We know sexism is a reality of life for many people.
Well, most of us know it, anyway. But imagine being a mother who believes it so inevitable that girls and women cannot ever be safe that she raises her daughter as a boy – even hiding her true sex from her own father.
This is exactly what a mother in Brazil, who cannot be named, is being investigated this week for doing. She changed the baby’s name to ‘Samuel’ and amended her sex on her birth certificate, then registered ‘Samuel’ as a boy at a municipal office in the central Brazilian city of Senador Canedo. The child has, not surprisingly, been placed in foster care while a judge considers the case.
The mother’s decision to raise her daughter as a boy to protect her from potential child abuse has shocked many, and, needless to say, the most important thing is the child’s health and wellbeing. But compassion isn’t a finite resource, and just because the mother’s actions may well have been damaging for the child, there’s also room to ask why any mother would be driven to do such a thing – and at the very real risk of losing her child?
She’s not alone in what she did. In fact, in some countries, it is an accepted practice. In Afghanistan, for instance, it isn’t uncommon for mothers to raise their children as basha posh (“dressed up as a boy”), until they reach adulthood, so that they get to enjoy the same rights, privileges, and safeties as men, until they get married. Afghan mothers also raise basha posh as a way to dispel some of the “shame” laid at their door if they repeatedly fail to produce sons. (Perhaps if someone had told Henry VIII about this England would be a Catholic country.)
Brazil is, Needless to say, not Afghanistan – nor is it sixteenth century England for that matter. But the mother’s decision would appear not to be motivated primarily by a wish to project opinions about gender as a social construct on to her child, or anything of that nature, but rather, a desperate wish to protect her daughter from the abuse that she herself experienced as a child and presumably believed to be almost an inevitable rite of passage, or at least a likely one, for girls. It’s easy to call this mother paranoid or deluded and demand that her child be removed forever, but for a lot of abuse survivors, this feeling is actually a fairly natural reaction to the experience. It can feel very much the case that abusers are facilitated and protected by society, as if the law is on their side - and that you need to make your own rules, to protect yourself, and your loved ones. Sadly, this is far too often the truth. Hopefully, this woman will get not only judgment, but also the support and care that she so obviously needs.
There are feminist activists like Julie Bindel who have attacked gender reassignment surgery as comparable to “gay cures.” While that argument fundamentally misunderstands what it means to be transgender and is surely not applicable in such cases, it may be a useful analogy in relation to this one.
Forcing a girl or woman to masquerade as a boy in order to be treated like a human being is a strange kind of inverse objectification, where the female body and its sexual possibilities take priority over the needs of the person inside it. It will be interesting to see what decision the judge makes in this case, and what help will be offered to this poor woman and her family.
Perhaps, one day, she will be able to take care of daughter again. And perhaps one day we will have a world in which it isn’t considered an inevitability that, even from birth, possessing a female body will open you up as a red flag to violence.