7 thoughts on Satyamev Jayate (female feticide)

Is there anything more embarrassing to our national conscience as Indians than the demand for a male child and the extents to which it takes us?

Episode summary

The show opened with a story about a woman’s fetus being aborted by her family without her knowledge, under the guise of a check-up. Knowing India’s sex ratio and male-child obsession, it’s not hard to decipher that the fetus was female. Another woman got her nose bitten by her husband for conceiving a girl. After discussing such stories, Aamir Khan showed us the decline of female births per 1000 male births over a few decades. He explained that sex-selective abortion happens more among the rich and upper-class people—not the poor and uneducated as we would like to believe. Aamir interspersed interviews with sympathetic victims with phrases on the importance of the girl-child and how it’s the sperm that determines the sex of the offspring and that blaming mothers for fetal gender is as baseless as it is immoral. The audience seemed almost infomercial-like and appear to be crying on cue. The show ended with Aamir saying that we need fast-track courts to punish the wrong-doers. Oh and by the way, women are awesome, mothers are awesome.

1. The issue of consent

Of course, nobody bothered to isolate this question—what about the mother’s consent? There’s no legal or moral crime here bigger than aborting a fetus without the woman’s consent. Clubbing it with anti-female-feticide sentiment dilutes the issue. Of course, to tackle a type of crime, its societal cause must be noted. The desire for a male child makes people want to abort female fetuses (feti?). If that desire is irrational or immoral, making people aware of that is important. So, let’s address that murky question.

2. Should female feticide be legal?

Most people I know and hang out with are pro-abortion. It is a yes or no question—just not easy. If the law considers a fetus living, it cannot be killed—abortion should be illegal. If a fetus is non-living, it can be legally killed. The ‘why’ should be up to the person on whose body the fetus takes maximum toll—the woman. Proscribing abortion where you find it distasteful is basically punishing people for their thoughts. Why stop here? A stray homicidal thought when your boss forces overtime or refuses a pay-raise would become punishable.

Making prenatal sex-determination illegal—like many other prohibitions—has just made it expensive. That’s one reason female-feticide happens more in rich households.

3. Is it moral to want a male child?

If I ever decide to spawn, I wouldn’t want a boy, or a girl for that matter. But it’s no longer cool to voice a preference a male child. It’s kosher to declare how much you want a daughter. This kind of political correctness sweeps biases under the carpet. There is nothing moral about preferring a daughter to a son.

Let me be a little cynical here. In today’s India, conceiving a boy is a good retirement plan. Under that axiom, is it wrong for people to want financial security? It sounds repugnant to kill a fetus because it’s female, but once we say that the fetus isn’t living to support abortion—rightly I might add—we must give the woman the right to abort her baby for any reason she deems fit.

4. Oh! The sex ratio

The skewed sex ratio is bad, but for whom? Fewer women means greater demand for each available woman. LET ME MAKE IT CLEAR THAT I THINK IT IS WRONG TO SELL ANYONE, MAN OR WOMAN. We must punish the sale of women. The concept of owning people needs to die.

UPDATE: This article in the economist says that skewed sex-ratio is leading to women immigrating from neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. Also the sex ratio is improving—or rather—worsening slower than before. The worst offending states like Punjab and Haryana are improving quickly. It is unlikely, says Monica Das Gupta (pdf link) of the World Bank, that India will ever reach Chinese levels. 

But, if the rich community finds itself short of eligible women, rich men will start marrying middle-class women. And so on. That has been the tradition everywhere. Typically, women marry up in lifestyle and finance, and men marry up in looks. Whom we marry is a combination of family compatibility, wealth compatibility, attractiveness etc., and these are fungible—there are many rich unattractive men with pretty wives who used to be poor. As this happens, women in each economic tier will marry men in a higher economic tier. So, each individual woman has a better chance to marry up, or to be appointed to a female-only job. It’s just statistics. The losers in this situation are poor men. Men in the lowest economic tier will suffer the lack of a partner.

