The Breakthrough Voice 10th February, 2020

What It’s Like To Grow Up As A Girl In Bhiwani, Haryana.

Bhiwani, the ‘mini Kashi’ and also the ‘mini Cuba’ of India has its reference in the Ain-e-Akbari because of its importance as a commercial centre during the Mughal period. This region also contributes considerably to the armed forces. As such, it is also known as the city of war heroes.

The city of Bhiwani is also famous for being a nursery of boxers. Geeta and Babita Phogat, and Vinesh Phogat are some of the famous wrestlers from Bhiwani. Geeta also won India’s first-ever gold medal in wrestling at the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

Despite the district’s rapid economic growth, it has been in the spotlight for its traditions and customs that hurt the sovereignty of non-dominant castes and women. Being a girl from here only, Bhiwani brings to my mind an image of a region with gender-based generalizations, stereotypes in an innately patriarchal set-up with practices such as female infanticide, women in ghoonghat (a veil used to cover the face) and a male-dominated world where men have a free hand with everything.

The Interplay of Caste and Gender

I have grown up witnessing the role of gender along with other group identities positioning women, especially from socially and economically marginalised groups, as they are the most disadvantaged in society. 

The social front where the exercise of caste hierarchy and patriarchy goes on to oppress the life of non-dominant caste groups and women – govern common and social bonds between caste groups and gender and force a large section of the population to live under suppression. The community norms even establish the legacy of property ownership.

I have heard the birth of a male child being referred to as the ‘chirag’ of the house – one who will light up the house.

Moreover, like some other areas, it is not just formal norms but also caste panchayats known as ‘Khap panchayats‘, which are the organisations of socially influential social groups at the community-level, exerting their superiority even in regional and local level governance. They largely control social associations and declare openly penalty for infringements of customary laws.

The Fascination with Sons 

The beliefs and notions such as ‘son preference’ and inclination for male children, the ‘daughter burden’ and other similar gender-biased practices have been crucial in the positioning of girls/women in the area. I have heard the birth of a male child being referred to as the chirag of the house – one who will light up the house.

Practises of female foeticide, female infanticide, gender-based violence, low sex ratio and gender discrimination in access to opportunities and public resources are some indicators of the oppression and submissive situation of women in the area. Women’s subjugation is also widely acknowledged by the larger community. Women in the area continue to be exposed to several kinds of ‘socially-sanctioned’ violence in one form or another for their entire life cycle.

It all Starts before Birth

The discrimination starts before birth. The parents start by expecting a son. Practices from the stage of pre-birth such as sex-selective abortion still exist. Currently, these practices have declined due to acts such as the PCPNDT Act, etc. 

However, the birth of a son is celebrated by the whole family by rituals such as ‘Kuan pujan‘ in which the well is worshipped after the birth of the boy. Several family functions are organised displaying happiness and contentment and on the other hand, the birth of a girl is mourned upon and the worse thing is holding the mother responsible for this and cursing her. 

Then comes the stage of infancy where they are subject to discrimination in access to essential care benefits.

During childhood, girls are subjected to negligence, loaded with household chores and burdens and they sometimes face physical violence too. Their choice of clothes and toys is regulated. The girls in my neighbourhood are supposed to assist their mothers in household chores. Meanwhile, the boys have all the fun and play with their friends. Girls are taught to be calm, caring and learn household chores such as cooking, cleaning, etc.

The discrimination starts before birth. The parents start by expecting a son.

Adolescence further makes them vulnerable to discrimination and restrictions, even early marriages take place at this stage. Girls are considered an economic asset which needs to be transferred to another family after a fixed age. They are also subject to various forms of sexual violence and abuse. 

Very few girls in my area are given the opportunity to study and have careers. A few of them are just sent to school to complete secondary education just for the purpose of getting married after. Most of them are harassed by young boys or men of the society who consider girls as subordinates or weak – through street sexual harassment, name-calling, stalking or sometimes it takes on the form of physical harassment. In my own school, girls were discouraged to talk to boys and become friends with fellow classmates. In turn, this rift has made it a taboo.

This bias doesn’t stop at the adulthood stage or the early marriage age. Here, they are equally or even more vulnerable to harassment by the husband or the in-laws. Honour killings, in case the girl decides to marry the partner of her own choice, often makes the headlines of the local newspapers. Domestic violence, dowry-related violence, physical and emotional harassment are very common in this area.

Girls are considered an economic asset which needs to be transferred to another family after a fixed age.

I myself have been a part of the discussions where such experiences are shared by the women from my own neighbourhoods but when asked about reporting these issues, they simply ignore and move on by calling this a daily life problem and that it doesn’t trouble them anymore. This way, such crimes go unreported and make the men more brazen than before.

Finally in old age, they are vulnerable to condemnation, a life of abandonment, elderly abuse and neglect.

In the context of a strong patrilineal and patriarchal society like that of Bhiwani—this is an area where conventions, traditions, customs and cultural patterns reject any property right of women, making a joke of legal empowerment. The district is notorious for its irrational and unfair violence as seen in the so-called ‘crimes of honour’ and finally, a district which still practices wiping out all future property-related assertions of women by terminating them before birth itself.

The Way Ahead 

The situation is somewhat changing today with the advancement of people and with their changing perspective where they consider girls to be people and not assets. However, all these gender-based norms are still prevalent in rural areas where there is still work to be done to alter the conventional beliefs of society.

When I asked about the ghoonghat culture, restrictions on women of all ages and such gender-based manifestations in our society, I got one monotonous answer – “this is what our customs and traditions say”.

Various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and self-help groups (SHGs) are also working towards the upliftment and empowerment of women in the area but they are not adequately organised. One such NGO is Mahila Samaj Kalyan whose activities include embroidery and sewing training centres to make women independent. Stand up against violence is an initiative of Akshara, a women’s resource centre which empowers women to know their rights, live without threats of violence within their homes and communities and build necessary skills to ensure their own wellbeing and that of their families. 

Every girl like me in Bhiwani is still in search for the logical reasons behind these patriarchal norms and mindset which governs their life. We crave equality, freedom and support from our own society to grow in this globalized world.

Also Read: Everyday Gender Biases In School And Life: A Personal Reflection

Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Live Hindustan

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