Thursday, June 28, 2007

Girls Are Meaningless in Afghanistan

[cross posted on In This Moment]

That's what NPR correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson told me this morning in a report on Morning Edition. At one point, she covered a group of women all giving birth at the same time. The doctors didn't immediately tell those who had girls about the child, giving them time to rest before they gave them the bad news, Nelson said.

Many of the women were giving birth to their eleventh or twelfth child, she reported. It seems that in Afghanistan, sons are the old age plan. Daughters are useless unless they can be "sold" -- exchanged for a dowry.

Nelson, who wears a burqa when she travels in areas outside of Kabul, said that it's very hard to be a woman in Afghanistan.

I am haunted by the image of a woman mourning because she has given birth to a girl. In 2007, when women can do (almost) everything, there are still women mourning because they think girls are useless.

And I am depressed to know that many people still live such precarious lives that the only plan they can make for old age is to have lots of children in the hope that some will survive to take care of them. For most of human life, this was everyone's plan, but in our current state of world overpopulation (one of the key elements of global warming) it just creates bigger problems. In my essay "We Aren't Civilized Yet: Reflections From the WisCon 30 Panel on Women Warriors" -- published in The WisCon Chronicles: Volume 1 -- I pointed out that "it took all of human history up to 1830 for the world population to hit 1 one billion, a 100 years to hit the next billion, 30 years for the next billion, 15 for the next, and so on up to our current 6.5 billion."

With modern medicine -- which has greatly reduced maternal and infant mortality -- and technology, too many people using children as their retirement plan create a huge problem (though if you're a poor person in Afghanistan, it still may be the only option you've got).

In my essay, I argue that feminism is one of the solutions to overpopulation: "Feminism addresses the problem of overpopulation by giving offering women other purposes in life besides childrearing." But in places where women have virtually no rights -- places where they cannot take economic steps to ensure their own survival -- what can they do besides have children?

The situation of women in Afghanistan -- who mourn the birth of girls -- emphasizes once again that feminism is not just a means of resolving the fundamental unfairness of discrimination on grounds of gender, but an integral part of addressing the major problems of the world.


Luke said...

Your idea is incredibly interesting. After thinking about it for a bit, I could not think of a reason why feminism would not deter overpopulation. This led me to think that perhaps the liberalization of women, at least in the more civilized countries, may have resulted from overpopulation. Put quite simply (if I may paraphrase your intelligent words in layman's terms), if a woman does not have to bear offspring for her own survival (such as was necessary in old agrarian societies, such as is necessary in Afghanistan for example), then what is she to do? The answer is: other things besides child-bearing and child-rearing.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Thanks for your comment. It's always nice to know when one of my ideas makes sense to someone else!

Eleanor said...

The UN says there can be no solution to problems such as poverty and overpopulation until women are educated and free. Birth rates go down when women are educated and able to make decisions. A lower birth rate helps reduce poverty.

Susanna J. Sturgis said...

About dowries -- I don't know about the situation in Afghanistan, but usually daughters aren't exchanged for dowries; the daughter's family (i.e., father) has to provide a dowry to the prospective husband and his family. This is a big reason why daughters are considered a burden. Marrying off several daughters can bankrupt a family of modest means. When a son marries, OTOH, his wife's dowry augments, rather than decreases, his family's possessions.

About the connection between the overpopulation and the liberation of women -- something else is necessary: ways for women to support themselves without depending on their fathers, husbands, or sons, and without being stigmatized as "fallen women."

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Susanna, I went back and listened to the report on line and the reporter did say that girls were "sold into marriage" (her words), which she clarified as exchanged for dowries. I don't have any independent knowledge -- I'm relying on what she said. Dowries go both ways -- some cultures require them of the wives, some of the husbands.

Rachel Swirsky said...

I think it's usually called bride price when the groom's family gives money for the woman.

Susanna J. Sturgis said...

I did a little poking around on the Web. "Dowry" seems to usually mean what's given by the bride's family and "bride price" what's given to the bride's family, but it seems that both words are used to mean both things. In most cases the common denominator is that the bride isn't the beneficiary; even if the "price" is given to her, it becomes part of her husband's property. Islamic tradition is different, at least in the Qur'an. The mahr is given to the bride, and it's meant to give her something of her own. Here's an interesting link:

Vandana Singh said...

An interesting post. It is true that the birth of a girl is often bemoaned in South Asia and the mid-East but the ultimate problem is with the patriarchal system, not the mothers. The patriarchal system makes it possible only for sons to look after their parents in the latter's old age; the girl gets married and leaves. And dowry does bankrupt the girl's family. This does not mean that the girl may not be loved; traditionally the leaving of the daughter after marriage is cause for much lamentation and weeping in her natal family, and there is a whole genre of folk songs about the young bride wishing to return to her mother's house. What will change the situation in favor of the girl child is indeed a social system in which women can look after their old parents and where dowry is abolished.

Which is why in India (where I'm from) there is such a massive women's movement against dowry. There are also vibrant rural women's movements. Whether these are in response to environmental issues or state-sponsored alcoholism, they go beyond the immediate concerns to address empowerment issues such as educating the girl child and birth control.