The show highlights this by caricaturing what should have been a serious interview with some older men who are unable to marry. But that’s not society’s problem. No man is owed a wife.

5. How the show annoyed me

So many to choose from—Aamir Khan saying, “Kitna seekhney ko milta hai hamare Adivasi bhaiyon se!” (Look how much we can learn from our Adivasi brothers!) or people cheering the homeless woman who said, “Hamein yeh paap nahi karna” (I don’t want to commit this crime) about abortion.

6. What’s the harm?

Most people would chide me with Oh come on. Surely, the proletariat of India needs simplified black-and-white information delivered from Aamir Khan’s lips and seasoned with drama. As long as people don’t abort female fetuses, really, what’s the harm? The harm is that this is top-down misinformation. No matter how you explain lying-for-good or embellishing the truth, ends don’t justify means. The right of the pregnant woman to not be harmed is paramount, and it shouldn’t be clubbed with the ‘immorality’ of female feticide.

7. Any positives?

  1. We must appoint a fast-track court for those cases where the mother was side-stepped by the family. Only the pregnant woman can decide whether a fetus is carried to term. That point was highlighted.
  2. The importance of the girl-child was well-explained.
  3. Despite his smug self-righteousness, Aamir seemed sincere.
  4. Who knows, the resultant awareness might help.

I know the second episode is already out—better late than never I guess.

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27 thoughts on “7 thoughts on Satyamev Jayate (female feticide)

  1. True, no one seems to be asking the important question – what does the mother want? But I guess in a ‘typical’ Indian society that question has no value. Also, people who have come on the show would only be those who were forced to undergo it. I am pretty sure those who go in for abortion voluntarily would never figure on his guest list. Also, true that either we make abortion completely illegal or not. There’s no half way in between. As far as the want of a male child being moral or not, it again goes back to the question of how our society functions. In today’s typical Indian society, having a male child is both financial and emotional security after retirement. Feminists might argue otherwise, but that’s the reality in most cases. Of course, there are exceptions. Unless and until this mindset changes – which will also be gradual – the typical junta will continue to want a male child. I dont know if I agree on your take about the sex ratio. Sure, it gives females an upper end, but if you look at the big picture, not sure if that’s good either. Equality is the key word, in every sense – be it sex ratio, want, opportunities, work etc. Annoyance – dont even get me started! Wholly agree with the positives! Nicely done Bharat. Have you watched the second episode yet? I still have to. On another note, heard that there’s only 13 episodes for the show. Not sure how true that is. I wrote about SMJ too. Take a read: http://deepa-duraisamy.blogspot.com/2012/05/why-aamirs-latest-fails-to-impress-me.html

  2. The best part was your writing on the question ‘Should female feticide be legal?’. Very clear and crisp. I agree. Abortion by itself is either legal or illegal. The reasons might be varied. But there’s no in-between.

    • IMHO, the reason the issue of mother’s consent for an abortion was not discussed at greater length because he only wanted to highlight the issue of selective abortion of female fetuses. The issue of abortion is a much more complex one. I think it is important to remember that abortion (whether considered killing of a living being or not) is a medical procedure that was primarily designed to save a woman’s life if endangered by a pregnancy. Other instances are termination of unwanted pregnancies arising from rape etc. Yes, the woman’s consent is most important (note that I always use woman rather than mother deliberately with the intent of objectifying this concept, and dissociating it from its emotional components/factors). But, what does one do when the woman cannot consent probably because she is already seriously ill or sometimes can’t get over her emotional attachment to think about her own safety? That is precisely the reason why an authorized person on her behalf is allowed to consent for her. Therefore, it is impossible to decide whether abortion is legal or not, as the answer is always “it depends”. I don’t know if that is the reason Aamir chose to not discuss abortion or if it was just coincidental. Just as other things in medicine, there are always shades of gray in determining the necessity for an invasive procedure. And just as other things in medicine, there are always people who abuse technological advances for personal benefit.

      liberalcynic: I get that the woman’s consent can be overridden when she is incapable of it. Proxy decision-making by authorized people is relevant in medical conditions. For selective abortions without medical reasons–sex-selective or time-selective– a doctor should not abort unless there’s some proof that the woman wants an abortion. So, the answer to ‘should we abort’ is not ‘it depends’– it always needs to be yes or no. I say yes.

