Summer 2004
Missing Women, Missing Selves
by Lila Rajiva
     This Issue
      Back Issues
“You who bear your sons in laundered linen sheets and call your pregnancies a ‘blessed’ state should never damn the outcast and the weak: her sin was heavy, but her suffering great.”
                                         -“on the infanticide marie farrar,” Berthold Brecht

Matrubhoomi (Nation Without Women), Manish Jha’s prize-winning feature film that debuted in Venice last year, tells the story of a widower who is forced to pay a woman to marry all five of his sons because there are no other females left in his village. The film dwells with unsparing candor on a topic that India’s bubble-gum film industry refuses to touch—the shocking prevalence of female infanticide that has led the sex ratios in the country to decline in places to about 800 women per 1000 men, compared with a world average of slightly more than 1000 females to every 1000 males.

When Matrubhoomi was shown last year at the Toronto film festival, a part of India’s sizeable émigré community there felt offended enough to walk out. The film obviously touched a raw nerve, for the truth is that, while affluent Indians may not need to resort to poisoning babies with oleander juice or smothering them with gunny sacks—as they do in the villages near Madurai, a cultural center of the deep south where the practice first drew national atten- tion in 1986--they certainly pick and choose their abortions, especially in the Sikh community which is well represented in Toronto.

Largely it is women—the mothers themselves, midwives, mothers-in-law or paternal grandmothers—who preside over the murders, sometimes with the stoic indifference of pagan goddesses, at other times with the limp desperation of sacrificial victims. They talk about the intolerable shame of not having pro- duced a son or the unbearable future of daughters and they push the rice grain into the baby’s windpipe, or shake it until its neck snaps, or drown it in a bucket of water. Until recently, people knew but did not talk of  the practice. Now feminist activists are demanding that the women be punished like any other murderers to underscore that female life also matters.

Selective infanticide and its upscale cousin foeticide have led Indian feminists into strange and disturbing places. On the one hand, it’s a woman’s right to choose to abort her child, a right that asserts her value as a human being; on the other hand, what if she chooses to abort because the baby is a girl, a little miniature of herself? Does that devalue her as a woman? It seems most activists think so. If choice trumps everything else, one can’t help wondering why aborting a girl should be any worse than aborting a boy or, for that matter, aborting an unborn child with a handicap. But if such questions in- stinctively repel us, then perhaps what is at stake is something more than a choice or a right; maybe there are relationships between people that don’t lend themselves easily to a language of ownership and disposal, language ironically derived from the Anglo-Saxon system of law and property which in other places activists attack vigorously. There is in fact an Indian law passed in 1971 that flatly bans selective abortions—and is just as flatly ignored. Indians, oddly like Americans in this, seem to turn such moral imponderables into gladiatorial legal clashes between individual rights. 

In the ‘90s, despite the 1971 ban, economic liberalization introduced a gro- tesque entrepreneurial twist to the abortion story as private networks of doctors cruised villages with ultrasound vans offering foetal sex tests and billboards blared, “Better 500 now than 5000” later—a reference to the cost in rupees of the average dowry needed to marry off a girl, the custom seen by many as a root cause of female foeticide and infanticide.

My grandmother, a Christian who for several years before her death ran a home for destitute women in Madurai, was proud that she had never asked for a dowry for her son, my uncle, who as a doctor, could have commanded a premium price in the hilariously pragmatic Indian marriage bazaar where ads list the exact value of  earnings, apartments, cars, brass cooking vessels and jewelry, describe the bride-to-be’s “homeliness” (meaning domesticity), complexion (“wheat” being less fair than desirable) and, with almost palpable anxiety, her visa status in the U.S.

My friend Seema (not her real name), an engineer then completing her Ph.D. at an Ivy League university, deliberately kept finding something wrong with all the eligible “boys” directed her way by a conservative uncle. “Hey, yaar (buddy), the guy hung up on me when I told him I didn’t have a green card,” she told me, rueful and relieved. “Anyway, if I keep saying no for another year, I’ll be thirty and then it will be all over for me anyway.” Although the “boys”—there are never any men and women in those ads—are catalogued quite as carefully as the “girls”—and here and there the odd widower with “encumbrances” plaintively assures potential companions that “caste/creed is no barrier”—men overwhelmingly seem to be the buyers, women the sellers and the barriers are in fact formidable.

Rather odd this, considering the telltale numbers of what Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen calls the “missing women.” One would think, with fewer women available, their price would skyrocket and men would be willing to pay for them at the rates they do in Jha’s film. Actually, the decline of the female-to-male ratio in India, as well as in South Korea and China where it is also a major problem, has led to an increase in violence toward women from young un-socialized males acting out their deprivations, a scenario painted with lurid intensity in Matrubhoomi, which is laced with nauseating scenes of gang-rape.

