The Womb Politic

Recently, my friend Mandy directed some questions posed by a group of American high-school students me. These students 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. To them, anyway.

It’s not surprising, really, that after Mandy’s brief lecture, most of the questions were about sex, contraception, abortion, women’s bodies, and the socio-legality around them. What seemed to trip most of them–immersed as they are in a religio-political culture obsessed with the social life of the fertile womb–was that abortion in India is common and fairly non-controversial and provided for by the government, despite India being an unabashedly “conservative” country. But the thing that appeared to really pull the carpet from under their feet was that fact that the Indian government spends a great deal of time and money on anti-abortion campaigns… as part of their progressive agenda.

Diversity, eh? It’s a conundrum like no other.

For the sake of mildly narcissistic self-documentation, here is my consolidated response to their questions:

“Those are very interesting questions, actually. Especially since they highlight all the things I’m sure Mandy has spoken to you about. Cultural difference, cultural understanding, and how the same legal ‘rights’ can function 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.

The Indian government and reproductive rights

Mandy got nearly everything abortion-related neatly packed in to her answer above. As she points out, the pro/anti abortion debate does not really 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. This is the only reproductive matter around which there is some political debate, because people fear that these programmes might be used to stop poor people or the minorities from procreating as freely as the rich or the majority groups.

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 social behaviour, or are too culturally conservative to allow women to work.

On an average, the communities which have the most ‘natural’ male:female sex ratio in India are the tribal communities. They happen to be both amongst the poorest communities in the country, and the community with almost 100% female participation in paid work.

So, if the parents practising female-specific abortion and infanticide can afford to raise a girl, why don’t they?

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 or middle-class 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 are incapable of making 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 automatically).

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 dowry. In other words, if you have a daughter, you will have to bear the cost of raising her, and then spend even more money giving her an expensive wedding and a dowry. After the wedding, she will go live with her husband or his family, and will not benefit your family in any way.

On the other hand, raising boys also cost money, but this cost can be recouped when he gets married (by way of a huge dowry). He will also keep contributing to his parents well-being because he will have a job, and his will take over the responsibility of the 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 became a tradition, irrespective of its availability and price. American expats sometimes pay rather steep prices for turkey in countries it’s not easily available, because it’s a holiday tradition they don’t want to break. It has become part of their culture.

This is exactly why in India, we hear of otherwise educated and ‘modern’ people practising sex-selective abortions. The original context of why men are more valuable than women have stopped mattering to these people, but the idea that a girl child is somehow ‘bad’ for the family’s happiness has remained. This is also why mothers are sometimes prepared to abort their female foetus–they know they will be shamed and devalued by their families if they give birth to a child of the unwanted gender.

Sex-selective Abortion as ‘Prevention’
There is another reason for women choosing gender-specific abortions, or even infanticide. “I saved her from a life of shame and fear”, a woman who had escorted her daughter-in-law to the abortion clinic once told me. “In poor families like ours, my granddaughter would have been undereducated, overworked and beaten by her family. Maybe even I would have cursed her whenever I thought of her marriage costs. A woman’s life is so hard.”

This is actually a painfully frequent reason for certain women choosing not to have daughters. It’s almost, they say, an act of love. I personally find it hard to understand that point of view, but then I have never walked in their shoes.

Are there support groups for survivors?
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. Making people aware of the problems in their cultural ideas, so that they can be more supportive of their families and friends–that has been our model so far. 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 sections of the Indian Penal Code that 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. It has to be done on the long term, by activists, government health workers and other people deeply rooted in the community, whom the community trusts, respects and listens 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 🙂



  1. I’m not sure which side of political assholery I prefer — the religious fanatics who appreciate a fetus more than an adult soldier or “saving” girls from lifetimes of drudgery and thusly saving the family from debt.

    I think our sex is done with being the ones with wombs. Let’s let the Y chromosomes handle that for a few hundred years and let us have a break. 😛

  2. very well explained, Priyanka.. I remember, long ago, reading a book called May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons… and sadly, i don’t think prevailing attitudes have changed much since that book was written.

    • Thanks, Rajkonya 🙂

      I remember seeing May You Be the Mother of a Thousand Sons, but I never actually read it. Perhaps I should try and see if I can fish out a copy. Keep dropping by 🙂

  3. These are the comments from Facebook, where this was posted as a note:

    Gautam Benegal: My God. You wrote a lot. I have given up writing so much in FB. Will read it soon.

    Gautam Benegal: Excellent article. Deserves a place in Caravan or Huffington Post. FB is ok, but… 🙂

    Me: Ish, thanks, Gautam. I’d aim for the many opinion and news portals, but one needs ‘connections’ to be published, and I haven’t the patience to cultivate any.

    Ruma Chakravarti: If you did have that kind of patience, you would probably not have produced such a brilliant and objective piece! One question, did any of them ask you about liberal middle to upper financial strata Indian families where educating their daughters is never a question that parents have to pause and think about? I find that a lot of people in this country know nothing about that group of Indians.

    Gautam Benegal: Excellence needs no connections. Keep sending. Usually publications are starved of good content. They will welcome you.

