Parampara. Pratishtha. Abortion.
An inconvenient girl
Did you know that if a pregnant woman's bump sits high up, closer to her chest, it means she is having a girl and if it hangs low it means she is having a boy?
Did you know that if the bump sticks out, it is a girl, and if it is wider around the edges, it is a boy?
If she is puking her guts out every day it means she is carrying a loathsome little lady and if she says 'nausea who?' it is a generous gentleman?
Did you know baby girls "steal their mother's beauty" from the womb and give her terrible skin, and baby boys make her glow with their dermatological divinity?
Also - and this is my favourite one - if you tie your wedding ring to a string and hold it over your belly, and it swings left to right, it means you’re having a wigwag wee woman. And if it spins around in a circle, congratulations, a miniature man's centrifugal force is with you.
The sheer resilience of human creativity in the face of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act of 1994 never ceases to amaze me.
It should not come as news to any of us that we Indians want nothing more for our children than for them to be healthy, happy, and boys.
But, despite our best intentions and efforts, some children continue to be born stubbornly female. We bribe all the Gods and yet, some mothers inconveniently continue to birth girls.
This week, we explore what happens when our humble hope for heirs is shattered.
We will follow the three founding tenets of our society mentioned in the title of this post to shine a guiding light in these dark dark times.
When Dhanya, who already had a daughter, was pregnant the second time, she noticed a number of 'cute' comments speculating the sex of her baby coming her way. At her baby shower, she recalls a prediction game the family had her play. Variations of this game are played at baby showers in most Indian cultures.
"I was given two bowls of kheer (a dessert), and asked to pick one. One had a coin hidden in it and the other had a ring. If I happened to choose the one with the ring, the baby would be a girl and if I picked the coin, it would be a boy. The bowl I picked turned out to have a ring. Everyone around me - the same people who were egging me to play the game - immediately began telling me 'Don't worry, it will be a boy'."
Dhanya went on to have another daughter. While cute comments like ‘your family is not complete’ keep coming her way, she couldn't be a happier mom.
Never underestimate the power of a clairvoyant kheer.
Archana is married into a deeply religious family. Over the years, she has come across a number of rituals meant only for mothers of sons.
"Some families might be doing it differently but, at least in my in-laws’ community, there are a number of ceremonies - Ahoi Ashtami, Sakat Pooja, Holika Pooja, Sheetla Devi Pooja, Kuan Poojan, Kundwara Pooja - in which only mothers of sons are allowed to participate. There are special fasts mothers keep for their sons' long life. The long life of daughters is not worthy of the same symbolic gesture, apparently. The worst thing is that these rituals are conducted by women and for women."
Archana says that, in the name of culture and tradition, these rituals serve to carry forward the same mindset from generation to generation.
"At one such pooja, an aunt rudely told my sister-in-law to go and sit outside because she has a daughter. I have a son but I decided to politely tell the elders to please continue without me as well. I can't fathom the effect such cruelty has on these young women, and the staggered impact some might be passing on to their daughters. Many of the young women who are made to feel inferior or superior today based on the gender of their child will, in turn, grow up to perpetuate the same practices tomorrow."
Just going to leave this here without comment before we move on:
When Rashmi was born, her father became the first brother (out of five) to have a daughter as his firstborn.
"We lived in a joint family. When someone came home and we kids were being introduced, I was always introduced in a tone of consolation. 'Oh, the youngest brother has a daughter. Here she is.' It was as if my very existence was my parents' biggest failure."
Rashmi's mother internalized this feeling of failure. And then, she had another daughter. She became depressed and bitter.
"Growing up, we would hear relatives ask our parents, 'So, you have two daughters. What have you planned?' as if a contingency plan was needed to manage the disaster of having daughters. People would tell my parents, 'Why are you spending so much on their education? Teach them how to cook.' These are actual conversations happening in educated families."
All of Rashmi's dreams growing up were scrutinized through the lens of her gender.
"I was interested in dance. I was told 'Acche ghar ki ladkiyaan naach-gaana nahi karti.' (Girls from decent families don't sing and dance.) I was interested in art. I was told 'This is not appropriate for girls.' I was pushed to focus only on studies. Today, I earn more than any of the boys in the family. But I have never received affection from my mother for it. Nothing matters because I can never compensate enough for not being her son."
When Rashmi got married, it took being treated like an outsider to a whole new level.
"My wedding would always be discussed at home as 'Humein toh kaam niptaana hai' (We have to get this burden off our chests.) Recently, I spoke up in a family discussion about an ancestral property and my uncle publicly told me, 'Tum ab iss ghar ki nahi ho. Tum kuch mat bolo. Tumhara jab kaam hoga hum tumhe bula lenge.' (You are no longer a part of this family. So don't speak. We will call you when you have a role to play.) No one countered him. My own parents stayed silent."
