Sex Ratios and Gender Biased Sex Selection: History, Debates & Future Directions
by Mary E. John
The study maps existing evidence on gender biased sex selection in the Indian context, weaving in significant social debates and policy developments that have influenced perceptions, and pathways to action. It offers practical suggestions to advance the path of critical inquiry by focusing on different domains such as family and household, education, labour and employment, and on institutions that directly or indirectly aid or combat the practice of sex selection.
Scroll down for further related media Reports New Delhi – The sharply declining child sex ratio in India has reached emergency proportions and urgent action must be taken to alleviate this crisis. The study ‘Sex Ratios and Gender Biased Sex Selection: History, Debates and Future Directions,’ undertaken by Dr. Mary John on behalf of UN Women and with support from UNFPA, helps to understand gender-biased sex selection more holistically, and aids in the identification of the important way forward for organisations and people working on the problem.
“Gender-biased sex selection is first and foremost a reflection of how little our society values girls and women. The sharply declining child sex ratio in India has reached emergency proportions and urgent action must be taken to alleviate this crisis. The deteriorating ratio from 976 girls to 1000 boys in 1961, to 927 girls in 2001, and to 918 girls in 2011, demonstrates that the economic and social progress in the country has had minimum bearing on the status of women and daughters in our society,” says Ms. Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Assistant Secretary General of the UN.
The study maps existing evidence on gender biased sex selection in the Indian context, weaving in significant social debates and policy developments, and the way forward on action. It offers practical suggestions to advance research and understanding on the subject by focusing on different areas such as family and household, education, labour and employment, and on institutions that directly or indirectly aid or fight the practice of sex selection.
“This report provides a road map for what has a widely researched topic and includes study on several pertinent topics such as the emergence of female infanticide from the mid-nineteenth century, the discovery of declining sex ratios in the 1960s and 1970s through the use of census data, history of relevant legislation and policy and a critique of its implementation, an interesting viewpoint on the extent to which dowry is a cause for the practice of sex selection and, finally, a look at different perspectives for research, namely culture, violence and political economy,” says Dr. Rebecca Tavares, Representative, UN Women Multi Country Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives & Sri Lanka.
The study forms part of a component of the UN’s joint work on Sex Selection. This joint group is made up of UN Women, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, WHO and the UNRCO and endeavours to support the UN’s work on preventing and reducing Sex Selection.
“India has witnessed many critical initiatives made by the government, academia and civil society to understand and resolve the issue of gender biased sex selection. UNFPA has played a key role in drawing attention to the issue in the last one decade, through engagement with multiple stakeholders. UNFPA leads and coordinates the efforts of the UN core group on sex selection in India, and is pleased to support UN Women in this joint initiative to map existing evidence on the issue. This report bears testimony to the research work thus far, and points to the wisdom that we can build on for evolving a definitive response to skewed sex ratios in India,” added Ms. Frederika Meijer, Representative, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) India.
The report also provides a brief overview of the sociological and ethnographical areas of study, including the role of civil society and the state, and changing familial patterns. Unequal inheritance rights, dowry, unequal socio-religious status, unpaid work, unequal pay, lack of economic opportunities for women, focus on male lineage, a culture of honour that places a greater burden of safety and protection on the parents of girls – all contribute to building a society that favours sons and men, and neglects daughters and women.
“The government and the civil society must go beyond policy-making and must quickly identify specific behaviours, cultural attributes, practices, media representations, mind-sets, and notions that propagate discrimination against daughters and, consequently, help sex-determination testing flourish despite its illegality. While we are witnessing a rapidly changing Indian society with modern and egalitarian values finding their way into the traditional and conservative family systems, the numbers, however, prove otherwise. A wider mindset change is crucial if we are to indeed save and empower our daughters,” adds Ms. Puri.
