Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
HONG KONG — Growing up in my hometown in Indian Punjab, I often heard people remarking to my father, "You are very fortunate." It seemed a reasonable statement: In the hothouse of the Indian middle class, obsessed with academic performance, were we five siblings, each intent on surpassing the excellent scholarship of the others.
How much better could it get for my parents? I would shrug with the cool assurance of youth; I saw but never registered my father's furrowed brow, the questioning upward movement of his hand. It was only later, when I moved out of Punjab to study engineering, that I began to comprehend, little by little, the nature of my father's "fortune."
In a land where people do away with newborn girls, my father had four daughters. "Kuree maar" (daughter- killer) is a common pejorative in Punjab, yet my father was not only raising four girls, but also educating them and sending them to professional colleges. To add to the strangeness of it all, the girls began to graduate and earn handsome salaries.
Punjab, India's gateway through the ages to conquering armies from Persia, Mongolia and Turkey, had distilled its historical wisdom into a belief that girls were no good. Centuries back, they were carried off by marauding armies as slave booty; today they are an inferior commodity in the marriage market.
When their child reaches marriagable age, parents who have sired a son (often with considerable help from a sex-determination test) can command a Honda car, a house, a flat- screen television, cash, even foreign trips - all in the name of the dowry that the hapless parents of the bride are obliged to provide. In a patriarchal society like Punjab, women are defined by matrimony.
Before marriage, a Indian woman is a cipher. Marriage simply confers the decimal point. Thereafter, she can raise her value by becoming the mother of sons. It is in her hands, and she understands the situation all too well.
The tools are readily available: tin- roofed clinics in dusty towns that provide prenatal diagnostic testing and subsequent "medical termination of pregnancy," also known as abortion; traveling laboratories that conduct on- the-spot ultrasound tests; midwives who scour the countryside for pregnant women in need of "help." For some, it is never too late to smother a newborn girl under a sack of grain, strangle her, or bury her alive.
Punjab, India's granary and its most prosperous state, has added another claim to its record: it's the state with the worst child sex ratio: 776 girls for every 1,000 boys. There are districts in the state where only one girl child has been born in the past six months.
This is giving rise to a whole new breed of women, known as Draupadis. In the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, Draupadi was married to five Pandava brothers, and played a central role in the story. But she is no heroine, no role model; the regard Indians hold for her is apparent in the fact that seldom is a girl named after her.
Scarce supply should increase the premium on goods. But in the upside- down world that India's women inhabit, everyone wants a woman who is somebody else's daughter. Consequently, fraternal polyandry is flourishing, institutionalizing violence against women: one woman is forced to marry her husband's brothers, and is expected to produce sons for each of them.
My father managed to astound his community with his counterintuitive act: In a culture that regards the birth of a girl as bad luck, he decided that his daughters would be in charge of their destinies. He empowered us. To my mind, that simple act is a beacon.
Laws exist in India to safeguard women's rights: polyandry, seeking dowry and sex selection all are prohibited. These laws, however, need to be publicized and enforced so that women know a legal recourse exists for them and that when facing a bully, the first step might just be to stand up for their rights.
In one recent instance, a new bride was daily nagged by her mother-in-law for more dowry. One day she wrenched open a can of kerosene, splashed it on herself and declared she was proceeding to the nearest police station to complain that her in-laws' were threatening to set her on fire.
The burning of brides after dowry disputes has forced the police to sit up. The mother-in-law, chastened, stopped her nagging. The young woman was successful because she knew the law existed.