Jeff opens up an incredibly interesting topic on this article about shaming Indian women into giving birth, because otherwise they might abort their female fetuses. First, I’ll focus a little bit on the article itself, and then get to the questions Jeff poses.
The basic premise of the article is that this guy goes to pregnant women’s houses and publicly humiliates them if he finds out they’ve had an ultrasound, because that would indicate that they’re finding out the sex of their fetus, and that if it’s a girl they’ll abort it. Abortion of female fetuses is widespread in this region.
The gender ratio of babies has fallen to fewer than 600 girls for every 1,000 boys in the Punjab, a predominantly Sikh region, partly because for the equivalent of £10 even poor farmers can afford a scan to determine the sex of a foetus. Worldwide, 1,050 female babies are born for every 1,000 boys.
As a result, Punjab is suffering from a shortage of brides. Men in their twenties are unable to find wives because more than a quarter of the normal female population is missing.
And herein lies the problem, and the reason that women aren’t giving birth to baby girls: Because women are not valued. Just look at this article. Why is it bad that so many female fetuses are being aborted? Because it means that there aren’t enough women for men to marry. It’s not bad in and of itself; it’s bad because it negatively impacts men.
A 24-hour helpline enables villagers to call Mr Kumar’s office if a woman is contemplating a scan or an abortion. Volunteers are then dispatched, or Mr Kumar telephones, ostensibly to ask after the woman’s welfare – but actually to alert her to the fact that she is being watched.
Sometimes, officials go further: in one case, they arranged a mock funeral procession outside the home of a woman who had terminated her female foetus. Waving black placards, volunteers said prayers for the dead baby and shouted “girl-killers” at the family.
“They almost died of shame,” said Paramjit Kaur, a local child development worker. “And it scared everyone else too. They’ll all think twice about getting a scan done now.”
Well that’s the way to go. Shame them into giving birth, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy a healthy family life. I’ve said before that anti-choicers only care about life up until the moment of birth — here’s evidence. Once that girl is born, there isn’t much concern about the fact that she’s undervalued and likely resented in her own household.
And what to make of the creepy, threatening “I’m watching you” antics of these characters? That certainly is not the answer to this problem.
Now on to Jeff. He writes,
I suspect that one answer American feminists would give to this choice/shame dilemma is to argue that what needs to change is the underlying social structure wherein boys appear more valuable to families than girls—a characterization that, unfortunately in this instance, works on a different metric that, say, China. Because here, the problem seems to one of economics: girl babies grow to be married, and the dowry culture puts a financial strain on the family of the bride.
He’s right, I would argue that we need to change the underlying social structure. I think the people doing the shaming are reprehensible and short-sighted.
Which raises the question: how is choice — when it is influenced by the fear of financial hardship (a reason often cited by American feminists for the availability of abortion is that an unwanted child could put an undue financial strain on either the state or the mother herself, dooming both mother (father) and child to a life of poverty, which in turn can result in a spiral of bad schooling, a greater potential for criminality, etc.)—any less worthy of protection in Punjab than it is in, say, Peoria?
It’s not. I don’t think that abortion should be banned because of the reason the woman is procuring it. I believe that women should be able to have an abortion for any reason at all, no matter how “shallow” or wrong someone else may judge it to be.
But here’s where I differ from many third-wave feminists who, like me, have grown up greatly valuing “choice” language: I don’t think that just because someone appears to be a freely-made choice that we can’t examine why that choice was made, or why particular choices are being made systemically. If a university-educted woman chooses to pose for Playboy’s college issue, she should have that choice — but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at the underlying factors that encouraged her to do that. And it means that we can criticize those factors without criticizing her for doing the best she can in the situation she’s in.
The situation in Punjab offers a great example of this. It’s unfair, in my eyes, to go after the women having these abortions. Yes, they’re making a choice, but they’re doing so in reaction to a series of cultural issues that make them believe, as females themselves, that femaleness is inferior and that it’s a burden. We can attempt to rectify the deep-seated wrongs instead of attacking the women who are simply trying to negotiate their own lives in a thoroughly fucked-up world.
So back to Jeff’s question about whether choice influenced by financial hardship is any more valid in Peoria than in Punjab. My answer is that it’s equally valid everywhere — but that as feminists we are consistent in trying to battle the underlying issues that limit or remove choice. A woman in Peoria who has an abortion because she’s on welfare and Illinois regulations penalize welfare recipients for having additional children isn’t making an entirely free choice (I don’t know if that’s actually the law in Illinois, but it is in a lot of states). The woman in Punjab who has an abortion because her child is a girl and she already has a daughter and her family can only afford one dowry isn’t making an entirely free choice. That’s why feminists rallied against Clinton-era welfare reform: because it hurts women and families, and it limits choice. Ditto for why we focus on wage inequality, the pink-collar workforce and universal healthcare: Because, beyond the basic equality issues, these are things that also limit choice in reproduction.
