My life started with a spoonful of castor oil. My mom, nine months pregnant and tired of waiting, tried an old wives’ tale and found herself rushing out the door with my dad five hours later, my three older sisters inside chanting: We want a girl! They got their wish.
I’m the youngest of four daughters who spent our childhoods roaming around small towns in Europe, hopping back to America every couple years for family visits and vacations. Voracious readers and writers, we loved studying and everything else: music, choir, theater, sports. Our mom taught us how to beat boys in ping-pong, Nertz, and the game of love – and as of today, no girl in our family has ever had her heart broken. I’ve watched my sisters choose their marriages, careers, and locations, jetting halfway across the world to pursue their passions, and in a few months, I’ll do the same.
As the fourth daughter in a female-fixated family, especially one of a certain class and race, I’m free. I’ve never been told there is anything I cannot or should not do because of my gender; my right to life has never been challenged, threatened, or even questioned.
But if I had been born as another one of the three and a half billion women in the world today, my life as the youngest of four daughters could be drastically different. Let’s imagine together, then, if I were another fourth daughter in the majority of the world.
The truth is that I might not even exist. My mother, who would have already given birth to three daughters, could be rejected, scarred with acid, or, like the 8,233 brides a year – one every hour – killed as compensation for a wedding contract that failed to produce sons1.
If I am conceived, I could be one of an unfathomable number deconstructed by a scalpel in the womb or murdered after birth because of an aberrant sex chromosome: a number estimated as more in the last fifty years than men killed in all the battles of the twentieth century, more in one decade than people slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century2.
If I do live past birth, I could be one of the 493 million females – two-thirds of the world’s illiterate – who never set foot inside a school, read a book, or write a story3.
As I grow up, I could be one of the 125 million females alive today whose genitalia have been severed or ripped out as an act of purification and a deterrent to sexual promiscuity4.
When I reach puberty, I could be one of the 1 million girls married to a man I have never met before, of no choice of my own, before the age of 185. Following my three older sisters, I could leave my parents, perhaps never to see them again, and submit myself to domestic servitude as a wife and daughter in my in-laws’ home.
By my age, 21, I could have one, two, three, four children. That is, if I survived their births: for I could also be one of the 800 women who daily die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth6.
And at any point throughout my life, in any location in the world, I could be one of the 15 million women and girls trafficked into commercial sexual slavery7 – or one of the 1 billion women who experience any form of sexual violence in their lifetime8.
The truth is that for so many of those who share my gender, freedom is not a given or a gift. On a global scale, the freedom I experience in marriage, employment, mobility, and expression as a female is radical, even revolutionary.
The irony, though, is that I didn’t choose this freedom. It’s the result of an indecipherable tangle of individual decisions and societal forces, personal choices and cultural impetus, ancestral roots and the accident of birth. Attribute it to what you will: predestination, biology, or castor oil, but I can’t take credit for my own existence, never mind my freedom. I don’t deserve it any more than any other person and therefore I can’t claim it as my own.
This realization threatens to burden me with paralyzing guilt, but just as I’m not entitled to the privilege of my own freedom, I’m not entitled to self-pity because of it. What I am burdened with, though, is responsibility – a duty that charges and compels me to respond to this awareness with right action.
For when I realize the truth that I could be any other fourth daughter in the world, then the life of every fourth daughter, of every daughter, of every female, becomes my own. Her struggle, her slavery, her suffering, becomes mine too. In the words of feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”10: freedom is not my own alone.
1“Dowry deaths: One woman dies every hour”. The Times of India. 1 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
2Kristof, Nicolas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Vintage Books, New York: 2010. Print.
3“International Literacy Data”. UNESCO Institute for Statistics. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
4 “Female Genital Mutilation: Fact Sheet N°241.” World Health Organization. Feb 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
5“Child Marriage Facts and Figures”. International Center for Research on Women. 2010. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
6”Maternal mortality: Fact sheet N°348”. World Health Organization. May 2012. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.