Against the wall close to the door, she had been crying when I entered the room. Her eyes were red and parts of her chador wet from the rolling tears. My cousins and siblings, spread over the room, were feeling awkward. Some were silent, studying their hands and toes, while others were reluctantly trying to calm her.
Shortly before there was a telephone call about the birth of my niece. It was my sister’s fourth daughter in a row. Most women excluding the relatively younger in my family and in my sister’s in-laws were sad. Just like my mother, other older women there had also lamented. On the phone we asked who else cried besides the baby’s paternal grandmother.
These women believed it was completely appropriate to cry.
Men did not shed a tear, not that they were happy about it but because they were not supposed to show emotions. Deep down, the way they had for decades led women to falsely believe, they also believed that a baby boy was far more desirable than a girl. They just thought that women were better at lamenting.
Each such lamenting only but burdened these women with further guilt about their existence as if they had not enough already.
I sat by my mother; hugged her; and wiped her tears. I told her that it was ok. There was nothing we could do because it was out of our control, I said. Finally, when there was not much to say, I said there was nothing wrong with a girl. She stopped crying but was not convinced because I was not convinced myself.
This is the story of just one family where men and younger women are relatively well-educated.
Ever since I remember, Pashtun culture did not celebrate the birth of a girl. Rather it bemoaned it, especially in families without sons. Some families mistreated women for giving birth to girls only. There were stories about domestic violence and divorces of some women just because they were not able to bear sons.
Among Pashtuns, the contradiction of belief in God’s control of all matters but a woman’s womb has been striking to watch all these years.
On the other hand, there were celebratory shots at the birth of a boy. People came for tea and sweets for three days to congratulate the parents. Some special friends and guests would come for a week. There was the name-giving ceremony called Nishra(or Nashra) for the baby boy. The imams of the village mosque and adjoining villages and children gathered at the house of the baby to sing religious hymns and prayers in his name. They were served sweets and biscuits in the end.
Among these children were also young girls who never had a chance to go to one such event to sing for a baby girl.
What was (is) wrong with wanting and bearing girls? We have been told different things. Girls marry and leave their parents. They become a burden on the family because they will not have jobs. Even if you educate them and they have jobs, they will go to their in-laws eventually. So there is no need to desire their birth and, if they by any chance are born, there is no need to invest in them.
They are a symbol of ‘honor’: Raising and protecting them (from men?) till safely marrying them off to their husbands becomes a burden for parents. ‘Girls are like a white piece of cloth. Any blotch on it can not be cleansed’, we have been told. Last but not the least, girls are also a problem because they can not inherit the wealth of their parents.
These and other theories do not apply to a single household. Depending on their standing in the socio-economic strata, different households make use of different points. These reasons sound valid if you look at the socio-cultural practices and institutions. For example, under existing circumstances parents do need male members for the financial and social well-being of the household because so many young girls and women are uneducated and jobless. There are other explanations like poverty and men’s unstable inflow of income for their harsh behavior towards women.
These explanations do provide some context but they do not make the behavior of men and patriarchal traditions right.
As many believe in these anti-women social mores and practices, it is difficult to convince them otherwise. However, the truth is none of it is true. Most of these traditions are tools maintained by men to control women. Women’s ‘honor’ and ‘safety’ are euphemisms for men’s wild and violent behavior. There is no way in hell to justify depriving a girl from education because she is the ‘honor’ of the family or because she will not be safe on the way to school or in a hostel. Or because educated women are disrespectful—a blatant lie told over and over again.
Rather than considering women as sexual objects and treacherously according them the notions of ‘honor’ etc., men need to truly respect them for who they are. They need to reconcile their insatiable desire for power and manipulation with women’s rights for equal and fulfilled living.
It took me a decade to unlearn the misogyny from my childhood. And it is difficult to this day to change some of the views. But I would rather keep getting rid of such ideas than go back to the old, bad days.
Nothing is going to change unless we change our conception about the role, status and rights of women. Reforms in systems and institutions will follow suit once we challenge and change our patriarchal views. Finally, whether or not social systems will adapt accordingly, ensuring justice for women is the right thing to do. In Kantian ethics, it is called the ‘‘categorical imperative’—an unconditional moral obligation that is binding in all circumstances and is not dependent on a person’s inclination or purpose’.
Aslam K. tweets at @ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org