I am writing this post with the ideas that I had held for a long time, but using Shankara’s blog post titled ‘Girl child infanticide in India. The truth behind the evil.’ (click) as an illustrative case in point.
Shankara’s basic premise is that because Hindus had traditionally attached divinity with the feminine, respected women warriors (e.g., Rani Chennama, Rani Durgawati, Rani Laxmibai, etc.) and devotees (e.g., Meerabai), “Hindus have respected and adored women, raised them to most exalted positions”. He further states that “no ancient record or Hindu books of itihasa (history) such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have recorded or alluded to the destruction of girl child in India”. So, he implies that women were considered at par with men in their status, were respected and adored, and the practice of female infanticide, which represents something exactly the opposite of this implication, was alien the Hindu tradition. He points out that it was the Muslim invasions, in which lot of crimes were committed against women, especially of sexual nature, that is what made the parents preempt such pain and humiliation by killing their newborn girls. To support his assertion he points out that this practice was (and is) most prevalent where the Muslim invaders had interfaced first with the Hindu tradition and thus had been most aggressive in their crimes against women. He has cited a few references at the end of his blog post that I have not gone through:
“They would regularly kidnap and rape women folk, later selling them into slavery, prostitution or just leaving ravaged women on the streets to become social outcasts.“
“People living in troubled times and in the path of these marauding Muslim invaders in the north west of India which is modern Punjab and Haryana today bore the brunt of such inhumane acts. As a direct result of such atrocities committed by Muslim rulers the girl child became an unwanted burden an offspring that can only bring misfortune and stigma to the parents and to be done away with at birth. How many parents could bear to see their beloved daughters some as young as 10 years old kidnapped or taken away at the point of a spear or sword to be raped by soldiers in plain sight or carted away as loot to be sold into slavery in the markets of Baghdad.“
The above assertions sound somewhat reasonable, and moreover, as I have not gone through the above references, I cannot refute them. However, I would still like to make some significant (counter) points.
The first of the above two statements ends with “…(owing to various crimes committed by invading Muslims against helpless women, women) become social outcasts”. The use of passive voice is surprising here. Nobody becomes an outcast in vacuum. It is the very Hindus who had been worshiping goddesses, that outcast the women against whom sexual crimes were committed, over which they had no control. This does not come out as very respectful of women. In fact, it reeks of an urgency to objectify women and evaluate their worth in terms of who they had sex with (that too under coercion). It is redundant to point out that these girls/women could have still been worshiped, loved and adored and provided emotional support. The subsequent statement “bring misfortune and stigma to the parents” also echoes similar sentiment of justifying castigation of women simply because sexual crimes were committed against them. However, I understand that if the girls would be sold as slaves in foreign lands then that would obviously emotionally very much trouble the parents, and for this reason, it is just about possible that parents would kill their infant daughters. However, the idea that women’s sexuality was a matter of tug of war between a civilization and a warring tribe, is not lost upon me.
One of the commentators, Karmasura, had asked a counter-question:
“During Muslim rule, many young boys were also castrated and sold as khusros, yet, we don’t have any such tactic towards the males of the society to prevent them from being castrated.“
Of course, it is possible that parents looked at boys as potential protectors of the family when they grow up, as against girls who would largely be incapable of that, hence infant boys were not killed.
Another commentator, Archana, had pointed out few instances from Hindus epics that indicate that women were indeed objectified.
However, despite my saying the above, I find it reasonable to assume that infant girls were not killed as a matter of systematic practice prior to the Muslim invasions of India. I had read in the past that the Purdah system (practice of women covering their face and head with a fold of their clothing) in India had also begun as an attempt to keep away the gaze of lecherous invading soldiers. In fact, the point I want to make depends heavily on this assumption that no such systematic female infanticide used to occur in India, and that it was solely Muslim invasion that had led to the beginning of this practice and its obdurate persistence in certain pockets of India. Quite unfortunately, the idea of inferiority of the female gender has become so prevalent in the society that even places as far (from Punjab and Haryana) as Gujarat and Maharashtra see immense popularity of female feticide (as against infanticide), so much so that, opening up ‘clinics’ with ultrasonography machines that could detect sex of the fetus and thus enable abortion, if found to be female, had become a staple of gynecologists in several districts and cities. The practice still continues, but lot more covertly than before.
But we also know that after a few centuries, the Indian society had reached a semblance of peace as far as friction between Hindus and Muslims was concerned, and further down the timeline, it is tempting to believe things are lot more peaceful. At least currently we are pretty sure than no Hindu girls in India are being openly abducted, raped and/or sold by Muslims, then why still in certain sections of the Hindu society, girls are largely looked at as burden? As far as being a surrogate of discrimination against the girl child goes, there is practically no difference between female infanticide and feticide. This is what an article (presumably) endorsed by the UNICEF (click) had to say:
“The decline in child sex ratio in India is evident by comparing the census figures. In 1991, the figure was 947 girls to 1000 boys. Ten years later it had fallen to 927 girls for 1000 boys.