For this reason, not everyone accepts the cultural explanation of female infanticide. Historians like Veena Talwar Oldenburg point out that dowry, after all, was supposed to give a woman a means of support that did not depend upon the benevolence of her in-laws and that before the British instituted empire in India it did just that. It was the coming of the British imperial economy that undermined the purpose of the practice. Land that had been owned communally and had given women a measure of security became a commodity like any other to be rented, bought or sold. Cash flooded the market, turning owners into rentiers and pauperizing women who had been rich in just that agricultural wisdom that the new cash-based economy debased. It was at that point that dowry deaths—the practice of killing wives, usually in staged kitchen fires, in order to confiscate their dowries—began.

Anti-globalization activists like the physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva update this picture for the missing women of today’s India. For Shiva, the global market explains the logic of the marriage market. The green rev- olution of the 1970s that reoriented Indian agriculture towards the export of commercial cash crops and away from domestic needs, along with the arrival of Western multinational agribusinesses like Monsanto, has pushed laboring women out of the traditionally valuable sectors of the labor market into the most menial areas where they are exploited economically and sexually. The poorer they are, the more expendable they become in the garish modern- ization overtaking Indian cities. Since the first census under the British was taken in 1871, the sex ratio has continued to slide in favor of men (i.e. fewer and fewer females) for every year except one, so that according to UN reports, since 1901, 50 million girls and women have simply disappeared. World-wide, India tops the list for illegal abortions and female infanticides, and 90% of those abortions are of female foetuses. In one widely publicized study of a clinic in 1984, 7999 of 8000 the abortions performed there were of females.

Cash or culture?

There is a savage double standard in India. Real names and faces betray what is ignored by the language of rights and laws. I remember them from my college days—Shaila, a Kashmiri Rapunzel, forever tossing her heavy braids, prancing and lip-synching her way through the latest Hindi film in our all-girls hostel. When her strict Muslim family in the north discovered that she had been sneaking out and had become involved with a Hindu, they flew down, dragged her by the hair into the courtyard and stripped her of her gold bracelets, necklaces and anklets in front of the whole hostel. We never saw her again but heard she had been chlorophormed, taken home and married into a more suitable family. Her boyfriend, though, felt no social con- sequences. She was married off; he moved on.

Hamsa, the servant girl of a well-known film director who kept open house for young artists, was like one of his family, running in endlessly with tea, scolding everyone good-naturedly and bursting into giggles when she dropped something in the kitchen. It came as a shock when I learned that she had had more than five abortions, although she could not have then been out of her teens. Why? Because when contraception is forbidden by society and family, abortion takes its place for some, infanticide for others. For poorer women, abortion is easier than contraception, especially as boyfriends or husbands rarely consent to even the use of condoms, let alone sterilization. She gets the abortion; his body is inviolate.

This is why discussing the issue of infanticide in terms of law is ultimately pointless, for the law puts the onus of responsibility solely on the woman.
Another face from the past—Prema, who worked as a low-level adminis- trator in an American university. After paying a sizeable dowry to marry into what she was told was a medical family, she arrived in America to find that her “doctor” pumped gas at a filling station and had a long-term illness and a learning disability. Twenty years and two children later, she is still with him, bearing her fate with religious resignation.

Supporting the cultural rather than the economic explanation, studies have shown that in some regions infanticide tends to occur more among higher castes than among what are called “backward” tribes, where women actually often enjoy a more equitable status than their upscale cousins. Among the higher castes, family inheritance through the male and the prestige of having sons seem to be the complicit factors. In addition, among warrior tribes like Jats, Rajputs and Sikhs where the subjugation of women is reinforced by the ethos of the fighting man, hypergamy, the practice of women “marrying up” in order to increase their value, is a powerful factor in promoting the killing of females among families who cannot afford the huge dowries that marrying up entails, but do not want the social stigma of marrying down. Culture presum- ably also explains both the infamous Bermuda triangle of missing women in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and the greater prevalence of infanticide among Hindus than among Buddhists or Christians. 

Other studies point to antique Sanskrit religious texts that deny property and education to women and virulently denigrate them. But there are no easy answers to the problem, for Indian history during the British, Muslim and Hindu periods alike is also filled with examples of women as scholars, artists and political leaders. Indeed, in contrast to America, India has famously flaunted women at the helm of state, from the medieval Muslim queen Razia Begum to the twenty-year reign of Indira Gandhi, and today it has one of the world’s highest proportions of women in its professional work force.

