Acts of Disappearance – Part 1
I am not meant be alive. I am not meant to be here, living and breathing. I was not meant to survive. I am a lowly Indian girlchild who became a woman, that in itself is a kind of miracle. This is not hyperbole. In Punjab, where I was born, there is a chronic lack of women due to sex selection foeticide. It bears repeating; in the land where I was born, there is a genocide taking place against girls from the moment that they are inside the womb.
A distinction must be made between those who prescribe to caste and identify as high caste (and the equivilent in class in the west) and those who are seen as ‘low’caste or Dalit – the girls conceived in either have very different experiences and opportunities to live. Not all ‘South Asians’ are equal. We rarely hear unprivileged voices from the Indian sub continent and of course, we can’t hear from women who are no longer alive.
Let me make clear that my experience is not free licience to assume that all brown girls have the same experience. It is reductive to think that misogyny is the preserve of one culture or community. I assert that it is a global phenomenon that changes in methodology, force and subtlety depending on the lottery of where you are born. That said, every breath I take is a victory.
As I write this Paolo Nuttini plays on the radio. His lyric “It was in love I was created…” strikes a cord. I was not born out of love. I was born in desperation. I was born in fear, anxiety and worry. My birth, like many girl infants was not a celebratory event. The usual mathai that is distributed to family, friends and neighbours when a boy is born, did not mark my arrival. My mother, eager to be valued, appreciated and earn her place in her in-laws family was desperate to have a boy. She would have to wait a decade and several unvalued daughters later, until that would finally happen.
The BBC news website reports that “India’s… census shows a serious decline in the number of girls under the age of seven – activists fear eight million female foetuses may have been aborted in the past decade … India’s ratio of young girls to boys is one of the worst in the world after China. Many factors come into play to explain this: infanticide, abuse and neglect of girl children … Sabu George, India’s best-known campaigner on the issue, says the government has so far shown little determination to stop the practices. Until 30 years ago, he says, India’s sex ratio was “reasonable”. Then in 1974, Delhi’s prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences came out with a study which said sex-determination tests were a boon for Indian women. It said they no longer needed to produce endless children to have the right number of sons, and it encouraged the determination and elimination of female foetuses as an effective tool of population control. “By late 80s, every newspaper in Delhi was advertising for ultrasound sex determination,” said Mr George. “Clinics from Punjab were boasting that they had 10 years’ experience in eliminating girl children and inviting parents to come to them.” ”
Further testimony by Sabu M George to the US Congress is forthright and clear “It is a crime against women, a gender crime that has no parallel or or precedent in all of human history. More girls in India and China are eliminated every year than the number of girls born in US. Over the last decade, 6 million plus girls were eliminated before birth in India; this is more than the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust by the Nazis…Four plus decades of practice of sex selection have led to the emergence of forced polyandry; i.e., one woman being shared by several men in parts of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. Violence against women has become worse in areas where sex selection has been extensive. Buying of women for marriage from other states has become an important reason for trafficking of women to North West India since 2000. In the coming decades, due to shortage of tens of millions of women, further progress in education and employment opportunities for millions of surviving women could possibly be affected; due to the increasing threat of violence against women inside homes and in public spaces…”
I was an avid reader as a child. My home had no books except for the Guru Granth Sahib which my mother would read prayers from daily. One of my childhood fantasies for my ‘grown up’ life, was to have shelves of books. My library card was a treasured item. I spent hours in Chorlton Public Library. It wasn’t just a place for reading, but a place of sanctuary. Somewhere I could exist unharried and lost in wordy worlds of my own making.
The Hindu newspaper reports that in Punjab, “Chandigarh, the city with the highest standards of living in the country, has a sex ratio of 777(girls):1,000(boys)… Examining the sex ratios at birth of second child makes it evident that son preference is affecting family-building strategies. The sex ratio of last births (number of females born per 1,000 males when the first child is a female ) ranges from a low of 504 in Punjab, to 540 in Haryana, and 572 in Himachal Pradesh indicating a regional spread … Kamaljeet Gill, Professor of Economics at Punjabi University, said: “Even today, [the] birth of a girl child is viewed as a bad investment for future but the poor still find the cost of raising a child to be nominal with respect to the income that the child might generate and also they cannot afford the cost of tests and abortion. The reform needs to begin with the prosperous, educated class which abort a female child due to their narrow patriarchal view, where sons are considered to be the only hope of old age and even after life.”
This disparity between sexes is made possible through technology. State of the art ultrasound machines can be found across India from small rooms in villages to city hospitals. These machines do not originate from India but have in fact been imported into the country. The BBC reports that as of 2011 “there are 40,000 registered ultrasound clinics in the country, and many more exist without any record.” Sabu George says “The role of American ultrasound companies like GE, Sonosite is regrettable. In 2001, GE submitted to the Indian Supreme Court the list of 6000 clinics to whom they sold ultrasound machines in the previous 5 years. The analysis of this data revealed that wherever GE had sold the most machines, those areas had the least girls born!”
My love of reading was tolerated during my infant years but as I reached prepubescence, a marked shift happened. The sight of my reading would irritate my parents, particularly my father. I would take to hiding in the bathroom and reading. I’d leave my book under the dirty laundry basket. At night I would position myself at the edge of my the bed I shared with my siblings, to read by street light. I had eclectic tastes and devoured everything from poetry, classics to popular fiction like Flowers in the Attic, Jilly Cooper and Harold Robins, which were contraband items on my child library ticket. I had persuaded one of the librarians that I was taking the book out for my mother. She kindly helped by organising a ticket for my Mother which I would then use for my forays into the adult section of the library. My parents took years to find out and by eleven years old I felt I had managed to salvage quite an education despite the odds set against me.
