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Let children be children

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

I was mildly enjoying this cold, winter Dhaka morning with some warm nehari. I opened the Facebook app to almost choke on my soggy toast biscuit drenched in milk tea. One of my dearest family friends uploaded some photos of a “Gaye Holud” celebration. The presumable groom is a small child of under 10 years of age. I take a closer look. Yup, the stage background says “Shayaner Gaye Holud” and my friend’s seven-year-old daughter is sitting next to Shayan, looking like his little bride. Shayan is decked up in a little Sherwani, complete with a marigold garland around his neck. In front of him are some sweets and fruits with toothpicks stuck in them and the customary little dishes with fresh ground turmeric. I see the slew of comments, “Is this a child marriage?” is the top raging question. My family friend responds, “No, this is how we are celebrating Shayan’s circumcision. In the comments, people are demanding to know why the Gaye Holud theme? She responds, “Gaye Holud is customary for any Bengali celebratio so why not this Musolmani?”

It’s bugging me, so I must talk about why not. To me, this scenario presents itself in many layers:

The Bengali marriage obsession Winter trips to Dhaka mean regardless of your CrossFit regime, you will develop a little bulge on your midsection from all the Kachhi Biryani consumption during marriage season. It seems like once a child in the urban, upper-middle-class finishes their Bachelor’s degree, it is time for their marriage. This obviously happens younger in the poorer masses. Girls often have to give up their education and their dreams in their early teens to make way for marriage and childbirth. The way marriage is presented in our culture is that it is not an option. It is a duty one must fulfill. Marriage should be about a partnership for growth, to mature enough and be happy and healed enough to choose a partner who will uplift you, your dreams, career. One you can share your life, family and future with. But the approach here is quite different. It is perceived as a race to who can get married the quickest, a connection between two families and often, an insane display of wealth and popularity. One of the first questions people ask when they meet you here is “Are you married?” This question usually comes before “What do you do? And right after “How are you?” The question that quickly follows is “Do you have children?” The reason I am going into so much depth about this is because, when a society is this obsessed with the concept of marriage to begin with, if you have any celebration with a marriage-related theme, you are again enforcing the importance of marriage by your actions. I have often wondered how and why people are interested to know if I am married or not even before wanting to know how I am, if I am happy or not? It is quite the strange phenomena. How is marriage more important than one’s career or happiness?

Celebrating the loss of the hood with the hood

The Quran does not mention circumcision even once. During many different stages of this world, circumcision has meant many different things to different religions and people. Most recently, Norway and Iceland have tried to pass bills that say the circumcision of young boys violates their rights and is incompatible with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. It draws a parallel with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), already outlawed in most European countries.

I won’t go into if circumcision is right or wrong but you cannot ignore that the concept of male circumcision birthed the concept of FGM which the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women with zero medical benefits. According to WHO “It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”

I understand celebrating the day you join the likes of your circumcised dad and brothers and uncles is important but the celebration of the loss of a foreskin with outsiders, that I will never understand. My family friend mentioned how in Old Dhaka, Musolmani rituals involve a horse drawn carriage bringing the newly circumcised child into the event space and I am mortified for the child. Also, this entire event promotes patriarchy because you are setting the tone for the child that his penis is important to the world. I don’t buy that this celebration is of the entry of the child into Islam because that entry happened when the child was born to the call to prayer and also during his naming ceremony.

So, the entire neighborhood is showing up for a man’s change of penis status. I want to know what event celebrates female genitalia in this manner. When do all the neighborhood women show up in celebration of the vagina? Quite the contrary, during puberty, an impending darkness looms around a female’s genitals. Female genitals are only celebrated during childbirth when it is doing painstaking, life-threatening work, the rest of the time it is packed away with shame and guilt, just like the sanitary pads bought at a local pharmacy that come tightly wrapped in newspaper.

Assuming pre-determined gender roles

My mom and aunts dressed me as a bride when I was around the same age as my friend’s daughter. The way marriage is presented to us girls is as a looming necessity, without which we are nothing. We, as girls, are raised with the idea that one day we will leave our dad’s house to go live with our husband and in-laws and this is how our fates are sealed. When you are dressing your child up as a bride, are you also dressing up your child as a doctor? As a Prime Minister? As a lawyer? Or are you giving her cooking utensils and dolls and dressing her up in sarees because you are reinforcing all these assumed gender roles you were raised with? For this little boy who just had a celebration of his foreskin being removed with a Gaye Holud, he is now aware that one day he will have an adult “Gaye Holud” where not only will he be doing all the things that took place during this celebration but he will also gain a wife and a family. My problem with this scenario is, you are enforcing in this child, the need to have a Gaye Holud, and with it, the assumption that he too must one day perform this ritual when in fact, all the above is optional.

Subtle impacts

Before I go into the details of why dressing up your child as a bride or groom may have a lasting, darker impact on your child, I want to mention that both my paternal and maternal grandmothers were child brides. I have been impacted by their suffering and thus don’t find any inkling of a child dressed up as a bride or groom funny or entertaining. When my maternal grandmother was pregnant for the first time, she was not aware of which orifice this child will exit her body. My paternal grandmother was forced to keep birthing children because she wasn’t educated on family planning. She birthed fifteen children.

My family friend mentioned that putting fresh, ground turmeric on one’s body and cleansing it with milk is a cultural ritual performed before other big occasions too like a naming ceremony (Akika) or during the piercing of a girl’s ears. But the celebration isn’t the problem, the stage and setting is. My problem isn’t with the ritualistic turmeric and milk baths, it’s the make-believe Gaye Holud stage.

She said, this was all for fun and a lot of fun was had, and I don’t need to worry about the darkness in this because this child knows it was all “just playing.” And I want her to know, I too dressed up as a bride for fun and later dealt with all the impacts of being raised in a marriage-obsessed society. What may look like harmless fun can also be a regression we cannot afford. Our society and culture already deals with the issue of child marriage. When you are dressing up your child in a marriage setting for fun, it is offensive to all the children who are being forced to get married right now all across Bangladesh. Their suffering is not material for your child’s foreskin losing celebration. #modernBangladesh #circumcision #foreskin #islam #Bangladesh

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