The property issue came to a head eventually, and Rashmi offered to buy an apartment for her parents to stay in while the matter resolved.
"It took me 2-3 years to convince them to let me do it. They are moving into the house now. But they are very ashamed of it. They don't want people to find out how the house was financed because people will say 'beti ke paise se liya hai' (it was bought with the daughter's money). Coming from me, even this gesture is tainted for them. If I had been their son, they would have announced from rooftops what their wonderful son had done for them."
Anushka was born in a low-income family. She says that poverty meant that relationships were seen in purely transactional terms in her family. And a daughter was not a relationship worth a lot of investment.
"I don't think my mother ever loved me. I once complained to my class teacher that my mother loves my brother more than me. I must have felt it very deeply as a child to announce it to an outsider like this."
Anushka's parents allowed her brother to be lazy, whether it was housework or schoolwork. In stark contrast, they expected Anushka to work hard, both at home and school. The strictness went to the point of violence.
"I remember my mom would put inordinate pressure on me, as if that would atone for my sin of being a daughter. One night, she was teaching me fractions at 2am. They hadn’t even taught it at school yet. I was sleepy and unable to follow. She got so angry with me that she took a junk piece of metal and hit me on my head. I started bleeding and had to be taken to a hospital. As a child, I thought this was normal parental behaviour. In fact, I felt guilty for not being able to keep up with the fractions, when she was clearly so concerned about me."
Though she doubtless carried the scars of her childhood, Anushka went on to do very well academically. Guess if that made a difference.
"I graduated from one of India's best business schools, and landed a high-paying job. My parents decided that now I owe them money. I began supporting them financially, even when it meant having to cut corners in my own life. Meanwhile, they would keep mentioning that, as the daughter, I should expect no part in the family inheritance as it will all go to my brother (who still took money from them as an adult)."
It was not until Anushka got married that she saw what a loving family can actually be like. She realized they were exploitative but continued to make an effort with her parents.
Until she had a daughter of her own.
"As is custom, I went to my mother's place to stay after my delivery. My parents made no attempts to hide their disappointment that I had had a daughter. They refused to help me with the baby, refused to even touch her. And they insisted that I pay the bills of the house - electricity, water, maintenance - for the duration of my stay there."
Anushka has now severed all ties with her parents.
"Every now and then, I recollect a childhood memory of how I was punished and tell it to my husband to ask him 'Is this normal?' He is often horrified and says 'No it isn't!' It was one thing when all this happened to me. But I will never let it happen to my daughter. This cycle ends with me."
Yamini's friend is married into a family of doctors. The husband is an engineer from one of India's most prestigious engineering colleges. A few months ago, her friend called up Yamini in tears, seeking advice.
"This 'educated man' - her husband - was insisting that instead of conceiving a child naturally, they should get a gender selection IVF done to ensure that a 'Vansh' (an heir) is born."
IVF (in-vitro fertilization) is a very difficult process for a woman, to put it mildly. It involves fertility drugs, hormone injections, invasive tests, and surgical procedures. For a woman who can conceive naturally to be expected to go through it is insane enough, let alone her husband's noble motivation behind it.
"I knew my friend didn’t need to hear what I thought about her garbage-of-a-human husband right then. So I tried to focus on helpful advice and told her that, in all probability, it would be illegal in India (turns out I was correct) and that no decent doctor will do it for them. She went back consoled, and said a determined NO to her husband."
But it left Yamini seething with anger.
"This hit me really close to heart. This is personal. It is personal because I am a girl, and because I have a girl."
Yamini is all too familiar with the horrors that are unleashed behind closed doors, even in the most well-to-do and educated families of our society.
"I have a sister-in-law who has had six abortions to have a boy. I have heard stories of women forced to undergo sex determination scans during their pregnancy against their will. Most elders will still bless a married woman with a 'Putrawati Bhava' (may you be blessed with a boy). All of it makes my blood boil."
She might have kept her opinions to herself to support a friend. But Yamini has decided to speak her mind when it is her own daughter in question.
"I know I can’t change the world but it is my job to at least protect my daughter. My daughter is not a consolation prize. No girl is! We wanted a girl. We got her and she is the center of our little universe. I am not okay with our society making daughters feel like they are less-than.
Now, every time someone makes an off-hand comment about needing a boy for their old age, or talks about a girl as a burden, I call them out. I tell them about the scores of women I know who are supporting their parents. I tell them that no child of mine can ever be a burden for us. And if they have a problem with that, they can very well take a walk!"
Take a walk. With a ghost. Because if we continue to bribe the Gods just right, and continue to treat our daughters just wrong, those might soon be the only females left.
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