When I first moved to America, I was shocked to learn of the high rate of domestic violence here. Surely, American men weren’t like that. Besides, American women were strong – they would never take BS from their husbands, fathers or brothers. How could this be even remotely possible? Of course, I was younger then, and not quite aware of the insidious workings of patriarchy. But then America is supposedly one of the most liberal and progressive countries in the world. Being of Indian heritage, it was “natural” that I had heard of and witnessed male domination and control. After all, we Indians were “backward.” But America? Really?
I have, for a while now, been utterly confused by the inherent paradoxes within both countries, but it was Justice Kennedy’s retirement and the possibility of the overturning of Roe v. Wade that helped clarify my thoughts.
Do I have to belong to a pro-life or pro-choice camp? What if I don’t fit into either? Should I then just cease to exist? I find it difficult to believe I live in a country where the government gets to dictate what a woman should or shouldn’t do with her own body. Why is everything here dichotomized? (I clearly remember the Terry Schiavo case – while there may have been conflicts among her immediate kin, it didn’t make sense that the whole country seemed to be involved in whether she should remain on or be taken off life support. Wasn’t it a family matter?)
Abortion in India, on the other hand, is surprisingly uncomplicated and completely legal. As this short video will explain, a woman doesn’t need her husband’s or parents’ consent in seeking one. Abortion is justified under a range of conditions – if the pregnancy is a result of rape, or is an unplanned one for a married couple, concern for the mother’s physical and even emotional health, and if the foetus is potentially deformed, to cite a few examples. It is available in government hospitals for a fee from 300 to 3000 rupees (approx. 5-50 dollars) I am under no illusions that the Medical Termination Act (MTA) was the result of feminist intervention. Rather, social concerns like population explosion and the notion of shame most likely aided in its passing. Fact is, whether a pregnancy is the result of rape or consensual pre-marital sex, it will bring shame upon the family in a culture which has narrow ideals of perfect womanhood, most of which center on a woman’s corporeal purity – is she a virgin (if unmarried), is she showing too much skin, does she act like a proper lady? (Of course, “consensual sex” may not really be consensual, but that’s a whole other issue.)
In other words, the MTA is still about control – population control or over a woman’s image. In American, however, issues surrounding abortion are deflected to debates on the nature of the foetus, and when it does or doesn’t take on life. Upon fertilization? The moment of uterine implantation? Or does quickening define the beginning of life, etc, etc? The point is, control over a woman’s body is cleverly couched in the name of rights for the unborn. But that’s where the debate ends. What happens to those children who have to be given up for adoption, or are shunted from foster home to foster home, or forced to be raised by mothers who lack the financial and social resources to do so? What happens to children born with birth defects? Will the government step in to pay for their care, lifelong, in some cases? Does moral and ethical responsibility end when the child is out of the womb?
There is no doubt that India is a patriarchal society, but there is hope – we can encourage women to speak up for themselves, we can support abused women, we can coax men into denouncing violence targeted towards women. Indeed, the progress that India is making in this direction despite numerous social and cultural barriers is refreshing and promising. In America, on the other hand, things seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Abortion may be legal (for now) but the mechanisms thwarting it are increasing day by day. Any situation becomes sticky once the moral brigade steps in, and especially so when accompanied by claims to speak on behalf of the voiceless. The real political agenda, it seems, is to control women by controlling their bodies.
Turns out that America too is a patriarchal society. But what makes it a particularly sinister one is when abortion is turned into a tool against women by supposedly championing the rights of the unborn, and by cunningly reducing everything to a false moral dichotomy.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. She is an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of New Mexico.