Still, there is the inescapable economic reality. While the burning of eighteen- year-old Roop Kanwar on her husband’s funeral pyre in 1987 in the ancient ritual of sati received widespread attention, there have been only 41 such deaths in modern India. Infanticide, foeticide and dowry killings are far more common, and nation-wide these clearly are all linked to both illiteracy and poverty. 

Of course, both culture and the means of production can also work in close harmony to create endlessly new socio-economic forms, some of which are viable. If globalization has marginalized peasant women, it has also created a new breed of female entrepreneurs in the hub of India’s high-tech revolution, Bangalore, as Western multinationals rush to offshore their need for scientists and engineers to India’s vast pool of high-caliber professionals eager to work for pennies on the dollar. In Pepsi-colonial India, the market taketh away, but the market also giveth. And if patriarchy has given us such nostrums as, “A woman is impure by her very birth; but she attains a happy state by serving her lord (husband),” Tulasi Ramayana, Aranya Kanda, 5 A-B, it has also produced the chivalry of Manu’s, “Where women are honored there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honored no sacred rite yields rewards,” (Manu Smriti III.56).

The daughter-in-law whose early years in her husband’s home are marked by rank servility eventually metamorphoses. Having borne and raised sons, she comes into her own and acquires a power and status within the family in her later years that more emancipated women might envy. From the Tantric Kali to the Vedic Saraswathi, the traditional goddesses offer forms of potent femininity more original than the masculinizing calculus of some forms of modern feminism.

Can culture be blamed entirely? Don’t most religious texts have misogynistic passages-the Talmud (“The daughters of the [heathens] should be considered as in the state of niddah [filth] from their cradle,” Avodah Zarah 36b), the Buddhist scriptures (“A woman’s heart is haunted by stinginess...jealousy... sensuality.” Anguttaranikâya iv. 8, 10), the New Testament (“the weaker vessel” I Peter 3:7)? And, besides John Stuart Mill, has there ever been a canonical philosopher in the West who has thought of women in any way except as inferiors? Yet, at the same time, has there not been praise for women in these same religions—of the divine Beatrice, or Sophia, or Radha? Isn’t it the case that which texts are invoked, derogatory or adulatory, de- pends on the context of the socio-economic status of the woman involved? Religious pronouncements, in other words, tend to be post-hoc rational- izations of facts established by the power relations in a society.

Calls to criminalize the issue ignore such complexities. The laws so far passed—however needful—can actually exacerbate the problem. For instance, the Hindu property act, created to give the daughter her share of the inheritance, added a perverse incentive to kill young girls out of the fear that they would take that inheritance with them into another family when they married. Similarly, the 1971 law allowing abortion was less about women’s empowerment than it was about population control. Laws are necessary to signal what a society desires, but between desire and realization lies the complexity of reality. Making examples of infanticides fails execrably to halt the killing of female foetuses. It does not staunch the bleeding from the body politic but only foments a new hemorrhaging elsewhere.

Laws ignore the context and assume what should be questioned. Are, for instance, these Indian female infanticides actually individuals and bearers of rights in the Western sense? In interviews they reveal no sense of being so; instead, they express feelings of desperation and overwhelming worthlessness, fears of social and family expectations, of violence from in-laws and of a hopeless future for the newborn. These are women with no control over their own bodies or even over their own desires, for whom shame is attached both to contraception and to conception, if the conception is of a female child. Caught between these two shames, these women do not see what they do as an assertion of a right but as simple acquiescence to fate. They suffer guilt, trauma, remorse, but see no other way. Not finding their own lives worth living, they come to believe that the few minutes of pain their infant daughters endure is preferable to lifetimes of degradation like their own.

Consider the degree to which such women do not even have a sense of separate self-hood. Their lives are not demarcated as men’s are into work- hours that bring status and leisure-hours which bring sociality. For these women, to breathe is to work. Constantly. At unpaid slavish chores that benefit others. The worth of such a woman is measured in terms of the male members of her family—her father, her husband and then her son. What other self does she have?

I remember a secretary, Malini, who worked from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., every day. A painfully thin, plain girl, she scarcely had time enough to herself to eat the small tin of rice she brought with her for lunch. When there was a lull in her secretarial duties, she was automatically assumed to be available to do the boss’s private work. Her time belonged to him. Her monthly pay envelope was handed over unopened to her husband who spent it on himself and his relatives, leaving Malini only enough to eat and clothe herself minimally. There was not one moment of her life that was her own, not one inch of existence from which someone could not demand her services.  If such a woman kills, it is not out of choice in any sense that we normally understand, because the boundaries between her own identity and her daughter’s, her husband’s and her family’s are porous in a way that we with our discrete individualized selves can scarcely fathom.

