The inspiration to write a book on India's femicide came to me when my former fiancé (a Kashmiri Indian) was forced by his parents to break off our engagement. I knew that our story was not unique; while in India I met several others who told me they were forbidden to marry the person they were in love with. In my quest to understand this phenomenon, I began to research arranged marriage.
Opening the door to that investigation unleashed an ugly world of stories. Dowry death, bride burning, female foeticide and infanticide, a genocide of the Indian female population. One article after another of disturbing accounts: parents who kill their daughters - in utero or shortly after birth - to avoid the dreaded dowry, brides set on fire for not bringing in adequate or additional dowry, some of them harassed to the point of taking their own lives.
A week after our relationship ended, I made a commitment to continue my research and write a book about my findings. I spent the next 9-10 months reading everything that I could find in preparation to return to India to gather stories. Once there, I spoke with experts working in the field, with strangers in the street, talked to friends about their experiences, and interviewed a few who were willing to share their story. I have made a total of three trips and spent 18 months in India gathering information and stories.
After meeting with Dr. Mitu Khurana on my third trip to India, I set up a blog to archive all of the news that had been generated from her story. With the help of Mitu, I continue to provide updates to her blog where interested readers can follow her case.
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Free to be, Female
March 8, 2011
Her dream was to go to school, to have the freedom to study and learn. But to alleviate her mother's financial burden of care taking both her and her brother, nineteen year old Neetu agreed to get married instead.
It was her mother's friend who made the introduction to the 20-year old suitor. They had only met for about 20 minutes, and because she was not happy about the arrangement, Neetu stood with her back to him as they spoke. She didn't see him again until the day of the wedding. Admitting she liked the way he looked, she did not feel they were a suitable match. Being married to him, she said, was a compromise.
The daughter of a single mother, Neetu never met her father. After a drunken rage in which he tried to kill her and her brother, her mom left the marriage.
When I met Neetu, she had been married for seven months. Matrimonial bangles graced the arms she kept demurely wrapped around herself. During our conversation, her sister-in-law sat by her side, impeding Neetu's ability to freely speak. It was only when she was asked to go to the kitchen and make tea that Neetu was able to reveal her concerns.
Though no dowry was given, gifts were presented to her husband's family at the time of marriage. As is sometimes the case, after a few months, her new family started to indirectly speak of material goods they did not have, but wanted. Neetu felt is was only a matter of time before their demands started. Not wanting to worry her mom, she didn't talk with her about it.
Her desire to continue her studies was out of the question with her new responsibility to take care of her husband's family; an additional concern for her. There was a visible sadness and a longing in Neetu. She was stuck in her life circumstances.
Maybe that is why - from the bed she shared with her husband - she doused herself with kerosene and struck a match. The news of it came in an e-mail shortly after I had left India, several months after our meeting. Our mutual friend and interpreter wrote to tell me that Neetu was unhappy with her husband because he had a problem with alcohol. So she set herself on fire. In her critical condition and without the four lakh rupees needed for treatment, she and her five month old fetus died.
Because fire is a common form of assault against women in India, incidents that are deemed accidents or suicide are looked upon with suspicion. Women do sometimes take their own lives, however. Sometimes as a way to escape their fate, or to alleviate their families of the burden of a dowry demand. But other times the in-law family fabricates a story around their crime, calling it a kitchen accident, or self-immolation.
With the concerns that Neetu wanted to speak with me about, I also had my suspicions. Her death leaves a haunting hollowness in me.
My intention of collecting stories from women who have endured the systemic degradation, oppression and violence for being born female, is to celebrate those who have made a triumphant exodus from their circumstances. To highlight their liberation as a testament to other women, to show them that it is possible. Neetu's story is a grim reminder that sometimes women only find liberation in death.
I am humbly grateful for Neetu, and all the daughters of India who have graciously welcomed me into their lives with the courage to share their stories with the world. Through the telling and retelling of their stories, and the demand for the safety, freedom, and equality for women everywhere, one day soon we will be free, to be female.
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Mitu Khurana Tells Her Story
December 21, 2009
I met and spent time with Mitu Khurana and her daughters in their New Delhi home in early December. She is one of the first women in India to file charges under the PNDT Act despite being offered a bribe of a large sum of money, being continually harassed, and under immense pressure. I'll be posting more on our meeting soon. In the meantime, please watch and share her story in these videos.
