Samar Harlankar writes in the edit page of Hindustan Times, 27th January 2011 that girls are getting killed off in India as the country progresses economically and materially. Natural theory has it that the female in every species has higher chances of survival than the male because nature intends to protect the female reproductive capacity to hold the foetus and finally to give birth. Therefore, the sliding number of females per thousand male in India at a steady pace means that someone somewhere is interfering with the natural process. Females can only not be born at all if they are aborted as foetuses or they are killed off physically. The Census data shows that in the age group 0 to 6 years, girls have declined from 1010 per thousand boys in 1941, to 945 in 1991, then to 927 in 2001 and now in the 2011 census they are below 900. This amounts to 1370 girls killed off each year as compared to 250 deaths due to road accidents and 6 in case of terrorist attacks. What is worse is that more educated the household is, more economically prosperous and more urbanised it is, chances are higher that they will kill its girls. Attitude towards girls and economic prosperity are related, the question to ask is, what way is the relationship. Do attitudes towards the girl child become intolerant with economic progress or whether the nature of economic opportunities is such that it requires women to be killed off?
I am not sure whether the rich kill their women. In pre modern times when work was more of physical labour and riches meant that one could live off un laboured surplus, it must have been fashionable to draw women out of economic participation. In those days before modernity, labour often was not free and one way to assert the worker’s unfreedom was also the exploitation of female bodies by classes who paid the working class. Further, in the pre modern days, knowledge was not an essential category for work and hence work did not have the professional calling that people were expected to have with Weberian modernity. In those days, women who did not need to go out of homes were looked upon as being privileged.
With modernity this changed. Modernity came riding on the back of capitalism, a regime in which the entrepreneur was valued, the non working woman was valued as well. But because the political regime fought privileges of feudalism in the name of individual freedom and civil rights, it was forced to also recognize women as human beings. Of course, intense feminist struggles helped achieve this goal. But there was one thing in European development and which is with the rise in prosperity, the need for economic reproduction declined and which then saw rich men being contended with their only daughters as heirs to their estates. All through this period when weak and frail women were married to couches in rich men’s homes as decoration pieces while the husbands developed flings for the more physically robust red cheeked girls. The romantic love was brought in a major way to be projected as the best thing that can happen to a woman and because she was to marry after falling in love, she was also given access to the public space such as “gatherings” and “parties” where men could see her with their fixed gazes a la Darcy. Apropos to this game plan, women were also taught skills that would make them pleasing to men and also at the same time steadily move them away from the public sphere of economic participation. No wonder then Florence Nightingale was such a scandal, Mother Theresa such a rebellion, Sister Nivedita so much of an impudence and character of Jane Eyre so pitiable.
In India, modernity came to a privileged class of the rich and English educated. Women in this class were more liberated thanks to the social reforms and Freedom Movement. Women of the privileged class were relatively freer from the pressures of the society and their riches immunized them from patriarchy in a large way. The poor women of course continued as usual with their physical labour and drudgery. The high class as everywhere else is one that sets the rules, the low class is one which is excluded out of the rules and there is a huge middle ground where rules are blindly repeated and followed. The middle class that holds this large middle ground is a dangerous element in human history.
Because the middle class requires only reproducing the order, it necessarily needs to stereotype rules and roles. It becomes a non reflective mass given to the herd instinct of competitiveness. When its population increases and people who were hitherto poor rise into this class, this class suffers from over population because opportunities available are fewer than the number of aspirants. There is always a tension in the middle class; it has an anxiety of falling back into poverty and a compulsion to do well so as to secure its economic position. The lethal combination of anxiety and compulsive upward mobility makes it seek spaces and resources. In politics, this translates into communalism and ethnic assertions and within the family it translates into fewer resources for girls. In middle class homes, girls have to struggle to survive. They have to survive on less food, less investments on education, and at the same time must be presentable in the marriage market to marry well. Hence they must have lean bodies, wear enticing clothes, use fairness creams and do “computer” courses where they have a chance to meet boys. A love marriage is actually okay because it saves on the dowry. In most of north India, girls work outside the home, not as liberation but to earn their dowry. All is well except girls must have anuloma marriages, i.e. marry up the social ladder. More girls struggle for resources, less they are equipped to have incomes that would help them find their own feet, and more women depend on male approval and the hooking the man route to material comforts. A girl finds that the only way for her to survive is by pleasing the men folk. The media picks up this need of the young females and weaves its narratives and constructs its images. No wonder modern young women shun feminism and even seasoned feminists are so apologetic these days (one had to only witness the Women’s Reservation Bill debate).
The more girls are starved of resources the more they are subject to the structures of patriarchy and less they can emerge as persons in their own right. Girls are in no mood to fight patriarchy and too eager to get into the reproductive positions and kill off girls born and yet to be born unto them repeating the same middle class processes that upholds the order. The trigger for this girl killing machine namely the middle class, lies in a growth where the only opportunities for a dignified life lie in occupations designated as middle class and where every other kind of livelihood for a decent living are wiped off through a predatory capitalism that takes away farm lands and destroys local industry. The more opportunities get restricted and the variety of opportunities decline, more is there a competition for resources; in politics this leads to ethnic hate and in the family, it gets adverse on girls.