Not so very long ago, in a Midlands town: a woman climbed the stairs, flight by flight, all the way to the hospital roof. And threw herself off. She had just given birth to a third daughter.
No, we’re not in some dystopian world, or some strange twist of the Handmaid’s Tale, but in modern day England. Where the Punjabi community, much of it originating from India, has made its home, and is now into its third and fourth generation.
Well educated and hard-working, a high proportion of Punjabi women are in professional jobs, contributing economically and intellectually. And yet … when it comes to these women giving birth … the family expectations are as old as the ancestral lands back home, and the ambition to continue the family name as entrenched as the deepest of cultural roots. What their in-laws want, what they really really want, are sons and more sons.
As a Punjabi woman myself, it’s the community I know best, but the desire for sons cuts across cultures and is particularly endemic in the British-Asian community as a whole.
When I was having my second child, I made sure to tell everyone it was going to be a girl – because my first child was a girl too and I was aware of expectations. So I was determined to prepare the ground. I was in a position where I could do so, but the majority of Punjabi and Asian women aren’t.
In one way or another, I’m sure every Punjabi and British-Asian woman has been affected by this syndrome: as a daughter, daughter-in-law, wife and mother. Leading to women feeling unworthy, guilty, inadequate, insecure or even suicidal.
The tragic suicide of Navjeet Sidhuin 2006, who jumped in front of an express train with her two young children was said to have been caused by depression, originating from her first-born not having been a son.
Many of us heard about the Asian couple who quietly walked out of a hospital, abandoning their newly-born twin daughters. I’ve been told about the harrowing case of a mother, arriving back from the hospital, whose baby daughter was taken by the mother-in-law but who herself was thrown out. After all, it’s the woman’s fault for giving birth to a daughter isn’t it.
The sex of a baby may be determined by the father’s sperm, but try telling that to the mothers-in-law and elders of a community fixated on blaming the woman.
‘The pressure can be intense,’ Dr. Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, told me, ‘even with younger women, feminists, educated women. It can affect their mind-set, make them waver, feel guilty, wear them down. Some mothers don’t express their unhappiness – which can lead to depression and self-harming – often on parts of the body that can’t be seen. Mothers need to be able to say they need help in strict privacy.’
The toxic ‘sympathy’ of relatives and acquaintances, who glibly repeat ‘Never mind, next time you’ll have a son,’ can pile on the agony. Jagbir revealed how a mother of three daughters, said such comments ‘pierced her heart.’
In this day and age, it’s absurd that women who give birth to sons gain ‘honour’ and status, whereas women who have daughters often find their position becoming insecure. They can be haunted by the spectre of the husband re-marrying. And can find themselves denied a share of the family inheritance.
Financial discrimination can start before marriage. Many daughters, when they turn eighteen, are asked to sign a document, relinquishing their claim to the family land in India, and many don’t inherit a share of family property in England.
The campaigns around mental health have brought those issues into the open. We also need to recognise and highlight the suffering and long term effects caused by the need-to-have-a-son-syndrome. It harms the mother-daughter relationship; impacts the self-esteem of thousands of young women who grow up hearing laments about their very existence; who learn their grandmother cried at their birth; who see themselves devalued when they hear their elders telling their mother to seek sex-selection in India.
Dr. Jhutti-Johal also commented that the desire for sons isn’t only for passing on family name and land, but also to provide care for the parents in their old age. Unfortunately, such tidy arrangements no longer exist in the Punjab or in the UK. It’s very evident here that more and more daughters are having to look after their parents, and their in-laws.
Let’s also talk about Punjabi Male Privilege and Asian Male Privilege, which goes hand-in-hand with the need-to-have-a-son syndrome. The phrase ‘White Privilege’ has entered the social vocabulary; we understand it’s about the ‘invisible systems conferring dominance…’. Dr. Peggy McIntosh says ‘I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.’
It’s time that Punjabi Male Privilege and Asian Male Privilege was recognized and checked out by the men who enjoy it, the harm it causes to their daughters and wives, and fully and publicly rejected by them.
The Pink Ladoo Project is one of the few movements aiming to change attitudes to the birth of daughters, but the need-to-have-a-son-syndrome is so pervasive we need a powerful #MeToo movement to challenge it. Punjabi and Asian men need to join the voices of women and put an end to this unfair and harmful practice. Every new-born daughter is entitled to an equal welcome and celebration from her family and society. Bring out the pink ladoos.