Sexism on page one, right?

weddingfantasyWhat if you picked up your morning newspaper and discovered that one of the nation’s veteran religion-beat specialists was beginning a massive four-part series on sexism and women’s rights in India. Would this surprise you?

What if the series focused on severe human-rights violations, including the painful issue of “dowry deaths” — in which the families of husbands literally murder wives whose parents do not come through with enough gold and swag. And then there are all of the links to the global illegal sex trade and slavery.

But what if day one in this series also included this passage on a different form of sexism:

In most places in the world, a mother can find out the sex of her unborn child, but in India, it’s illegal to do so. That is because if she’s a female, there is a good chance she will never be born. Roughly 6.7 million abortions occur yearly in India, but aborted girls outnumber boys by 500,000 — or 10 million over the past two decades — creating a huge imbalance between males and females in the world’s largest democracy.

Ratios of men to women are being altered at an unprecedented rate in India and neighboring China, two countries which account for 40 percent of the world’s population. According to UNICEF, India produces 25 million babies a year. China produces 17 million. Together, these are one-third of the world’s babies, so how their women choose to regulate births affects the globe.

Female infanticide — whereby tiny girls were either poisoned, buried alive or strangled — has existed for thousands of years in India. But its boy-to-girl ratio didn’t begin to widen precipitously until the advent of the ultrasound, or sonogram, machine in the 1970s, enabling a woman to tell the sex of her child by the fourth month of her pregnancy.

That coupled with the legalization of abortion in 1971 made it possible to dispose of an unwanted girl without the neighbors even knowing the mother was pregnant. In 2001, 927 girls were born for every 1,000 boys, significantly below the natural birth rate of about 952 girls for every 1,000 boys.

In many regions, however, this imbalance has reached alarming levels and it continues to grow. In 2004, the New Delhi-based magazine Outlook reported, sex ratios in the capital had plummeted to 818 girls for every 1,000 boys, and in 2005 they had slipped to 814.

The issue is highly sensitive for the Indian government, which had given the nation’s sex imbalance scant attention until this month.

So, is this series of articles by Julia Duin of The Washington Times “liberal” or “conservative”?

We are now into day two — the dowry death feature — and I think it will be interesting to see if there are any responses to these stories from women’s groups on either side of the political aisle. And then there are the religious elements. Duin makes it clear how elements of the caste system have bled out of Hindism and into the wider culture, even affecting the lives of Muslims and Christians. Who will respond to these stories? The National Council of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals? Neither? Both?

The story is religious, but it is also cultural (as is almost always the case). There are economic and political elements, too.

And India is not alone. Consider this other large chunk of the first installment:

Early this year, the British medical journal Lancet estimated the male-female gap at 43 million. Worldwide, Lancet said, there are 100 million “missing girls” who should have been born but were not. Fifty million of them would have been Chinese and 43 million would have been Indian. The rest would have been born in Afghanistan, South Korea, Pakistan and Nepal.

China gave an even bleaker assessment last month, with the government saying that its men will outnumber women in the year 2020 by 300 million. One Geneva-based research center, in a 2005 update on the phenomenon, termed it “the slaughter of Eve.”

“What we’re seeing now is genocide,” says Sabu George, a New Delhi-based activist. “We will soon exceed China in losing 1 million girls a year.”

The date may already be here. In a report released Dec. 12, UNICEF said India is “missing” 7,000 girls a day or 2.5 million a year.

Although India has passed laws forbidding sex-specific abortions, legions of compliant doctors and lax government officials involved in India’s $100 million sex-selection industry have made sure they are rarely enforced. Several companies, notably General Electric Corp., have profited hugely from India’s love affair with the ultrasound machine.

As a result, a new class of wifeless men are scouring eastern India, Bangladesh and Nepal for available women. India, already a world leader in sex trafficking, is absorbing a new trade in girls kidnapped or sold from their homes and shipped across the country.

Kidnapping Eve. The slavery of Eve. The raping of Eve. The slaughter of Eve. The hanging, the burning, of Eve.