“The Government’s commitment to gender empowerment is evident – from Prime Minister Modi’s speeches confirming zero tolerance for violence against women to the very substantial funds that are being allocated for schemes. When it comes to gender biased sex selection, however, entire social structures including those linked to work, marriage and community need to change and the root causes of son preference, acknowledged and fought,” concludes Ms. Lise Grande, UN Resident Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative in India. NOTES TO EDITORS:
UN Women is the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. For more information, visit http://www.unwomenindia.org
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is an international development agency that promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. For more information, visit india.unfpa.org
To read the detailed report, please visit the UN Women website HERE
For more details, please contact: UN Women: Bina Emanvel;
; +918130981081 UNFPA: Shobhana Boyle or Preyam Bhasin,
; +9111 42225018, +9111 46532221 ~~~~~~~~~~
India’s aversion to girls has touched new heights. A new UN report reveals that in some parts of the country, girls-only families are a rarity.
The report ‘Sex ratios and gender biased sex selection: history, debates and future directions’ points out that girls-only families constitute just 2 per cent of families in states like Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. This figure draws attention to another dimension of the shocking child sex ratio (CSR) – the number of girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6 -- in the country. Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan have traditionally recorded the worst CSRs in the country, prompting demographers and gender specialists to describe them as ‘India’s Bermuda Triangle’ i.e. where girl children seem to be disappearing without a trace. The UN study now shows that there are very few families in these states that do not have sons. Other areas of concern too are highlighted. States that were once acclaimed for being more girl child-friendly are changing for the worse. In the past, India’s North-eastern states had more even CSRs. They are now slipping up. Manipur’s CSR has fallen from 957 in 2001 to 936 in 2011.
Pointing to India’s uneven CSR – from 945 in 1991, it has fallen to 918 in 2011 – the UN report describes the situation as an ‘emergency.’ Indeed it is. Girls are not being allowed to be born. Some 500,000 female foetuses are aborted annually in India. An adverse CSR shows that violence against women begins even before she is born. Despite the enactment of legislation to ban determination of the sex of the foetus – sex determination of the foetus often leads to abortion if the foetus is found to be female – its practice persists. Government authorities claim they are helpless as rarely does sex determination of the foetus or sex selective abortion get reported to the police. Social activists have a different story to tell. They point to connivance of local authorities with the crime.
Even when a clinic is ordered to be shut down for violating the law, authorities allow them to re-open. Besides the legal route to tackling sex selective abortions, India must tackle misogynist perceptions that justify violence against women. Our skewed CSR has its roots in our patriarchal culture, one which sees women and girls not just as a burden but as a curse. Such mindsets, which both men and women possess, need to be tackled vigorously through a systematic and comprehensive campaign. ~~~~~~~~~ Wednesday July 29, 2014
Gender-based sex selection practice on the rise
New Delhi: A recent United Nations study has pointed out the worsening trend in gender based sex selection practices – elimination of girl child during pregnancy – in the country.
The study says that though the north-west region, which has been traditionally infested with the malady has reached a plateau as far as the Child Sex Ratio (CSR) in the age group of 0-6 is concerned, the problem has spread slowly across the country.
The report, which was recently released by UN-Women and authored by Mary E John of Centre for Women’s Studies, points out the shift in the 2011 census where the practice reached its peak in the north-west region, and was spreading in large parts of the country. The report says that the provisional results of Census 2011 have added new twists to the saga.
Though CSR is still severe in the north-west, a slight improvement was observed. “It would appear that there has been a peaking (or plateauing) of the practice of sex selection in states like Gujarat, Haryana, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh with actual small improvements from very low levels in Punjab and Chandigarh,” it stated.
The national level CSR improved from 933 girls per 1000 boys in 2001 to 943 in 2011. In worst affected areas there was a slight improvement. In Uttar Pradesh it improved from 898 to 912, in Punjab from 876 to 895, in Haryana 861 to 879 and in Delhi 821 to 868. The report says that the malady has spread across states in every zone.
“Whatever the extent and nature of positive change in north-west India, CSRs are falling in large parts of western, central and eastern India – Maharashtra, Goa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and even Andhra Pradesh has joined the ranks from among the southern states,” the report says.