Since 1991, 80% of districts in India have recorded a declining sex ratio with the state of Punjab being the worst.“
Shankara himself sort of answers it.
“In modern times the practice of girl child infanticide had taken such deep roots in certain sections of the society especially the peasantry, landed communities and poorer sections of the society that it was being practiced blindly as a tradition or received wisdom from the elders that girl child is of nuisance value and not to be had or purely to avoid property and financial loss following the marriage of the daughter.“
And in his quote, it is the part I highlight above is what I am most interested in. I believe, that most, if not all, traditions serve to maintain stability in the society. But two things need to be noted here. First, every tradition suits its peculiar circumstances. Second, a tradition is supposed to serve a goal. If either of the two (circumstances or goal) change, so does a tradition need to. E.g., if it is a tradition to wear loose, flowing clothes in a desert during day, it makes sense. The ‘circumstance’ here is obviously the atrocious climate. And the goal is ‘being comfortable’. Such clothing would not make sense in Antarctica.
I believe, the basic goal of any ideology ought to be maximizing human survival and happiness. It stands to simple logic that one of the prerequisites of being able to be happy is absence of conflict between humans. Having satisfied that condition, if a tradition does not uniformly further happiness and comfort for the one contemplating following it, then such following must be reconsidered. If furthermore, such following is against ones conscience, prospects of happiness or system of ethics, then no doubt, it must not be followed.
Just think of the parents who have been killing their newborn daughters. There is little doubt that it takes lot of cruelty and overcoming of compassion and pity to kill a defenseless child. Yet, it is the power of tradition that had made them do it – for centuries, to this extent that in some areas in India, the sex ratio is less than 900 females per 1000 males, meaning more than one in every 10 girls were killed (if it is assumed that once born, the survival-probability for both the sexes must be similar). This blind following of tradition is sourced in lot of social conditioning that we take for granted. At the heart of it, is the (unfounded) idea that somehow those living before us were better and wiser human beings. What makes it apparent that no tradition was ‘perfect’ is the fact that there is such a heterogeneity between different groups of people in any given place. If certain traditions were ‘perfect’ and would have served with same perfection, we would not have had so many different kinds of traditions – all civilizations and groups of people would have followed ‘one perfect tradition’. Another idea that falls in the same league is that of respecting whatever the parents (or elders like teachers) ask the child to do. The idea that an ‘obedient child’ = ‘good child’ is deeply ingrained in the society’s psyche. Society puts immense pressure on its members to ‘fall in line’. Those diverting are harshly critiqued or ostracized. And on the other hand, those who are most compliant (or rather shall I call it pliant?) are rewarded.
The paranoia of a tradition getting extinct is needlessly too severe. What is the harm if any tradition gives way to another one? If a new practice serves a set of people well, what harm is it, if it is ‘imported’ from outside or if it develops de novo? It is not that the society had remained stagnant in the past. On the whole the quality of human life has improved (except for if one truly believes something like Bharat was sone ki chidiya), and ‘change’ is a necessary corollary of ‘improvement’. So, people will do what they feel is the best for them in the altered context of their lives. It is unwise to think that my parents are the wisest and smartest and they have answers for every situation I would encounter, so I must obey and follow them blindly. I am not creating a strawman here. It is precisely what those parents (of murdered girl children) must have thought who had continued to kill their daughters against their conscience and without any ‘need’ to do it… only to perpetuate a tradition.
And that is the pitfall of respect of tradition.
Lastly, I must ask that if the practice of worshiping women as goddesses is so easily attributed to Hindu tradition to show that it respects women, to which tradition should the declining and still less-than-1000:1000 sex ratio that exists in India, and which had required perpetuation and continuation of a practice involving merciless & needless killing of infant-girls be attributed? Please be honest! Even if one were to point out that it were the practices of dowry and girl having to go to the groom’s house that made the girl child disliked, then who were the people who had perpetuated such traditions? What was the compulsion to send away one’s girl to someone else’s house so that she would be thought of as ‘burden’, and to be ‘relieved’ of it, one would have to pay a dowry?
The simple solution is to be proud or ashamed of only those things that we do by our own volition. If we attach personal pride and esteem to the actions of dead ancestors or even to our parents or fellow citizens or co-religionists, firstly it would be illogical to do, and secondly, we would have no control over those actions, which would make it very difficult to retain our objectivity and honesty. So, why attach pride, shame, guilt, etc. to those actions over which we fundamentally have no control?
PS: Too much ranting has happened above. I might try to come up with a more coherent post in the future.