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Opinion | Babita Phogat’s genius idea to improve the lives of Indian girls

Babita Phogat recently said that the government should rename its Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme and call it 'beton ko padhao, beton ko samjhao'

Babita Phogat (in blue) at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: AFP
Babita Phogat (in blue) at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: AFP

Every evening when my eight-year-old daughter returns from school, my husband asks her the same question: “How many boys did you beat up today?" She rolls her eyes in exactly the same way her mother does and shrugs off the query with a smile.

The husband’s methods may be suspect but he’s just trying to make her tough because he knows she’ll have to survive India, a country which excels at treating its women in the most humiliating ways you could possibly imagine.

It drives them to kill themselves, according to a study published by medical journal The Lancet earlier this month. Some 37% of women who commit suicide in the world are Indian, and a significant number of them are under 40, the study found.

India’s speciality, though, has always been death before birth. Indian parents’ proclivity for sex-selective abortions means they push female foetuses into a black hole for unborns. I’m surprised no author has written a dystopian YA book about this yet—the unborns return to their country of unbirth on their 16th birthday, armed and ready to seek bloody revenge (they all have wild, curly hair of course, like Taapsee Pannu in Manmarziyan).

There’s no shortage of opportunities to discriminate against women who do survive birth. India is home to 20 million orphans, one study found in 2011. Most of them have been abandoned by their parents in the gutters, gullies and train compartments of this great nation. Imagine, we live in a place where the state was forced to sponsor cradles in which you can drop off girls (I say girls because the majority of abandoned babies are female). At least that’s decent, right? After all, so many parents of a certain orientation just neglect their female newborns until they die of malnourishment or sickness. Who has the time to take a day off work and ferry a sick infant daughter to hospital? Child sexual abuse, child marriage and trafficking are all epidemics women must battle their way through before they hit adulthood.

Privileged or not, almost all Indian women have less access to food and freedom (or salary and safety) than their male counterparts. Their parents may feed them, educate them, but they’ll only feel their “duty" is done when their daughter is “settled". That’s a euphemism for “someone else’s responsibility".

Wrestler Babita Phogat, celebrity resident of Haryana, one of the worst states to be born a girl in, said recently that the government should rename its Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme (launched in 2015 to arrest female foeticide and the declining child sex ratio at birth), and instead call it “Beton ko padhao, beton ko samjhao". She articulated what many gender experts have been saying for years: For the lives of women to improve, India’s men will have to be saved.

Phogat should know. She’s one of six sisters who changed the way we view female wrestlers in India. The sisters fought harassment and a social boycott on the route to international sporting success. I know the year isn’t over yet, but I’m ready to award Phogat the title of Gender Warrior 2018 for re-emphasizing that it’s Indian men, and not women who need to change.

There is no shortage of areas in which Indian men need fixing, but I’ll skip obvious ones and suggest three simple ways urban parents can help educate this country’s future men.

Ban ‘rotis’. Or teach your sons to make them. No less than the annihilation of the idea that a woman’s life goal is to make hot rotis for her family is required to improve the quality of life of our female population. Remember the image of graffiti on a wall that went viral recently? “Kaise khaoge unke haath ki rotiya, jab paida hone nahi doge betiyan (how will you eat their handmade rotis if you don’t let your daughters be born)?".

The husband, a cookbook author who encourages Indian men to sally forth with spatulas, once began an essay with his simple but powerful idea for female emancipation: “Get your sons into the kitchen." I think he was drawn to me because I don’t make rotis. I know I married him because he wore an old sock on his hand to dust his apartment. Our daughter has only seen fluid gender roles. I hope boys her age are getting that lesson too. If not, she’ll have to immigrate to Sweden where gender roles are being decimated in pre-schools. Start small: the next time you want someone to help you set the table, don’t reflexively call out for your daughter. Make your son do it.

Teach him consent, sexual responsibility. Teach him the female body is not an object of vandalism or violence. That rape is not sex. To understand that he can’t take whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. Yes, even if he’s married. Teach him to handle rejection. It’s not her duty to give him sexual pleasure. True intimacy is a two-way street. Teach him about female pleasure. Birth control is not solely her responsibility. He should know the importance of protection—only 5.6% of Indian men use condoms for birth control (National Family Health Survey, 2015-16).

Teach him everyday equality. I know this sounds very basic, but ensure he knows that women can laugh loudly. They can wear whatever they want, go out as late as they want, be friends with whoever they want. That they can have contrary opinions and that there’s no reason they shouldn’t articulate them. They may earn more than him, be smarter than him, and more confident—and that’s no reason for him to behave in a petulant manner. Women are not property to be protected. Women have as much right to access public spaces as their male counterparts.

Imagine how change would spread like wildfire in our cities if even a percentage of urban parents taught their sons these lessons.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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