In an interview with The Hindu newspaper, a Dr. Kaur discussed the impact of widely available foetal sonography: “Unchecked technology combined with affordability has made the practice a norm, and high and middle-income groups have completely shifted to female foeticide as a more ‘sanitary option’ and female infanticide too is practised more in the form of abandoning few-days-old infants in bushes, public toilets, parks or garbage bins but the aim has not changed, no one wants to be son-less.”
Putting these findings in a global context, Nanditia Sakhia et al write in the Lancet that “Missing female births have increased worldwide, from near zero per year in the late 1970s, to about 1·6 million per year by 2005–10. Missing female births totalled around 30 million between 1980 and 2010, contributing to substantial deficits in the number of women. India accounts for almost half of global missing female births. Daughters in India face more discrimination than sons due to a combination of socio-economic, cultural, and historical factors. Selective abortion of female fetuses occurs within this context… ”
At some point during primary school my teacher had suggested that I would be a good candidate for the eleven plus and spoke to my mother about the possibility of engaging a private tutor to help me sit the exam. My mother relayed the information to my father who said that I could sit the exam but he wasn’t going to pay for a tutor. I remember turning up at the local Grammar School with it’s impressive dark wood clad walls and high ceilings. I was shown to my place and when the time came to turn the paper over I was met with what looked like a set of riddles. My failure at the exam was held up by my father as more evidence of my uselessness and justification for his narrowing of my already small world. I like to think that I am the only girl in the world who fought with her father to own a dictionary, a book I was so proud of I carried it with me from home to home for years.
By the time I reached secondary school it was positively dangerous to be caught reading poetry or fiction. Text books were permissible but when I asked for money to buy literary texts for English I was refused. My father considered it a waste of money and commented out aloud – what’s the point of educating you? The unsaid rationale hung loudly in the air – I was not worth educating or investing in because I was a girl and I would be married. I was a girl and I was a burden, a daughter who was a liability until she was passed onto another man, who would be paid a dowry for the imposition. A basic education was all I deserved as a girl. I was lucky that I was living in a country that offered free education to all children.
In some cultures the misogyny and suspicion around women and girls is closer to the surface, more easily identified as opposed to the covert misogyny at play in the West and the apparent freedom and equality we imagine ourselves to value here. We like to consider ourselves progressive, we ‘liberate’ and ‘educate’ and then abandon the women of Afghanistan for example. All at the whims and mercy of white men in power.
In some parts of the world it takes two men to corroborate a woman’s testimony (lest she lie or be forgetful). In some cultures it is preferred that a woman remain submissive and silent. (What better way to achieve that by not allowing her to exist?). The Bible states that “”Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” First letter to the Corinthians. “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” First letter to Timothy. In Islam the Surah al-Baqarah states that “if two men be not available, then one man and two women, of such as you like as witnesses, so that if either of the two women should be in danger of forgetting, the other may refresh her memory.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch:2: V.283)
India, like many places in the world, knows how to disappear girls and women. There is literal death and then there is erasure – a forced obliteration via erosion or sleight of hand. This is harder to pin down. Here, in the slippery West, here in the UK we have other ways of disappearing women. You can be assassinated without a drop of blood being spilled.
Here in the west, in the UK, we don’t crudely kill working class brown girls at birth but we do have other ways of ensuring that they don’t have a voice. That they fail to fulfil their potential. That they are discredited, cancelled and silenced. Here, there are other ways of keeping working class brown girls and women down. The disappearing doesn’t need to be dramatic. It can be prosaic. It can be ordinary. It can be attritional. It can be by stealth. It may be boring and irritating, particularly when you think it doesn’t affect you.
When I walk into the room as an adult, as a grown woman of working class Indian heritage, I am an anomaly. I am an apparition. I am extraordinary because everything was stacked up against me. I was never meant to survive. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve survived attempted murder multiple times. You have no idea what it took to get me here. What I have navigated and faced down to stand before you with the freedom to think, speak, create. With some level of autonomy over my conflicted body. You do not know what it took to claim the right to love and fuck anybody I choose. You can not imagine what it took to claim my right to speak of love or my right to physical pleasure. You may never know what it took to free myself of the mantle of imposed shame. The strength it takes to turn up again and again, despite being silenced, ignored, gaslit and more and take up space that white people and non working class women take for granted.
A study by Adanmu et al states that “Demographically, as many as 200 million women and girls around the world are missing according to the United Nations. Put simply, ‘missing women’ are those whom ceteris paribus should be alive, but are not.” The role that companies like GE and white, first/developed nations play in this genocide cannot be underplayed. It suits them to have less brown people in the world. Sonographic technologies in this context can be as effective as placing drugs and guns into a community.
All lives don’t matter, some lives don’t matter at all and some lives were never lived. Winter is coming. Beside me, urging me on, walk the millions of girls who never saw light of day, whose brilliance we will never know. Whose girlhood and womanhood we will never know. Of course I’d rather have other thoughts on my mind, other legacies to carry and other weights to bear. But my silent sisters and I deserve better, we demand better and we are coming.
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Twitter: @MundairRaman Instagram: @ramanmundair + @rmundair
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