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Updated: February 17, 2011 00:50 IST

Indian society most ‘gender insensitive,' says award-winning writer

Hasan Suroor
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Author Kishwar Desai, seen here at the awards ceremony, in London earlier this year, hopes that her novel will provoke debate and create greater awareness. Photo:AP
- PHOTO: AP Author Kishwar Desai, seen here at the awards ceremony, in London earlier this year, hopes that her novel will provoke debate and create greater awareness. Photo:AP

For all the talk in India about empowering women, it remains one of the most “gender-insensitive” societies in the world with even bodies like the National Commission for Women mostly engaged in “headline-grabbing” exercises, says Kishwar Desai, the U.K.-based Indian writer and broadcaster whose novel, Witness the Night, about female infanticide has just been awarded Britain's prestigious Costa prize (previously known as the Whitbread award) for a first book.

“Generally, we're a very cruel society and so obsessed with pursuit of ‘perfection' that anyone who is even slightly different — for example, disabled or not considered ‘pretty' enough — is seen as ‘abnormal.' Women are the worst victims of this attitude — that's if they are allowed to be born or live at all. The fact is that we don't want girls in the first place. Forget about aborting female foetuses, we don't have any qualms about killing newly-born baby girls — and here I'm talking about supposedly modern and enlightened people who live in big metros,” Ms Desai said talking to TheHindu after collecting the prize.

She cited a study according to which more than 1,000 female foetuses are aborted every day in India. Estimates of female infanticide were equally “horrifying.” What she found really shocking was that women themselves were complicit in this.

“I spoke to some psychiatrists and they said women did this because they felt empowered — it gave them a sense of wielding power. It is a weird logic. My own sense is that, given the way women are treated in India, it is perhaps a perverse way of delivering baby girls from a cruel fate,” she said.

How it struck her

The scale of the problem first hit her when she was running a Punjabi television channel in India in the 1990s:

“One of the things I routinely encountered were stories of female infanticide and foeticide. Once in Chandigarh, a woman, quite well known in social circles, told me how when she was young her parents tried to get rid of her by giving her an overdose of opium but she survived. After all those years she still lived with the trauma that her own parents could have been her assassins.”

The story of the Chandigarh socialite was the trigger for the novel that she was to write some 20 years later.

“I kept asking myself: why do Indians behave like this towards their daughters — burying them alive, giving them poison, trying to kill them with an overdose of opium? When I started to research I was horrified by the sheer scale of the practice of female infanticide and the widespread public indifference. Almost every State in India is affected: Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. As a result, according to the most conservative estimates there are at least 30 million Indian women ‘missing,' so to speak,” Ms Desai said.

Even in the West

This “anti-girl child” attitude was also widespread among Asians living in the West. In Britain, she pointed, it was not uncommon for Asian men to take their pregnant wives to India for sex-selection procedures and abortions.

“I met a girl whose father openly told her that he was taking her mother, who was pregnant with a girl child, to India for an abortion. She said there were three girls in the family and he didn't want one more. Here was a man who had lived all his life in Britain and yet his cultural attitude had not changed. Really, shocking. In fact, one of the reasons that Britain banned sex-selection in 2007, I believe, was because it was being abused by Asians,” Ms Desai said.

What the judges said

She hopes that her novel, published both in the U.K. and India, would provoke debate and create greater awareness.

She sees it as a measure of the difference in cultural attitudes that the book has been “appreciated” more in the U.K. than back home.

The novel was inspired by the case of a young girl in Kolkata (Calcutta at the time) who was accused of poisoning her entire family but mostly it is fiction and can be read purely as a “thriller.”

“I didn't want to be didactic but raise the issue by telling a story.”

Judges praised the book for lifting “the lid on the problems that simmer under the surface of modern-day India.”

“Desai has pulled off a remarkable trick transplanting a country house murder to modern day India in a book that's not afraid to tackle serious themes,” they said.

Ms Desai, who is married to the economist Lord Meghnad Desai, has been commissioned to do a series of novels built around the central character of Witness the Night — a “feisty, whiskey-swigging, chain-smoking social activist” from Delhi.

