I am a South Asian girl. It’s culture, not religion, that doesn’t value me

South Asian girls are raised into a culture that doesn’t value them, and many wrongfully use religion to justify this, writes Maliha Abidi

I am an only child, a girl within South Asian culture.

“I wish your father had a son. I feel so sad when I look at him, all lonely,” my aunt says to me.
“But he isn’t lonely. He has me,” I reply.
“He isn’t lonely now, but he will be when he is older. Sons take care of their parents.”
“He has me. I will be there whenever he needs me.”
“You are a girl. You will get married. You will have your own family.”
“My father is my family, even if my family grows.”

This conversation takes place often between my aunt and I, and it’s been happening since I was a kid. I grew up in Pakistan and was raised by my father’s side of the family. It was a wonderful childhood; I won’t deny that. My aunt looked after me and I know that she loves me very much. You may then wonder why she says these things to me. It’s because they aren’t really about me: they express internalised misogyny my aunt has learned, because of how our culture values girls.

I am an only child. When growing up, except for a few indirect comments here and there, I don’t remember someone ever saying to me that I was disadvantaged because of my gender. In fact, my grandfather wrote in his diary that I was “equal to ten sons”. But what I did hear were words such as “sorrow”, “burden”, “liability”, and “shame”, which are used when a girl is born.

Meanwhile, when a boy is born, phrases such as “I prayed day and night for him”, “Our future is secure”, and “We are truly blessed”, are used. These phrases were used when some of my male cousins were born.

“I wish your father had a son.”
“I don’t understand why you insist on it. He doesn’t care about having a son. He is happy with only one child and that child being a daughter”

 

The birth of a girl is a source of shame for many. People don’t just associate boys with good fortune and a secure future, but they are considered a sign that their parents are good people. When another of my uncles had a son, people said: “It is because of his good deeds that God has provided him with a son.” As if daughters are born in the houses of sinners.

But where does this idea come from? Is it religion or historical values, or is it that these beliefs are so old and ingrained that people simply accept them as the way things are?

“But in Islam, a boy carries forward the family name. Your father’s name won’t be carried forward,” says my aunt.
“That isn’t right. I looked it up. Islam doesn’t say that. If anything, Islam calls a daughter a blessing”
“Well, a boy is necessary.”

My aunt is not the only person who believes this, but in fact, Islam does not teach that girls, or women, are inferior or unequal to men. Nor are these beliefs tied exclusively to any religion or country: for example, we see them in India and China, among others. India is mostly Hindu, and there is no concept in Hinduism that a son is superior to a daughter. The belief that girls are worth less is purely cultural.

“I wish your father had a son”
“I don’t understand why you insist on it. He doesn’t care about having a son. He is happy with only one child and that child being a daughter”
“You are married. You have your own life now.”
“Papa is a part of that life just as he has always been.”

Maliha Abidi art

When a girl is born, she is seen as a financial liability: people don’t want a girl because she comes with a lot of expenses. Sending her to school costs money and if a family can afford only to send one child to school, they will sooner send a boy. According to the World Bank, 132 million girls globally are not in school.1 Meanwhile, the girl takes care of chores, so that she can help the family and also prepare to be married off.

Then, there’s marriage. In South Asia, dowry is a tradition that pushes families into debt, alongside the expense of having a wedding in the first place. I have learned recently that dowry can have different meanings: in some cultures, the groom’s family gives the bride a dowry, and, in other cultures, the bride takes the dowry to her ‘new home’. In South Asia, the latter is practiced, even though it is illegal in some countries.

But, really, this is driven by the belief that girls are a burden, who can be passed around and controlled like possessions. Even if talks of a dowry aren’t involved, a girl will still have to leave her parents’ house and, in many cases, move into her husband’s parents’ house.

People will give you all kinds of reasons to justify the unjust, but the truth is that this is down to culture, with no sacred basis

Let me share a story of a girl I grew up with. Let’s call her Asiya. We are the same age and have been close since birth. She belonged to a middle-class family, like me. Asiya was married off at the age of 15 to a man who was 28. By law, you cannot get married until you are 18, but Asiya did anyway. She gave birth to her first child at 16 and at 18, she migrated to North America, where her husband was living. Before then, they weren’t able to register the marriage.

As soon as Asiya went to North America, initially I spoke to her now and again, and she told me over the phone that her in-laws had been preventing her from speaking to her family and friends, or anyone back in Pakistan. Eventually, she stopped talking to everyone from home.

She had completed high school in Pakistan but she wasn’t able to enrol in college in North America. On top of that, she didn’t speak English that well and she didn’t know how to drive. Today, I know that Asiya has had another child, but I don’t know what her life is like. She hasn’t spoken to her parents in five years.

