There’s a common saying among women in my family: “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.” It means that the world has progressed in ways that they never would have anticipated, but it has also fundamentally remained the same.
This phrase felt very relevant one afternoon while I was having coffee with a friend. I was about four months pregnant, at the point where I could find out the sex of the baby. “What are you hoping for?” my friend asked, nodding at my belly.
I had always pictured myself having a daughter, but according to all of the old wives’ tales about pregnancy symptoms (my craving for salty food and relatively mild nausea), everybody was predicting that I would have a boy. “Either one is fine,” I said. I meant it. The prospect of becoming a parent was nerve-racking enough without the additional expectations of what it would mean to have a daughter or a son.
My friend leaned over the table and lowered her voice. “It’s good that you don’t have a preference. I know some women in our community who have terminated their pregnancies once they found out it was a girl.”
I don’t know why I was shocked. I had read an article about sex-selective abortions in Britain’s South Asian communities, and there was a chilling story about an Indian migrant couple in Australia who bluntly told their doctor that the ultrasound results would determine whether they continued with the pregnancy. But simply reading about this issue made it an abstraction, something other women did. Even though it was happening in the South Asian diaspora, I was not expecting that the women involved would be only one friend removed from me.
The inequality was so ingrained that nobody saw it as inequality.
Gender preferences played a major role in my upbringing. My brother rarely did the dishes or picked up after himself. I did more chores, and also had to be trained to iron and cook. Our social lives operated under entirely different curfews and rules about befriending members of the opposite sex.
The inequality was so ingrained that nobody saw it as inequality. “We’re treating you the same,” my parents insisted, confounded by any suggestion that they were traditional. As first-generation Indian migrants in Singapore, they eschewed values that associated them with the old-fashioned village life their parents had left behind. Some things had obviously stuck, but they didn’t notice.
The most honest conversation I had about gender privilege was with my aunt when I was 11. Although I usually disagreed with her traditional views, I always found her unwavering position refreshing – you could respectfully disagree with somebody who sat staunchly on one side of the fence. The conversation came about after my cousin and I overheard my aunt chatting on the phone with a woman who had given birth to a girl. Her congratulations were muted, and contained many sighs and assurances that God had a plan for everyone. After my aunt got off the phone, we strode up to her and asked why she was treating the birth of a girl like a death.
Very gently, and as if she had prepared for our ambush, my aunt explained that the world was a harder place for women. “If you are a girl, there are so many more dangers. Somebody could attack you. When a woman has a daughter, I know she has a lifetime of fear ahead of her.”
My aunt’s logic sat uneasily with me, but I accepted it. I was too young to articulate that she had just outlined problems caused by men. Why wish away the lives of our daughters instead of teaching our sons not to inflict this pain on them?
I’ve since heard other cultural justifications for the gender preference. Daughters leave the family home to take care of their in-laws, so their parents are left abandoned. Daughters are a financial burden; their dowries and weddings are a huge expense. There is also the societal pressure to tirelessly police girls’ sexuality, lest their reputations are ruined.
Modern life in India has supposedly rendered many of these reasons antiquated. In fact, dowries have been outlawed in India since 1961, and individuals can face prison terms for demanding a bride price. Sex-selective abortions are also illegal. While ultrasounds are still standard prenatal protocol, doctors can face fines and imprisonment for revealing the sex of the baby to the parents.
After I learned that sex-selective abortions were a practice in my own seemingly modern diaspora community, I wondered what sort of pressures these women were under. Were they coerced, or was the gender preference so ingrained that simply the thought of having a girl was associated with trouble?
Dowries and prenatal sex selection were criminalized to protect girls and women, following the official line that there should be no such thing as gender inequality. The cultural and personal lines though, are very different. It takes me back to those arguments with my parents, who insisted that all things were fair while doling out twice my weekly allowance to my brother. My friend shared similar frustrations with her own family after her brother was encouraged to study abroad, and she had to apply to universities closer to home.
After I learned that sex-selective abortions were a practice in my own seemingly modern diaspora community, I wondered what sort of pressures these women were under. Were they coerced, or was the gender preference so ingrained that simply the thought of having a girl was associated with trouble? Could such a choice be made on one’s own, or was there a choral voice of disapproving relatives making the decision inevitable? Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
As it turned out, I gave birth to a boy. Like any feminist parent, I’m aware that the work of making sure the world safer and fairer for women starts with the way I raise my son. Unjust cultural values, not girls, are a burden, and paying lip service to gender equality, is not good enough. What we actively do about it will truly determine if things change at all.