Mitu Khurana: Fighting for her Daughters Lives
Mitu Khurana: Fighting for her Daughters Lives
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Violence Against Women – Our Perpetual Mode of Denial
November 30, 2009
A few days ago I had a phone conversation with an American woman who has lived in India for more than 30 years. Married to an Indian, she works with the local midwives here. A mutual friend thought that she may have useful information to share, so connected us.
Unlike most people that I have spoken with about the book project, who understand the importance of the topic and support my work, she cautioned against casting 'violence against women' (the term she used when I told her the book addresses the issues of female foeticide, infanticide, arranged marriage, dowry, bride burning, the treatment of widows, etc.) in a wholly negative light. In her work, she told me, she tries to look for and highlight the positive as it relates to gender relations. I agreed that it is important to share both sides, to give as unbiased a view as possible, but told her that this is a topic that receives too little attention. She said we must be careful in telling other cultures that what they are doing is wrong - a classic case of political correctness. If something is wrong, it's wrong. Failure to address the problem keeps women in danger.
We did agree that modernity is largely at work, and that these problems are prevalent among the affluent families. I think though that we both left the conversation feeling offended by the other. As a woman, I am perplexed how this problem - the genocide of a culture of women - does not offend every woman, of any culture. Is this related to what Donna Fernandes, director of Vimochana in Bangalore who I interviewed in 2006, refers to as our 'perpetual mode of denial'?
I'm sure there are positive gender relations in India – I've met couples who are doing well. But their well-being is not positively influencing the negative situation that is bringing great harm to both Indian women and their culture.
These related stories come from The Times of India:
A father of a bride-to-be was killed after being stabbed by five armed men and robbed of 50,000 rupees (approx 1070.00 U.S.) that he was carrying on foot home for his daughter's wedding. The man was stabbed repeatedly by the men who police suspect were locals who knew he was carrying the cash.
The 50,000 rupees was likely the remainder of the dowry that is typically given before the commencement of the wedding ceremony. Dowry can also be dangerous for the bride's family.
A young woman has requested that the Supreme Court create guidelines to protect inter-religious couples after her husband was tortured to death by her parents and the police. The Muslim woman, who converted to Hinduism to marry, says that her sole crime was to fall in love with a Hindu. In her petition to the court she says: “Directions are required and guidelines be given by apex court in a Muslim or inter-religion marriage, so that peace and tranquility prevails for identically situated couples.” She is asking that charges be brought against the accused.
Arranged marriage controls whom can marry whom. Parents and families decide the criteria for a perfect match based on religion, caste, finances, status, etc.. Marrying outside of these criteria and against family wishes can result in dire consequences, including murder.
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Arranged Marriage – From the Film ’Outsourced’
December 16, 2008
This is a clip from the 2006 film 'Outsourced'. While not surprising that the issue of arranged marriage was discussed in the movie, i do find it remarkable that it was a woman taking the role.
A few things to point out in this 1:11 minute dialogue:
“I’ll Learn to Love him”
First comes marriage then comes love, or so the theory goes. However, in many Indian arranged marriages, the love never manifests. When families are shopping for a potential mate astrological charts are compared in an effort to find the most suitable match. If the stars line up favorably (along with other factors) an astrologically auspicious wedding date is set. A woman’s worth as a wife and daughter-in-law is oftentimes related to the amount of material wealth she brings into the marriage, followed by her bearing male heirs.
“What about the Right to Choose for Yourself?”
Choosing ones own marriage partner is rarely given or taken in India. It is felt that one’s parents know best, but there are deeper factors at play – economic, social (casteism), political. Many are promised to another family in marriage as children (as is portrayed here, at the age of four). And as consumerism grows in modernizing India, a sizeable dowry is a must. Cash, cars, homes, gold, appliances...
“I just can’t believe that someone as strong, and smart as opinioned as you would settle for arranged marriage.”
The character in the film is ‘strong, smart and opinionated’, but she is still under the control of her culture and family. I’ve had this discussion with many men and women in India. The majority truly believe that the person they are fated to spend their life with is best left to their family’s discretion.
“Some people would say America’s fifty percent Divorce rate is Crazy”
There is a myth that arranged marriages are so successful that divorce is virtually non-existent in India. In fact, it is a phenomenon that is growing, especially in the cities. However, considering that adults are not allowed free choice in marrying, how would they be allowed to divorce?