    Me: Keep sending maane, I’ve never sent except once when my boss asked me to. You’re right, they did publish it immediately.

    Gautam Benegal: 🙂 Precisely

    Gautam Benegal: Bangali ra bhitu hoy. All their talent gets used up in adda. Get out of it.

    Me: I haven’t the convenient genetic mix 😛

    Gautam Benegal: Exasperating.

    James W. Hoover: Of course, the great problem is that abortion is not a very efficient means of birth control, in terms of resources per result. The Soviet Union also ended up employing it as a primary means of birth-control, as do some sectors of the U.S. population, simply because adequate knowledge about contraception and access to contraceptives was / is not available. We blythely make the assumption in the U.S. that kids must know all about sex, now, because of what’s on T.V., but as one writer of erotica once noted, “T.V. does not and cannot portray sex realistically.” In fact, American kids can be remarkably ignorant, especially about the overall context of sex. American kids are incredibly sheltered, whereas everyone in India knows 1) that there is no safety net, and 2) that having a child out of wedlock basically ends your social life, education, career, etc. There are exceptions, but they could all ride in a minivan together. Finally, most Indian kids have seen poverty up-close and personal, even if they don’t understand it. Many American kids not only don’t ever see poverty, but they have no idea how much poor people have to pay for things like rent, etc., or how much people receive now in welfare benefits. And then we have our politicians, who have never grown up, who find it politically expedient *not* to understand these things. The female infanticide aspect is a whole other kettle of fish. The students in my Indian History classes rarely comprehend these issues in their entirety.

    Mandy Van Deven: Ah, to be fair, their preoccupation with all things womby was a result of having read a chapter I’d given them on female foeticide in India. So, I take full responsibility for that focus. Also, the class was only an hour long, so we only scratched the surface of things. (Donnabad for having such faith in this ol’ shada mohila.)

    Poushali Bhadury: Gautam, exasperating isn’t the word. Trust me. I’ve tried *many* over the years, haven’t I, Rimilettest? x-(

    Poushali Bhadury: Or problem ta holo je since she’s so good with words, shob kichhutei akta chyatang chyatang uttor acche. And madame is obstinate, to say the least. Mules have *nothing* on her.

    Gautam Benegal: Poushali Bhadury, Oi chatang chatang byaparta hides shyness. Onek gadha dekhechi jara Rimir nokher jogyo na tara shobar shamne mekur hoey thakey kintu thik jaygay giye er thekey onek nimnostoriyo lekha publish korey. Har sheyana shegulo. Then we look at them and say how could SUCH a person get so much mileage! Its fashionable to give gaali to Chetan Bhagat because he is so fuckin’ godawful but look at the bastard’s pizazz.

    Dipanjan Chattopadhyay: What Gautam said. You should be read widely and often.

    Soumik Datta: Even if you use butter to translate ghee, bhoshmo isn’t fire by any means. It completely changes the meaning, the image, the metaphor, whatever you will.

    ME: Soumik, this is what I said to a good friend, to raised the same point moments after the post was published (James, let me know if you agree): “for a mixed audience, fire is more accessible a metaphor of wastage. ‘Bhoshme ghee dhala’ — the original — implies waste slightly differently. It implies lateness. The ghee comes too late for ghreetahuti [sacrificing ghee to the gods via a sacred fire]: the fire is long gone, and even the embers are cold. It’s a very poignant image. But for those that don’t even know what ghreetahuti might be, isn’t ‘fire’ a better metaphor?

    James W. Hoover: @Rimi… yes, I would agree that in that context the Western part of a mixed audience would have to have both knowledge (and awareness) of the nuances and details of sacrificial ritual to get the meaning. Fire would work better.

    Soumik Datta: Na rey Rimi, your argument doesn’t hold. Sacrifice and the intricacies of the context of “ghreetahuti” is immaterial, Westerners may not know bout a sacrificial rite, but they know very well what happens when you pour butter into a live fire or into a dead one. Pouring butter into fire makes it burn stronger, pouring butter into cold embers doesn’t have any effect – you can’t revive a fire by pouring butter/ghee/oil/any other form of lipids into its cold dead embers. That’s the point of the original figure of speech, which is directly opposite of what happens and what is conveyed by pouring butter into a live fire. So in effect, you are reversing the meaning of the image through your peculiar translation.

    I do nitpick at times, but I’m not nitpicking here. This just can’t stand, it needs rectification I think 🙂

  4. Priyanka observed, “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.”

    Mm, rather like a bicycle is a sign that the rider is too poor even to afford a motorcycle — that is, in that same way that affluence and socioeconomic status are signalled by one’s POSSESSIONS.

    Gautam stereotyped, “Bangali ra bhitu hoy.” Bhitu ba alase, difficult to tell which, but it is infectious. Even staying just a year in Kolkata, I felt my own balance between talk and action – and publication is a kind of action – tilting towards talk. Perhaps this oral or amical bias is one reason that the Statesman’s “Eighth Day” always is such a piece of crap: as what matters is what one says (or blogs) to known persons, the best material ought to be saved for addas (and blogs) rather than adulterated by broad publication. (Cue Walter Benjamin.)

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