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     Volume 5 Issue 85 | March 10, 2006 |

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Celebrating Our Daughters

Aasha Mehreen Amin

The day I got an ultrasonogram done and the doctor mumbled 'it might be a girl' I realised that a childhood fantasy was about to come true. Even as a little girl obsessed with dolls all I ever wanted was a real baby girl to love and make a fuss of. Of course at that stage babies seemed to me just live dolls that you could dress up and cuddle and feed. The travails of motherhood perpetual diaper changing, excruciating hours of nursing, sleepless nights, agonising illnesses _such trivia were not part of the dreams of a six year old. Thus the fantasy continued and miraculously didn't get squashed even when I realised that this cute bundle of joy would take up almost every waking (and sleeping) moment of my life. I had finally received my live doll.

I sometimes wonder how people can be so stupid as to be disappointed when a girl is born. Why the birth of a daughter is received with lukewarm welcomes while baby boys are treated like celebrities from day one. Of course culture has a lot to do with it. In all of Asia no matter how developed the country is there is always a preference for boy children. Even today female fetuses are aborted and female infants killed or abandoned. Girls if they survive mostly grow up to be second favourites if they have male siblings. They are taught to speak softly, be docile, obedient, look pretty and generally exist for the pleasure of some obscure man who will take them away from their patriarchal nests to another home where they will be second class citizens all over again.

Girls on average are not encouraged as much to study compared to boys yet usually they do better in schools. Young women are not supported enough to build careers but many employers have admitted that they are the best and most reliable workers. Even parents of daughters agree that more than the pampered son it is the daughter who is more attached to them.

So why this nonsense of a daughter being a burden who must be married off before she is an old maid or before her reputation is soiled? Such medieval notions can be justified in the case of illiterate, poor people who have never seen any other way. But when educated, privileged parents pawn their daughter off before they can even decide what they want to be as individuals just so they can sleep at night without worrying about who she is seeing or whether she will get a good catch, it is unforgivable.

Monica (not her real name, a young woman from a privileged background was a straight A student in high school, and had entered into one of the most prestigious architecture schools in the US. Here too she excelled and her dreams of becoming a great architect were only a few semesters away. Tall, attractive, with beautiful long hair, she dew quite a bit of attention but was hardly affected by it.

Being a serious student of such a demanding discipline, Monica was very conscientious about assignments and tests. She often had classmates come over to her small rented room to study or work on group projects. Sometimes this would go on till late at night and the classmates included one or two young men. The house where she stayed belonged to a Bangladeshi man and it did not take long for him to report to Monica's father that her behaviour had become 'inappropriate'. Thus Monica's future was determined by a single phone call. Her father whisked her off home and soon got her married. Monica is happily married and has two lovely daughters. But she has almost completely given up on ever being an architect and is constantly stressed by her overbearing in laws. She is however, determined that her daughters will have the chance to make their own choices about their own futures.

This of course is one of the more happy stories. There are countless others where intelligent, capable and talented women have had to squash their real selves to become ideal wives or mothers, that too without being appreciated or respected. They love their spouses and children but deep down there is that heap of regret and wistfulness for a life where they are treated as individuals and in which they find out what they are capable of. I wonder how many parents out there are filled with remorse for not allowing their daughters to pursue their dreams. I wonder how many parents are ripped with shame and regret for handing their children to strangers to be abused or even killed. I suspect there are many.

Thankfully things are changing though not nearly fast enough. With greater education and employment opportunities girls and women are seen less of a burden and more of a support both financially and emotionally for parents. As partial or sole breadwinners of the household, they are treated with greater respect and are valued a lot more.

Most of the people I know who have daughters are quite happy with only a daughter or daughters. They give their girls the best of everything material and non-material. Most of all they give them their unconditional love, support and the confidence that they are just as capable as their male counterparts to be whatever they want to be. So it's not just singing or dancing lessons our young girls are taking but courses in self defence or foreign languages. None of these parents hanker for sons but are proud of the fact that they have daughters. The best part is that it's not just the mothers who are so supportive but doting fathers who have managed to discard all their chauvinism behind when it comes to their daughters - a definite victory for women's emancipation!

Unfortunately, this scenario does not hold true for the majority. There are still too many young girls being deprived of their basic rights to be educated, to work or have their own thoughts only because they are female.

So can we ever change our own status? As mothers we have a huge responsibility towards our daughters. Our job is to support and protect them in every possible way without smothering them or limiting their horizons. We should not be focussing so much on telling them how to look pretty and ladylike but more on how to be confident and how to develop their intellect. This means we have to develop ourselves and be the strong, intelligent and confident individuals that they will want to emulate. We must stop ourselves from worrying about whether they will find a good husband and work on how to make sure that they have the skills to stand on their own feet and not be dependent on any man.

One of the major reasons why many young women are drawn to men their mothers shudder about is low self esteem. Thanks to the relentless media bombardment of messages and images that scream that a woman must be a certain size and shape and colour, our daughters are growing up with the notion that they have to look like Barbie dolls in order to fit in. Hence the obsession with losing weight even at the cost of their health and the inordinate time and money spent on beauty products and at the beauty parlour. Many young women are either bulimic or anorexic and on the verge of total breakdowns. And this obsession with weight can start at a very early age. I remember a certain thin three year old who would look into the mirror and strain her frock to her body making her ribs stick out and ask "Am I getting fat?" She was equally worried about her mother and kept coaxing her to be 'thin and beautiful' like the models in television ads.

Of course we must make sure our daughters are not overweight but we have to make them understand that at growing stages children must get enough nutrition so that they are healthy. It is ridiculous that even little girls crave to have hour glass figures even before they have reached their teens.

Thus our battle against the Hollywood-Bollywood stereotyped female image must continue. The emphasis should be on staying fit, healthy and generally feeling good about themselves rather than sculpting their bodies to become objects of male desire. Admittedly it's a formidable task to provide such counterarguments against messages that have become so universal and pervasive. But for goodness sake, we are their mothers, their best friends, their most reliable allies (ok fathers are included too). Often mothers are too caught up on expressing their disappointment in their daughters--they are too fat, too thin, too dumb or too obsessed with boys--forgetting completely to compliment their accomplishments or encourage them, to balance the criticism. No matter how old one is the hurt and sense of failure of a daughter of never being good enough for her mother, is very deep-seated and traumatic. It's not that they hate their daughters but more because they are overcautious, paranoid even, that their daughters will suffer because of their failings. Mothers tend to be perfectionists when it comes to their daughters and this may be quite burdensome and debilitating for the daughters. We have to understand that our girls may look a lot like us, even have some of our mannerisms but they are separate individuals with minds of their own. At best we can try to instil good values in them, be good role models and gain their trust so that we can point out their mistakes. But if they stumble and fall we must always be there to catch them and hold them and put them back on their feet. That is the least we can do for these wonderful, delightful and remarkable persons who are our daughters.

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