“Will you Tell Ashok about Us?”
I purposefully cut the dialogue at that question because it was a naïve one. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of India and more importantly, Indian women, would know the answer to that. For an Indian woman to tell her betrothed that she had an ‘illicit’ affair with another man would most likely prove disastrous or even dangerous. Women are fully expected to come into the marriage virginally pure.
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A Country that Worships the Goddess is Killing its Women
May 30, 2008
After coming home from being away for several months, everything felt new, seemed strange, surreal. But only briefly, and then things realigned themselves and it’s as if I never left. After my third trip back from India, the only way I could convince myself that I was ever there was by frequenting the files on my computer that held the photos I had taken. Because it all felt like a dream. India is like being in a dream state, likely because it is fascinating beyond imagination. The fascination, some of it unbelievable, I find both alluring and appalling.
The temples, the artistry of them, are extraordinary. I’ve visited the Taj Mahal four times and still, I cannot get over it. But the temple I am really captivated by is quite different than the Taj, with few visitors, little attention paid to it. The 64-Yogini Hirapur Temple in Orissa. It’s ancient mystery is beguiling. The way it opens to the sky, 64 female figures encircling the inner sanctum of the stone shrine. Visiting the temple was the highlight of my journey, my primary reason for returning to India. My only regret is not having spent more time in the temple, to imbibe in the power of the yoginis.
India has many Goddesses of worship. I am particularly fond of Parvati, representative of the benevolent aspect of the Goddess. Mother of Ganesh, Wife of Shiva, Parvati is the Mother Goddess. In India, the Goddess or Devi represents Shakti, the divine, creative power of the universe.
On my computer I have a burgeoning file of online articles on the topics of female feoticide, female infanticide, and dowry murders happening in India. A country that worships the Goddess is killing it’s women. It’s not a secret, it makes the news on a daily basis: Stray Dogs Eat 3-Day-Old Baby In Hyderabad, 26-year-old kills self over dowry, Man films wife in bed to extract dowry, Indians abort 900,000 girl foetuses a year. These are just a few of the stories. Sensational as the titles may seem, it’s become a mainstream way of life in India.
Over the course of the next several weeks I’ll post some of these articles along with personal thoughts, and stories that I gathered on my travels. Though the issue of the genocide of Indian women (femicide) is no secret, it is heavily veiled and too seldom discussed. For the sake of India’s Daughters and for the liberation of women everywhere, it is time we started talking about it and working towards it’s eradication.
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Interview With Rita Banerji of '50 Million Missing'
April 26, 2008
Rita Banerji is founder and chief administrator of the on-line international campaign 50 MILLION MISSING
Under the directive of Dr. Vandana Shiva, Rita worked on an ecological project for Chipko - a rural women’s grassroots movement in India - examining the role the local women played in preserving their environment. She has also been involved in projects that examine the roles that women have in the use of alternative energy resources, in traditional agriculture, and in the preservation of biodiversity in agriculture.
She is currently working on a non-fiction book to be released by Penguin (India) in July 2008.
I recently met and spent time with Rita in her hometown of Calcutta. Her knowledge on the issue of the genocide of Indian women is extraordinary. What follows is a discussion on the subject of Rita’s campaign.
Barbara: What is the 50 Million Missing campaign?
Rita: The primary aim of the 50 Million Missing campaign, which was launched on the website flickr in December 2006, is to raise awareness both in India and internationally, about the millions of women that have been systematically eliminated from India’s population due to customs like female foeticide, infanticide and dowry murders.
The word ‘missing’ was coined by Dr. Amartya Sen to refer to the number of women that should have been in India’s population, according to the normal male/female ratio universal to the human species. In industrialized countries such as Europe or North America, where there is no gender preference at birth, the natural ratio of men to women is about 100:105. Dr. Sen used an even lower bench-mark - 100:102 men to women (which he got from sub-Saharan Africa which has, among developing countries, the least difference in survival factors such as birth, life span, etcetera, between men and women) as the average for developing countries. Then, comparing this average with the gender ratio from the census data in 1986, of 93 women to 100 men, Sen found that there were 9 women 'missing' for every 100 men, and concluded that (at that time) India was “missing” a total of about 37 million women. Of course, that number continues to escalate and now stands at about 50 million. Hence the campaign name -- 50 Million Missing.
