possible before extending another demand to God, which is that of a ‘male’ child. It is also no secret that the yearning for son is deep-rooted in both rural and urban areas, and many prayers and lavish offerings are made in temples in the hope of having a male child. A look at some facts. Abortion was legalized in India in 1971, mainly to assure that pregnancy can be aborted if it is a result of sexual assault, contraceptive failure, baby having severe congenital malformation, or if the mother is incapable of bearing a healthy child. Another prenatal test, amniocentesis was introduced in 1975 to detect fetal abnormalities, but it soon began to be used for determining the sex of the baby. However, ultrasound has emerged as the all time winner of the various antenatal tests. Being non-invasive, it has quickly gained popularity within the masses, is now available even in some of the most remote rural areas in India, and is being used widely for sex determination, in many instances with the intention of aborting the fetus if it turns out to be a female. We revere our 'mothers', worship Goddesses Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Durga, and Kali, claim they represent wealth, intelligence, strength and power and then offer prayers for a boy child, or worse still, want to abort a girl child! This is absolutely hypocritical, and instead of hanging our heads in shame, we proclaim "East or West, India is best"! Dear readers please do not get me wrong. I love India too, but we have to acknowledge its problems and fix them so that it can indeed become the best.
Feticide and infanticide are not the only issues with a girl child in India. At every stage of life, right from birth to adulthood, and even death, she is often discriminated against and neglected. Why? The reasons are numerous. The status of women in India, which, like elsewhere in the world is determined by their level of education, health, economic role in the society, professional presence, and decision-making powers at home, remains substantially lower than that of their male counterparts, even today. It is distressing that the image of women that Ramayana and Manusmriti have painted in our minds remains unchanged. . Most Indians still see an ideal woman as being obedient and submissive, and always needing the care of a male: first father, then husband, and then her son. If you look at Islam, it still permits polygamy and gives women fewer rights than men. In all major religions practiced in India, a son is often seen as an “asset’ since it is thought that he can earn money and support the family, whereas a daughter a liability since she is “married off to another family”, and therefore does not contribute financially or otherwise to the care of her parents. So, then why should an average person in India not desire only sons? After all, what is the benefit of having a child who is of no use to parents in their old age? why have daughters at all? Top that off with the stress of assimilating dowry for a daughter’s wedding, which still exists in many parts of India, and the problem is quadrupled.
Enough complaining, I thought. How can this be fixed? How can we abolish the dowry system, improve the status of women in India, and thereby make female feticide a thing of the past? Although rigid enforcement of laws will undoubtedly play a key role in this, that is not the only solution to this problem. Our society at large needs to change their sickening attitude. We have landed in a sad state of affairs due to the Indian patriarchal society, male chauvinism, and our marriage system. These are the important root causes and they need to change Education, and economic empowerment of women is imperative. In addition, there is a dire need to give women power at varied levels, beginning at the level of the Panchayat to all the way up. I contemplated some, and then decided to discuss this with my colleagues, who had varied opinions, none of which I perceived as being helpful. I was astonished when I realized that most held women responsible for feticides and felt only women could change this. Some thought that a woman should refuse abortion when asked to undergo one by her family. Yes, it is true that it is the women’s body that is being subjected to feticide, and she should definitely resist abortion , but then she would be alone, without family support, and we all know that is not easy. Societal pressures cannot be dealt with easily by educated, independent people, leave alone the not so educated, and dependent, young, pregnant, women. Why most of my friends were missing the point was beyond my comprehension. Many sophisticated people opined that young women should refuse marriage if dowry is involved. Although it may sound an excellent idea to many, I just could not consume all of this. Why can these well-read people not understand that if one girl refuses to marry because of dowry, the groom’s side will find another bride to be, and so on, and so forth. So, I reflected, contemplated, and deliberated some more on the subject and concluded that, the change in the status of women can come about only when both men and women, preferably both young and old realize the problem, think as if it were their own, and try to fix it. We have to realize that this is everyone’s crisis, and not just of those that have daughters and sisters. Women have remained nice, submissive, and lady like for too long and it is about time they changed their image, at least in some ways, so that they are not victimized. This reminds me of a poem written by the great Shri Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. Let me share a few lines with you:
Atyachaar sahan karne ka kufal yahee hota hai
Paurush ka atank manuj, komal hokar khota hai!
If my readers are wondering who I am writing this piece for, let me tell you that this is for all of us. I know that some will look at the heading of this article, let out a chuckle or two, and not proceed further. I discern, however, there will be at least four categories of people reading it. Of all those that read this, most will laugh or ignore it completely. Next in line will be the crowd that will read the article with interest, and then forget about it the moment they are done. The third group will take me seriously, may be even amend the way they think about women now, and God forbid, if they ever had plans of being involved in dowry or proceeding with female feticide, this article may deter them from doing that. And last, but not the least will be the most important category, obviously in minority, comprising of those that will actually do something to revolutionize the status of women in India. To them, I express my gratitude in advance. Dear readers, it is about time we did something to bring about a change. Here we are, after sixty-five years of independence from British rule, and forty three years since man first landed on Moon, still struggling with things such as dowry and female feticide. This is an embarrassment, is not going to change automatically with time, and something radical needs to be done. We have to change the image of woman from “abla” as specified in the opening quote by the famous poet Sheri Maithili Shoran Gupta to “sabla” and much more.
So, in the end, meeting and talking to aunty was not such a waste of my time, as I initially thought. “A blessing in disguise”, shall we say?