The news of my pregnancy shot quickly from Madison, WI USA to India in the spring of 2010. I was exhausted during my first trimester, and often went to bed early. Nonetheless, I took phone calls from bed even at night to accept the congratulations. One caller said somberly in Tamil, “I wish you all the best, and may God bless you with a baby boy.” I knew that such comments were coming from a sincere and loving place, so I thanked the well-wisher for the sentiment and refrained from expressing that my greatest hope was to have a baby girl.
The recent Indian census report puts the infant sex ratio at an appalling 914 girls to 1000 boys. Although India is slowly but steadily becoming more progressive, misogynistic practices still prosper. Some of these customs are well-known and vicious, like dowry, domestic violence against women, and even (rarely) sati. Other sexist practices are more subtle and even expected. Women are to serve meals and tea while men kick their feet up. Women who indulge in alcoholic drink are frowned upon, while it is sanctioned for men. Unmarried boys can come and go as they please while girls are often questioned at every turn.
Sex-selective abortion is one sexist Indian practice that is swept under the rug, latent but endemic. While revealing a fetus’s gender through ultrasound is illegal in India, this ban is rarely enforced. A 2008 Columbia study shows that sex-selective abortion is prevalent even among American NRIs. With pressure from husbands and in-laws, otherwise accomplished and assertive women crumble and abort in favor of the desire for sons. In a diaspora boasting highly educated and skilled women, women who are seen as assertive on campus and in the workplace, men are often still given reign of the household. These phenomena collectively fuel the prevailing western notion that in India, women are second-class citizens.
The typical American attitude for a first child is to be happy with a healthy baby of either gender. Why then, did my heart yearn so deeply for a girl? Partly there was the desire to have a mini-me, to dress up, to take to the mall, to shun watching football. Retrospectively I see that a huge part of my longing also stemmed from my rather atypical family experience. My cousins and I joke that our side of the family does its fair share of equalizing the male to female ratio in India. My grandmother valiantly left her cruel husband decades ago, while pregnant with my mother and with two young children. Such a deed is uncommon in India today, and was virtually unheard of back then. She joined a household with her sister and my Thatha and the three of them raised five intelligent and assertive girls and one boy. The next set of kids was my generation, nine girls and two boys. My sister and I were born and raised in the U.S. but went to India often growing up. During these visits, we learned that it was normal for girls to run the show. With personalities ranging from observant and reserved to outgoing and boisterous, my cousins, aunts, and amichis were an example of a woman’s ability to act as she pleases. Although this description exudes a rather 90s-esque “Girl Power” cliché, it’s quite remarkable considering that even today women in India are often viewed as Mr. So-and-so’s daughter or wife.
My mother was always more than happy with two daughters, and radiated a pride in her womanhood, an attitude that permeated my psyche. This pride seemed to thrive in all the women in the family, in turn emanating naturally to all of the daughters. The girls grew up in an environment in which major decisions were discussed between moms and dads. In India, the moms and grandmothers would regularly take the girls out unaccompanied to movies or restaurants. Seemingly negligible anomalies like these combined to instill confidence and self-worth in the girls, a confidence debatably best imparted by example.
Years later, I am the first in my generation on my mom’s side to have a child. During my pregnancy, my cousins and family in India waited with bated breath. In contrast to the typical Indian hope for a boy, at least a few of my “sisters” were openly hoping that the first of this new generation would add to the gang of girls. When my 20 week ultrasound showed it was a girl, my family in America and in India was ecstatic to hear the news. Needless to say, my Facebook page was ablaze with happiness and good wishes. They were flabbergasted that in the U.S., women can legally find out their baby’s gender. Today, my 15-month-old is the gem and princess of all sides of the clan.
This begs the question, how typical or unusual was my experience in this day and age? Although India is seen as being steeped in sexist traditions, there is an undeniable multitude of powerful, confident, and successful Indian and NRI women. While the stereotype of Indian society favoring men is obviously based in some truth, why does it continue to be so prevalent?
To me, the most important question: To what extent is the stereotype a self-fulfilling prophecy? More and more Indian women are reaching the same heights as men. They are admitted to top universities that men strive to attend. They are CEOs, doctors, entrepreneurs, authors. Meanwhile, Indian women are still afraid to challenge their husbands or speak up in a crowd, some girls are denied education while their brothers are provided for, and female fetuses are aborted. While women may be achieving advanced degrees and careers like their male counterparts, many of these same accomplished women still fall into a traditional mold, answering to their husbands behind the scenes. While girls these days are taught more and more to strive for success academically, they are kept in their place when it comes to personal relationships with males. Although this is often the case in western families as well, it is arguably more common in Indian families. When an Indian is questioned about these realities, many will say, “This is how it’s been for years, it will take a long time to change,” or, “What can I do about it?” or “It is part of the culture.” While we may not like to believe it, this attitude subconsciously infiltrates the lives of individual families. Even progressive Indian families tend to treat their sons and daughters differently.
To me, it is just as important for my daughter to grow up feeling confident and assertive in her personal relationships with men as it is for her to reach her academic or professional goals. For that, it is important that she learn through observation as I did from my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. My husband and I endeavor to set an example of mutual respect, and intelligent conversations. Sadly, this notion still seems lost on many Indian families even today. While Indian women’s rights activists should be commended, perhaps women who demonstrate self-reliance and poise at home are just as essential to the vast, ongoing task of equalizing yet to be done.
Photo credit: indiaschildren.wordpress.com
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