Simply Marry? Why?

I just got back from a fantastic, but tiring trip from Hampi, so just a quick point to this ad for one more Indian matrimonial (oh no, this one is metro-nomial) website.

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I am so tired of hearing stale marriage jokes about infantilized/ incompetent men. Aren’t you? Many of the world’s biggest Fashion designers are men, but no, we must persist with this thing about men being color blind blah blah blah. And I can’t even count the number of times I hear the stereotypes about men not being able to clean up, do the dishes, or the laundry etc etc. The fairly competent men I meet must all be exceptions ofcourse. The media either bombards us with stories of to-die-for metrosexuals or presents us with pictures of Tarzan-to-be-civilized-by-Jane. Sigh.

Surrogacy – Exploitation or Choice?

Via the F Word blog, I came across this practice of women in India acting as surrogates for couples who are unable to have a child and also unable to go through with IVF. The F Word acknowledges that the surrogate mothers are being well taken care of, and receive a pretty good sum of money – infact a sum that would otherwise take them many, many years to earn. However they still raise the issue of whether this is exploitation of third world women to satisfy the desires of first world couples?

For once, I quite disagree with the F Word blog, of which I am otherwise a huge admirer. I do believe that there need to be some stringent guidelines – its quite possible that this company is doing a good job, and others who jump on to the bandwagon may not. To prevent that, it is necessary to have guidelines in India. But as for the other objections, I can’t somehow buy into them. These women are making a choice which they perceive as being beneficial for their families, in the long run. And I firmly believe that choice should be left to them.

Sure, they spend 9 months away from their families. But as the article states, their families are not prevented from visiting them. And perhaps, this way the organisation running the program can look after their health better? Take a look at India’s maternal mortality rates. Many women die without access to hospitals or even a primary health care centre. These women might very well feel that the care they receive is reasonably good. I’m not saying this is the only way to do it – perhaps there is a way to monitor their health even if they live at home. But considering the heavy work many women in India do, at all times, including pregnancy, it doesn’t per se seem so terrible. Now, can such healthcare be extended to our women when they give birth to their own children? Ideally it should be, but we all know how badly the government healthcare functions. And private healthcare is not going to get into unless they can make some money.

Now comes the issue of, would they opt to do this if they didn’t need the money? Quite probably not. But then. People wouldn’t opt to do lots of things if not for the money. People wouldn’t work in hazardous conditions if not for the money. Atleast in this case, no one is being placed into anything inherently unsafe. And we are talking about Anand here, the relatively prosperous milk belt of the country, not Kalahandi. Its quite possible that these women could view it as an opportunity to improve their lives and climb up to a situation they otherwise would never get to. It may not necessarily be a choice between this and dire poverty. Even if it were, should we call it exploitation? I don’t really know. Hundreds of women enter the flesh trade every year due to dire poverty. The choices may not be what they seem to a Western eye.

And whether the women will feel terrible giving up the child? Yes, quite possible. On the other hand, none of them are newbies who don’t know what it feels like to have a child. Only women who have had children before are chosen. Presumably, they understand the pain and joy of giving birth to a child, and can decide whether or not they can do it for someone else. Indian history and culture is infact replete with stories of one mother handing over her child to another, and for completely altruistic reasons. Infact, in my parents’ generation, it was not at all uncommon for childless couples to “borrow” a child from a sibling. Very different ofcourse from carrying a child for a stranger, but what I’m saying is, the concept of surrogacy is not entirely new to India. Which probably explains why some of the women quoted in the story also see it as a good deed they are doing.

I’m not saying this is the way to lift the third world out of poverty. No single thing is. Instead, everywhere women (and men) are doing things they can to lift themselves out of the situations they find themselves in. I don’t think we should get into this mindset that we know better than them what implications their choices have. If anything – we should work on the other end – ensuring safety; The rest – I believe these women, (even in cases where they come from fairly poor families) are capable of thinking it out for themselves.

The Missing Girls

I don’t know which is the organisation behind this ad really, but someone sent it to me today, and I thought it was worth sharing. (As a sort of grim visual accompaniment to this earlier piece).

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The women-friendly IT industry

I recently stumbled upon Krish Ashok’s blog, and wondered how I could possibly have missed it all this while. In yet another super-entertaining and food-for-thought post, he looks at the dismal state of women in the IT industry, supposedly a highly gender-neutral one. Not having worked in anything remotely tech related myself, and with very few friends from that line, I don’t have any insider info. But yes, it is common knowledge that the (in many cases needless) late-working culture of the industry does impact women much more than it does men. Relatively few women can manage past the age of 30, once claims of marriage and children set in.

Krish Ashok’s post brings in many other aspects of the working culture in this supposedly women-friendly industry. Go read, and tear your hair out on whether to laugh yourself silly over his hilariously worded post, or despair at the state of things!

Women and Religion

Readers must have been following the case of the Saudi rape victim who was, in a perversion of justice, sentenced to 200 lashes for being in a car with a man not related to her, when the rape occurred. She was sentenced to 200 lashes? Yes, you heard that right. Since Saudi law prohibits women (and men) from interacting with unrelated members of the opposite sex, she was considered a law breaker herself, not a victim, and sentenced to 90 lashes. Which was then, increased to 200 as a punishment for publicising it in the media.

Now it appears that King Abdullah, the current Saudi ruler, has pardoned the woman, while strenuously maintaining that the justice meted out was not unfair. Its just his prerogative you see, to pardon people, it doesn’t really mean anything.

