Born Free But....
By Mallika Kaur
10 August, 2015
Even the most well meaning, highly educated, seemingly liberal among us reinforce stereotypes that fuel gender discrimination
“He is such a little Casanova.” I had to look up from my sandwich the third time a doting friend said this about the dashing three-year-old who had enamoured us — and the waitress — with his antics, dimples and a clear gift to hold an audience at a young age.
“What would we call his sister?”
The question was lost in the laughter over lunch banter. On repeating, it solicited blank stares.
“Well, his sister is as much a charmer, as we so well know, and when she gets attention of boys and grown men, we call her a…”
“…Bombshell? That doesn’t seem to do it. What other words do we use for little girls who show the talent of a male Casanova…?”
Smirks were exchanged. There are words that objectify women. Plenty. Applying them to a 5-year-old still feels unsavoury. To most. Thankfully.
As the smirks were readying to droop, and “point !” was mumbled by someone, I turned to talk to the child and we all returned to the garrulous show.
The point is not spoiling a perfectly harmless lunch. The point is also not equality: the quest is not to find objectifying and sexualising ‘compliments’ for girls akin to boys. The point is that we all come across, every day, with comments by well-meaning people that reinforce stereotypes about young boys and young girls and women and men in our society.
These double standards also feed our ugly reality of unnaturally and disproportionately more little boys birthed around us than girls.
Currently there are several news campaigns around the issue of “sex selection.” For most in our part of the world, the problem itself is old news.
We are aware of the dismal sex ratio for girls at birth: in a quest to have at least one son per family, parents continue to engage in ‘selecting’ males, often by aborting female foetuses and sometimes even by genetic planning.
We commonly understand that this attitude — sex selection is the underlying bias, sex-selective abortions are a tool to perpetuate it—is rooted in “son preference” in our society where from birth to death certain roles and privileges are accorded only to boys and resultant pride appropriated only by parents of said boys.
We now know that sex-selective abortions are not carried out merely by the uneducated, rural and backward folk, but rather energetically pursued by the most elite, educated, modern, tech-savvy and latte-sipping among us.
Besides a preference for a son — or discrimination against daughters — the trends of smaller families, lower fertility rates, higher unemployment rates, rising costs of living, all contribute to the choice families continue to make to birth boys over girls.
Hardly a ‘primitive’ approach, this is a calculated, economic and/or social choice for families. Like many choices from such a launching pad, it reeks. But it is a choice all the same, one that is made against a currently lesser attractive option: having “only daughters.”
We also see in sex selection the symptom of a problem, now causing problems and deepening a vicious cycle of gendered discrimination. The crass “Bahu dilao, vote pao” slogan during the last Lok Sabha elections in Haryana screamed of the dearth of brides for young men. Not as many girls as boys were born 18-20 years ago; sex-selection isn’t a new problem.
Yet, despite everything we know by now about sex-selection — decried as a “crisis,” even forwarded as a “genocide,” and most popularly known as the problem of “missing girls” (accurately: unborn girls) — we still speak about sex-selection with distance, once removed.
In our families, we argue, we only seek balance: one girl, one boy, there is nothing wrong or discriminatory about that? And we denounce those people aborting girls for being girls.
But people are not engaged in sex-selection. We are.
There is firstly the gnawing obvious question: how are we planning to ensure our seemingly harmless preferred family balance? But moreover, aborting female foetuses is one way of selecting girls over boys. Sex-selection starts much before and continues much after conception.
Beti bachao is not just about age 0. Or even age 5 — when the 0-5 age bracket malnourishment rates show girls several points behind boys. Or age 10, when it cannot be lost on young girls that the most commonly used curse words focus on sexualising and violating women, normalising the idea of women — including sisters, mothers, and others—as sites of sexual aggression and liabilities to men and their honor.
Or teen age, when career choices are suggested per their appropriateness fit with “family life” while the marriage of other girls solidifies “parayaa dhan” status, “What are you? Crazy? Going and living with your married sister all the time?” Or middle age, when the care and passing of parents triggers all symbolic importance of the male child: “Why is the bhog in the daughter’s house, when there is a son?!”
Recently, a conference on sex-selection at the Habitat Centre in New Delhi brought together multiple stakeholders to discuss the multidimensional complexities inherent in combating sex-selection. Campaigners such as Breakthrough India, engaged in creative methods of bystander intervention into issues such as sexual harassment on the streets, engaged with lawyers, researchers and policy makers.
Compellingly, a fellow panellist from South Korea spoke in the first person a few times about how she herself worked on defying certain socially expected norms that fuel gender imbalances in her country.
Putting ourselves in the dock is difficult work though. Who is committing to a small wedding, equally paid for by both families, evading all the corporatisation around trousseaus, and perhaps depositing the money saved in an account for the future couples’ everyday instead? Who plans to adopt a baby girl, defying the tags of infertility and/or charity, and raising her as an equal? Who plans to stand against the next case of domestic violence in their family without thought to familial alliances and status?
The issue isn’t abortion (a reproductive right and legal in India, but not when employed for sex-selection) and the debate isn’t about whether or not people’s attitudes are changing with the current campaigns. The issue is each one of us. Thinking of sex selection in terms of birth ratio — 940 girls per 1000 boys —somehow deludes us into thinking this is not about our individual family practices. The ratios are pointing to a deep collective action problem: in the constitutionally socialist and democratic republic of India, thinking in collective terms is unfortunately at odds with all current trends.
Sex-selection is but shorthand. Shorthand, for changes we would have to make at every stage of our lives if we are serious about addressing this gap between men and women, causing demographic challenges, and of course embarrassing PR for worst-offending districts, states, countries.
Shorthand, for a long list of changes needed to establish balance. Not conflating dowry with inheritance; the safety net of the latter not being ensured by the former. Planning for ageing, beyond the expectance and pretence of doting children as insurance policies.
The everyday acts of retaliation against violence against women, to whom we may (e.g., Nirbhaya) or may not (e.g., sex workers or prisoners) relate to. The public recognition and replication of the many examples around us that have chosen courage over comfort (for seldom does one beget the other).
This involves each of us, irrespective of whether we have had sons or daughters, natural-born or adopted, whether we are educated in English or not. It involves vigilance over self, always more exhausting than vigilance over the ‘other,’ and greater active engagement in changing the status quo. I’ve only started by adding a few tense moments to lunch with friends. The road ahead is so long. It’s time to start looking at what is staring back at us from those selfies.
The writer is a lawyer and author who focuses on gender and minority issues in the US and South Asia
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