Sons vs. Daughters

Last week’s post elicited a lot of responses both as comments on the post itself and also personal messages and phone calls from those who know me well. Most of it was concern about my health; but a few others were about my strained relationship with my family. In my culture we do not talk ill about our own kith and kin. Our expression for airing your dirty laundry in public is “spitting with an upturned face”…..I attempted explanations with some, but with others I thought I would continue to communicate through my blog.

In our Anthropology class we talked about Sex vs. Gender. Sex is determined by biology. Whether you were born with male parts or female parts. Gender on the other hand is socially constructed. That is to say, we learn what it means to be male, female or otherwise through how society decides it should be. I have previously written about how I was brought up to be “ladylike”; where we didn’t climb ladders, do heavy lifting or any of the other jobs that our society considers to be man’s work. In contrast New Zealand women are brought up to tackle any sort of task around the house or farm or workplace without discrimination. This is a good illustration of how the “female gender” is defined differently in Sri Lankan society vs. New Zealand society.

For my next assignment, we have been given a large amount of reading material and one such paper is about “son preference and daughter aversion” in rural Tamil Nadu in India. It is not relevant to my essay topic, but I had a quick look through it as it was very interesting. One of the points made is that son preference came about because of the parents’ belief that their sons as wage earners would provide for them and take care of them in their old age. In order to combat the practice of infanticide of female children, social activists are trying to point out to these people that with access to better education and job opportunities there is no reason that daughters could not fulfill this same function of provider.

This got me thinking. In my own family, there are only two daughters and as the oldest child, until my health complications a couple of years ago, I took full responsibility for most of the goings on, much like a son would have done if there had been one. I helped financially and paved the way for my parents and sister migrate to New Zealand as soon as I was in a position to do so. Any weddings, funerals, new births meant a hit on my bank balance. All loan requests from extended family were dutifully conveyed to me. Despite all of this, I remained a daughter to my parents, especially my father who I now believe considers females to have lesser intelligence than males. It puzzled me for a long time why despite three University qualifications and a high flying corporate career, my father always questioned my ability to think for myself and make good decisions. Now I understand that he had been brought up to think of females as being weak and unable to make wise choices and that this conditioning overrides his own ability to see things as they really are.

My life today bears little resemblance to what I am supposed to do as a female as per the expectations of the society I grew up in. I am man and woman in this house because I cook and mow the lawns too. I take out the garbage and bake cookies. As such, my socially constructed gender role is no longer valid. If as a traditional Sri Lankan female I am not supposed to do certain things like have single males inhabit my spare room when in need, then surely those old rules no longer apply to me given I no longer fit within the definition of a traditional Sri Lankan female? I am happy enough to revert back to my traditionally defined gender role when a male family member steps up to the plate and takes care of all the traditionally male jobs in my life. Since there is little chance of that happening in this lifetime for me, I guess I will just continue as I have been doing…….

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. rhema3one7 says:

    That’s a prolonged debate and will still continue. I admire your courage and strength. If you were my mom, I will definitely take utmost care and I won’t let people belittle you.

    1. Thank you:). Yes, you are right, there is so much more to this and there is no end is sight. I guess the positive for me is that I no longer feel emotional about it like I used to and now can view it from a more academic perspective. The childhood conditioning of never speaking out about family matters is hard to shake off though….

  2. Sandamali, if I couldnt complain about my family to my friends I would go nuts! And I love them all dearly 🙂

  3. Madhawa says:

    Great conclusion. :-). I have seen in India real life example of aversion of girl child. The most compelling cause by far for this aversion is the Dowry system. I’ve met many brothers who had been pulling 16 per day shifts for years and on to give away their sisters in marriage respectably. Apart from that, in India because the education is not free, parents need to make a choice as to which child is going to be invested for higher education. This choice is generally one on the basis of merit, as in the better student get to go further – irrespective of sex. But what happens is in very poor families daughters are loaded with many other domestic responsibilities that they may get a raw deal when they have to complete with their male siblings who do nothing but studying. As a result of this painful competition you find Indian professional women are generally very aggressive. (May be a sexist view, but this is my perception.)
    About judging one’s intelligence by sex.. It is outdated and should be treated with a smile. A trick that works for me every time is when I come aacross somebody for whom it is important to be recognized as intelligent, I grant him/ her that in abundance, even at the sacrifice of my own stature. This works wonders in team work. This humility makes me feel stable at ground zero, and wiser.

    1. Thanks. I know what you mean about granting someone the recognition of intelligence when it is important to them. With my father, it is different because I always looked up to him, but could never figure out why he said things that were very painful. The understanding that despite his intelligence, he clings to certain traditional beliefs has enabled me to understand him better and also know that his low opinion of me isn’t gospel. It is one of those Tipping Points as per Malcolm Gladwell; the understanding that your parents don’t know everything and that everything they say isn’t true or correct, especially their assessment of you.

      1. Madhawa says:

        It is a general /traditional parental syndrome where parents don’t grow up beyond a point a point. They continue to believe that their kids haven’t learned anything beyond potty training.

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