Even those powerful matriarchal figures who do wield domestic power over men do not derive it from any individual sense of their worth but from family structure. And men themselves, despite their privileged status, exist still very much as creations of the same family and social structure.

Misplaced zealotry calling for more law, more education, more this or that— all of which are of course necessary—does not recognize that so much of the answer lies also in the balance of things: it is not just whether a woman is wealthy, educated or powerful but whether she is as wealthy, as educated or as powerful as the family she marries into. If not, she has no ground from which to hold her own. If not, no matter how well off she is economically and professionally, she is going to suffer the fate of the powerless everywhere.
The facts bear this out. In Kerala, the southwestern Indian state which has been home to generations of publicly outspoken literary women, from Kamala Das to Arundhati Roy, property passes through the mother, and infanticide, foeticide and dowry deaths are almost unknown. And in Kerala the sex ratio favors women 1036 to 1000. In patriarchal parts of the country like Punjab, which are relatively wealthy and where males control property inheritance and are also favored in the more basic standards of nutrition and nurture, the reverse is true. Studies have shown that the decline in the ratio of females to males in Punjab is not primarily due to female infanticide but to a general neglect of females caused by their low participation in income-generating activities. They simply do not contribute enough to warrant feeding and looking after properly—a tragedy of the everyday. By sensationalizing the unique aspects of the crime of female infanticide, we forget the commonplace nature of the most extensive crime against women, which is neglect. 

Bride-burning accounts for about 15,000 female deaths a year in India, still too large a number but a small fraction of a population of over one billion. The real erosion of women’s numbers comes from the denial of equal nutrition, education and opportunity.

By demonizing female infanticide we fail to see it as only another instance of this unequal distribution of power which is not specific to Hinduism or to India or even to women. We ignore our common human history, where the killing of children has been the norm not the exception. In her 1978 book, Hardness of Heart, Hardness of Life: the Stain of Human Infanticide, Laila William- son, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, cites the prevalence of child-killing in cultures as diverse as classical Persia, pre- Mohammedan Arabia and medieval Christian Europe. She points to its practice in colonial America, both among the settlers and the indigenous peoples and the existence of “stubborn child laws” which put sons of a certain age to death for disobedience. In fact, child-protection services in America came rather late and were modeled on the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Only the practice of legal abortion (more than 5 million in the West in 1988) has mitigated the practice of child-killing.  Still, from 1982-1987, approximately 1.1% of all homicides were children under the age of one year. The U.S., in fact, leads the world in the murder of children between the ages of one and four and is ranked fourth in killings of children between five and fourteen. As in India, such killings are more frequent among the poor, the uneducated and the alcoholic and, again as in India, among children under one year. Parents, usually the mother, are the perpetrators. For children over the age of one year, non-parents, usually the father, are the killers.

The plausible conclusion is that it may have been only advances in the technology of contraception and the legalization and practice of abortion that have reduced the number of infanticides. The law may have stated society’s intent, but it was technology that effectively changed society’s practices, technology that created labor-saving devices to lighten women’s chores, technology that freed them to step outside the home. It would be ironic if anti-globalization activists now failed to see how the new information rev- olution and the home computer may themselves be the means for even the poorest women to find markets for their home-grown products, and it would be twice as ironic if feminists failed to see how the ideal of the home as enun- ciated by patriarchy could be modified to support a more original, authentic and indigenous feminism.

Neither the law that permits some women to abort handicapped children but will not indict men who threaten and coerce other women into committing infanticide, nor the society that neglects and starves women to death, has hands clean enough to write the final verdict on those who consider their sex and the sex of their daughters to be handicaps from the very point of con- ception. Attempts to change a culture without changing its power relations end up making examples of the weakest link in a long chain and ignoring the culp- ability of all those others—husbands, in-laws, neighbors, priests, tradition— who stand invisibly in the dock beside her, tangled in a poisonous web of complicity. Where exactly is the fine line where choice becomes murder, which shelters the affluent émigré but pillories her famished sister in the arid plains of the Deccan? It is not mercy that pleads that these women not be penalized, but justice that demands it.

(Lila Rajiva was born in Vellore, India but now lives in Baltimore. She holds degrees in music, English and politics, has taught at  the Peabody Preparatory, Towson University and the University of Maryland, and is now a free-lance writer on social and political issues.)