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Our Unwanted Daughters of the East
Social Issues
Dr Saad Bashir Malik


Rehmat Bibi is a forty year old lady who recently presented with symptoms of depression. She has been married for over twenty years and her husband now plans to get remarried. Her fault: she has borne him three daughters and no son. He, now, desperately wants a son and believes, and his parents believe too, that a second wife will most certainly produce one for him. A relationship of twenty years with all the emotional investment that Rehmat Bibi has made in it over the years is soon going to end. Her daughters, who are now grown up, can sense the tension at home. When they see their mother crying they hold themselves responsible for her misery. Is it a crime to be a daughter?

Fazilat is another lady showing symptoms of anxiety. She was married at the age of twelve to a man no less then forty years her senior in age. This was because her father died when she was still a child and the mother faced with the burden of other children could not afford her upbringing. She ultimately found a solution by marrying her daughter to a man old enough to be her grandfather.

The above are true case stories. Only the names have been changed. There are numerous other tragic experiences that patients relate every day, point towards the misery that women suffer in our society. Most suffer silently accepting it as a part of their destiny, others unable to cope, break down after a period resulting in physical and psychiatric symptoms which are too frequently misinterpreted by the family as being the result of possession by the evil spirits. They are then taken to various quacks and faith healers who further confirm this belief. The type of unimaginable tortures that the poor souls are then subjected to in the name of ‘treatment’ is altogether another sad story.

We all rejoice at the birth of a son whereas the birth of a daughter, especially the second one and almost always the third one, is considered an unbearable tragedy. The family mourns the loss of the expected son that did not arrive and if that was not sad enough they also mourn the arrival of an unwanted daughter who places heavy burdens on them. She happens to be, sadly, a useless ‘investment’ in our society. We must admit that we parents are basically very insecure and selfish. We welcome the birth of a son because in our later years we can make use of him as a crutch to provide us support and security. We happily invest in his education and upbringing because we can count on him to provide for us in our old age and look after us when we are sick. This, of course, does not apply to a daughter in our culture. She is sooner or later, going to be married leaving her parents to become part of another family. Right from early life she is constantly brainwashed about being in a ‘parayah ghar’ and a burden on the family. On the day of marriage, she is repeatedly reminded and warned in different ways that under all circumstances she has to put up with her in-laws and that it is only her dead body that should ever leave their house for good. In this manner, the honour of the family is considered upheld.

The rules whereby marriages are arranged and conducted in our society are, to say the least, preposterous. We witness these everyday, and have done so for decades, but somehow seem little perturbed by them. What would we opine about a marriage custom in a society where the groom’s family and friends, running into hundreds, arrive at the bride’s place on the wedding day, have a sumptuous feast at the expense of the bride’s family and later return taking with them almost everything; the bride, a lavish dowry and of course the groom. The girls’ family is left with little more than prayers. Yet this is precisely what we observe and practice in our society and despite all our education and ‘enlightenment’ fail to perceive the irrationality involved in the whole affair.

For many daughters, moving in to live with their in-laws is the start of a never-ending nightmare. The issue is not who is more at fault, the girl or the in-laws. The problem lies with the setup. The newly wed girl, who till recently, was doted on by her parents, is suddenly, overnight, thrown at the deep end. She is now instantaneously expected to assume roles and responsibilities, which she has never experienced before. Not only that she is also expected to perform impeccably with no room to make mistakes. She is under a constant psychological surveillance by the in laws who would leave no stone unturned to detect even the slightest fault and make a mount Everest of it. Jealousy, unrealistic expectations, intolerance, rigidity, and many other factors ultimately lead to a constant power struggle. In most cases, the girl realizing that she has little choice is forced to give in. The choice is not hard to make. Being financially and socially dependent on her husband’s family, (almost abandoned by her own) and regrettably having little personal identity to permit survival in this cultural, she settles down to a life of perpetual suffering. She then pins all her hopes on her children, particularly the sons. She eagerly awaits the day when they’ll get married, as if magically, this would bring and end to all the misery that she has been going through from the day of her own marriage. The new daughter-in-law however becomes another scapegoat; a fresh arrival to face the wrath arising from the mother-in-law’s own unfulfilled emotional needs and in this way the whole cycle starts again.

Can this pathetic system change? I believe it can, but not by any act of parliament. We have enough of these already but with little results.

The first step and I feel the most important one is to bring about a change in the way we think and believe. To give one example, let us try to look for security in other support systems apart from desperately searching for it in the birth of a son. Everywhere we hear so much talk about faith, and trust in God but deep down, especially when getting in touch with our real selves, we discover that we have more faith in our male offspring than God Almighty. In other words, we need to confront our own internal insecurities. Once we succeed in changing our collective thinking, the social system we live in will slowly start changing as well. We must stop blaming the ‘system’ or ‘society’ for all the ills that face us including the way we treat our daughters. This ‘system’ has not descended upon us from the heavens. It is a product of our faulty attitudes and patterns of distorted thinking. The tragedy is that we have allowed ourselves to become psychological slaves to something that we have created ourselves.

Another thing that requires urgent attention involves laws relating to women. A lot has been said and written about this. I sometimes wonder if the resistance to change may be attributed to the fact that the majority of our representatives dealing with the process are males. When it comes to laws involving the rights of women they do so with the image of a wife in their minds and therefore have a strong tendency towards not being too generous in granting them much liberty and freedom. If men when dealing with laws pertaining to women could visualize their own daughters, sisters and mothers being affected by it, I am sure the outcome would be very different, particularly in the area of marriage and divorce.

We also need to review the traditional interpretation of our religious commandments. Any one who cares to study the Qur’ān in a rational and objective approach would soon discover that there is a wide gap between the kind of true Islam as conveyed by the Qur’ān and the ‘traditional’ Islam handed down to us from the pulpit. The latter is unfortunately the ‘second hand religion’ fully contaminated by prejudices, narrow thinking and the limited knowledge of those who have been left to interpret it for us. Most of them originate from the underprivileged and deprived section of society where a woman especially a daughter or a wife enjoys little respect and status. The socio-cultural background very much influences the way they evaluate and interpret the status and rights of women in our religion. Sadly, such biased and corrupted views are thrust rather totally blind, in religious matters to confront such views. It is ultimately the victims, our daughters, who suffer, being left at the mercy of fate or ‘kismet’ or ‘Nasīb’. I know of so many mothers who ever since their first daughter’s birth, spent their lives praying and hoping for the unrelenting ‘nasībs’ to be favourable.

Ours is a sick society. The cure has to come from within. We are all, in one way or another, at one level or another, responsible for this. Particularly the so-called ‘decent majority’ who ‘prefer’ to remain silent are contributing in a major way in perpetuating this sickness. Our apathy and our tendency to blame others for all the ills that face us shift control. In this way, we succeed in obtaining psychological relief as the burden and responsibility of bringing about a change has been conveniently shifted elsewhere.

It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness. We need to realize that until we stop ceaselessly blaming others and instead take on the responsibility to bringing about the required social change upon our own selves, the birth of a daughter will continue to strike as a calamity in many homes, some parents may reluctantly accept it, the others may not, but the pain will be there all the same.




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