The report terms it as the widening of the circle, “In other words, the state wise figures demonstrate a widening of the circle, well beyond the so-called prosperity belt of north-west India, to the poorer states.” The study has also noted some micro-level trends at district levels in worst affected district where CSRs are very low. In these areas no one prefers a family with only girls.
The report pointed out that the district of Fatehgar Sahib in Punjab demonstrated the presence of families with just one son, but very few with only girls.
By Meena Menon A protest in New Delhi against sex selection (The Hindu)
Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan in the dock
In the context of falling sex ratios in India, a United Nations report points to a new level of ‘daughter aversion,’ most starkly visible in the negligible number of girls-only families in some parts of the country.
“Sex Ratios and Gender Based Sex Selection, History Debates and Future Directions” by Dr. Mary E. John, senior fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies for UN Women, was released on Tuesday. The report, which reviews existing studies, says it’s time to look at girls-only families, which are starting to disappear they are only two per cent in Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan.
The report says there is no doubt that contemporary India is witnessing a highly gendered version of fertility decline in northwest India.
Extra sons are no longer wanted either. This cannot be read as reduced son preference, says Dr. John who feels that families are planning to have at least one son and at most one daughter. It points to institutions and personnel directly mediating sex ratios at birth, for example clinics and medical practitioners, as an important area for research.
There are studies on the skewed sex ratios of children of doctors and gynaecologists that make it clear that they are guilty of practising sex selection for themselves, the report says. ~~~~~~~~~~ Mumbai ~ July 22 2014
India's child sex ratio drops: UN report
By IANS New Delhi: India needs to take urgent action following a sharp fall in its child sex ratio, a United Nations report said Tuesday.
The study named "Sex Ratios and Gender-Biased Sex Selection: History, Debate and Future Directions", says the child sex ratio in India has deteriorated from 976 girls to 1,000 boys in 1961, to 927 girls in 2001 and to 918 girls in 2011.
The report has been constituted by the United Nations Women with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
UN Women is the United Nations organisation dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women.
It also says India is among the few countries where the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) for girls is worse than boys.
The other countries are Nepal and Bangladesh.
Speaking at the report launch, Lakshmi Puri, deputy director of UN Women, said: "Gender-biased sex selection is first and foremost a reflection of how our society values girls and women."
"The deteriorating child sex ratio demonstrates the economic and social progress in the country has had minimum bearing on the status of women and daughters in our society," she added.
The report offers practical suggestions to advance research and understanding on the subject by focusing on different areas such as family and household, education, labour and employment and institutions that directly or indirectly aid or fight the practice of sex selection.
"India has witnessed many critical initiatives made by the government, academia and civil society to understand and resolve the issue of gender-biased sex selection. The report bears testimony to the research work thus far, and points to the wisdom that we can build on for evolving a definitive response to skewed sex ratios in India," said Frederika Meijer, representative of UNFPA to India.
The report also provides a brief overview of the sociological and ethnographical areas of study, including the role of civil society and the state, and changing familial patterns.
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed. *************
A major report on sex-ratios and abortion in India gives detailed background information on the scourge of gendercide. Sex Ratios and Gender Biased Sex Selection: History, Debates and Future Directions has been published by UN Women and covers the history, the figures and the debate about the causes of gendercide.
India’s child sex ratio (CSR) – the number of girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6 has deteriorated sharply over the past 20 years, dropping to 918 in 2011 from 945 in 1991, even though levels of education and wealth have risen significantly.
The report emphasises that sex-selective abortion has decreased in traditionally problematic regions, mostly in the north, but increased significantly in other areas. In the northwestern state of Punjab, where the CSR was extremely low, the number of female children per 1,000 male children rose to 846 in 2011 from 798 in 2001.
However, in regions like Manipur, in the northeast, and Andhra Pradesh, in the southeast, the traditionally even CSR has dropped below 940.
