Monday, June 6, 2011

Boys are prized, who needs girls ?

That is how things happen here

By: Salman Nizami.

Six year old Syed Riffat is like many girls her age. She likes to be the center of attention. She is often frustrated when things do not go her way. Like her three older sisters, she is eager to discover the world outside the house in their middle-class neighbourhood of Gurez. But when their mother, Zareena Sheikh, dresses the children for school in the morning, there is one important difference. Riffat’s sisters put on blue dresses and head scarves, tied tightly over their ponytails. For Riffat, it’s green pants, a white shirt and a neck tie, then a pat from her mother over her spiky, short black hair. After that, her daughter is out the door, as a kashmiri boy. Kashmiri families have many reasons for pretending their girls are boys, including economic need, social pressure to have sons, and in some cases, a superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy. Lacking a son, the parents decide to make one up, usually by cutting the hair of a daughter and dressing her in typical kashmiri men’s clothing. There are no specific legal or religious proscriptions against the practice. In most cases, a return to womanhood takes place when the child enters puberty. The parents almost always make that decision. In a land where sons are more highly valued, since in the tribal culture usually only they can inherit the father’s wealth and pass down a name, families without boys are the objects of pity and contempt. Even a made-up son increases the family’s standing, at least for a few years. A child dressed up as a boy, can also more easily receive an education, work outside the home, even escort her sisters in public, allowing freedoms that are unheard of for girls in a society that strictly segregates men and women. But for some, the change can be disorienting as well as liberating, stranding the women in a limbo between the sexes. Zareena Sheikh, raised as a boy but then abruptly plunged into an arranged marriage, struggled to adapt, tripping over the confining burqa and straining to talk to other women. There are no statistics about how many Kashmiri girls masquerade as boys. Through dozens of interviews conducted over several days, where many people wanted to remain anonymous or to use only first names for fear of exposing their families, it was possible to trace a practice that has remained mostly obscured to outsiders. Yet it cuts across class, education, ethnicity and geography, and has endured even through kashmir’s conflict. It is a commonly held belief among less educated kashmiris that the mother can determine the sex of her unborn child, so she is blamed if she gives birth to a daughter. Several doctors and health care workers from kashmir said that they had witnessed the despair of women when they gave birth to daughters, and that the pressure to produce a son fueled the practice. “Yes, this is not normal for you,” zareena said in sometimes imperfect urdu, during one of many interviews over several days. “And I know it’s very hard for you to believe why one mother is doing these things to their youngest daughter. But I want to say for you, that some things are happening in kashmir that are really not imaginable for you .” From that fateful day she first became a mother on Feb. 7, 1999 , Zareena knew she had failed, she said, but she was too exhausted to speak, shivering on the cold floor of the family’s small house in gurez.

She had just given birth twice to Riffats’s older sisters, Sara and Zara. The first twin had been born after almost 72 hours of labor, one month prematurely. The girl weighed only 2.6 pounds and was not breathing at first. Her sister arrived 10 minutes later. She, too, was unconscious. When her mother in law began to cry, Zareena knew it was not from fear whether her infant grand daughters would survive. The old woman was disappointed. “Why,” she cried, according to zareena , “are we getting more girls in the family?” Zareena had grown up in Gurez, where she was a top student, speaking three languages and nurturing high-flying dreams of becoming a doctor. But once her father forced her to become the second wife of her first cousin, she had to submit to being an illiterate farmer’s wife, in a rural house without running water and electricity, where the widowed mother-in-law ruled, and where she was expected to help care for the cows, sheep and chickens. She did not do well.

