Sunday, March 04, 2007

Do You Want To Buy Me?

All people are sometimes treated as commodities. But women are treated that way often. Just watch the uterus wars and the "they-are-breeding-us-out" wars and all the discussions about how women should act so as not to let the civilization collapse. The civilization is on our shoulders, a little like the tabletop is on the shoulders of the table legs.

Why so gloomy, Echidne? I have been reading about the disappearing Indian girls and the ghost brides of China. From No Capital:

Yang Donghai, a 35-year-old farmer in western China's Shaanxi province, confessed to killing a woman bought from a poor family for 12,000 yuan ($1,545) last year.

She thought she was being sold into an arranged marriage, but Yang killed her in a gully and sold her corpse for 16,000 yuan, the Legal Daily reported Thursday. He and two accomplices then killed a prostitute and sold her for 8,000 yuan before police caught them.

"I did it for the money; it was a quick buck," Yang said, according to the paper. "If I hadn't slipped up early, I planned to do a few more."

The women were victims of an old belief, still alive in the yellow-earth highlands of western China, that young men who die unmarried should go to their graves accompanied by deceased women who will be their wives in the afterlife. Often these women die natural deaths.

Sometimes a dead woman is worth more than a living one. And sometimes a living girl is worth so very little that it's better to abandon her:

Bhavia is sleeping swaddled in a woolly peach cardigan amid the wailing and flailing limbs of 20 other babies. Nurses in lilac saris and face masks scoop the bundles from rockers and jig them under the wintry Delhi sun. Two days ago, the baby girl became the newest arrival at Palna, an orphanage in the capital's Civil Lines district. But Bhavia is not an orphan. She is what used to be known as "a foundling", abandoned by her mother in a local hospital.

When Bhavia came to Palna she was nameless, with no date of birth. What is certain, from a cursory glance at the line of babies, is that an orphanage is one of the few places in India where males are outnumbered. For every boy lying in the sunny courtyard, there are four girls. Some have been dumped outside police stations, some in railway toilets, crowded fairgrounds, or the dark corners of bus stations. Others were left outside the orphanage in a wicker cradle, in a specially built alcove by a busy road. The weight of a child here will set off an alarm, alerting Palna's staff to a new arrival.

Almost always, it is girls who are left in the cradle. Healthy boys are only deserted in India if born to single mothers; boys left by a married couple are the disabled ones. Not all abandoned girls come from families too poor to feed them, however. Some have been found with a neatly packed bag containing a change of clothes, milk formula and disposable nappies.

This is an improvement over what usually happens to the unwanted girls:

The latest estimate of India's sex ratio at birth (SRB) can be gleamed from a sample registration system that covers 1.3m households. For the two years up to 2004, India had just 882 girls per 1,000 boys. Only China is worse. Beijing's harsh, yet effective, family-planning policy limited urban couples to a single child -which was usually a boy. China's sex ratio stands at just 832:1,000. Sabu George, a Delhi-based researcher who has worked for two decades on female foeticide, describes the first few months in the womb as "the riskiest part of a woman's life cycle in India". The sex ratios in the country, he says, are getting worse "day by day". India, he says, now has 930,000 missing girls every year. "What we are talking about is a massive, hidden number of deaths."

And what is it that makes girls and women so unwanted? The system of marrying into the man's family and the expectation that it is the sons who will take care of their parents in old age. A daughter will leave, just when she would be old enough to contribute to the family, and not only will she leave, but she is expected to take a dowry with her. And it is the sons who will take care of the parents later on, or perhaps the daughters-in-law those sons marry, strangers, too. The daughters themselves will take care of the parents of their future husbands, you see.

A trade in women, and a daughter a burden! Who invented this system? Was it based on the greater muscular strength of the sons?

Think how hard it is to be a burden to your parents, to be traded off like that, to have to cut the emotional web you have built over the years, to start from the beginning, under the domination of strangers.

Commodities, to be traded and bought, or to be exchanged for family connections. I used to think that a traditional marriage was like a labor contract for the woman, a contract which specified her duties to her husband's family. But sometimes I think it resembles slavery more than anything else, and I say this fully understanding that many traditional marriages are quite good and that a certain amount of bad luck is required to see just how very bad the situation can be for women.

And what about the psychological effects of being labeled as a nuisance, a drain on the family resources? Someone once told me a joke about women in India or China or some similar place; that having daughters was like watering the neighbor's flower garden. What would the daughters themselves think about that joke? How hard must one inhale the spirit of patriarchy to cheerfully agree with its message? And I have seen that happen.

But of course how commodities feel doesn't matter when it comes to their prices.

Do you know what I find truly ironic about the disappeared girls in China and India? That the concerns usually begin only when someone realizes that --gasp-- men will not find wives now! The market in wives has excess demand! Do something! The price will go up, up, up! And there will be an illegal market of kidnapped brides! The rising price of women does not make them any less commodities, sadly.

I want to bang my head against the garage door, here. But if you think this way of thinking about women is only a problem in far-away places such as China or India, think again. In the offices of Washington Times, the following was recorded:

The day before, there was a brief discussion on the foreign desk about a pending series by religion writer Julia Duin on the abortion of girls in India....In the discussion with colleagues on The Washington Times foreign desk, [foreign desk editor David Jones] said: "The reason we are running this story is that Coombs thinks all the aborted girls means that Indian men will be immigrating to the United States to marry our girls." That is an exact quote, what Jones told his colleagues on the foreign desk.

Now we can't have that, can we? It would mess with the wife-market over here.