Brown women are often taught from birth that there are one set of rules and consequences for them and another for their brothers.
This fact only becomes even more clear when we are taught what is considered acceptable behaviour for men and women.
In so many ways, it still remains fairly unquestioned.
We celebrate when sons are born, but when someone has a daughter, we hear phrases like, “it’s okay,” instead of congratulations, indicating there isn’t anything worth celebrating.
Sons “carry forward the family legacy,” while daughters are married off into other families.
“Boys will be boys,” while daughters are responsible for carrying the family’s honour.
Parents will clean up the messes made by their sons and excuse their harmful behaviours, but daughters are taught that the margin of error for them is next to non-existent.
When brown men behave in dishonourable ways, it is still women who bear the brunt.
Son preference contributes to the ongoing issue of domestic and sexual violence in the South Asian community.
It was only recently that I was made aware of the link between the son preference that dictates the lives of so many brown women, and contributes to gender-based violence.
I simply lacked the language to understand it because it was such an unquestioned part of the way so many brown women navigate the world.
“Right from birth, sons are treated like [a] prince. Whereas with daughters, the fact that you're born a daughter is considered wrong to some people,” said local domestic violence counsellor, Saira (whose name has been changed to protect her identity).
“There's a sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious bias that to be a daughter is kind of wrong or being a daughter is not forever. Daughters are born into the family to leave the family after marriage. So why should we invest so much in her? Why should we care so much about her? Whereas the sons, that's the pride and glory, he's the one that's going to carry our family name, and we have to defend and protect him at all costs.”
If at a young age we teach our sons that they are more desired and inherently more worthy and valuable, we also set up an environment that works to shield them from consequences, criticism or anything else that could potentially harm them.
We place contingencies on the love we give to our daughters, while sons are given love freely—without expectation.
We teach daughters their value goes as deep as they give to their families, while sons are inherently valuable without having to prove their worth.
“Male privilege is a big thing in the South Asian community. That ties in with having son preference and just very much handing everything to boys on a silver platter, and thinking that they could do no harm,” said Saira.
“It's very much coming from the place that men can do anything, and they have the right to, and women don't have the right even to safety and women come secondary in terms of the needs of men.”
Women are instead policed and taught what they can’t or shouldn’t do, and told that any misstep on their part (even if not their own fault) would often yield punishment—not protection.
This persists even when women are experiencing violence or abuse.
“It's that internalized thing of, ‘I'm not good enough,’ because we're raised to believe that men are better than us. And so that stays with us, so we start thinking it must be our fault,” said Dr. Balbir Gurm, professor and founding member of the Network to Eliminate Violence (NEVR).
We see this in cases of domestic violence where women are often told to “tough it out,” while men are rarely reprimanded for their behaviour until it’s too late— like in the case of Mandeep Kaur.
We also see entire families go to great lengths to protect their sons, even when they are accused of something as serious as murder, like in the case of Kiran Dhesi and so many more.
Women can be perceived to be bringing dishonour to her family by living life on their own terms, whereas men can go to great lengths in terms of doing dishonourable things—including abuse—yet still be welcomed back to their homes with open arms.
Parents will bail their sons out of jail for committing crimes, but ostracize their daughters for dating, going out, getting divorced, speaking out and so much more.
Daughters have to earn and maintain the respect of their families by regulating their existence to fit their family’s needs and values, while men can abuse or kill women and still receive the unwavering support of their families.
This inherent preference of sons over daughters in many cases creates a sense of entitlement among men that becomes normalized over time.
Manvir Bhangu, Founder and Executive Director of Laadliyan said that the way men and women are treated from the moment they are born contributes to this conditioning, particularly when folks are experiencing gender based violence.
In May 2021, Laadliyan put together a report based on community conversations with 16 South Asian daughters who have been impacted by GBV, highlighting their experiences and their needs.
“Just from personal experience, what really struck me when I was younger, was [that] older women in my family never felt what was happening was wrong,” she said.
“I think that the whole idea of honour and shame that is put on girls from the day that they're born, you see that play out in these situations. I don't want to be the reason that my family's name, or my dad's name gets tarnished, or I don't want to be the reason that people talk about my family badly—because no one's gonna say anything about the man.”
Bhangu says that this can have deadly consequences, but still, little regard is shown for women’s lives until they are taken.
A woman facing abuse from her partner or who is a victim of sexual violence will be asked what she did or didn’t do to put herself in that situation. She will be shamed for allowing it to happen, and her story will be stifled to prevent shame from clouding her family name.
“If a daughter messes up, it's not just her life on the line. You're reminded that you're ruining your dad’s, your brother's, your uncle's,” she added.
“But never are you asked, ‘Are you okay? Are you in danger?’”
Dr. Gurm adds that the shame and blame that is placed on women instead of men causes this line of thinking to continue.
“When somebody has been abused, they don't want to come forward, because they don't want the family to have a bad reputation,” said Dr. Gurm.
“[There’s] the tradition or the belief that women are not real people. They are things that first belong to their fathers and then they belong to their husbands, so if they're not listening to their husbands, then they're dishonouring us because that's their role.”
This thought process gets passed down through generations, and continues to persist today.
Dr. Gurm says that the issue needs to be addressed with a holistic approach.
“It's a family, community and society responsibility, and we really need to work at it at all those levels,” said Dr. Gurm.
“With NEVR, our main focus is prevention, education and awareness. We've created toolkits and the program we're running right now is offering free three-hour workshops for how to recognize abuse and how to support someone in the community.
Bhangu added that there is a need to bring men into this conversation, to help them to break these cycles and unlearn many of the things that have been ingrained in them since birth.
“I feel like we're not engaging boys and men enough, and this issue cannot be solved without them,” she said.
“No one's telling them how to break intergenerational cycles of abuse or just how they see themselves as such privileged people—boys have always gotten whatever they wanted, because they're boys, and there's a lot of toxic masculinity that no one's willing to kind of talk about or work through.”
It is long overdue that men of this generation stand up and have these conversations among themselves and their families, so that brown women who are facing multiple levels of violence, don’t also have to be the ones speaking up in defence of themselves and their sisters.
Far too many women have died at the hands of families who enable their sons’ behaviour.
Laadliyan has also recently released a gender-based violence toolkit to help families learn how to provide support to people facing violence.
Dr. Gurm says it boils down to how we raise our sons versus our daughters, which then permeates society.
“What are the traditions? What are the messages that we convey to our young people as we're raising them starting from the time they're born?” she said.
“We have to think of honour differently in our families. We have to think of honesty, integrity, listening to our daughters, and our sons.”
If ending the cycle of violence and abuse in our community is a genuine goal, then taking a long hard look at the way we raise our men and boys to believe they will be protected at all costs and that for women the margin of error is next to non-existent is a good place to start.
About the author
Rumneek JohalMore by Rumneek Johal
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