Friday, September 14, 2007

Of Mothers and Daughters: Debjani Banerjee

It was one of the rare sunny afternoons in August and we were celebrating my niece’s tenth birthday with a barbeque party. Watching her play around with her friends I was reminded of the day she was born. When the telephone call had come on a Saturday evening, I rushed over to my parent’s house to celebrate. My mother organized a puja to thank the Lord in her way and invited everybody over. We still had not stopped smiling when a well meaning neighbour came over to commiserate with my mother. ‘Don’t worry, may be next time.’ A neighbour who had just had a grandson echoed the same sentiments. I tried to picture my sister’s face and imagined people pitying her for delivering a beautiful, healthy baby girl. I was livid but my mother, having borne 3 daughters and 0 sons, was used to this sympathy and took it in her stride, just as she had remained calm for so many years in the face of much whispered rantings of ‘Who is going to look after them? They have only daughters.’ She had remained calm and confident as we had gone through our lives studying to be professionals (like other male children) getting jobs (like other male children) taking responsibility for our households (unlike other male children) and parents (like some male children). She remains equally calm now when the same commentators enviously say, (looking at us I hope) ‘It’s easier to bring up girls rather than boys.’ All’s well that ends well.

I was prodded out of my almost pleasant reverie by a news item on NDTV, ‘Bombay High Court upholds sex test ban.’ The petition was filed by a couple, Vijay and Kirti Sharma, residents of Lokhandwala complex in Andheri; they wanted to use sex determination to have a male child as they already have two daughters.

In their petition they said that in a ''less advanced society'' like India where a ''patriarchal mindset exists'' and where a ''girl child is not socially accepted,'' it is better that such children are not born. It was followed by a short and quick interview with Kirti Sharma, who said that, the ban on sex determination tests does not take into account the trauma a mother goes through when she finds out that the second child is of the same gender as the first!!
Others milling around the television found the incident funny. Someone suggested, ‘If I send my two hyper active two year old to them for a day, they’ll change their minds about wanting a son.’ But I could not join in their light hearted banter. It’s not an unknown fact that in many, perhaps the majority of the Indian households, the male child is looked upon as the ultimate blessing. The Sharmas perhaps even deserve a pat on their backs for trying to legalize something others are doing anyway. It is no secret that ever since prenatal sex determination tests have been banned in India people have explored many loopholes. For the right fee, doctors find ways around the law by revealing gender through gestures and codes. Advertisements saying, ‘Pay 500 now to avoid paying 5 lakhs later,’ are clear evidence of the existence of such practices.

But the issue that kept troubling me is that the Sharmas had two daughters and wanted a male heir; not only that they wished that the girl children were not even born? What message was Kirti Sharma sending to her daughters? That they were second best? That they were associated with stigma? Ten years down the line I could see the Sharmas struggling to put together a huge dowry to buy a son in law instead of turning right around and teaching their daughters to believe in themselves and be independent in social and economic terms. I cannot accept that my ten year old niece and five year old daughter, who are beautiful, intelligent, loving children, could be so easily dismissed as second-best. In fact, as a parent, is it not my responsibility to fight discrimination in any form? I thanked my parents for allowing us to live and blossom in an environment in the 70s and 80s where such inequalities were far away fictions. Looking around me now, I realize that it must have been a hard task and I congratulate them for that.

It is ten long years since my mother was consoled for having a granddaughter after three daughters. So much seems to have changed and yet so little! While women, in urban India at least, have made huge progress in every field imaginable, the Sharmas and perhaps many others seem to think that the girl child is not accepted in India. The Sharmas who live in an upmarket area in Bombay have argued that affluent couples who have the financial and social means should be allowed to choose the sex of the child as opposed to couples who use such tests to have only male children.
But isn’t that convoluted logic? Is it not one and the same thing? Is it not even more problematic to have daughters and sons and treat them as unequal?

There are two relevant issues to ponder upon and they may be linked. Firstly, there does not seem to be a way for the woman’s movement or individual women achievers to get through to this particular section of women – the affluent, upper middle class (if you like gradations) woman for whom modern India seems to have afforded a life of convenience and even moderate luxury. Women like Mrs Sharma are not able to identify with the fruits of the women’s movement, they have never had the conviction that women can be empowered in society or at least till they are, they can struggle for it.

Secondly, it seems to me that the Sharmas seem to be locked in the wrong battle. They are clearly vocal people who can speak up for their rights but perhaps their cause is a little misplaced? Why not use the same resources to challenge the “patriarchal mindset” that according to them, does not socially accept the girl child? Now, that could be a battle worth pursuing and it would make their daughters’ life easier. Why not fight dowry and other injustices that may contribute to the girl child being discriminated against? Wouldn’t that be a more concrete battle, improving the lives of their daughters instead of trying to add numbers to a population that is bursting at the seams?

