In 1996, Eve Ensler wrote a play “The Vagina Monologues” which is a collection of monologues each dealing with an aspect of the feminine experience, touching on matters such as sex, love, rape, menstruation, female genital mutilation. The play seeks to position the vagina as a tool of female empowerment, and the ultimate embodiment of individuality. I have not read the play or seen it being performed though I have read a lot about it. Each year, Eve supposedly adds on a new monologue to highlight a current issue affecting women.
As I was reading an article in THE HINDU today, I was reminded about this play.
The article was about wombs on hire (which I am sure many of you have read). It mentions about a fertility clinic in Anand (yes the same place which was the epicenter of India’s white revolution) where women who have agreed to carry a child in their womb for a cost are housed. The article mentions about how the entire operation goes on unregulated – costing anything between Rs 8- Rs 10 lakhs with the mother in question getting less than Rs 3 lakhs in the entire deal. While the Anand clinic was probably the biggest one there are supposedly many other such places in our country where surrogacy in child bearing goes on.
I think back to a Thai film that I saw long ago at a film festival. It was about the same issue- surrogacy! Apparently there used to exist in Thailand a custom where aristocratic men who could not have a heir used the services of women belonging to a certain community to produce one. These women had to live in the estate of the man and produce an heir for him. If it was male, then the child had to handed over to the family commissioning her services and she would be sent back with some gifts and property to her village. However, if she was “unfortunate” enough to have a daughter both mother and daughter would be sent back – empty handed! The daughter in turn when she grew up had no option but to continue to keep up the tradition of her community – surrogacy!
Many of us may remember Indian movies made on similar themes – the childless couple where the wife forces the husband to have sex with another woman so that they can have a child- desire to perpetuate one’s genetic heritage being carried to a ridiculous extent…!I had often wondered why the reverse was never shown – where the wife had physical relations with another man ( may probably have been the best option in cases where the man’s sperm count was low).It is actually not alien to the great “Indian culture” that we hold in such high regard. How do you think Kunti and Madri in the Mahabharat conceived the Pandavas? If you think that it is through the blessings of Indra, Surya, Vayu etc then you are probably very naive!
However, it appears that now surrogacy is taking on new dimensions –where the woman in question is nothing but a chamber in which the baby grows. There was a very shallow movie made by none other than Gulzar’s daughter which shows a woman carrying her friend’s baby and giving birth to it. The doctor in the film explains it exactly the way I have written –“ It is as simple as borrowing a vessel for cooking food if your vessel is not good enough”! I think it is the most disrespectful way of describing this! Does not do any woman justice!
But it looks like surrogacy is here to stay. A country which already has a large number of children without parents is now getting ready to produce “ made to order” children for couples who are unable to have children. This obsession with genetics is becoming just becoming too much!
There are unfortunately no laws that govern surrogacy – unlike in the west where it is forbidden. So what happens is that many foreign couples come to India to hire one. In the absence of any law, the woman involved in surrogacy is therefore left open to a lot of risks . For example, there is no provision of health insurance for the woman who has agreed to go through this and so in case of any complication her health is the one which would be in danger with no options for paying for the treatment.
While there are entire ethical and moral questions around such practices, what concerns me is something that is more basic- this renting out of a part of a woman’s body! It used to happen in sex work and now in birth.
At the cost of sounding clichéd, I must say that I find this commoditisation of a woman’s body very disgusting! Now, many may say that it is women themselves who sell their services as carriers of fetuses or providers of sex for a sum. But tell me friends, can something be sold in the market if there is no demand for it? The economics of that would just not work out!
And what is probably most unfair is that the seller in this case is not the woman herself – the woman’s body part is being sold or rented by a market in which she herself is often just a pawn! The entire fertility industry thrives on the services of many of these poor women who are nothing but instruments for them to earn money out of! Similarly the sex trade – where the women themselves earn very little with much of the money going to those in the middle- pimps, police, brothel owners and what not!!
In terms of rights they enjoy very few. For example one of the women interviewed in the Anand fertility clinic stated that she was found to be carrying quadruplets and since the couple commissioning did not want four children she underwent an abortion of two fetuses. She was not informed about the medical consequences of having a procedure such as this performed on her in the condition.
The way markets have taken over lives is amazing! Anything seems to be available for a price! And the saddest thing is that like everything else in our country, the person at the end of the supply chain remains the most exploited. Whether it is a womb or her sexual services that a woman sells, she gets paid almost next to nothing- she is just a “ vessel” ( to quote the doctor in that infamous movie)! Her health and her rights are not protected by any law and often her very existence is treated as a dirty secret!
Coming back to Eve I wonder what she would have to say about this? I think she should now call this “ the machine monologues” where a woman’s womb is turned into a machine!!! But the problem is, that unlike a vagina which is a living part, machines are inanimate and therefore cannot speak of their “production” experience!