Dr. Mary E John, author of the report and senior fellow of New Delhi’s Centre for Women’s Development Studies, argues that the decline reflects a common gender-biased family plan: “families are actually ‘planning’ to have at least one son and at most one daughter.” Dr. John suggests that parents are concerned about dependent female adults, rather than female children. Women in India are marrying later and tend to stay live at home for longer, she writes in the report.
The trajectory of gendercide is a little-know feature of the problem. When the British colonised India in the 18th century, they were shocked to discover “missing girls”. Some accounts describe villages without a single girl. In that era, the principal causes seem to have been large dowries and hypergamy, the practice of women marrying men of a higher caste. According to census figures in 1901 put the ratio was at 961 women for every 1000 men, which fell to 946 in 1951, 941 in 1961 and 930 in 1971.
Why does the ratio keep falling even as India becomes more “modern”? The report says:
… two broad claims emerge. On the supply side, as we have repeatedly seen, we have medical technologies, granted fullest agency in the hands of the aggressive radiologist who takes his mobile machine into the hinterland of rural India to vend his wares, unmindful of the criminality of such actions. Such unscrupulous practitioners in turn are being ably supported by multinational capital, and several activists have pointed to the role that companies like General Electric are playing in pushing the market for ultrasound machines, further and further, into India’s rural heartland.
On the demand side, what appears with equal frequency is, quite simply, ‘dowry’. “Like a black shadow in the wake of dowry demands, is the spread of sex selection”.
This is an extremely interesting report which sheds much light on a complex problem.
10 deaths a month during sterilisation ops in last 3 yrs
By Aditi Tandon, Tribune News Service Scroll down to also read of the Politics behind and Appalling conditions within India's Female Sterilization Camps
New Delhi: As many as 10 persons died every month during sterilisation operations across the country over the past three years and 413 surgeries conducted under the family planning programme aimed at population stabilisation, failed.
The data on sterilisation (tubectomies for women and vasectomies for men) surgeries, which the Ministry of Health recently submitted to Parliament, shows that between 2010-11 and 2013-14, at least 363 persons died during sterilisation operations and 14,901 surgeries failed. Analysis of the data reveals that there were 15,264 cases of deaths, failures and severe complications and Rs 50.76-crore compensation was given to affected persons or their next of kin in cases of deaths.
This translates into an average compensation of a meager Rs 33, 255 per person who died or whose surgery failed during sterilisation. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Assam lead the mortality and failure charts.
The data serves as a grim reminder to poor management of the family planning programme which relies heavily on sterilisations, mainly of women. Male sterilisation continues to be low at a mere 4 per cent of the total figure annually.
Statistics show that the management of sterilisation leaves much to be desired. "The other problem is the continued dependence on mass sterilization camps which doctors conduct in unhygienic conditions on poor women mostly without seeking their informed consent or telling them what such an operation entails," says activist Devika Biswas, who had two years ago petitioned the Supreme Court against mass sterilisation camps. The SC is hearing the matter which Human Rights Law Network is fighting.
Experts say unsafe sterilisation camps which mostly target women are the root cause of deaths and failures in the family planning programme which is voluntary by law. The SC had in 2005 laid down guidelines for such camps but these are hardly followed. ~~~~~~~~~~~ June 20, 2013
Inside India's Female Sterilization Camps
By Andrew MacAskill
(Mustafa Quraishi/AP Photo) Sumati Devi knew before she arrived at the grimy government clinic in northern India that she would be paid to be sterilized. She didn't know that she would lie on an operating table with bloody sheets, that the scalpel used on her would be stained with rust, or that she was supposed to get counseling on other birth control methods before consenting to have her fallopian tubes cut and tied. The main reason Devi agreed was that the $10 she received about a week.s wages for a poor family would help feed her three children. "I did it out of desperation," says Devi, 25, as she lies on the concrete floor recuperating at the clinic in Bihar state. "We need the money. Health officials came to our home. They told us it would be best."