In the future we plan to implement ground projects that are geared towards change, but before we can make any changes we first have to make people aware that this is happening. Most people (not just outside India but also within) are either not aware of the situation or are in denial that it exists. The first and most important challenge of this campaign is to break down the doubt and denial.
Barbara: What prompted you to launch the campaign; how did you become involved with this issue?
Rita: About 5 years ago while doing research for my book I came across the issue of millions of ‘missing’ women in India. Although Dr. Sen had put out this information two decades ago (in the late 80’s) I only became aware of it recently. So I began to look for more information and was horrified by what I discovered. This is why I call it India’s ‘silent genocide.’ Because it is so hidden. It is the silent but targeted elimination of a group - women. And something has to be done.
Barbara: Has the campaign gained interest from others? Are you working with other Organizations on this issue?
Rita: We have administrators and moderators from 7 countries for our group on Flickr. The interactive website - with more than 1400 world-wide members - has information galleries, discussion galleries, and a photo gallery with more than 7000 photos of Indian girls and women.
The reaction from people is mixed. Those that are aware of the issue are indignant, and very supportive. Many people, I think, are still in disbelief or in denial – they know it’s true but that’s not the public image they want for India. This is the land of Buddha and Gandhi and the whole non-violence philosophy. How could we have exterminated 50 Million of our own people – our own family members – daughters, wives, and daughters-in-law? The very thought is ghastly. Among groups –there are groups like the HRLN (Human Rights Law Network) London based ASF (Acid Survivors Foundation) that we have a good working relationship with and will form productive partnerships with. But we are still looking for more energetic and efficient NGOs we can partner with to foster change.
The group is currently preparing to set up an organization in India that will work on its cause related projects.
Barbara: What do you wish to accomplish with the campaign?
Rita: The first thing we wish to do is STOP the killings – the infanticides and dowry murders, and STOP female foeticide as well. The problem is so massive that the only way to do it is to have the government enforce existing laws. That is why we have an online petition that we’ve started circulating. We want the Indian government to be held accountable.
The second thing we’ll do is launch ground projects that will address the mindset, since it’s quite clear to us that this is what the cause is. It’s not poverty, or illiteracy. It is a cultural mindset that is fundamentally misogynist. So we want to start effecting long term change to people’s thinking through seminars, workshops, school curriculum, etc. The means and methods have yet to be worked out. But this is a long term project that will have to be carried out in a very systematic and measured manner.
Barbara: What can the general public do to become involved?
Rita: The first thing they need to do is sign the petition. Every signature on that petition is a voice of dissent. It says “I want this genocide to stop and I want the government of India to take the responsibility to implement its laws to stop this genocide.” This is mass homicide (even if we don’t include the female foeticide issue here), and therefore essentially a case of massive malfunctioning of India’s system of law and order. So sign and get as many people as you know to sign the petition.
Secondly once we start our projects we will need volunteers to help out with the surveys etc. So volunteer your time, even if it is just 1 or 2 hours a month!
Some of the resources or advice or expertise we will need in our ground projects include medical assistance, psychological counseling, teaching, skills training. So if you can offer your assistance please contact us.
Finally, speak out! Talk about the issues involved. Don't be a mute spectator to the abuse of young women for dowry whether it's in your family or that of your neighbors. Speak up. Intervene. Talk about the compulsion you witness of parents willing to take loans to pay dowry. Of parents refusing to allow their daughters to return home even when they know she is being abused. Of families forcing their wives and daughter-in-laws to undergo multiple abortions.
Silence - when people see it and don’t talk about it - has been one of the biggest perpetrators of genocide the world over. And don’t use the excuses: "These things cannot be changed. Dowry is an old tradition. People want sons to support them in their old age and carry on the family’s name," for that is resignation. That is a mindset that allows this genocide to exist. Allow it no room to exist.
50 Million Missing
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Women - Precious Jewels
Apr 13, 2008
In Calcutta, every few meters on the boulevard, are signs fastened to metal poles and scores of bigger-than-life billboards featuring glamorous women highly decorated in jewels and gold.
Their alluring smiles and ecstatic countenance as if to display a sense of happiness, fulfillment, makes me wonder what would happen if those signs were replaced with ones that speak of female feoticide and infanticide, of the dowry murders that plague India. Would it prompt women to long for the life, freedom, and power of themselves over the ephemeral pleasure that their jewels bring? How is it, I ask myself, that what a woman decorates herself with is more important than her safety, her liberty, her life?
