A primitive trend practised the world over

The ancient Greeks and Romans attached a high social premium to males and resorted to strange ways of determining the sex of the unborn child.

Published: Sunday 31 October 1993

A primitive trend practised the world over

FEMALE foeticide and infanticide are not unique to India -- they are prevalent almost globally. They were practised in ancient Greece and were prevalent among certain Arabian tribes until recently. The Yanomani Indians of Brazil still practise it.

In India, female infanticide is often attributed to poverty, but the rich, too, practise it. And, bans on sex determination tests and female foeticide have been rendered futile (See box).

The explanation for this form of sex discrimination, as Marilyn French, the American feminist and author of Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals, puts it, has to be sought in the dominion, power and control of men over women, in continuation of a world view that holds that humans have to replenish the earth as well as subdue it. Human is equated with man -- not woman.

The ancient Greeks had strange ways of determining the sex of the unborn child. Philosopher Parmenides (c 520 BC) believed both men and women produced semen and the sex of the child depended on which side of the testicle and uterus the semen came from. Empedocles (c 450 BC) thought sex was determined by the location of conception in the womb.

The Hippocratic text, On Regimen, held that a hot diet produced boys and a cool one girls. It said, "...if a man would beget a girl, he must use a regimen inclining to water. If he wants a boy, he must live according to a regimen inclining to fire. And, not only must a man do this, but also the woman." It was also generally believed that males were positioned on the right side of the womb and females on the left.

For the ancient Greeks, nascent life had only limited rights. But the decision to abort was solely the male's -- be it husband or father of an unmarried girl. After birth, "exposing" (abandoning in the open) unwanted infants was a popular way of killing them and even in such instances, the decision was entirely the father's.

There has been some debate on the extent of female infanticide practised in ancient Greece. One argument contends prostitutes abounded because female infanticide created an adverse sex ratio. But scholars like Louis R F Germain point out there is little hard data to back such claims.

Hard on women
French argues that despite some evidence of Greek women's matricentric past, Athenian women were completely subjugated by men in the Classical age. Adult male longevity in Greece was 45 years, but for women it was 36.2, probably resulting from poor diet and being forced to bear children at an early age. In 5 BC, women who bore boys were given twice the rations than those who had borne girls.

Additionally, cultural values exalted men and demeaned women: under Athenian law, a man's legal acts could be invalidated if he was influenced by a woman. For legal existence, a family required at least one male descendant because a family was considered to be made up of only males and certain rituals could be performed only by men.

Women -- even aristocratic ones -- were expected to work hard: spinning, weaving, doing the laundry, making beds and preparing and serving food. In later ages, women were completely responsible for running the household -- which was essentially a small factory -- supervising production, slaves and children. Plato, in The Laws, complains, "We huddle all our goods together within four walls, and then hand over the dispensing of them to the women."

But, says French, it was the women of the propertied classes who were regulated -- in general, the women attached to the men with the most rights had the least rights. Propertied Athenian women had economic security; their dowries were their own in law, if not to use. If a woman left her husband, he had to return her property or pay interest on it; if she remained with him, he had to support her.

The state guaranteed her the right to life, if not liberty; her husband or father could not kill her with impunity, except in infancy. Nevertheless, "citizen" women -- as distinguished from slaves and prostitutes -- were perpetually under the guardianship of a man -- father, uncle, husband, or even son.

It is almost impossible to know how the Greek women themselves felt about their lives. Silenced by lack of education and with no right to appear or speak in public, oppressed and married as children, they are silent for eternity. With the high social premium attached to males, it is likely female infanticide was rampant in Greece.

In ancient Rome, too, male will was supreme and more girls than boys were subjected to exposure. In an otherwise unremarkable letter written in Egypt under Roman rule, Hilarion instructed his wife Alis, "If, as may well happen, you may give birth to a child, if it is a girl, expose it."

Estimates that 10 to 20 per cent of Roman baby girls were exposed are debatable, given the lack of supportive evidence. But exposure of girls was a clear demonstration of the power of a Roman father and was just one link in the chain of sexual exploitation of women.

In pre-communist China, female infanticide was rather common. Journalist Jack Belden, in his book China Shakes the World, wrote that proverbs equated women to wheel barrows. One proverb went, "It is necessary to beat the iron rim on the wheel to keep it in shape. So with a woman." The women said about themselves, "If a woman is angry, her husband beats her; when he is angry, he also beats her."

All these instances are familiar in India today. Examples abound of undernourished girls and women and of social codes of conduct for women that are rigidly enforced. Female infanticide and foeticide are an integral part of the social environment, as in Saurashtra, where women are equated with cattle and thrashed often to keep under control.

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