India carries out about 37 percent of the world.s female sterilizations. Quotas set by state governments and financial incentives for doctors contributed to 4.6 million women being sterilized last year, many for cash and in the unsanitary conditions Devi encountered. Vasectomies accounted for just 4 percent of all sterilizations. "Women are the easiest prey, whether it.s government officials or their husbands asking them to undergo the operation," says Kerry McBroom of New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network, which provided the lawyer for an ongoing court case against the government that was filed last year. The lawsuit documents the brutal practices at sterilization camps, where large numbers of women are gathered to have the procedure, and calls on the Supreme Court to issue guidelines to prevent abuse.
Only about half of Indian couples of child-bearing age practice modern birth control methods, United Nations data show. The government doesn.t pursue the costly option of teaching often-illiterate women how to use contraceptives. One in five babies born worldwide is Indian, straining supplies of land, food, and water. "A fast-growing population affects everything: the economy, the environment, quality of life," says Vishwanath Koliwad, secretary general of the Family Planning Association of India, an advocacy group.
Outside the clinic in the town of Sonhoula, 33 women who signed up for surgery line up in the heat as guards carrying bamboo sticks watch over them. They are led into a dimly lit room, with bare concrete floors, and placed on makeshift operating tables propped up with bricks. A.K. Das, the surgeon at the clinic, moves from one operating table to the next as he makes an incision below the navel in each woman, then cuts and ties their fallopian tubes. The patients are laid shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor in a separate room to recuperate. Das, who spends three minutes on each operation, runs out of anesthetic with more than 10 patients to go, forcing him to use a weaker sedative. He says he.s paid an extra $2 per patient by the government for using the weaker drug. It.s more dangerous because the women are not completely unconscious during the procedure. After each operation an assistant washes the scalpel in a tray of warm water.
"Look at this," says Das, pausing during an operation to hold up the rust-stained scalpel he.s using. "This is dirty and that will significantly increase the chance of infection."
A majority of those attending sterilization camps in India are lured by incentives such as money or improved welfare benefits offered by local officials under pressure to meet targets each year, says Abhijit Das (no relation to Dr. Das), director of the Centre for Health and Social Justice in New Delhi. While the federal government formally abandoned targets for sterilizations in 1996, that hasn.t filtered down to all states.
Most of the operations are performed in the first months of the yeara period doctors dub “sterilization season" to fill quotas before the fiscal year ends on March 31. Health workers in Gujarat say they were threatened by their supervisors with salary cuts or dismissal if they failed to meet targets, according to Human Rights Watch. Women are pressured to undergo sterilization surgery without being told they will never again bear children, the group said after interviewing 50 health workers. Repeated calls and e-mails to Gujarat Health Minister Nitinbhai Patel weren.t answered.
S.K. Sikdar, who runs national population control programs at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, rejects the idea that women go to the camps under duress. "There.s no pressure. People are free to do whatever they like," Sikdar says. "There may be some isolated districts where there are overeager officials, but they are rogue operators." Sikdar says sterilization is "one way" that India is trying to reduce the population, "but we are promoting different birth control methods."
The sterilization program has coincided with a slowdown in the birthrate. India’s population grew 17.6 percent in the decade to 2011, according to census data, four percentage points less than in the previous 10 years. States that have successfully curbed population growth have improved female education, increased work opportunities for women, and made a range of contraceptives available. In Kerala, where female literacy is over 90 percent, the population grew only 4.9 percent.
At the clinic, a medical assistant pricks each woman.s finger, using the same needle, to test their blood for anemia. Flies swarm through the windows. Das, the surgeon, removes his surgical mask after several operations because of the heat. The electricity shuts down, and a generator is cranked up. Dogs walk down the corridors. Nurses step around women on the floor, offering painkillers to those in agony. "The program should be voluntary," says Das, his face dripping with sweat. "There shouldn.t be any targets. The entire system needs to be changed."