      I concede there are gray areas in medicine. As for people using technological advances for personal benefit, why call it abuse. What they’re doing is legal if abortion is legal. It’s just in bad taste.

      Thanks for visiting.

      • Well, I disagree. If one makes abortions legal, then one can’t sit an argue about sex-specific or time-specific abortions (as you seem to favor). On the other hand, people who want to make abortion illegal do not seem to think about medically necessary abortions. To me it seems, like you can’t have binary decision-making in abortion, as it is really a procedure that is needed only when the situation warrants it. And in this case, I referred to the use of sonography for sex-determination as “abuse” as it was technology that was supposed to help monitor the development and health of the fetus during the course of the pregnancy.

        Many abortions are performed because the mother or father, or both, do not want the baby. Nothing wrong in that–according to the law. As far as sonography being used in a manner different from what that originally intended, it’s not the first time. Sildenafil was originally developed to combat hypertension, now we know what it’s used for. What’s wrong in coming up with different uses for technology?

  3. The show rightly didnt venture into grey areas of pro-life/pro-choice and SSA with mothers consent, all the cases shown were of forced SSA. The exact numbers of forced vs consent are probably not even available, so its hard to assume either side, sorta like dowry i guess. Alliances happen peacefully with dowry and not so peacefully, we only come to know of extreme cases where it resulted in brutal crime.

    Not sure about the theory of women getting “expensive”. If it was hard for a man to get a woman, he still not may not feel so charitable towards the future single men and hence be neutral towards gender of his offspring. The reason for some people (numbers again not avl) is the stupid vansh logic. Now even if society has lesser women, i dont think those people are gonna budge from the vansh logic. Its sorta like poor blacks putting all their eggs in the NBA basket, no matter the odds are known to be at 20000-1 or so, they would continue to moronically put everything on the line to get their kid to make it without a backup plan.
    So in such a scenario, its probably better to stick to forced SSA and as a general rule/suggestion ask people to be not so nutty about gender of the fetus. The remaining fringe cases are anyway being sensible to some extent by not forcing the mother, the broad brush of a melodramatic show wont make much of a difference to them.

    • Female feticide without the mother’s consent generates horror in our minds–the show used that horror to oppose female feticide. Instead they should have called people to argue in favor of female feticide and debated them. Combining two immoral acts to argue against the morality of one of those acts using the repugnance of the other act seems disingenuous.

      The vansh thing is serious, I agree. I’m not saying it will be solved by allowing female feticide. I also don’t say that a man will choose to have a daughter to benefit men he doesn’t know. I’m just saying that female feticide (with mother’s consent) doesn’t harm women who are alive. It’s not a crime against women.

      If society has fewer women, men will compete for them. Dowry might change direction. People might start bequeathing property to women. Women might then take the vansh forward. Or we might stop at the equilibrium situation in between.

      • The issue of female feticide with consent is that even the activists are not clear on its morality. Technically of course its moral, but it is also regressive to say the least. One can do all the activism for more female education, more presence in the work force, anti forced housewife etc. But how to deal with women who say they want to be housewife after all the education. Its moral, but regressive and a bit more grey too; what about all the subsidized higher education they get and then decide to willingly sit at home, denying education to some men who anyway have to work. We can neither ask them to not go for it if they intend to stay home later nor can we nod in agreement with their decision. Hence the activism towards edu and work alone, hoping that the women who are forced to stay home can get some support and regressive ones are few. So for a show targeted to “reform” nuts and educate victims, those moral but probably regressive areas are better left for blogs and research.

        liberalcynic: Interesting. You know I’m against reservation and preference of women in education and work, but I see your point.