It's indeed shameful that female infanticie/foeticide takes place. As for author Desai being shocked in women being complicit, can only be attributed to her mis-categorizing the killings of females as women issue. This is not simply man v women issue. A few readers rightly commented about dowry being an issue. Well, the groom side includes as many number of females as on the bride's side and yet dowry demands get made. It stands to reason that women who have no qualms accepting dowry for their sons may not be wanting to bear daughters. Dowry is a social problem and so is female infanticide. While it may not be easy for every girl, if enough girls were to take stand against dowry then may be we will see this situation improve.

from:  Manoj
Posted on: Apr 13, 2011 at 01:17 IST

I am in the USA and see indians discriminating their fellow female colleagues or students. They are here for higher learning and yet fail to subscribe to a higher plane of thinking. We, as a society are very discriminating and judgemental. Women's rights need to be addressed and the basic fundamental rights of freedom given to them. The author might not mean to say we are a bad country. But it is our responsibility to improve it. Discrimination is prevalent in any society. Do not deny it.

from:  Sailesh
Posted on: Feb 22, 2011 at 02:19 IST

Why Women are perceived as burden? The cause lies in the physical and emotional differences between man and woman.A man does not see the differences as complementary to his own nature but only as a deficiency in women which are his stronger attributes. He totally refuses to acknowledge the stronger attributes of woman for the fear of his weakness in those fields! Nature works overtime to balance the opposite forces and a rich life thrives when we work in accordance to this. Tempering with the sex ratio can only bring disaster in coming future. And believe it or not Nature wants females in abundance and males in moderation to keep the balance and the peace in the world!Check out any tribe not indulging in such practices.

from:  Agarwal Deepa
Posted on: Feb 11, 2011 at 09:27 IST

It is interesting that all the comments against the article and gender bias are from men - me thinks they are protesting too much, as Shakespeare said! And as for the southern states being better, female foeticide shot to limelight from the deaths in Dharmapuri and Madurai. As a response, the authorities arrested quite a few mothers as if only they were responsible! Please look at falling sex ratios across the country from rich Chandigarh to poor Chattisgarh. How long will this country deny the image in the mirror?

from:  Vichitra PK
Posted on: Feb 10, 2011 at 12:09 IST

The author should be congratulated for highlighting the atrocious rates of female foeticide and infanticide in many Indian communities. But her comments betray her lack of understanding and sophistication when using terms like 'India'. Branding India as a gender insensitive state will certainly attract attention, not only to the authors boldness, but also to her tendency to make ghastly generalisations. The author should have been specific about which India she is talking about. She is referring to practices in particular parts of India. There are communities and states in India who have never had the history of such practices. It is also interesting to read the comment of Mr. Srinivas above whose knowledge of India surely deserves special mention. Western and Southern states do not witness female infanticide for sure, but the stereotypes attached to women in many communities of such states will put gender sensitive persons to shame. It is not to say that it is fruitful to compare states on a gender sensitiveness scale for its own sake. But it would be good for some Indians to appreciate the status of women in many states in the north eastern region, notably, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Assam. It is not surprising that that India hardly finds mention except in academic discussions in which the problem of gender insensitivity is genuinely discussed.

from:  Pritam
Posted on: Feb 9, 2011 at 16:37 IST

Certainly sad commentary on India, but it will help to ferret out the actual compulsions - is it demographic-bound, caste-oriented, sensitive to the financial status, etc. Probably, the poor illiterate families are vulnerable to committing this offense to avoid hardship in bringing up girl child. India will remain unemancipated as long as even one girl child is condemned this way.

from:  G K Venkataraman
Posted on: Feb 9, 2011 at 13:36 IST

Unless the cultural preference for a male child predominant in the Indian society is changed, the problem of female infanticide cannot be tackled. In the ancient society women were treated at par with men and had equal rights. The women should learn to move away from being the shadow of men and be more assertive about their individuality. They should refuse to marry men who demand dowry.

from:  Umesh Bhagwat
Posted on: Feb 9, 2011 at 09:52 IST

I agree with the existence of female foeticide and infanticide in India. However, is it as rampant as it was about two decades ago? I would like to disagree. I would also disagree with our society being 'the most gender insensitive' - clearly, the author's world ends with a select few developed countries. Yes, there are atrocities against women in India as there are in any country which should be dealt with strongly, but that doesn't justify such a strong epithet. The author seems to be yet another 'neo-liberal' whose idea of being open-minded, is to tag India with less than savoury adjectives and epithets.

from:  K Sivan
Posted on: Feb 9, 2011 at 09:15 IST

Your article on award winning writer Kishwar Desai,was interesting to read.The author's research and bold step of revealing the country and the death of Foetuses every day,was Applaudable. lack of literacy is the root cause. This happenings should be eradicated ,as we give high respect of women.

from:  K.Ragavan
Posted on: Feb 9, 2011 at 07:44 IST

Congratulations to the author who had made a bold step in exposing the country who worship a girl as goddess. Female foeticide is rampant in the BIMARU states and also in Haryana which is known for its khap panchayats. One of the main reasons for this is illiteracy and the taboo attached to it. However this trend has been in decline in the more literate parts of India which are basically the west and southern states.

from:  P.S. Srinivas
Posted on: Feb 8, 2011 at 14:23 IST
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