The pressure to cut the birthrate never lets up. "At the end of the year we are judged on how many sterilizations we have done," says Dr. M.A. Rashid, who runs the Sonhoula clinic in Bihar. "The government doesn.t want excuses.”
The bottom line: Thirty-seven percent of the sterilizations of women worldwide are performed in India, often in unsafe conditions.
MacAskill is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New Delhi.
By JYOTI PUNWANI Of the seven years taken to arrive at this draft, two were spent talking to Muslim women, most of them poor, uneducated and living in ghettos. It was these women who were desperate for a change, urging the BMMA to “quickly change the law, get us justice.” (The Hindu)
Will the Muslim personal law make polygamy illegal?
When the Bhartiya Mahila Muslim Andolan started working on codifying Muslim personal law, they weren’t sure whether to ban polygamy, or make it conditional. Senior lawyers pointed out that despite bigamy being an offence, Hindu men continued to take a second wife. These women didn’t enjoy the status of a wife, whereas even the fourth wife of a Muslim man had that status.
But the final draft of the new ‘Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act’, released in Mumbai on June 18, makes polygamy illegal. How come? “That’s what Muslim women wanted,” says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of the BMMA. “We played the Devil’s Advocate with them, asking them wasn’t a second wife necessary if the first couldn’t conceive, for example. Their reply always was: ‘No. No second wife. No woman should have to share her husband with another woman.’”
Of the seven years taken to arrive at this draft, two were spent talking to Muslim women, most of them poor, uneducated and living in ghettos. It was these women who were desperate for a change, urging the BMMA to “quickly change the law, get us justice.”
But the middle class, supposed to be the pioneer for reform, left Noorjehan disillusioned. A US-returned Muslim in Hyderabad baulked at the BMMA’s proposal to make 18 and 21 the minimum age of marriage for women and men respectively. “It should be 18 for both,” she suggested. Muslim male lawyers in Karnataka saw nothing wrong in a 13-year-old getting married as long as she had attained puberty. But in the bylanes of Bhopal, uneducated Muslim women suggested 21 and 25 instead. “Our daughters graduate at 21,” they pointed out.
“Middle class Muslims kept saying: ‘Don’t tamper too much with the shariat.’ They have well-off families and education to fall back on; the unjust decisions of qazis don’t affect them much,’’ explains Noorjehan. What kept the BMMA going was the response of poor women.
Consultations with these women were held across 10 states where the BMMA has been working, training paralegal workers as arbitrators and providing legal aid. Men would attend their public meetings, and a few would invariably object to their attire (“you are wearing a sari, you haven’t covered your head, you aren’t wearing a burqa so you aren’t Muslim”), or to their lack of qualifications (“you are not aalims”). One man in Ranchi who objected vociferously to everything, later told Noorjehan, “I agree with everything you say, but if I don’t object, I can’t face my jamaat.” The BMMA took a decision not to consult the All India Personal Law Board and the religious organisations. “They have shown they don’t want change.”
The starting point of this long process was the condition of poor Muslim women, victims of the unIslamic and unjust decisions of maulanas and qazis. The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937 has no specific provisions to be followed, leaving every qazi free to rule as per their understanding of the Sharia. The Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939 lays down grounds on which a woman can approach the court, but few can afford to do so.
Because of this, reformists such as the late Asghar Ali Engineer campaigned for years for the need to codify Muslim personal Law as per Quranic injunctions, which grant women more rights than any other religion does. All Islamic countries have put in place modern personal laws. But in India, the move has always been resisted on three grounds: 1. The Sharia can’t be touched; it is divine. 2. It will be impossible to decide which of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence should be followed in codification. 3. This will be the first step towards enacting a Uniform Civil Code (UCC).
As Engineer never tired of explaining, the Sharia is based on the Quran, it is not the Quran. In India, the Shariat Act was drafted and enacted by the British. The BMMA worked with Engineer on its draft, choosing to base it on the Quran itself. The draft contains verses from the Quran to back its provisions.
