Mar 9, 2006

2 Thoughts on Int'l Women's Day

In honor of International Women's Day, or perhaps because it reminded me of a couple of things, just a short post about two things tonight before I'm off to bed.

First, I've heard some progressive South Asian sisters mention the fact that there aren't a lot of good (hetero) progressive men out there. Even I have bemoaned the fact that there aren't a lot of progressive hetero men out there, albeit for a different reason. Or at least men willing and/or able to take more leadership (but that?s another post altogether).

Even more broadly than just in the desi community, while sitting in my requisite campus meetings around issues concerning human rights, public interest lawyering, and other positive and progressive issues, it is hard not to notice the obvious gender disparity, even as it is not represented in the tenured faculty (less than 25% of our tenured faculty are women).

But back to desi organizations and organizing. There just aren't very many hetero men who are doing this work, which makes it very strange to be in spaces where you are the clear minority, but you still hold certain gender-based privileges. How do you negotiate that? And how do you navigate the slippery slope of personal and romantic interactions (if you're single) in a setting where you're in such a peculiar position as a "wanted" partner? It just seems complicated, and unfortunate, that the gender gap is so great.

Do we chalk it up to the ability of women to move beyond the expected work paradigm and see the importance of community work? Or is it that this work is undervalued (it is) and women have taken the flag because community conventions frown upon non-capitalist leanings? Whatever it is, the gender imbalance is striking.


Which leads me to my second observation for the night on gender. A lot of attention has been paid to India in the media and the blogosphere in the past week, in the wake of President BushÂ?s first visit to the nation. Amidst the reports concerning the nuclear deal with India, a think tank in the United Kingdom released a report that estimates that upwards of 10m girls may have been aborted in India over the past 20 years. The report has been hotly contested, with some saying that this is a ploy to make India look bad, and more rational minds stating that the true numbers are grim, but not 500,000 a year. One researcher estimates that between 1994 - 2001, 1.5m female fetuses were killed. Regardless, these numbers are crazy.

Call it female infanticide, gender selection, or even gender genocide, the numbers are staggering. Whether 1.5m or 10m, can you imagine how many people that is? There are only 2.1m South Asians in all of the United States, of all ages. This isn't a state-sponsored system of forced sterilization (though one could argue that the state is responsible for the poverty that pervades all areas of India, which combined with a traditional culture steeped in patriarchy, makes it less surprising that families are making this terrible choice concerning girls).

But my question is, while I find the whole situation reprehensible, do I feel that way because of the cumulative effect of the numbers? At some point, for each woman and family, isn't it their individual choice of what they want to do in their family? How does someone who has fought for the right of a woman to choose whether or not she wants to end a pregnancy reconcile that commitment to choice with the situation in India when that choice is being used in what seems to be a clear bias against female children? Do you argue that it's a (poly)cultural bias
in India and an outlier in the broader movement for safe contraception and effective birth control? Or do you find a way to show conditional support for a woman's right to choose, provided that this kind of phenomenon does not arise? Can you show conditional support for a position and still really be a strong advocate for it?

I actually haven't got the energy or time to finish this thread, though I think it would likely just be a lot of words in a big circle. I don't know what the answer is, but I definitely feel that hand-in-hand with the sobering news that we've been reading about female infanticide, it calls into question, at least for me, whether some of these technologies (especially sex screening) have moved into India faster than the population has evolved to adapt to it. But I'd love to hear what y'all have to say on the issue...


someone else said...

The idea that these abortions are an "individual choice" strikes me as off. There's a social and political context to it, eh, and the same system that's inducing the abortions is what's corrupting the "choice."

Now what you do about that is a different question :)

Rage said...

I still think that some element of this must be viewed on the basis of individual choice for each of the families. I think that it's easy to default with a meta-conclusion about system when I think there's a calculus that most families go through before they decide to go through this route. I don't think that it isn't tainted by the environment that they are in, nor the societal/economic/etc pressures and barriers that they face, but I also think that at some point, there's a decision while weighing these factors, and it isn't altogether dissimilar from what people go through anywhere else.

What does that mean? It means that while we're speaking about the many things that make India different from a place like the United States or a European nation, can we really say that it's so radically different that we should fully disallow an individual (and family's) right to choose... and then what does that mean when one puts that right up against the human rights question that female infanticide presents?

Sham said...

Nice contrast between the situations in the west and in India and surrounding countries. The same thing struck me when activists in our university here in Kansas had put hoardings 'describing' abortion.

I am not an informed individual in gender studies in India, but there are two interesting reasons generally proposed for female infanticides.
1. Cultural
2. Economic
In Punjab (which has the lowest female-male ratio within India) abortions have a correlated increase with green revolution. In an interview with a farming family in Punjab (I am too sorry, I forgot the reference) it was the female members who were more willing for a female infanticide than the men.

Personally, I feel the cultural bias isn't so much of a factor in the rest of the nation. I believe it is economic risk associated with a female child and the risk coping behavior within the family.

If we figure out that, then we could probably think about the policy and ethical issues related to it.

Hope this wasn't too much!

Rage said...

Sham - thanks for writing, and for posting up the Punjab facts. A reference would be very helpful.

Sham said...

There are many links; it's been heavily discussed by the media infact.
1. Outlook Magazine's cover story
2. Female Demographic disadvantae in India:
3. Punjab fact sheet on India Together:
4. The interview I mentioned was a UNICEF documentary on the state of females in Punjab. I am not 100% sure, but I think this is the video:

Rage said...

Thanks, Sham.

someone else said...

can we really say that it's so radically different that we should fully disallow an individual (and family's) right to choose... and then what does that mean when one puts that right up against the human rights question that female infanticide presents?

I think you identify both denial of control over one's body and female infanticide as part of the same problem, and choose your strategies to combat them as such. They should both be objected to, but instead of, say, trying to ban abortions, you try to develop women's power in villages. Just an off-the-cuff thought about the type of reasoning that should be used--you can alter the specifics of the strategies.

It's like choosing to support choice in the u.s. in a way that doesn't undermine poor people (i don't understand why people don't reenvision abortion as a class issue more).