Maliha Abidi art

Unfortunately, Asiya’s story isn’t unique. And it didn’t happen due to financial burden — her family are doing fine. Both her parents worked. People will give you all kinds of reasons to justify the unjust, but the truth is that this is down to culture, with no sacred basis. There is no religion nor any laws behind it, just some misogynist ideas that people have been clinging to for decades.

“I wish your father had a son.”
“What you are saying has nothing to do with Islam, or even Pakistan. It has to do with forced cultural values where people one day decided that boys are more valuable than girls. This happens in China, India, and other countries too.”

The preference for male children in China has been well-documented, especially in towns and rural farm villages.2 Even though the preference for sons existed in China long before their 36-year one-child policy, since the early 1980s it has been possible to undertake a ‘selective abortion’ if the sex of the baby was identified as female,3 despite this officially being illegal. Selective abortion has been found to be a major source of sex imbalance between men and women in China today: in 2005, there were 32 million more men under the age of 20 than women.4

This happens in India, too. It is estimated that in the late 1990s, over 100,000 sex-selective abortions of female foetuses were performed every year in India.5 I saw a news story of a woman in India who was attacked by her in-laws and husband, who threw acid on her because she had given birth to a baby girl. She was considered ‘responsible’ for creating this ‘burden’, despite the fact that she had no control over the sex of her child.

In societies where male supremacy is deeply embedded, people can give you all sorts of reasons for not wanting a girl: religion, finances, security, etc. They will have all sorts of ‘solutions’ up their sleeves, too, for dealing with this ‘problem’

“I guess you’re right. It doesn’t matter whether a child is a boy or a girl. As long as the child is healthy. It doesn’t matter if your father only has a daughter. You will care for him just like a son would have.”

This is the only thing in this story that my aunt has never said to me. I hope that one day, she does.

In societies where male supremacy is deeply embedded, people can give you all sorts of reasons for not wanting a girl: religion, finances, security, etc. They will have all sorts of ‘solutions’ up their sleeves, too, for dealing with this ‘problem’. If you’re a girl, some will simply taunt you while others may attack you. A mother’s womb is supposed to be the safest place, and yet it is not safe for many millions of girls. And then there are girls who survive the womb and live a life of neglect and abuse — abandoned and shamed for how they were born.

Over time, this topic has become closer to my heart. From the womb to the world, no place is safe, and we are constantly given the message that as girls and women, we are not wanted. Personally, I am satisfied and happy being a girl. I know my father feels happy that he has a daughter. He has given me enough confidence to feel happy with who I am. I never in my life felt that he would rather have a son or wanted another child that was a boy. Unfortunately, millions of girls around the world cannot say the same.

I have dedicated my life to fighting against this and raising awareness of how valuable girls are! I write and create art about women to celebrate their stories. Through their stories, I hope to convey the message that we must nurture girls and give them the same value, care, and resources we give to boys. Many of the women I write about didn’t have equal rights and still, they left their mark on the world. Imagine what could be possible if girls are treated equally.

Featured image is an artwork by Maliha Abidi. It shows two illustrated panels: the left of a girl with long, silver hair, and the right of a boy with short black hair. The girl stands in front of a warm purple background with white raindrops, which are stylised as tears. The boy stands in front of a fruit tree and warm pink background. He is smiling; the girl looks sad or pensive

Page last updated October 2020

Maliha Abidi

Maliha Abidi is a Pakistani-American artist, author, and medical neuroscience student. Her work focuses on women’s empowerment, human rights (domestic violence against women, immigration, refugee stories, against women, etc), BIPOC (Black , Indigenous and People of Colour), and mental health. Her debut book Pakistan for Women: Stories of women who have achieved something extraordinary combines her passion for art and writing. It features 50 women from Pakistan with their biography and portrait illustration. Abidi’s 2nd book, Rise, is set to be published in March 2021. It brings together 100 stories of BIWOC (Black , Indigenous and Women of Colour) from more than 30 countries. In the near future, Abidi aims to start an organisation with a focus on mental illness and creating safe spaces for women from underprivileged backgrounds.

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References

  1. Worldbank, Not educating girls costs countries trillions of dollars, says new world bank report, The World Bank, 11th July 2018 [online] (accessed 21 October 2020)
  2. Robey, B., Sons and Daughters in China, Asian Pac Cencs Forum, November 1985, vol 12, no 2, pp 1-5
  3. Zhu, W.X., et al., China’s excess males, sex selective abortion, and one child policy: analysis of data from 2005 national intercensus survey, BMJ, 2009, vol 388 [online] (accessed 21 October 2020)
  4. Ibid
  5. Arnold, F., et al., Sex-selective abortions in India, Population and Development Review, December 2002, vol 8, no 4, pp 759-785

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