This is sexism, correct? This is a human-rights story, right? So, thus, this is not “conservative” journalism. Right?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Tope

    Or, maybe it’s not a story that needs to be assigned to one side or the other. Seems to me that there’s quite a lot of room for consensus on this particular issue – no need to obscure it with facile political labels.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Terry, your questions about the political bent of these stories concern me. Most stories discussed on this blog seem to be political stories veiled as religious stories. As I have commented elsewhere, it seems that, in the press, at least the NYC/D.C. press, politics trumps religion. Many of us in Flyover Country are tired of everything being politicized.

    Do stories on religion not get published if they don’t have a political angle? Or the correct political angle?

  • tmatt


    You don’t think that political and religious beliefs and opinions about the various issues, including abortion, will affect how people view this series?

    Once again, just think in terms of the reality of the situation.

  • Sarah Webber

    I define a political issue as one that concerns who has power and who wields it. Thus, I would classify these stories as political because it’s all about who is deciding who gets to live, be taken care of, have access to resources etc. A political label doesn’t make something good or bad, it’s just descriptive.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Terry, I certainly understand that people’s political and religious beliefs influence and even shape how they view many things. It seems, however, that many in the press believe that a typical reader’s political stances have the most influence on how that reader views everything. I infer that politics is a very powerful force in the press, especially the press in NYC and D.C., and that the press believes that politics is an equally compelling force among readers. For many readers, it is not.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Speaking strictly as a fellow religion reporter: I wanna know where she got the travel budget for a story like that in 2007?
    heh. (Good for you, Julia!)

  • Charlie

    I agree- how is the important angle here a “conservative” or “liberal” label? The question seems trivial, and petty.

    Perhaps this is a nonpartisan issue where two can meet in the middle, not some opportunity to jockey for dominance in the righteous department.

  • Harris

    Tmatt writes

    You don’t think that political and religious beliefs and opinions about the various issues, including abortion, will affect how people view this series?

    This does strike me as being somewhat simplistic. The view appears to equate two rather dissimilar rationales for abortion. In the Indian context, the rationale is clearly rooted in patriarchy and in family economics; in a North American context, we frame it in terms of empowerment, and the economics of the mother to be — far more individualistic.

    That said, there are another set of religious issues that do come into play, those centered about poverty, oppression, economics — aspects that Scripture also has plenty to say.

  • bob

    Oh, I just hate it when people try to impose Western
    Christian values on older more compassionate civilizations! Who are we to judge people who choose to live out their lives in ways we do not understand? How dare we shove our cultural presuppositions down their throats? I’m ashamed of the West once again….

  • Tope


    I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Or rather, I’m not sure how what it seems like you’re getting at is relevant to the story or how it was reported. Of course different readers will object to sex-selective abortions for different reasons, based on their convictions about abortion. But to me the far more pressing point is that the vast majority of people, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, can agree on the fact that this particular phenomenon is extremely disturbing and morally reprehensible. I just don’t see how the “liberal or conservative?” question is relevant in this case (never mind that those are rather simplistic labels in the first place, as most Americans are firmly in the middle – “liberal” on somethings, “conservative” on others).

  • Andy

    Bob, you’re ashamed of the West because a reporter wrote a story about infanticide? If condemning the murder of children makes you ashamed, I dearly hope you are ashamed of me.

  • Jenny

    In India, “eve” is a common way to refer to women’s issues, and “eve-teasing” is the widely used term for harassment of women (try googling it).

  • bob

    Andy, That was a feeble attempt at sarcasm. Sorry to make it look otherwise.

  • evagrius

    Maybe the story could be “flipped”. Why are males infants seen to be more valuable than female infants?

  • Andy

    Bob, sorry if I missed your sarcasm. I’d just come from reading responses to some columns about religion in the London Times where folks were saying much the same thing, but clearly in earnest.

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    How I read Terry’s questions is that it is interesting to see media coverage posing the abortion as a human rights issue for female fetuses while we are used to seeing media coverage posing (access to) abortion as a human rights issue for the pregnant woman. I guess it’s because of society’s perceived view that patriarchy/sexism is involved in both — aborting females fetuses to get more male births, forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies.

    This should raise cautions for American journalists who cover abortion and IMO tend to be more likely to put the “black hats” on those opposed to the legalization of abortion.

  • Michel

    There is nothing that more assuredly says something is a political issue than when people start feeling the need to insist that it should be non-partisan or beyond or above politics. And that urge to avoid ‘politics” goes right to TMatt’s point, nobody really knows who is is going to line up where on these issues anymore.

