From the mists of a few childhood memories this query still stands out prominently in my mind. My mother had called out this question to our neighbour whose daughter-in-law had just delivered a baby. What she was really asking was if the child was boy (Pedha) or girl (Barfi).
As is usual, for some inexplicable reason people hesitate to directly ask the sex of a newborn child and resort to veiled references. Barfi and Pedha are traditional Indian sweetmeats made out of Khoya, both calorie rich and expensive and usually distributed on festivals, special occasions etc. The above incident was in the 1970s in Mumbai but even now people in Maharashtra distribute barfi when a girl is born and pedha for a boy.
So when and how did this kind of differentiation begin. If it is just a subtle way to share news then it doesn’t really matter. Or does it have the beginnings of more differentiations between girl and boy-children in the family?
As toddlers and during primary schooling, most boys and girls are given the same education, facilities etc. However along with academics, girls are made to learn household tasks, cooking – all to prepare her to be good ‘wife’ material. Obviously she is expected to learn fast and excel. Not doing so can invite acidic remarks not only from the men folk in a family but the women as well. “Why are these chapatis so thick? Your in-laws will surely ask if your mother did not teach you anything…” is a sentence (or something similar) that I am sure many a woman will have heard at some time in her younger days. Mind you this is only a representative example.
As they grow older, girls are subtly encouraged to adopt various beauty regimens naturally with the eventual matrimonial goal in sight. Life will be grim for a girl whose skin is not as fair as milk or whose features do not fit in the characteristics of stereotyped “Beauty”. The recent outcry about dark skin following Nina Davuluri being selected as Miss America is just another example. But I am digressing… For the ‘believers’ (in horoscopes) a range of “Shanti” pujas (appeasement rituals) are conducted if a girl’s kundali has planets in ‘inauspicious’ positions that will bring ‘doom’. She is blamed for anything going wrong in her family or their business/jobs or health.
Once school is over, some girls have to opt for a particular stream simply to improve their marriage prospects. Most ‘boys’ want to marry girls who are engineers so that is the stream of choice! That puts paid to her dream of a career in the fashion industry or even the Defence forces. “Who will marry you?” is what the family wants to know in the event the girl does dare to voice her choices. Open the column of desired qualities in any matrimonial ad seeking brides and you will understand what I have just said.
Constantly pointing out or disparaging a girl’s physical or mental attributes or capabilities is hurtful. Mean and demeaning comments will dent her confidence for a life time and the loss of self-esteem and damage to her pride can be irreparable.
Such verbal cruelty is something that just we don’t like to or want to admit its existence. I do not know if there are any concrete statistics on this issue. Words that may be said in apparent jest are actually very hurtful. In the movie “English Vinglish”, Shashi’s husband tells their guests that his wife was born to make laddoos. It may have been a joke to him and he may not have intended to derogate Shashi, but hurt her he did. Shashi is a lady who many of us can easily relate to and the agony she goes through when her daughter and husband belittle her.
The home and family should be the one secure place where a girl is accepted and loved unconditionally. If this very oasis of her security is the source of her mental agony where does she turn to?
I do not know if such talk sets the precedent for physical abuse against the girl child but the mental agony she faces is just as detrimental. Since there are no physical scars, the effect of such barbed words cannot be assessed. Does that they mean they do not matter? Should they be ignored, excused and forgiven?
It’s time to end lip service to “free the girl child“. It’s time to act and it must begin at home. Let’s stop verbal abuse. Let’s allow our daughters and girls to study as they will, praise each one for her individual beauty, allow her skills and talents to bloom and celebrate her womanhood.
Pic of a child sleeping in Senegal, courtesy the UNICEF ENDViolence campaign. Do visit.