The more slow-roasted ones amongst you precious lot might dismiss a recent enterprise of mine as pouring butter into fire — that’s a fancy local way of saying ‘wasting my time’ — but I thoroughly enjoyed the rather novel experience of answering questions about governance, rights and ethical variance in between India and ‘the West’, posed by American highschoolers of my friend Mandy’s acquittance. These children will be visiting India in March next year — sympathies on cue, everybody! — and Mandy has been given the frankly unenviable but rather enjoyable task, of bringing them up to scratch on this our strange and exotic land.
It’s not surprising, really, that several of the questions after Mandy’s brief lecture was about sex, contraception, abortion, and women’s bodies (these are American children, after all). What seemed to trip them, immersed as they are in an all-consuming religio-political culture dedicated to the potentially fertile womb, was that abortion was encouraged, provided for and completely non-controversial in a country as unabashedly ‘conservative’ as India. What really swept the carpet from under their feet, though, was that despite this completely discordant function of social conservatism (as they know it), the Indian government spends — or is arm-twisted into spending — a great deal of time and money into anti-abortion campaigns… as part of their progressive agenda.
Diversity, eh? It’s a conundrum like no other.
[There was also a very interesting question about the nature of administrative intervention in such ethical/moral issues which some might say were exclusively the domain of personal choice (or of organised religion ), which I addressed at the end of my response. I wonder how many of you would agree]
Here it is, then. My response to the questions outsourced to me about wombs, abortions, law, structural inequity, and why girls are made of frogs and snails, and puppy dogs’ tails:
Those are very interesting questions, actually. Especially since they highlight all the things I’m sure Mandy has spoken to you about — about cultural difference and understanding, and how the same legal ‘rights’ can function very very differently in different societies. What I’m going to add to this is a little bit of an ‘emic’ (or a cultural insider’s) perspective.
I should tell you, though, that Mandy is one of those rare smart, perceptive people who figure out the ‘emic’ views of a foreign culture very very quickly indeed. She’s got nearly everything abortion-related neatly packed in her answer above. As she points out, the pro/anti abortion debate does not exist in India. Abortion or contraception aren’t issues at all at any political level (though certain religious leaders from different communities do occasionally mention that it is people’s duty to be fruitful and multiply). Indeed, free public distribution of contraception and providing free tubal ligation/tubectomy and vasectomy for the people has long been on India’s public health agenda. There are political debates around this, but it’s centred around the fear that these programmes might be used to stop poor people or the minorities from procreating as freely as the rich majorities, not around the ‘ethics’ of contraception or abortion.
Let us first look at why women support female foeticide, or agree to female infanticide.
There was, for many years, a belief that ‘only the illiterate poor people from villages’, or ‘the barbaric tribal/native people’ follow such customs. The 2011 Census of India, however, showed very clearly what activists and researchers already knew, that female foeticide/infanticide is actually almost exclusively a middle-class and above phenomenon. It exists only in those poor areas where people try to be ‘respectable’ by copying middle-class standards, or are too socially conservative to allow women to work. The tribal-majority areas in India, in fact, had a male:female ratio closest to the ratio that would occur ‘naturally’, and those are communities with almost 100% female participation in paid work.
So, if parents can afford to raise a girl, why do they not want her?
It’s a question of culture and resources. A girl born into a poor family is an asset as long as she’s strong enough to work. A girl born into a conservative rich family, however, is a liability. It will hurt her family’s ‘honour’ to have a woman go out and earn money, because in a conservative household, women only work for pay when the men do not make enough for the whole family. In other words, a working woman is a sign that the men of the family are failures. It is a matter of shame not just for the men, but also for the women, because the whole community or neighbourhood will now see them as the mother/wife/daughter/sister/niece/grandchild of a ‘loser’. So, if a girl cannot be raised to be financially independent, what is she raised to do?
She’s raised to become a domestic person, ideally a wife and a mother. To find partners for your children is almost a social imperative in India — people believe that to be happy and fulfilled, both men and women need a spouse, and so it is the duty of their extended families to find them suitable matches (‘love’ is somewhat underrated in India, even now. There is a very firm belief that two well-matched ‘good’ people, living together, will find ‘true’ love with each other fairly soon). Thing is, how would you convince people to marry your daughter, if you’re discounting love? Well. You have to educate her and endow her with as many domestic skills as you can, and then sweeten the pot with large gifts/presents or dowries. Basically, what this dynamic boils down to is this: raising girls cost money, culminating in an expensive wedding and a huge dowry. Raising boys also cost money, but you can recoup the costs when he gets married, plus interest, and add a young woman’s domestic capabilites to your household.
What happens when the families actually don’t mind having working women? That’s even more interesting. See, the thing with traditions is that they start for a specific reason, but they soon assume a life of their own. People started eating turkey on holidays because they were easily available and cheap, but a few years down, eating turkey on those holidays have become a tradition, irrespective of its availability and price. American expats sometimes pay rather steep prices for it, because to them, it is a part of their identity. This is why in India, we hear of tenured professors paying for a gender-id on their daughters-in-law’s foetus, and insisting on abortions if it is a girl. The original context of why men are more valuable than women have ceased to matter for these people, but the now-deeply held belief that somehow, intrinsically, women are less valuable than men has remained. This is also why mothers want to abort their female foetus — they know they will be shamed and devalued as women who gave birth to a child of the unwanted gender.
There is another reason for women choosing gender-specific abortions, or even infanticide. “I saved her from a life of shame, dependence, domestic drudgery and constant threat of sexual exploitative”, a woman who had escorted her daughter-in-law to the abortion clinic told me. “In poor families like ours, she will be overworked, undereducated, cursed and beaten by her frustrated family — maybe even us — whenever we think of the cost of her impending marriage. And once she reaches puberty there will be the constant worry of keeping her safe — our village is very backward, no one will marry her if word got around that she’d loved or slept with men before her marriage. And what will a girl do if she doesn’t get married?” This is actually a painfully frequent reason for certain women choosing not to have daughters. It’s almost, they say, an act of love.
Finally, the matter of support groups. The idea of support groups is still fairly alien, even in urban, metropolitan India. Despite western ideas of privacy and individuality coming in for years now, we’re still a very community and family-centric culture. When people feel the need to talk, they talk to their families or friends. The idea of sharing troubles with complete strangers feels ‘wrong’, because we think that to understand our problem properly, people will first have to understand us and understand where we are in our lives at the moment. A therapist might patiently listen if we tell him or her, but why bring an outsider and a stranger up to speed when we have so many people close by who know us (and our lives) intimately?
The aim in India, therefore, has always been community awareness rather than focus groups or support groups. Make people aware of the problems in their cultural ideas, so that they can be more supportive of their families and friends — that has been the model followed here in most such matters. Of course, this isn’t to say considerable legal measures haven’t been taken — determining the sex of the foetus is illegal, for example, and there are special branches of the IPC which deal with sex-selective abortions, whether or not the pregnant woman chose it for herself. But, our government also works on the principle that if a whole society is complicit in a certain act, then no amount of law-making will stop it. The idea, therefore, is to change the way some parts of India think. And this cannot be done by ordering people to stop thinking, or else. It has to be done on the long term, by activists, government health workers and other people deeply rooted in the community, whom people trust, respect and listen to. So I suppose, if we speak of support groups, these are the people who function as such.
Thank you for letting me speak to you. I spoke an awful lot, I know, but it has been a pleasure