    C’mon, this is a reasonable question:

    “This is sexism, correct? This is a human-rights story, right? So, thus, this is not “conservative” journalism. Right?”

    There is nothing wrong with asking it.


  • Daniel Mansueto

    The issue of sex-selection abortion exposes a deep and irreconciable contradiction between concern for the female gender and commitment to legalized abortion. Any argument against sex-selection abortion has profound pro-life implications. This is why modern feminists have not made a big issue out of sex-selection abortion.

    I lay this all out more fully in the following article:

  • tmatt

    “This is sexism, correct? This is a human-rights story, right? So, thus, this is not “conservative” journalism. Right?”


    I have been silent on this point all day.

    Folks, the whole purpose of this final question in my post is to argue that this Duin series on sexism — even with the abortion hook — transcends a “conservative” (or “liberal”) label.

    It’s a series about some hot, interconnected issues. Period. It’s journalism.

  • Jerry

    > hot, interconnected issues

    Indeed. Just for one example: suppose the issue did not include abortion but was related to a pill or procedure that could be used to guarantee the sex of a baby. And even though that is not easy to do today, I suspect in 5-10 years, we could be debating that if things don’t change.

  • Martha

    It’s not so much a liberals versus conservatives angle as that the religion ghost is haunting this story.

    Those who have campaigned for unrestricted abortion rights on the basis that (1) you can’t inflict your personal beliefs and values on others and (2) while personally opposed, I will not interfere in the carrying-out of a legally permitted procedure are in a bind here: how can they endorse a practice as empowering women that so blatantly is based on the devaluation of women?

    Yet if they turn around and say “Abortion is not acceptable in some instances”, they’re leaving themselves vulnerable. All the religious stuff they’ve scorned as fake pleading about some mythical value called ‘innate dignity of human life’ attributed to a clump of cells just because it has the potential to be human if the parents choose to recognise it as such – and now they themselves are attributing some mythical value called ‘innate dignity of female human life’ attributed to a clump of cells based on some potential that it might have if permitted to survive…

  • Will

    For a fictional treatment of the issue, see J. Neil Schulman’s THE RAINBOW CADENZA. In his envisioned future, the sex-imbalance crisis leads to a state that adds the monopoly of rape to the monopoly of death — and ends up drafting nubile women to “make love, not war.”

  • Corban

    “What we’re seeing now is genocide,” says Sabu George.

    No, the word is GENDEROCIDE – which I thought I had just coined & was preparing to patent when I found 15 references on Google.

    It’s long been known that sonograms are widely used in the UK among Indians to detect the sex of preborns – again, a high rate of abortion of female preborns.
    Of course, the issue is one the liberal/left can’t handle because of its ideological absolutism on ‘choice’ – same thing over the so called ‘gay gene’. It can’t say that being female or gay is a handicap & thus collude with bigotry, but neither can it retreat from its moral absolutism, which is simply an expression of the will to power, and is without objective foundation. ‘I can – so I will.’
    The eye-opening figure is the big gender imbalance in China. Where are these men going to find wives? Maybe among the Russian women on the empty spaces of Siberia, while russian men drink themselves to an early grave?

  • cheryl

    I am reminded about remarks that Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta often made about abortion as a grave threat to peace.

    She was excoriated, as I recall, by journalists like Christopher Hitchens and others for articulating that link. But Duin’s story illuminates what is happening in countries like India (which Mother Teresa was obviously deeply familiar with) and China, in which girls are aborted on a regular basis.

    It does not take a rocket scientist to consider what might happen in societies with high percentages of unattached males and far fewer females.

    But of course abortion is not about human rights and social justice for children, only for women. The ones who have already been born, that is.

  • Talia Carner

    We can all do something about gendercide–singling out female infants for death.

    This week I’ll be introducing infanticide at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

    But this is only the first step. With the upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing, we have a chance to cry out our collective indignation and send journalists to poke in and around orphanages in China. We can ask tough questions of our own representatives and demand they seek answers from the Chinese (and Indian) authorities about their “missing” girls.

    We can educate ourselves about the issues (please check for active links to articles on my website, and ask our local and national media to place this abuse of the first of all human rights–the right to live–high on their priority list.
    Talia Carner
    Author, CHINA DOLL

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