I believe that almost all religions (or the customs through which they get defined) are oppressive to women. But where the state actively colludes to enforce this oppression, there is little hope except in the form of such knee jerk reactions.

Do we still need to talk about Feminism?

Tamizh readers who pop over to Lakshmi’s blog, Malarvanam will find themselves moved by this piece titled Do we still need to talk about Feminism? I was certainly much troubled by this piece which focuses on the dark side, and indeed shame, of the state of Tamil Nadu – female infanticide. Since the majority of readers, I assume, cannot read Tamizh, I will mention here in translation, some of the issues she has spoken about so eloquently.

Female infanticide has for been long prevalent in Tamil Nadu (TN), especially in some districts, for various cultural reasons. The most significant one ofcourse being that girls are required to carry a hefty dowry with them when they get married, a dowry so heavy indeed, that it can break the backs of most working class and middle class parents. In this situation, families try to put away the cause of trouble as soon as she is born. Coupled with the traditional belief that a boy is needed to light the funeral pyre to send one’s soul on its way, and the feeling that boys will take care of one in old age, girls have very little chance indeed.

Lakshmi’s piece starts with the case of one Ravi, from Dharmapuri district, who already has a male child, yet, when his third child turns out to be a girl, kills her and justifies it in this manner, “I already need to repay a lot of loans. In this situation, I thought how would I bring up this girl too, so I killed her.” Further, the magazine Junior Vigatan that she picks up this story from also has an interview with an organisation called Podhigai, working on the ground to combat this heinious practice. Lata, one of the leaders at Podhigai confirms that the practice is really far from over, and that there are many cases that do not come into the public eye.

Lakshmi also quotes the Social Welfare Officer of the Dharmapuri district, Sailakshmi, who mentions that “…The situation has improved. This is the first such incident since I have taken charge. Otherwise, in most cases, if there is a girl child born, they will drop it off in the Cradle Babies Scheme…”

The Cradle Baby scheme was a well meaning scheme started up by the TN government many years ago, when the issue of female infanticide was brought to light. While the scheme has had its successes, and atleast it prevents some girls from being killed who otherwise would have been, it is not a solution for infanticide itself. As Lakshmi says, “They avoid the sin of killing their infants, and instead, leave them with the cradle baby scheme – as orphans.”

Lakshmi left me much disturbed. While I have heard often before of the female infanticide happening in parts of TN, I was somehow under the impression that the practice is dying down. On the other hand, it seems like a very slow road indeed. Nowhere are we close to a situation where girls are genuinely viewed as equals and as assets to the family. Instead, people move into more and more devious ways of maintaining their prejudices. Can’t kill them? The police have become too watchful? Ok, never mind, lets abandon them. Even easier, kill them while they are in the womb itself. While Indian laws allow the freedom of abortion without any other conditions – they do have one condition keeping in mind the gender prejudices of Indian society. Sex determination is infact outlawed for this reason – that gender does not become a criterion for abortion. In practice, many unscrupulous doctors have no hesitation in performing this test and telling parents what sex the child is – so that they can decide, whether it can be ‘allowed’ to live.

Makes you want to throw up, doesn’t it? But what can we do about it? I felt close to tears when I read Lakshmi’s powerfully written piece, hard to reproduce here. While many organisations are working to combat these, this is not about girls alone. Unless we have enough Indian men who will stand up and say that they will not take any sort of dowry, girls are likely to continue being seen as a burden. (And no, dowry is not restricted to the uneducated poor, in case anyone has such notions). In a patriarchal society, unless both halves change, there is no hope of our girls seeing the light of day.

Women and Family Honour

Two stories have erupted in the Indian media over the last month, both to do with young people, love and parental opposition. The first ended in tragedy, with investigation stil continuing into whether Rizwanur Rahman was murdered by his wife’s father (or arranged to have been murdered). Shocking ofcourse was the fact that the West Bengal police actively colluded in trying to separate the couple, on the grounds that they came from very different backgrounds. The second case, has a happier outcome, atleast till now – with Telegu film megastar Chiranjeevi’s daughter Sreeja leaving home to marry her boyfriend. Scary though, that she felt she had to seek police protection against her family, as she feared that they would meet the same end as Rizwanur-Priyanka.

Technically, Indian law is very clear on this – the legal marriageable age for women is 18 and 21 for men, and absolutely no statute exists that forbids people above this age to marry each other. (Well, atleast if one is male and the other is female, since Indian laws are still Victorian when it comes to homosexuality.) In practice though, as both these cases show, there is a wide gulf between law and public mentality.

Many people still view children as “property” or as some sort of owned goods who must repay parents for their good upbringing. Further instead of looking at people as individuals, there is a tendency to look at them as representatives of their families and families honour. Especially when it comes to women, their behaviour is seen as reflecting on the family’s honour. Hence, the number of insane websites where once can see Chiranjeevi fans berating Sreeja for “bringing down” Chiranjeevi’s name. (No, I am not linking to that rubbish!) Its not that sons are absolved of such expectations. Except that traditionally, society allows men a lot more leeway by giving them employment opportunities and chances to physically escape from the family network. For women, until very recently, such escape wasn’t possible, and even now, for many, it isn’t. The standards of behaviour for women are also so much higher that its easier to find fault. Things which are excusable in a son, for instance, are often not in a daughter. One hears of many families who are fine or atleast ok with sons drinking, but would be scandalised if a daughter did.

These things are slowly changing, and the tremendous public support for Rizwanur’s family and his case, is heartening. But sometimes, the change of pace is just so dishearteningly slow and the consequences so terrible.