Aamir Khan's 'truths' on sex-selective abortion showcased mothers who fought the practice but he missed the point that reproductive decisions are rarely made by women

In a media-saturated age, stars must use their celebrity status to draw attention to things that get ignored. Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate — a 360° swing away from the muscle flexing normally associated with Bollywood men — has sealed his image as a socially conscious star. The Sunday morning slot, the unprecedented tie-up between private television and Doordarshan, the ‘touch your heart' approach, and the inaugural issue itself — ‘saving the girl child', a guaranteed winner — made for good television. The studio audience was practically bawling by the time Swanand Kirkire belted out his soulful ode to the girl child at the end (O Ri Chiraiya). So why does the bee in my bonnet refuse to settle down?

For one, Aamir Khan has taken a huge leap from raising awareness to being expert, interlocutor and activist all rolled into one. The show goes beyond talk show journalism, which at least pretends to allow different shades of opinion to argue, disagree (and the better shows do not attempt a final resolution). This show is unabashed ‘truth-telling' — Satyamev Jayate — and is structured to appropriate for its lead star the power of being the truth-fountain. The concern is that he presents both a populist and one-dimensional truth' on an enormously complex social issue with a dangerous authority that only his kind of stardom can muster.

Sex selection is certainly something this nation needs to talk about. And if this show gets us talking, that's welcome. I only wish Aamir had started a different conversation, taking us beyond the ‘beti bachao' discourse that has failed to dent sex selection one iota for over 20 years. Everybody loves to “bachao betis” — politicians regularly pose with little girls as they launch cash-transfer schemes for them (called things like kanyadaan or bhagyalaxmi). The ‘girl child' has become a de-contextualised object for us to ‘save,' like a cute little bunny rabbit. Overall concerns of gender equity are not a central part of the discussion, but they have to be. Because the problem is not with innocent, pig-tailed little girls. The problem this country has is with its women (that is what pig-tailed girls grow into, remember?) And until we make gender justice and equity central to this framework, we will struggle in vain against the tide.

The show started with testimonies of three brave mothers who had saved their female foetuses against tremendous odds. I salute them. But this showcasing, serving largely to place the onus for saving female foetuses on ‘brave motherhood' misses the point that reproductive decisions in India are not made solely, or chiefly, by women.

Then the language — ‘female foeticide', ‘killing of girls,' ‘murder in the womb' — dents not the practice of sex selection but women's reproductive rights by stigmatising all abortion. After all, the very act of abortion is a ‘foeticide.' Scores of women's rights groups have been battling this regressive language, preferring the more accurate descriptor ‘sex selection.' Research should have told the show's producers about the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, which gives Indian women (some) legal rights to access safe abortion. Yet, abortion services are dismal, and lakhs of desperate women undergo perfectly legitimate, non-sex selective abortions in unsafe backrooms. Some bleed to death in the process. Even as we seek to urgently end sex selective abortions, we need to simultaneously ensure that we do not create an environment that compromises our commitment to expanding safe, legal abortion services for all women.

‘The' solution

Aamir Khan's also presented ‘the' solution, to this complex problem. He will work with the Government of Rajasthan to fast track cases of violation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT). On Wednesday, he pressed this point and got an assurance from Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. I agree India has shamefully abdicated implementation of this law. Medical ethics must be foregrounded; the extremely powerful medical lobby held criminally accountable. But in a demand-supply paradigm, especially on an issue like this, law alone cannot be the centrepiece of the solution.

The PCPNDT Act can only stem the supply of ultrasound technology that enables sex determination. We need to put equal energy on the demand side, by asking the complex, deeper questions. Why, as India heads towards modernity, are families increasingly averse to daughters? Is the source of aversion the same as it always was? We know sex selection is motivated by socially accepted devaluation of females, perpetuated by traditional gender roles, but what else is going on? With immense social change taking place in India, we need to identify fault lines and zones of social conflict where this devaluation can be challenged. In an age of unbridled consumerism, is the ‘girl' just another ‘inconvenient object'? In this same economic landscape how can we build on the fact that more women are entering the workforce, but with lower pay than men? Can the struggle for equal wages be one piece of the solution?

How are modern aspirations colliding with traditional social relations? Why do fathers-to-be fear what lies in store for them if they have a daughter? Is it still dowry? Is it also fear of violence against women? Is it fear of women's sexual promiscuity, fuelled by the surfeit of sexually-explicit media images? Why is this fear not offset by her possible economic contribution to her family? Well, to earn, she might need to venture into the big bad world where her chastity will need protection; her sexuality controlled. Let us talk about these attitudes and fears, Aamir, instead of shouting ‘criminal' and ‘paapi' at every would-be-parent who contemplates sex selection.

Which population cohort would be most open to questioning and challenging gender roles (as ‘essentially' wives and mothers); has the greatest stake in mounting a challenge to sex selection; and may be amenable to change? Is it young women? Let's talk to them and their families. Which cohort might oppose social realignment? Is it the older generation? Young men? Well, let's talk to them as well.

Aamir Khan is a youth icon. And these are the conversations I wish he had started. They would have made great television, and serious progress on a social issue. It's like Anna's anti-corruption movement and the Jan Lokpal Bill. Populist rhetoric does not generate nuanced solutions. On sex selection, Satyamev Jayate chose a populist ‘truth'; and failed to push the envelope on the difficult, deeper, much needed conversation with a changing India.

(The author is a writer and activist, and member of the National Advisory Council. Views expressed here are personal)

More In: Comment | Opinion