Editorial Note: Being Feminist is a fortnightly column that features personal narratives documenting the emotions, vulnerabilities and innermost contradictions every feminist encounters while trying to push through various degrees of patriarchy in private, professional and public spaces.
My sister was born when I was nine. After her birth, something about my world changed, and not in a good way. When our close family got the news, they somehow had a sense of disappointment mixed with joy. Almost every ‘Congratulation!’ conveyed a sympathetic tone, as if something had to be grieved. I could not understand the reason back then but I was suddenly made aware of my position as a girl who was not just the first daughter to my parents but also a big sister to a little one.
Very often, it is as though the saddest news to many when they have a daughter instead of a son, and in worst-case scenarios, considered an excess when daughters are more than one in number.
The factor that would probably be considered the most concerning for girls by our society is marriage – the epitome of a successful life for women according to most. Marriage seems to remain an issue that people naturally associate with girls. In my experience too, my future marriage has been the butt of jokes for as long as I can remember. Now that I have reached my early twenties, it is no longer a joke and is treated quite seriously by many of my acquaintances.
When my sister was born, the concept of marriage was suddenly discussed with greater importance by many of my relatives. A sad reality was associated with the word ‘marriage’ and I began to feel the norms of it more than ever before. It was at the tender age of ten that I was made aware of how a daughter must eventually marry and leave her own house.
This would consequently lead to discussing how both I and my sister would have to leave our parents someday and they would not have a child to rely on. Somehow, it never struck me why most people would even expect us to marry, as though we could never have a choice. This only further proves how people instinctively attach the arrival of girl children in families with an inevitable discussion of marriage, and the prospect of them leaving, with no son to take care of the parents.
As a result, the contributions of daughters to their families are often negated by both family members and society. After they get married, daughters are mostly sent off to the husband’s home which cuts them off from any direct contributions to their parents. A son on the other hand stays back and continues a family’s traditions through both work and blood.
It has always been society’s guarantee that when parents get older, they need a son to save their lives. This has eventually turned parents into thinking that sons, more than a choice, are in fact, a requirement. The reason behind this can be easily traced to institutionalised patriarchy, which has normalised men’s position in families as more valuable than that of women.
Quite contrary to the promise of men to fulfill their parents’ needs in old age, caregiving has always been something that women have consistently given to their parents as daughters much more than men. A study says that daughters have more often been primary caregivers who go unrecognised and unpaid generationally. Sons, on the other hand, comprise only 59 percent of caregivers and are also seen to pass over caregiving responsibilities when they have sisters available.
As a daughter myself, I have felt that these gender norms passed onto me through acquaintances and relatives, despite being born and brought up in a rather progressive and modern household. In one such incident of hurtful sexism, I was directly asked by one of my close acquaintances why my father would want to build a house when he only has two daughters.
Her implication at the imminence of both my sister’s as well as my marriage was precise and clear. It was a shock to me that someone so close to me could think of my family’s dreams to be only revolving around my gender. Her concern for my parents and their wishes of building our house was thus, turned into a cause for sympathy because my parents have two daughters who shall one day leave.
An observation of such instances that should be taken seriously is how they prevail in some of the most educated households. It can be said that women being victims of such sexism from a young age undergo something that is just an evolution of crimes such as foeticides, which have been comparatively lessened now.
Indirect comments and blatant sexism are something not to be ignored. They lead to a lack of self-worth in many young girls, eventually leading them to emotionally question their position within their own families. Those who make girls contemplate their own roles as daughters also lead them to have further psychological issues, broken dynamics with parents, mental health struggles, and much more.
I would call myself lucky enough to be surrounded by parents who have been careful enough to not let such incidents of sexism penetrate our household. Nevertheless, as much as I and my sister have remained victims of this patriarchal norm, my parents too have struggled to protect us from the same.
It is not easy to assure daughters of their status quo within the family when society does just the opposite. It has been embarrassing and almost hurtful when distant relatives have repeatedly assumed my parents to be disappointed to have two daughters instead of a son. However, as much as I have been made aware by society of what my social position and family trajectory should look like, my parents have also made me equally aware of its extreme unfairness and immorality. As a result, I have had the privilege to make my own decisions and also look at such experiences in a critical light.
When having these conversations with my female friends, many others who have elder or younger sisters have revealed very similar experiences. The treatment meted out to a cousin, a male friend, or a friend’s brother has been too obviously different from what I and my female friends have collectively faced. These conversations too have been eye-opening for me and have made me see through society’s differential treatment of daughters less as children and more as liabilities compensating for the absence of sons.
The normalisation of this extremely sexist outlook towards families with daughters like me requires a steady wind of change which can happen only with the recognition of it first. Unsolicited concerns about a girl’s prospects of marriage and sympathising when a second or third daughter is born to a family should be interrogated and questioned.
If only people had the realisation of how emotionally damaging this could be to young girls! Nevertheless, it can be only hoped that girls of future generations feel more included, valued, and safe within their own households.
Featured Image Source: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India