It happens so often that I wondered why it irked so much. A pale, undernourished, breathless, fully pregnant women walked in for her first!! antenatal checkup. On being told that it was her fourth child I asked her why she was risking her life producing so many children. The question elicited the usual response. She summarily dismissed her three previous born, “Sab ladkiyan hain ji. Unka kya hai, apne ghar ki ho jayengi” ( All are daughters, they will leave for their marital homes ). A prevalent belief despite the fact that repeated studies have shown that though sons take health decisions for them, daughters are the primary caregivers of elderly parents.
So when there was nothing unusual about it why was I so annoyed. Was it because the patient didn’t know better or was it because her husband had greeted me with a cheerful “Jai Mata di”, a common salutation in this region during the Navratris . In any case I couldn’t decide whom to feel more sorry for. The women who thought she would be redeemed if she produced a son, her hypocritical husband who worships the female form on a pedestal but not off it, the three daughters who don’t even count or the unborn whose life is ruined either way.
If it’s a girl she will join her sisters in a lifetime of despondency and bias, that is, if she survives the initial neglect of miffed parents. Surprisingly, things will be no better for a boy. The coveted son, the bearer of their name, the carrier of their protoplasm, the protector of their honour, the provider for their old age and the igniter of their funeral pyre. He, who will grant them a life worth living and a death worth dying for. He, who will rescue them from the cycle of rebirths and help them attain salvation. With so much pinned on him, he is doomed too.
But ‘Great Expectations’ are only part of the problem. A child that is seen as a saviour, a messiah , will be treated as one too. Fawned over by grandparents, waited on hand and foot by parents and indulged, perhaps grudgingly by siblings. The entire clan, grateful for his birth, catering to his every whim and wish. Is it surprising that he grows up with a sense of privilege and entitlement? That he thinks of himself as a blessing to his family, to mankind itself. A boy who grows up getting preferential treatment over his sisters is bound to think he is superior to them. It is only natural then, that after being spoilt rotten when he is unleashed on society he will join the force of misguided, misogynist men who undervalue women.
Driven by putra moh we needlessly pamper our sons turning them into male chauvinistic bigots who berate women. This attitude has far reaching consequences. We can cry ourselves hoarse chanting Beti bachao, beti padhao, but little will change. In Haryana, the female literacy rate has risen to 65% over the last twenty years, but the sex ratio continues to be abysmally low. Although education increases their potential, daughters need to be empowered socially and economically to fight the deeply resistant malady of son preference. Vlassoff, who has authored Gender Equality and Inequality in Rural India, Blessed with a Son has observed that to produce a son, women were willing to have upto three daughters, two of them unwanted. He further says that social and economic empowerment have a greater bearing on the number of daughters a woman is prepared to have in the hope of having a son than economic development which is quantified by the assets a family owns.
Social empowerment is an outcome of education, freedom to travel and make decisions. Economic empowerment is symbolised by a woman’s employment status. These two can not be achieved unless gender perception changes and women get an opportunity to grow. To create a society conducive to this we have to rethink the way we bring up our children. Pick up any school textbook and it is filled with misogynist filth. It could be seemingly innocuous things like showing girls with rolling pins and boys with stethoscopes which send subtle messages of gender roles, or asserting that ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘girls are weak’. We need to stop bombarding the pliable minds of children with this redundant patriarchy. Gender sensitisation has to start in our homes and schools. Only when we catch them young and make them grow will we have a generation of truly progressive youth.
The other day a man brought his sullen face ‘prodigal’ son for an ultrasound examination. When I asked his name the man laughed and said ‘ Sawa Lakh’ ( 1.25 lacs). “What type of name is that?” I wondered out aloud and the man chuckled happily. “Teen betiyon pe haath laga sai, mhare mein aise ko sawa lakh bola karein.” ( He was born after three daughters. We call such sons 1.25 lacs). I controlled my irritation, something which I rarely do. As I was finishing the scan, in some context, the father lamented, “Doctor sahib tham hi samjha do isko. Ke karein?Jo hum kuchh bolein toh mhare ko kataan bhage .” ( Doctor please explain it to him yourself. If we try to teach him anything he runs to bite us. What can we do?). Barely hiding my sarcasm, I retorted, “You can begin by not calling him Sawa lakh.” Giving extra credit for an extra appendage has its pitfalls!
( published as a part of my column ‘ So Ordinary ‘ in the Tribune on 31/3/2018)