Raising daughters: anguish of a mother

By Zubeida Mustafa

45-22-09-1989As the social fabric begins to disintegrate under the stress and strain of ethnic violence, crime and political fragmentation, one wonders who is the worst victim. There is no doubt that it is the youth of today. Denied the normal and stable social environment they need for their healthy mental, moral, intellectual and physical growth, the young suffer the most.

An impression has, however, gained ground that only boys are the main losers because when terror strikes they are generally the ones to fall before the bullets. They are believed to be the most exposed to the devastating impact of the instability and insecurity that prevails today. Girls, after all, are said to be protected in the safe sanctuary of their homes.

Mothers of young girls would testify to the fallacy of this belief. What is not even realised generally is that the past decade has had a ravaging effect on the female psyche. State-inspired obscurantism is mercifully not the norm today. But the anti-woman forces that were unleashed in the past ten years continue to be strongly entrenched in society. Vide the outpourings of vulgarity and obscenity against the Prime Minister which are the normal form of political criticism from her opponents. Or the ulema conventions called to devise strategies to demolish the “government by a woman”.

Life is no longer as meaningful and satisfying for young girls in terms of the opportunities it offers as it had promised to be 15 or so years ago. This to me is unforgivable. After decades of struggle for the emancipation of women we find ourselves retrogressing. This specially holds true in respect of the physical freedom the young girls of today can enjoy. Take their mobility for example. Their lives are certainly more restricted than before. Unless it is essential, parents are reluctant to let their daughters venture alone out of the house. We have moved back to such an extent that a female teacher who went to the university in the late forties — no doubt a pioneer in her field — refused to let her daughter go to the university for post-graduate studies a few years back because of the violence on the campus.

How frustrating this confinement at home can be for a young girl who has tasted the joys of freedom is not difficult to understand for the mother. Bovs can at least play cricket with their friends on the streets when colleges and schools are peremptorily closed.

Girls cannot do that. They would incur the wrath of the mullas who got them barred from hockey, athletics and other spectator sports —when they ruled the roost. There are very very few facilities for sports available to girls in this country. Moreover, they can make use of the few facilities that are there only if they happen to be within easy reach. Again lack of mobility is their problem. Given the state of public transport few parents would allow their daughters to face the hazards which a journey by bus or rickshaw involves for the sake of a game of tennis. For the same reason libraries and cinemas become out of bound for them.

In such a situation, even the daily exercise of going to school or college becomes a veritable source of personal achievement and self-fulfilment for them. It offers them the only opportunity they have to socialise, apart from the mental and intellectual stimulation their classroom provides them, the poverty of our education system notwithstanding. A measure of what their books and studies mean to the girls is the higher success rate of female candidates in each and every public examination held. Hence when schools and colleges are closed indefinitely due to trouble in the city, it is the girls who suffer more. Their only contact with life outside the home is snapped.

How unwholesome the environment; is for girls is difficult for fathers who have no daughters to understand. In my childhood we went out regularly for evening strolls in our neighbourhood without fear of being molested. Today a mother who was walking down the road with her daughter of ten was shouted at by a bearded man. The child was not wearing a dopatta. Their embarrassment and discomfiture cannot be described. The daughter refused to return by the same route.

All this pales into insignificance when one thinks of the danger of physical violence which stalks women young and old at every step. One has only to see the rising graph of crimes against women to understand how vulnerable they can be. There have been cases of women being raped in their homes by dacoits who had come to rob. Nurses have been assaulted at gunpoint while on duty in hospitals. Young girls have been kidnapped from busy shopping centres.

How more insecure can society get for women and would not mothers of young girls worry overly for their safety. They are not neurotic parents chasing the shadows of imaginary fears. Crimes against women are a commonplace fact of life today. No one is safe. No not even in the chardeewari, so sanctified and glorified by those the price of whose brutalisation of society we are paying now.

Sociologists and social scientists would explain this phenomenon in terms of the feudal structure of our society and the trends towards the suppression of women which was encouraged under the military regime. But more than the explanations, they are the ugly realities which dog the mothers today. What would one have to say about living in a society governed by the infamous Hudood Ordinance where girls are expected to establish their innocence every time they step out with a boy, who might be a brother, husband or for that matter even a nephew.

There have been innumerable cases of the police intercepting a boy and a girl going together in a car. They have been asked to produce their marriage certificate or their birth certificates to establish their relationship. Even those from well-connected families have not been spared the humiliation which this insinuation of guilt entails.

It is not a healthy society which suspects the morals of its female members. But that is how it is. Restricted mobility for girls means stunted development since many of their talents, skills and faculties remain untapped. And above all, when life for our daughters is a perpetual battle to hold on to what has already been won, how can one expect them to move forward and concentrate their energies on more fruitful and productive pursuits.

Source: Dawn 22 Sept 1989