Thus, to decide the minimum age of marriage, the Quranic injunction of ‘maturity’ of the spouses was interpreted as emotional maturity in addition to physical. “Besides, in Islam, marriage is a contract, and a contract can only be between two adults,” says Noorjehan.
The draft makes many common practices illegal, including underage marriage; unilateral, oral and instant talaq; making the woman give up her mehr (dower) and halala, the practice by which you remarry your divorced wife only after she consummates her marriage with another man and is then divorced by him. “This has no mention in the Quran, it’s become a prostitution racket in places like Lucknow,” says Noorjehan.
Is this the right time to release this draft, given the new government’s emphasis on the UCC? “We oppose the UCC. But we also want to know, when will the right time come to get justice for women? Twenty years back, we were asked to wait as the Babri Masjid was demolished, the community was under attack. Aren’t women part of the community? Ten years back we were told the Gujarat pogrom had taken place. Can these leaders give us a guarantee that 10 years later, there will be a really secular government, and the community won’t be under attack? Secondly, who decides this hierarchy of issues? Let’s tackle all issues: discrimination, security and also women’s rights. Besides, how many of these leaders have worked on these other issues at the grassroots level? It is groups like us who have done so, tried to get the Sachar Committee recommendations implemented and also campaigned against Modi.”
Noorjehan knows it will take the efforts of many groups to get the government to accept the draft. “Let the community debate our draft first. At any rate, for us, the process was as important as the result.”
From empowerment-lite to love-jihad, exploreing the perils of hijacked feminist agendas.
By Rahila Gupta
Illustration: Kathryn Corlett
It is a measure of the success of a set of ideas when business interests reference them in their marketing strategy. If religion and the state pile in too, it means those ideas are dangerous enough to warrant control through subversion. That has been the fate of feminism.
Perhaps the grandest of all ideological thefts took place when the US claimed it was invading Afghanistan to liberate women. Since then, saving women has become a central issue in the North-South civilizational discourse, separating ‘us’ from ‘them’.
Outrage at women’s suffering can go off-course all too easily. You may have thought recent demands for protection of women in India from sexual violence would be pretty difficult to subvert. But even here, conservative forces have appropriated the feminist agenda.
Kavita Krishnan, a passionate campaigner for women’s rights, has described the moral panic that followed the gang rape and murder of the young student Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in December 2012. Society responded by policing women’s sexuality, locking up girls and women at home ‘for their own protection’.
The rush to protect took some dangerous turns: placards demanding ‘hang the rapists’ were directly linked to safer streets; the Aam Aadmi Party, a new anti-corruption grouping, set up local youth brigades that could just as easily unleash vigilante justice against girls out with their boyfriends.
Men from minority communities such as Muslims were also targeted. The khap panchayats, a quasi-judicial body at the village level, infamous for pronouncing harsh punishments based on age-old customs and traditions, used slogans such as ‘Beti Bachao, Bahu Bachao, Samman Bachao’ (protect daughters, daughters-in-law and our honour). The ‘protection’ being demanded was from a so-called love jihad by Muslim men intent on seducing Hindu women.
Indian feminists have fought back, working to recast the debate in the language of rights and to refine their demands: demanding protection for ‘a woman’s freedom, not her body’.
Demonstrators embraced this wider critique of patriarchy. Krishnan says the massive protests by young people on the streets were not only in repudiation of Jyoti Pandey’s murder, but also an outburst of accumulated anger against rape culture.
‘Many public figures made remarks that in fact criticized her [Jyoti] for being out with her “boyfriend”… What girls were telling us was, “that after this case, our parents are telling us that we can’t go out at night, we can’t watch a movie with our friends, we can’t study away from home.”’
In a speech to demonstrators that went viral on the internet, Krishnan promised, ‘We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will do nothing for our safety. Don’t you dare tell us how to dress, when to go out at night, in the day, or how to walk or how many escorts we need!’
Strong… and shiny The corporate sector has also got in on the action. One of its most effective appropriation strategies has been to cut feminism adrift from its roots as a collective project, by emphasizing individual empowerment and choice.