  4. Many years ago I read a book called “May you be the mother of a hundred sons” by Elisabeth Bumiller in which she visits female infanticide in Tamil Nadu. Such reports and other international exposure has helped in making pre-natal gender determination illegal. It is therefore a little sad to learn that it is still rampant in the upper class. But there is also the consolation that the problem has been somewhat attacked and solved by deeming these gender-determinations illegal.

    Your point that if abortion is legal and is the choice of the woman then what does it matter whether they do gender-selective abortion may sound alright in an analytical and logical sense, but is not when thought of in a social context.

    For example, China’s restrictive laws to combat population growth has already had drastic social effects – referred to as the ‘missing girl syndrome’. “According to a report by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the vast majority of aborted fetuses, more than 70 percent, were female, citing the abortion of up to 750,000 female fetuses in China in 1999.”

    Estimates suggest that there are 120 boys to 100 girls in China. While you jest about such a situation saying that girls will be more in demand and quickly rejecting the concept of owning people (a strange digression), there are real societal impacts to such imbalance in male:female ratios. For example, a research paper about the Chinese situation reports that there has been an increase in “bride stealing” – young women are kidnapped and shipped/sold to remote areas. So in a way this encourages human trafficking (which you rightly reject). There are also direct impacts on the labor market. Men are more martial. More violence and criminal behavior also likely to be seen.

    liberalcynic: Most people cannot afford to keep having children until they get a boy. Abortion will skew the sex-ratio because most people would want to stop at two kids. While the restriction on procreation in India is social (Hum do hamare do etc) and typically to two children, I’m not surprised that China’s one child policy amplifies the skew. Selling of people must stop, and needs to be controlled by law. Controlling how many children one produces is the wrong way of dealing with that problem. I refuse to believe that men are inherently more martial. Given the social setup, men are entrusted with bread-winning tasks, which make them more prone to violence. Crime needs to be prevented with legal forces. Strengthen judiciary to control crime, don’t impose legislation.

    • 1. “China’s one child policy amplifies the skew”. Randomly using abortion as a means for limiting the number of progeny (as abhorrent as it is) does not skew the gender ratio, while gender determination and the subsequent abortion skews the ratio and has societal effects as explained elsewhere (please keep an open mind to invite other perspectives).

      liberalcynic: If you’re limited to two children, male-child obsessed people might decide to have one daughter, and abort when they have another female fetus. If you’re allowed only one child, they’ll abort every female fetus they conceive. That’s why I said that one-child policy is going to result in a higher skew.

      2. “I refuse to believe that men are inherently more martial”.. Several peer-reviewed and scholarly articles have analyzed the gender and its relation to deviance. Factors such as truancy, minor thefts, running away from home, breaking and entering, major thefts, murder etc. have been used as factors and time and again men are shown to be more deviant. US Dept of Justice has published studies that say the men are more likely to be perpetrators and victims of crime and violent, aggressive behavior. Please provide annotated evidence to negate this rather than just idle conjecture.

      Before goading me to negate ‘studies’ you seem to know so well, why not quote them?

      3. “..men are entrusted with bread-winning tasks, which make them more prone to violence” Increasingly women have joined the workforce and as developed economies (like in the US) move away from manual labor and manufacturing, women have become the predominant breadwinners in families. By your theory, this should result in a concomitant increase in aggressive behavior in women. But there is no evidence to suggest this. Again, another conjecture !

      “Several peer-reviewed …” but you won’t mention one. “Women have become the predominant breadwinners in families.” This sentence seems dissociated from reality. Families with predominant female breadwinners are few. Also, I don’t say that all male deviant behavior is because of breadwinning. If you’re suggesting there are no lady Macbeths in the world, think again. There is little research on deviant behavior in women, probably because people don’t want to know.(Heidensohn, British Journal of Sociology. 2010.)

