Recently, a turning point for shifting sex demographics became the focal point to give laudatory praise on gender development in India. For the first time in decades, the internet was full of celebratory tweets as the findings of the National Health and Family Survey-5 reported that the number of women surpassed the number of men in India, with a renewed ratio being 1,020 females:1,000 males in the year 2020.
If, on the one hand, women were more in numbers than men, on the other, statistically speaking, the reports of criminal violence, including rape, harassment, abuse, and murder, doubled. Does a mere increase in number lead to an immediate surety of safety and dignified living? Perhaps not. One also needs to keep in mind that this data does not speak about the violence perpetrated on trans women.
In 1990, Amartya Sen published an article titled, “More than 100 million women are missing”, reflecting the “grave reality of unwanted girls” in India, China, and Pakistan. The revelation of mere facts isn’t shocking when the culture is visibly male-dominated and male-biased. The study calculated those 63 million women were missing from the census calculation in India but who is an ‘unwanted’ girl?
From an economic perspective, the scale of unwantedness is calculated through the Sex Ratio of the Last Child (SRLC) — where the last member in the family is male. It is a measure calculating meta-son preference. The Economic Survey of India built on this paradigm as it was a better measure to calculate women’s well-being and place in the Indian society as the society pre-dominantly still consists of parents who keep having ‘more’ children in the quest for a son.
Another report titled “Stolen Childhoods by Save The Children”, states that one-third of all girls in the country suffer from stunted growth as India houses the highest number of stunted children globally, with the estimate being as high as 48.2 million (stunted growth is caused by chronic malnutrition within the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from early pregnancy to age 2).
With a lack of health care and nutrition, these children are often pushed into begging, humiliating cultures and jobs, trafficking, and prostitution. Thirty-one million children in India are part of its workforce. The malleability of the children exposed to the horrors of civil society is notoriously multiple, but a deeper look into the contextual and situatedness of these children can help us understand that within these statistics — the worse hit are girls because of their gender and vulnerabilities of caste, class, ethnicity, and regionality.
Merely calculating the increase or decrease of ‘females’ isn’t enough, as unwantedness can be calculated by examining gender gaps in access to healthcare, nutrition, education, and inclusion in the decision-making policy processes. An intersectional take on understanding this ‘unwantedness’ demands an intersectional analysis rooted in understanding dowry culture and its implications on the unwantedness of a girlchild.
A lot of us grow up singing songs about “Indianness”, taking pride in our culture, but as women who inherit this land, we come across markers of our ‘differences’ very early on, starting from the day we are born. On the one hand, many of us are aborted when the sex of the foetus is known to be “female”, and on the other hand, many of us who become the odd exception to make it alive become a testament to a culture where we are seen as commodities — our existence means potential trade in future. A trade that is conceived to be heavier than our right to live with dignified rights. I absolutely refer to the institution of the dowry when I mention ‘trade’.
I was in 12th standard when I witnessed a relative’s urge to advise my mother to buy gold jewellery from her savings for her daughter to experience a smooth ‘wedding’. I liked her honesty. Her conviction in attaching the word ‘wedding’ with the institution of dowry and not ‘marriage’ signalled the cultural reality dictating the lives of women who fail to produce dowry and continue to face humiliation and shame at their in-law house for the rest of their lives in the South Asian region.
This is not a mere myth or a stereotype but the reality of many Indian women. According to the National Crime Records Bureau 2019 data for IPC cases, every hour, a woman becomes a victim of dowry death in India. Moreover, every four minutes, she becomes a victim of domestic abuse and violence by her husband or in-laws. In the year 2020, 94 dowry deaths were reported in the capital. The highest number of dowry deaths took place in the year 2010, with 8,391 cases. These are only the “reported” cases; we can imagine there are many that go unreported or missing.
It is paramount to note that the institution of dowry thrives on socio-religious cultural beliefs. The roots of dowry can be historically traced keeping in mind the incest taboo, where women outside one’s clan were chosen to be partners, and as economic safety for the woman, bride-wealth was given to her by her clan, although in the later time frames: Vedic period, Pre- and Post-colonial period, the institution of marriage went through many structural changes. The task of doing this is highly informant as it reminds us of the role of religion, governance, and cultural beliefs, in the sustenance of an unjust system.
The sad reality remains that while you attempt to make sense of this ‘unwantedness’ as a girl/woman in India — your mind remembers every instance you were made to feel undeserving of being alive or as if your existence is meant only for the purpose of marriage/childbirth by the family or wider society.
This ‘unwantedness’ is visible in both the statistical knowledge and cultural knowledge systems visible around us. A transformative step is recognising the role of cultural beliefs and practices in the perpetuation of gender injustice beyond the conventional paradigms. The mere birth of more girlchildren isn’t an indication of immediate equality, and their holistic well-being is as they grow to become women someday.
Creating a home within a house is the real deal as many girlchildren feel unbelongingness and commodified inside their homes. A child’s home is their first safe space, but when that safe space begins to differentiate between them and other supposedly “male” members, a progression towards an unjust, wounded society prevails.
The personal is the political
Bell Hooks believed, “All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly, we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.”
With that transformative ideal, we must remember that we have to stand up for ourselves and the girls/women around us at all times, in all loving ways. When we see any oppression taking place on a female, it is our duty to help diminish it — not perpetuate it.
When women themselves internalise misogyny visible in the manner they normalise dowry culture, rape culture, caste oppression, and gender inequality — it is our duty to remind and question these fellow women on an everyday basis. The conversations are often difficult for starters and sometimes — totally hopeless to find a middle ground, but a protest in supporting these toxic cultures which belittle women’s being has to take root in our personal spaces before we stand outside with the placards. The person will always be political.
Before you write, that you are a feminist… ask yourself: Will you take a stand for fellow women around, especially the marginalised? Will you understand how social structures comprehend your being from different socio-religious points? Will you be courageous enough to not dismiss the root of your inequality and really call it what is it — if it is Brahmanical Patriarchy, would you dismiss the term because you are an upper-caste-privileged woman who gets the upper hand staying ‘traditional’ in India?
Will you understand how this culture of dowry stems from an overemphasis on believing in the toxic masculine notions rooted in religion?
Will you take a stand to dismiss toxic masculinity even if it comes from your friend, lover or family member? Will you take a stand to not normalise misogynistic practices? Will you be as courageous to work towards self-transformation as an individual above all? Will you connect the dots of oppression to unleash yourself from their burdens and play a role in the feminist revolution?
These are some important questions to ask ourselves as Indian women before proclaiming ourselves a “feminist”, one who holds the privilege to read and write in English. (There are many women still who won’t be able to access this article due to a language barrier, but to those it does — it is high time to roll the dices ourselves).
Say “No” before it is too late, and we are forced to participate in our own humiliation.
Featured image source: Shreya Tingal for Feminism In India