Can American feminists argue that these Indian women—a culturally separate Other—have been forced, by a long-standing patriarchal culture, to act against their own will? That is, that they have been conditioned to become anti-feminists, even as they have long maintained their right to choose (a condition long associated with feminist ideology, and a choice that is now being taken from them by social engineers who maintain that it is in the state’s interest to literally “shame” these women into giving over control of their uteri for the greater good—much like anti-abortion protesters stand in their bubble outside of abortion clinics here in the states and wave placards showing pictures of aborted fetuses?)
There is an argument about “false consciousness” and who has fully realized feminist ideals and on and on, but that idea is generally dead, and for good reason. I don’t think that Indian women are conditioned to be anti-feminists. If you look at the choices they’re making, we might find them troubling and abhorrent, but they’re ultimately rational. The key, then, isn’t to evaluate their choices as “feminist” or “anti-feminist,” but to attempt to create environments everywhere where choices about reproduction are indeed freely made.
A second answer American feminists might give would be to try to change the underlying social structure of the dowry system; but to do that would be to impose on thousands of years of established Indian culture a new paradigm that a) decreases the value of women (in the crass market sense)—and b) it does so to a culture in which women do not necessarily feel oppressed by the dowry system.
And this again is where I differ from many like-minded liberals: I think that at some point, feminism and cultural relativism are incompatible. I think that at some point, universal human rights and cultural relativism are incompatible. I think maintaining one’s culture is incredibly important, but I don’t think that something is good or valuable just because it’s been around for a long time. And I know that culture isn’t static; it shifts, it changes, and it develops. Not so long ago, women were pretty much sold as property from their fathers to their husbands, and it had been that way for a long, long time. But we changed the definition of marriage, and all for the better. So do I think that it would be wrong or culturally imperialist of me to suggest that the dowry system needs to be changed in order for women in India to be fully equal? No. And while I think it is my position as a feminist to disseminate information and encourage widening of thought, I think that changes like that one have to come internally, from Indian women and men who do feel oppressed by the dowry system (and believe me, they exist). There will be many who argue that the system isn’t oppressive, just as there were many who argued that chattel marriage wasn’t oppressive. But that doesn’t make it so.
As for the crass economic argument, paying someone to take your daughter off your hands isn’t exactly “valuing” her. She doesn’t come with the money; you’re being paid for performing a service. A woman is not a good, and being treated like one is inherently dehumanizing.
As Young notes, “Hirshman wants to tell women to set aside their own preferences, including the desire for more than one child, for the sake of the feminist revolution”—which observation, it seems to me, raises an important question: How is this dynamic different, other than by way of its specific aims and ideas about the “proper” role of women in a given society, from the cultural dynamic that animates the dowry culture of Punjab, a culture that envisions for women different roles, and which is now being assailed by those who wish to remove choice from the women’s arsenal of cultural empowerment?
First, let me be clear that I didn’t agree with a lot of Linda Hirshman’s article. But that aside, I think Cathy Young kind of misses the point. It’s not as simple as, “As long as it’s what she wants, it’s ok and we shouldn’t question it.” If it’s what she wants, then sure, it’s ok — she should be allowed to stay home, or to have an abortion, or to give birth to 16 kids, or to work 80 hours a week. But we can always examine it, question it, and ask, “Is she making this choice freely? Or is it, like most choices, based on needs and wants that are deeply influenced by her culture and her position within that culture?”
Ultimately, women are not free actors, and choices are not made in a vacuum. One goal of the feminist movement is to make choices as free as possible; barring that, the goal is to give women as many options as possible, and let them select the one that best fits their needs and their life. Sometimes, that will mean that other women make choices that we don’t like or that we wouldn’t make. It means that women I go to school with will pose half naked for a laddie mag, reemphasizing the idea that college women should be valued for their bodies and not their brains. It means that some women will be willing participants in making violent rape porn, or will argue that women like rape. It means that some women will abort their fetuses simply because they are female.
We need to look at these choices and ask, “why?” We need to examine what the hell is going on here, but we need to attack the root of the problem, not its face. It doesn’t make sense to shame women who pose for Maxim, when posing for Maxim clearly confers a whole set of benefits onto them. It makes more sense to ask, “Why are these smart, well-educated, talented women putting themselves in a forum where they’re reduced to their body parts and where their brains are silly little novelties in comparison to what really matters?” Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to shame women who are aborting female fetuses, when aborting those fetuses clearly confers some benefit onto those women and their families.
Feminists should not be arguing that there is one, single, “feminist” way to live. That’s pretty arrogant (plus, there isn’t). We also shouldn’t be arguing that because something is a choice, we can’t question what made her choose it. Of course, I think the idea that feminists want women to act in a particular way is one big strawwoman, as evidenced by the fact that feminists live in a lot of different ways; that it’s pretty rare to hear a feminist say, “All women should…;” and that when a feminist does say that, a bunch of other feminists take issue with it.
At the heart of my belief system is a free choice ideal. Because I realize that won’t happen, I think that the next best thing is a combination of (1) offering people as many options as possible, (2) comatting the underlying issues that constrain those options, and (3) respecting the ultimate choices that people make, respecting the people who make them, and simultaneously examining why they made them.
That’s my feminism. There are a lot of different kinds, and I do not speak for all of us. But, hopefully, that addresses the questions that Jeff poses.
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