The one silver lining in the whole issue is perhaps the stance of Justice Ranjana Desai who is among the few women judges in the Bombay High court. She has written that ''Sex selection is not only against the spirit of the Indian Constitution, it also insults and humiliates womanhood. It violates a woman's right to life.” It is not always easy to be so vocal about women’s rights even when and perhaps specially when one is in a position to do so. But she has come out and condemned the Sharmas’ arguments as shocking and upheld the ban in no uncertain terms.

So three cheers to her and to the spirit of our legal system!


D A E said...

Bravo! While social activists in India have been crying themselves hoarse about the rights of the girl child, rare is the voice that is raised against the disgustingly regressive mindset that is paraded by the new middle class time and again in the name of 'being cognizant of social relaities'. 'Being cognizant of social realities' can include subscribing unquestioningly to any or all of the following dogmas/platitudes: 1. The girl child doesn't have as good a deal in life as the boy child, so it's strategically prudent to want a male child, 2. The majority of Muslims in India were originally low caste Hindus, so it is socially impossible to establish a uniform civil code, 3. A professional degree (medicine, engineering, management)gives you more leverage in life than a skill-set based diploma, so it is necessary to pursue the former at the cost of your natural talents and inclinations, 4. Corruption is a social reality and to stand in its way achieves nothing except to put oneself to inconvenience and hamper the progress of a functioning machinery, and best of all 5. Your stars foretell your future, so in these competitive times you must ensure that your child is born (typically by premature caesarean section)at an auspicious time under a favourable star. The new middle class will say that by subscribing to these ideas which arise out of an incomplete and half-baked understanding of social realities they are doing their children a favour; the truth is that by trying to give their children a leg-up in the battle of natural selection, they are only providing their offspring with a handicap--psychological more than anything--that does them a disservice. We want our children to be true representatives of the brighter, more knowledgeable, more truthful India of tomorrow, not, to borrow Yeats's phrase, unnamed monsters slouching towards bethlehem to be born. Bravo again for the voice you raised!

ishani said...

Besides being written in a highly read-able style, this post is certainly a very important one. The universal prevalence of dowry in North India - in middle and upper class families - leaves me utterly dumbfounded. I live in a housing complex of middle & junior ranking police officials and every wedding season there are mind-boggling weddings all around. Families, who usually save pennies on their day-to-day grocery bills suddenly turn into multi-millionaires it appears from the amount of money that goes into weddings paraphernalia of girls - that of course includes hard core dowry such as new cars, literally with ribbons tied around them and various other white goods such as refigerators etc. I know a couple of cases where these great marriages have lasted a few months after which the girl comes back empty handed having left all her jewellery, the cars, gadgets, money etc behind to her parents' home - probably feeling lucky to be alive. Horrendous cases have recently come to light in both North & West India where large numbers of female foetuses have been destroyed in connivance with unscrupulous doctors and clinics. Yet another face of this same social evil are the aggressive young men from well to do families who one encounters every evening on the roads of Delhi or Mumbai driving big cars - usually drunk - and often causing accidents on the road. They alomost always consider themselves above the law of the land. Again the harrassment of young women mostly from Punjab by their NRI husbands in foreign countries, too, is linked to the same broad theme. Since this is not linked to poverty or lack of educational facilities, there's not much that the educational cess that we're paying with our taxes can do. But yet there's definitely need for education and increasing awareness levels. ELse the great India shining theme will be completely meaningless.

Ananya Mukherjee Reed said...

Ditto to the first two comments!

Debjani said...

d a e -- thanks for the succint summation of everything that passes in the name of 'social reality' or 'practical considerations' in urban upper middle class India. You have a great list of ideologies or prejudices here and I was thinking of checking your list against a school curriculum to see how many of these values our education system upholds and in what way. Where else to start if one wants children, especially girls, to believe in themselves?
Ishani, thanks for elaborating on the issue of dowry which is ofcourse inextricably bound with the issue of unwanted daughters. Ironically the changed economic scenario has spawned bigger and 'louder' dowries as you point out.In spite of the laws being in place, everyone connives in this silence until after the bride is harmed.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Stating the obvious, Debjani, though I suppose it needs saying until things change. Two points stick in the mind.

One, that the Sharmas should spend their energies trying to change the system instead of accepting it.

Second - "studying to be professionals (like other male children) getting jobs (like other male children) taking responsibility for our households (unlike other male children) and parents (like some male children)". Ouch! I hear that at home every day - you're friends because you've thought alike for nearly 40 years!


Debjani said...

Prufrock, its interesting that you point out the similarity in our ways of thinking--I am thinking now whether school it is that inculcates these values or is it the family? Where does one's sense of self worth as a woman begin? So if Mousumi and I are thinking the same things where did Mrs Sharma and the others imbibe a different set of cultural values which says that you have to have a male heir to make your life worth living?
On a different note, why are you hearing this at home every day, you aren't saying horrible patriarchal things to provoke such a response, are you? keep writing

Anonymous said...

A tongue-in-cheek suggestion for the Sharmas of this world : Why don't they start adopting male children and thereby get rid of the stigma of only having daughters? Or would that not work as the son is not from the same exalted lineage ?