      4. I find these two edicts by your somewhat contradictory, “Crime needs to be prevented with legal forces” and then “…don’t impose legislation”. How can you fight with legal forces if you cannot legislate? If there is no express law that finds pre-natal gender-determination illegal, then the State has no recourse to legal forces ergo Judiciary cannot impose such law. And from elsewhere in your comment, you seem opposed to making laws will-nilly (the libertarian streak in you). If there is no law that expressly prohibits an activity, you cannot use legal forces to prevent the harm caused by said activity.

      I’m not asking for a law that prohibits female feticide. I’m talking about bride-selling. Are you seriously suggesting that we need to write specific laws to prevent the sale of women? Selling a person violates right to freedom–a fundamental right in India.

  5. I think the show is actually good and is a useful contribution to the dialog. Aamir Khan clearly demonstrates that he is more than a successful film actor. He cares. I don’t think there is any righteous smugness. Better than some KBC show or some other Bollywood dribble.

    liberalcynic: I think the show has a net positive effect. But it does seem preachy. Aamir seems the preachiest. Better than KBC, probably. KBC got a lot of people interested in trivia and general knowledge. The effect of television in improving society has less to do with the content televised and more to do with television itself (Superfreakonomics).

  6. I have patiently read all the comments. Normally, these posts land in my inbox – and as the situation or topic is deserving, I share my thoughts. I see that most of the readers ( except avalokishwar) have missed the point i.e., we are discussing a ‘social issue’ in a larger perspective ( at the macro level). Individual (gender specific or not) rights is not the cause for holding such a discussion in this forum. We are witnessing that there is a gender imbalance due to rampant death of female fetuses. Definitely, it will adversely affect the society. There will be greater instances of newer problems and I fear, we may not be able to solve them on time. Awareness of the problem is the first necessary step leading to its acceptance and resultant solution. The show is serving that purpose. I am sure there will be societal correction after this. Otherwise, intellectual mastication can be done on any issue.

    liberalcynic: Social issues soon demand laws restricting individual rights. One isn’t extricable from the other. I agree that there’s a gender imbalance in birth ratios due to female feticide. We don’t agree on the ‘problems’ it might cause, and therefore we need a discussion. Intellectual mastication–as you’ve casually characterized–is our best hope against bad laws passed based on gut-feelings of injustice. Intellectual mastication forces research and plays Devil’s advocate to knee-jerk responses of society.

    • I commend rambuna’s comment “Intellectual mastication can be done on any issue”. I agree with that comment. I used to have a friend Elio who used to even call such idle talk (without looking at the big picture) as intellectual masturbation. Continuing to say “we don’t agree on the ‘problems’ it might cause” is not an intellectual point. China has had the one-child policy for some time and has already seen dramatic societal effects. The show (which I saw on youtube only after I wrote my first comment and therefore had no idea what it contained), also showed examples of a village full of men buying and stealing brides (which is what the Chinese study had shown). Further the lady from Haryana (the PDO?) said that sometimes bringing a woman to serve four men in a home devalues the woman’s self- existence. If she protests they tell her, we can buy 10 more like you. Continuing to harp the same line, “Crime needs to be prevented with legal forces” is the kind of answer a Miss Universe contestant might want to say in an interview question. I was actually quite impressed that the show covered the entire gamut of this problem, from the beginning to the end. Well done Aamir ! As rambuna says continuing to argue around this is intellectual mastication, and questioning ‘immorallity’ of female feticide (in quotes, as if to question if it is immoral or not) is damaging and its sad that it may be coming from some of our brightest young minds.

      liberalcynic: It is convenient to dismiss points one considers trivial as intellectual mastication or masturbation. While making laws, we must consider two things (1) What harm does the law cause? (2) Does the law actually help prevent or minimize what it prohibits? Laws must be considered in the small picture. Prenatal sex determination is rampant in India, and the stigma associated with female feticide increases infanticide–we all agree that infants are people.

      Strengthening our judiciary is not weak or unintellectual. It’s the only way to solidify the rule of law. Otherwise laws will remain instruments used by politicians and corrupt government officials to harass innocent citizens.