Conflicts with her mother-in-law began immediately, as the new zareena insisted on better hygiene and more contact with the men in the house. She also asked her mother-in-law to stop beating her husband’s first wife with her walking stick. When zareena finally snapped the stick in protest, the older woman demanded that her son, Anayatullah, control his new wife. He did so with a wooden stick or a metal wire. “On the body, on the face,” she recalled. “I tried to stop him. I asked him to stop. Sometimes I didn’t.” Soon, she was pregnant. The family treated her slightly better as she grew bigger. “They were hoping for a son this time,” she explained. Anayatullah’s first wife had given birth to two daughters, one of whom had died as an infant, and she could no longer conceive. Azra Bano delivered two daughters, double the disappointment. zareena faced constant pressure to try again, and she did, through two more pregnancies, when she had two more daughters Mehreen, now 5, and finally Riffat, the 6-year-old. Asked if she ever considered leaving her husband, she reacted with complete surprise. “I thought of dying,” she said. “But I never thought of divorce. If I had separated from my husband, I would have lost my children, and they would have had no rights. I am not one to quit.” Today, she is in a position of a responsible lady representing her village Tulail. She has recently been nominated as a Sarpanch for the upcoming Panchayat elections . Her husband is unemployed and spends most of his time at home. “He is my house husband,” she joked. By persuading him to move away from her mother-in-law and by offering to contribute to the family income, she laid the groundwork for her life. Three years into their marriage, after the fall of the militancy , she began volunteering as a health worker for various non governmental organizations. Today she makes Rs 2,000 a month. As a social worker, she works to improve women’s rights and the rule of law. But she could run only with her husband’s explicit permission, and the second time around, he was not easily persuaded.He wanted to try again for a son. It would be difficult to combine pregnancy and another child with her work, she said and she knew she might have another girl in any case. But the pressure to have a son extended beyond her husband. It was the only subject her constituents could talk about when they came to the house, she said. “When you don’t have a son ,” she explained, “it’s like a big missing in your life. Like you lost the most important point of your life. Everybody feels sad for you.” As a social worker , she was also expected to be a good wife and a mother; instead she looked like a failed woman to her constituents. The gossip spread back to her province, and her husband was also questioned and embarrassed, she said. In an effort to preserve her job and placate her husband, as well as fending off the threat of his getting a third wife, she proposed to her husband that they make their youngest daughter look like a son. “People came into our home feeling pity for us that we don’t have a son,” she recalled reasoning. “And the girls we can’t send them outside. And if we changed Riffat to a boy we would get more space and freedom in society for her. And we can send her outside for shopping and to help the father.” Together, they spoke to their youngest daughter, she said. They made it an alluring proposition: “Do you want to look like a boy and dress like a boy, and do more fun things like boys do, like bicycling, soccer and cricket? And would you like to be like your father?” Riffat did not hesitate to say yes. That afternoon, her father took her to the barbershop, where her hair was cut short. They continued to the bazaar, where she got new clothing. Her first outfit was “something like a cowboy dress,” Zareena said, meaning a pair of blue jeans and a red denim shirt with “superstar” printed on the back. She even got a new name originally called Rafik, her name was tweaked to the more boyish-sounding Riffat. Riffat’s return to school in a pair of pants and without her pigtails went by without much reaction by her fellow students. She still napped in the afternoons with the girls, and changed into her sleepwear in a separate room from the boys. Some of her classmates still called her Rafik , while others called her Riffat. But she would always introduce herself as a boy to newcomers. Tabasum Bano , the headmistress, with less than a year in her job, said she had always presumed Riffat was a boy, until she helped change her into sleeping clothes one afternoon. “It was quite a surprise for me,” she said. But once Zareena called the school and explained that the family had only daughters, Miss Tabasum understood perfectly. She used to have a girlfriend at the teacher’s academy who dressed as a boy. Today, the family’s relatives and colleagues all know Riffat’s real gender, but the appearance of a son before guests and acquaintances is just enough to keep the family functioning, Zareena said. At least for now. Sheikh Yaseen zareena’s husband said he felt closer to Riffat than to his other children, and thought of her as a son. “I am very happy,” he said. “When people now ask me, I say yes and they see that I have a son. So people are quiet, and I am quiet.” The Sheikh’s have not yet made a decision when Riffat will be switched back to a girl, but Zareena said she hoped it need not happen for another five or six years. “I will need to slowly, slowly start to tell her about what she is and that she needs to be careful as she grows up,” she said. “I think about this every day what’s happening to Riffat.” Challenged about how it might affect her daughter, she abruptly revealed something from her own past: “Should I share something for you, honestly? For some years I also been a boy.” As the first child of her family, Zareena assisted her father in his small food shop, beginning when she was 10, for four years. She was tall and athletic and saw only potential when her parents presented the idea she would be able to move around more freely. She went to a girls’ school in the mornings, but worked at the store on afternoons and evenings, running errands in pants and a baseball hat, she said. Returning to wearing dresses and being confined was not so much difficult as irritating, and a little disappointing, she said. But over all, she is certain that the experience contributed to the resolve that brought her to this level. “I think it made me more energetic,” she said. “It made me more strong.” She also believed her time as a boy made it easier for her to relate to and communicate with men. Zareena said she hoped the effects on Riffat’s psyche and personality would be an advantage, rather than a limitation. She noted that speaking out may draw criticism from others, but argued that it was important to reveal a practice most women in her area wished did not have to exist. “This is the reality of kashmir,” she said.

The author is a Journalist, has done in depth research on Kashmir conflict and can be mailed at

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