‘The personal is political’ is a key foundational principle of feminism. It resulted from joining up the dots between individual women’s experiences to come to an understanding that these experiences were part of a systemic inequality, which needed collective effort to dismantle. However, this same principle is broad enough to allow business interests to ride on its back. Hair-care firm Pantene sells us shampoo, urging us to ‘be strong and shine’ in an advertisement that shows a series of images that highlight gender inequality, as if glossy hair can fight the sexist labels that hold women back.
Across the board, the corporate sector has used individual empowerment to sell beauty products and cosmetic surgery on the basis that the modern woman, that is to say, the feminist, is in control of her career, her life and her body and she remakes them as she chooses even if those choices entrench gender inequality.
Those same business interests often rely on supply chains forged from women’s exploitation. In order to counter the bad press they have received on this front and partly to fulfil their corporate social responsibility obligations, the corporate sector has jumped on the ‘development’ bandwagon – predictably on its own terms and without a sense of irony.
US retail giant Walmart, which has been dogged by strikes and legal action over pay discrimination against their female workers, set up its Empowering Women Together programme in 2011. It has committed $100 million for jobs training for a million women across the world and gives women-owned businesses preferential status as suppliers. Yet it is only able to sell cheap clothes because of the starvation rates paid to Bangladeshi women garment workers. Empty rituals Similarly, US sportswear transnational Nike – with its own history of labour exploitation of young girls – set up the Nike Foundation in 2004 driven by the discovery that ‘the best investment with the highest returns’ was adolescent girls. In ‘Can girls save the world?’, Kate Grosser and Nikki van der Gaag analyse how the Nike approach undermines the feminist position and promotes a neoliberal agenda by focusing on the girls as individuals with power to change their situation while ignoring the social and political context which makes them powerless.1
Mainstream development trends must also be questioned. In Engaging with Empowerment, Indian scholar Srilatha Batliwala rejects those apolitical programmes that adopt feminist ideas, divest them of the complex transformative strategies they were embedded in, and reduce them ‘to formulas, rituals and mantras’. Anthropologist Andrea Cornwall has dubbed this ‘empowerment-lite’.
The religious right is another one that is fond of couching a pro-life position in the language of women’s rights. Christian groups in the US have long claimed abortion is necessary only because society has failed the needs of women. Europe has its own variants. A recent anti-abortion resolution filed in 2013 (which was ultimately rejected despite intense lobbying) expressed feminist-sounding concern for the early sexualization of girls, their widespread exposure to porn, the resultant gender stereotyping and sexual violence (so far, so acceptable) as a prelude to condemning ‘any violation of the bodily integrity of women’ and demanding universal access to ‘post-abortion trauma syndrome treatments’.
The British government, too, has not been averse to using women’s rights as a Trojan horse to smuggle in other, anti-immigration agendas. Prime Minister David Cameron has denounced forced marriage as ‘abhorrent and little more than slavery’ – a position that all feminists could support. Yet Britain’s action against ‘sham and forced marriage’ translated into upping income thresholds for those bringing in a foreign spouse, and increasing the probationary period of such marriages from two to five years. When a marriage breaks down in less than five years, a woman has to provide proof of domestic violence in order to get leave to remain in Britain. Ignorant of their rights, it is likely that many women would not dare to leave such marriages for fear of deportation and destitution. In contrast, the demands from feminists – more funding for specialist refuges, women’s centres and adequate training for teachers, social workers and police to identify girls at risk of forced marriage – go unheard.
We have to be vigilant to the encroachment on feminism from every direction and of attempts to use our own ideas against us. This imitation is not aimed to flatter but to flatten us.
Tina Wallace, Fenella Porter (eds), Aid, NGOs and the realities of women’s lives, Practical Action, 2014. ~~~~~~~~~ Rahila Gupta is a journalist, writer and activist. She also writes for OpenDemocracy and The Guardian.