      And please, before chastising me for suggesting that it might not be immoral to kill something for one reason while the morality of killing it for another reason is rarely doubted, please indulge me in a little ahem intellectual mastication or masturbation and explain why.

  7. You are not well-read. Sorry.

    Not a liberal cynic either. Too new to it, I can see.

    The problems of sex ratio have been researched a lot, and a search will reveal what happens to a society when there are not enough women.

    Suffice it to say rich men marrying middle class women is not what would happen. I could tell you, but why should I do your work for you? It should take you a few minutes. Start here – http://www.google.com

    Your points about abortion, foetus, Aamir Khan are valid. You have my certificate.

  8. @liberalcynic- your effort to address this issue is well-acknowledged. But, every effort is based on an underlying cause ( or purpose, objective) and that should not be dropped in the melee of excitement ! Digressing may add on public opinion but need not be result-oriented and it rightly leads to intellectual mastication. Though mastication (or like chewing on an idea, in this case) is a good exercise to build muscles, but even the cow spits out that which cannot be digested. are we meeting the purpose? is it objective-oriented?

    • Stopping to masticate on an issue is inconvenient, I agree, and sometimes even delays justice to many. But, when we use government to restrict rights, we must consider the injustice that our laws do. We are all responsible for the crimes committed by the state. Taking away someone’s freedom unjustly is a crime. Allowing some abortions while criminalizing others clouds the vitality of the fetus–which current abortion laws consider non-living.

  9. I became thoughtful while reading your take on the popular tv show…
    Satyamave Jayate is a nice initiative..putting a film star as host would definitely increase TRP ratings..but how far does the programme enlighten the public?

  10. since I am reading this one several months after the first one came out all I can say is that while his heart is in the right place and all, it’s a good thing he stopped weeping in every episode.

    Because I was this close to hunting him down and bitch slapping him while screaming “stop crying all the time, it was sad the first time but now it feels like someone is pinching you off-camera to give you that teary look!”

    Otherwise it’s fine.

    • Yeah. He has clearly heard those stories many times—during the cherry-picking he calls research and during the takes and re-takes of the show. How can he spontaneously tear up on the umpteenth rendition of such a story?

  11. Every Woman who is a Mother knows the true worth of the life she brought into the world. (to everyone:) Your mother knew that too. Expectant mothers have only two outcomes: they will have a Girl or a Boy, any outcome is a blessing. Women should only be concerned for the health of their child.

    I’m glad that Aamir Khan brought to the public view the point that the sex of the baby is determined solely by the father. This should be posted on billboards in the public eye.

    • Thanks for visiting and commenting.
      And I agree, it’s important for people to know that it’s the sperm that determines the sex of the fetus.
      But your other comment concerns me. ‘Women should only be concerned for the health of the child.’ What if the woman doesn’t want the child? Are you saying she must not be allowed to abort?

      • Here is the thing, if a woman is pregnant and doesn’t want the child then there are so many people who would love to have a baby and physically are unable to. She can very easily have the baby adopted and there are many who would be able to pay and care for the mother for the duration of the pregnancy and birth as well. Second if you know for certain that you do not want to get pregnant under any circumstances then there are end number of ways to prevent. Protection in the way of a pill, etc etc for both women and men to use and if an “oops” moment occurs then you get the morning after pill. So there should be zero excuses to have to abort. If people are too lazy and think oh I’ll just hope I don’t get pregnant then that is just failure. For those unfortunate to have been assulted should most certainly opt for the morning after pill ASAP.

        Choosing to abort doesn’t mean that the woman won’t be a mother, sadly it makes her the mother of passed away baby.

      • I disagree. Carrying a fetus to term takes a huge toll on a woman’s body, and we have no right to force her to do so.
        No method of contraception is foolproof.
        I suppose we disagree on when a fetus becomes a baby.

  12. Pingback: Reggie Profile #11 (Mother of a Caption Winner!) | Sweet Mother

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