Do you know how, once you noticed something new around you, it keeps popping up everywhere you look? My friend Dhruva Ghosh is the epitome of this phenomenon. Once you’ve met him, he will pop up everywhere you go. Most of the new people you meet will know him, and references to things he did and said will jump at you from conversations.
The same happened to me yesterday, with the matter of gender-equity and the way girls are treated in our society. It began with a few people of my social media friend warmly recommending a video on Facebook. The video was called ‘the Girl Effect‘. It’s a well meaning piece, sweet, but considerably less than impressive.
Informally called ‘The Clock is Ticking’, the video makes the same assumption a recent Hillary Clinton quote on maternal health does. It assumes that people treat women horribly in direct and subtle ways simply because they know no better. Once you tell them how criminalising abortion or raping a poor (as in poverty-struck, not ‘aww, the poor dear’) 12-year old ruins her entire life completely, they will all be terribly contrite and draw their paws back in shame, and swear to rear female children, and treat growed-up wimmin with respect and care. And everybody will live happily ever after, underneath a mango tree with their honey.
Perhaps the project seeks to infuse gender-rights activism with hope – that elixir for existence in the long, dark, dank tunnels of despair. Or perhaps, like so many people in the world today, it prefers to trade the complex enterprise of understanding for the happy-making illusion of efficacy. More power to its intentions. However, it misses the point of gendered deprivation in a very crucial manner.
Overt sexual violence, while alarmingly wide-spread and often debilitating to the victim (and also traumatising to those in the same demography, witnessing the regularity of violence directed at their kind), is not the worst a poverty-struck pre- or post-pubsescent girl has to face in our society. That distinction goes to the structure of her entire life, which consists chiefly of resource-deprivation, lack of control over her life’s decisions, lack of control over access to her body, lack of control over her fertility, and a lack of security so pervasive that most girls adopt strict self-censorship of movement, clothes and speech as a form of ‘safety’.
The thing about such visceral violence is that it doesn’t do the evil overlord laughter from rooftops. It is normalised; made to seem like the right way of doing things. The only way of doing things, even, preventing victims (or victims-in-waiting) from developing the capability to even consider alternatives.
The result is frequently a pattern of self-selected deprivation. Frequently during lunches at state schools, for example, we observed that if there is a mixed-gender sibling pair studying together, then the girl picks out much of the protein and vegetables from her dish and gives it to the boy, and eats just the rice and gravy (or just the rice) herself. In the most recent incident, when asked why she gave her older brother the egg and potatoes from her plate and ate plain rice herself, a seven-year-old said that it was all right, since she had had a good lunch the day before. Why she should sacrifice her lunch today to compensate for the “good lunch” she – and her brother – had the previous day was unclear to me, but seemed almost self-evident to her. Perhaps she has been conditioned by male-preference in her environment to believe that a woman doesn’t deserve more than one square meal every two days, even if it is given to her.
So the very basic assumption of the video — that a poor girl in a third-world country around her twelfth birthday is a “healthy” child, and merely keeping her out of marriage and in school will ensure flourishing health, safety and independence — is fundamentally flawed. And damning to the entire project, it pushes the baseline of the very variables it seeks to improve beyond their best possible projected success, making their own contribution superfluous.
It’s really a very simple sentence. “At twelve, a poor girl from the developing world is healthy”. It is also the luxury of a fairy-tale, a happily-ever-after we cannot afford. So hope is all very well, and certainly necessary to keep the camp-fires going. But today, all I feel like is John Stuart Mill’s stern moralising, wonderfully refreshing in its cynicism, stark realism, and cynicism. It certainly does away with false hope and unfounded good cheer:
…in the existing constitution of things… it was wrong to bring women up with any acquirements but those of an odalisque, or of a domestic servant.
To make things extra-right, perhaps they could toss in a lobotomy. Wouldn’t that be peachy?
Sigh. Sometimes, I think, being a unthinking doormat would make life easier for women.