A few weeks ago I was on the Sunny and Shay Show on BBC Radio London discussing whether or not the South Asian community still held the attitude of son preference.
Growing up, I’ve always been aware that boys usually had more freedom than girls but never have I ever heard my parents or family members mutter that they wished I was born a boy. The discussion with Sunny and Shay really opened my eyes up to seriously damaging attitudes the South Asian community has when it comes to gender.
Joining the panel alongside myself and Rani Bilkhu was Mankamal Singh, the Chaplain to the Mayor of Redbridge, and his wife, who described how their joy of having a baby girl was almost marred by the fact that people didn’t understand why they would want to celebrate her birth with the sharing of sweets, which is actually a tradition reserved for the birth of a boy. In the end the couple decided not to share sweets upon their daughter’s birth and did the same when their two sons completed their family.
I’m not a Mum, but I can imagine how gut wrenching it must be to not only have that kind of pressure on you to produce a son for reasons that are not even valid within society, but have people not share your excitement at having a healthy baby. Even if we turn to science, we know that the gender of a baby is determined by the chromosomes found in male sperm and yet somehow, women are blamed for the conception of a girl.
This leads on to a wider issue within the community of women being singled out at any given opportunity, whilst men can seemingly do no wrong. The less boys and men are reprimanded when they’re at fault, the more they go through life feeling as though they’re never to blame for anything. They fail to develop a sense of accountability and take this attitude with them into adulthood.
This is also probably the reason why some Asian women severely lack confidence, self esteem and are subservient. It’s because they’ve been conditioned in such a way to feel as though they are the weaker sex, that their actions reflects the integrity of multiple people and perhaps as a result, they go through life much more cautiously than men. Thankfully though, I’ve come across South Asian females who are breaking this mould, who are fiercely independent and do not allow attitudes to dictate their lives.
The reasons for wanting a son varies within Asian culture. Some families see sons as security when they become frail and elderly. Sons are less likely to move out of their family home and will therefore provide the care parents will need in their old age. Others are very stern about passing on the family name, particularly if they hold some kind of significance within the community. Finally, the issue of a dowry is a huge burden for poorer families who have daughters.
Coming from a West Indian background, the idea of preferring sons over daughters has never been a social issue we’ve had to contend with, however it’s quite scary when you think about how easy it is to become conditioned when it comes to gender preference. I’ve been guilty of this. For the longest time I always said I wanted a big family and ideally I would like my first born to be a boy.
‘Because I want the security of knowing that if I have girls, they have an older brother who can protect them and look out for them.’ – Looking back, I was definitely speaking from experience, having an older brother and sister myself. There was no malice or discrimination in my reasoning. However I didn’t realise how sexist that was and how I instantly assumed that males could only be the protector. Girls are more than capable of providing security and protection if we equip them with the tools and the knowledge of how to do that.
Even comments from friends and family like ‘we can’t wait for you to have a son’ may be said in jest, but it reinforces those old attitudes and that needs to change.
As much as we shudder at the thought of speaking against elders and risk being branded as ‘disrespectful’, it is actually down to us to correct their way of thinking. It’s no longer okay to place boys on a pedestal when you have women around the world making a difference in leadership roles, in sports and in government.
We live in a very different time where it’s no longer a girl’s job to simply get married and cater to her in-laws needs. Between January to March 2016, the female employment rate for those aged between 16 and 64 in the UK stood at 69.2%. This is the highest figure since comparable records began in 1971.
The good news is, there is a change among South Asian women, which is apparent to see. Many of my South Asian female friends are fiercely independent, aren’t afraid to voice their opinions and are ambitious. Women are becoming savvier in what they want and I’m so proud to see friends, family and even women in the public eye living their life on their terms.
It was also encouraging to hear that the panel and callers in to the show were all in agreement that it doesn’t matter what gender you have, as long as your baby is healthy and happy.
We may have to put up with the older folk who are stuck in their ways, but it’s never too late to try to cultivate and nurture new attitudes that will have a positive effect on future generations.