“So pretty, so smart, such a waste of a young heart..”
These lines, for some reason, echoed in my head as I looked at her. I was seeing her after four or five years, we did not even know each other. She was a very distant relative. A few years ago, fed as I had been on society’s concept of fair is lovely, I had thought her to be the prettiest young thing in a gathering full of old, dull relatives and friends. A breath of fresh hair, so charming, with mischievous grey eyes and lips full of ready laughter.
She was a changed person today. No laughter on her lips, her eyes tired. One cheek with a tell tale greyish bruise on it. Two young girls, her daughters, clinging on to her. The third one, the eldest, was off somewhere playing.
She told my mother later that the bruise was a result of a beating by her husband. Her fault? Giving birth to three girls.
Her mother in law, she said, was demanding that she get pregnant again and conceive a boy.
Her life now revolved around taking care of her three daughters and running the household. She received no help from her in laws or her husband. On the contrary, they went out of their way to make life difficult for her. She got up, swept and dusted the house, cooked breakfast, saw her children off to school, washed clothes, cooked lunch, made tea, ran household errands, washed dishes, massaged her mother in law’s feet, made tea and dinner, taught her girls and then washed the dishes again.
The latest bruise on her cheek was a result of one night when she failed to wash the dishes after dinner. Keeping dirty dishes unwashed through the night was apparently against their religious beliefs. Hitting another human being was apparently not condemned by their religion.
Her daughters were solely her responsibility. Their father and grandparents had little to do with them. They were sent to a nearby government school instead of the good schools of the city, despite the fact that their family could well afford it.
Her life, she confided, had taken a turn for the worse since her youngest daughter had turned one. Now her mother in law wanted her to get pregnant again. She had her hands full with her three daughters and the amount of work she had to do at home. She had neither the will nor the energy to have another kid.
I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending, a change of heart. But no. Last I heard, she was still struggling to hold her own against her family.
Where should I begin now? Should I condemn the domestic violence that was happening? My community for turning a blind eye on the situation and letting it continue? The insane desire for a male child? The idea of a woman as a housekeeper? This sad story has all of this, and the fact that it is a true one makes it shameful.
Let me address just the issue of the desire for a male child. They say that girls are ‘paraya dhan’- someone else’s property. They say that girls cause more harm than good. That they can’t carry forward the family name. That educating them is a waste since their duty is looking after the home. That their dowry causes financial strain on the family. All these causes come together to make a girl child undesirable in an Indian family. A male, on the other hand, is considered desirable because he carries forward the family name. His marriage is a cause of financial gain for the family, which besides gains a glorified servant in the name of a wife.
How regressive these notions are in a day and age where people recognize that dowry is a social evil, where women are increasingly being viewed as people instead of properties of transaction. In a time where last names are very often not changed after marriage and women contribute to the family income in an equal capacity, how silly it is to still desire male children. And honestly, what’s in a name at all? The very fact that a woman is expected to take on her husband’s last name after marriage is just another example of how she is subjugated by patriarchy.
An educated woman is an asset, not a liability or a financial strain on the family. A girl child is as good as a boy, for the simple reason that both are born equal. If society has created certain gendered roles for women that give them an inferior position, the fault lies in the social organization itself. And that is what needs to be changed and reformed, instead of the sex of an unborn child.