What if the signs were like this instead...
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The Importance of Freedom of Choice
Dec 7, 2007
The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice ~ Mary Ann Evans (pen-name George Eliot)
When it comes to arranged marriage, some may argue that freedom of choice, is largely a western ideal, a whimsical notion. But without the experience and responsibility that comes with making choices and decisions for ourselves, we lack the necessary tools that help us to grow and evolve in life. If someone else makes our choices for us, how can we utilize our own intelligence, speak our own voice, live our own truth?
I once attended a lecture by Professor of International Studies, Anita Weiss, in which she was discussuing Muslim women’s views on wearing a burqa. She spoke with a number of women who told her that they did not mind wearing it, but they wanted it to be their choice, not the choice of their culture.
At times, the choices we make may be impulsive, especially in our youthful stages of life. It makes sense that some of them may be imprudent. It takes time and experience to sit with our choices in deciding what we feel would be best for us. If a situation changes, what may have initially seemed the best choice, may later prove to be a detrimental one. But that simply provides the opportunity to decide what to do next. Some of the choices we make are later felt to be mistakes. Mistakes, however, are lessons if we learn from them; indeed, it is the way that we learn.
As parents, it is our job to teach and guide our children towards the healthiest choices that will be most beneficial for them, but there comes a time when their choices must be their own.
As an adult, the inability to make our own choices handicaps, and has grievous ramifications. Firstly, it gives undue power to someone else, allowing another to decide what is best. How can anyone else possibly know? If our lives are dictated and controlled by others, it effectively removes us from the vital task of carving out our personal life path, of taking responsibility, of growing up. Giving someone the power to control our choices, our lives, feeds the illusion that they are superior while we are weak and inferior. It gives the illusion that we have less capability. And in that, no growth can occur.
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Dec 3, 2007
Arranged marriage is an intrinsic part of India’s culture. Families choose their children’s spouse for them, matching compatibility criteria with horoscopes and family status. For the family of the groom, how much dowry the bride brings tops the list of priorities. The more educated the groom, the bigger the dowry demand. Doctors and engineers, and grooms living in America with their increased earning power, are costly commodities.
Most westerners cannot conceive the idea of their parents choosing their marriage partner for them. Making a lifelong commitment with someone that they do not know. But in India, the general thinking is, who better to do the choosing then one’s parents, the ones who know you the best? Loveless nuptials is not considered, love is said to grow after marriage. Love marriages are often felt to be frivolous and fleeting, so are still relatively rare in India, though there are couples that are defying the system and following their heart instead of tradition.
The first time I went to India, in 2000, strangers would come and ask me where I was from, immediately followed by the statement, “Oh, America, where half of all of your marriages end in divorce.” They seemed to derive great satisfaction in highlighting our marriage failures.
While the divorce rate is stirring in India today, many still don’t dare speak of it even if the love after marriage never materialized. Being coerced into the partnership does not offer the freedom to simply leave an abusive or unsatisfying marriage.
Marriage is a monumental step in life, one that asks that we, with certainty, are committed to devote our life to another person in a 'day in, day out', existence. The recommended period of engagement that allows for a slow cultivation offers no guarantee. Many marriages topple under the pressure of expectation, unfulfilled promises, and the faces that emerge after the ‘I do’s’ are said.
It’s in this knowledge that some feel arranged marriages may offer something more substantial than love marriages. While there can be merit in an arranged marriage - some of them work out famously – the issue is one of choice. The freedom to choose, firstly, if one wants to marry, and if so, whom they want to marry.
In a February 2006 issue of National Geographic on the topic of Love, Renu Dinakaran - who thinks that many arranged marriages are acts of “state sanctioned rape” - was interviewed for a segment of the story. She tells how, at the age of 17, she was forced to marry her cousin. She says that she wanted to learn to love her husband, but the more years that passed, the less love she felt for him. It was the movie “Love Story” that convinced Renu that there was more to marriage. This knowing gave rise to bitterness, but it also helped her to move out of a loveless marriage, a courageous step for an Indian wife with two children. Liberating herself of that arrangement allowed love in when she met Anil, who she is happily married to today.