By Deeksha Malhotra
It’s 2021, and women are breaking glass ceilings all over the world. Starting from fighting for a right to vote and a right to education in the early 20th century, women have now crossed barriers and excelled at every profession in the world, even the supposedly male-dominated ones. But if you look closely enough, especially in Asian societies and even more specifically in India, a woman’s right to her own agency is a fight for much more than earning her place in a career of her choice. In India, a male child is ‘preferred’ as he is the entrusted one to carry on the family name, provide for the family (the one he is born into and the one he is married into), take care of the parents in their old age, elevate the status of the family and so on. A female child, on the other hand, is seen as a money pit and a liability whose worth is decided by the monetary value of the dowry she brings rather than her individual capacities.
In some parts of India, this ‘preference’ is so nocuous that, according to a June 2020 UN report, India accounts for over 45.8 million missing female births in the last 50 years, due to gender-biased sex selection. This is all heartbreaking, and, there are also further and wider-reaching impacts of these crippling, age-old notions that are now beginning to rear their ugly heads in society. For example, the development of the bride-buying practice in states like Haryana, where the sex ratio is so skewed, that there are not enough girls for men to marry. This has led to families ‘buying’ brides from other parts of India, opening yet another avenue for the exploitation of women. Interestingly, this move from demanding dowry to buying brides is the singular time, caste biases are ignored, at least on the surface.
One must not forget, this negative impact is not reserved for women only, even though they bear most of the brunt. The pressure to be macho and ‘man-up', provide, protect and conform to ideas of toxic masculinity has an immensely negative impact on men as well, leading to mental health, substance abuse and violence issues among men. Thus, this vicious cycle of ‘preference’ for a male child combined with absolutely defined gender roles in Indian society, has led to a gaping and rather imbalanced void in the social ecosystem. Only through awareness and by including the men in any sort of healing and upliftment of society can we truly overcome this.
Following is an excerpt from Deeksha Malhotra that sheds light on how deeply ingrained these notions are and how they impact people from all walks of life, in the most subliminal of ways.
I have spent a lot of time and energy proving to my family members, teachers, friends, and even strangers that I am as powerful, as intelligent or as independent as any man in the world. Growing up, the will to compete with men and to be better than them was so inherent in me, that it took me a long time to recognize how much of my life was focused on it.
Going to family gatherings as a 10-year-old child, who had no idea about the world, I had noticed the pity on people’s faces on seeing my parents with their two daughters. According to them, it was unfortunate, as there’s no way for the family tree to grow or the family name to be carried on. Family members, relatives and friends alike nagged my mother, asking her if she was trying for a boy. It would impact me immensely, this society’s appreciation and glorification of a male child and the subsequent dehumanization of a female child. I do not remember the exact moment when I first realized that I would not be treated equally and that I will have to fight for it. But I vividly remember fighting with pandits as a child to put rice on my teeka or tying molly (red ribbon) on my right hand like boys. I just sat beside my father and insisted the horrified pandit to treat me like a boy. I would feel good when boys in school told me I am different because I knew about WWE. I started to resent being a girl, and I didn’t even know it.
From a young age, I was fascinated with art. But while growing up, I gathered that maybe I’ll make a good “son” if I pursued science. So, after the 10th standard, I went for it and did the best I could. For my bachelors, I wanted to learn design. For that, my dad suggested, “why not architecture?” Because becoming an architect would have made me a perfect fit for the family business. On accomplishing something, in family gatherings, my father would proudly tell people “yeh toh humara beta hai” (She is our son). This elevated stature and praise used to make me so happy as a young girl.
So, I jumped at the opportunity of becoming a manifestation of the desired male child. However, after five years of drawing lines and terrible juries, I understood that this wasn’t going to make me happy. It was then that I drifted towards art again. As a 23-year-old architecture graduate, I did not want to pursue it any longer. On getting a few commissions on my artwork, I realized I could make money by doing something that I actually enjoy. Honestly, I never even discussed this career shift with my family. I started looking on my own, for jobs that I wanted to do and excel at.
When I found a job, I informed my father about my decision. Surprisingly, neither did he throw a tantrum nor did he dissuade me. I was confused! I, then, realized that if I were a boy, this career shift would have been a tornado in my life. It had never occurred to me that sometimes men didn’t have the freedom to do what they want either. It’s the same glorification of men by our society which becomes a burden on them. Certain roles get assigned to certain genders, which limit the growth and scope of all the genders. Our obedience towards such roleplay punishes us all. Because, popularly, a man has to support his family. By the age of 25, he must have a concrete plan. Being a woman, who will be eventually married to a man who would be responsible for providing for her, I have the liberty to make horrible career choices.
I finally realized then, that feminism wasn’t about being like a male. It was about being whoever I wanted to be without making any other person feel inferior based on gender, or the choices they make, whether they ascribe to gender roles or not. Feminism isn’t only about women but also about men. In my situation, as easy it was for me to ditch the architectural boat and head towards the art world, it wouldn’t be that easy for a boy in our society. And that hit me, that not having this obstacle made me feel bad about myself.
At this point, the rebellious child in me couldn’t prove anything; to prove I was equal, I wouldn’t go back to consider architecture again. I had to let that toxic side of constantly proving something to the world go. Every day I work on it. I still can’t say it is completely gone. There are times when things bother me. Like men offering to park my car for me, or females being called as bad drivers when I have repeatedly seen men running into accidents too. I still struggle to ask for help from male colleagues, thinking that they would see me as a weak woman. And such struggles are aided by how our society conducts itself.
For instance, last month I went to a bank with my father. A bank employee, with whom we’ve had no prior interaction, had the nerve of asking my father if he had only two daughters and no sons. I am sitting right beside my father, and a stranger questioned my existence just like that. His trick of controlling the damage by saying “aaj kal toh betiyan bhi bête hi hai” (these days daughters are also sons) did nothing to douse my irritation.
There are still times when such situations get the better of me. But with a better mindset and using creativity and awareness as my tools, I’m trying to change things around me, one art piece at a time.
About the author
Deeksha Malhotra is a Designer (Illustrator/ Architect/ Animator/ Artist) based out of Delhi.