Cultural Relativism

As an anthropology student, most of my courses are centered on examining cultural practices through a lens of cultural relativism. Coined by the father of modern anthropology Franz Boas, cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, and not be judged against the criteria of another. This idea is valuable in the field of anthropological study as it guides an ethnographer through the conduction of fieldwork, driving them away from making of unfair judgements or conclusions when studying a culture’s practices. It encourages the anthropologist to remove any personal biases which may prevent them from understanding practices as they are understood by those who engage in them.

In a globalized world, the skill of cultural relativism is one which should be harnessed by all. I find this perspective useful in aspects of my life even outside of my anthropological studies. When I travel internationally it is especially critical in enhancing the immersiveness of my experiences. When I studied in Italy for a semester, I arrived in the country with the intentions of fully embracing its culture. I developed my understanding of Italian culture by observing the behaviors of locals. I noticed many clear differences between Italian and American culture. When greeting, Italians often lightly kissed each other on both cheeks. In America, this would be considered an unusual invasion of privacy for a casual greeting, especially from a stranger, but in Italy the gesture indicated friendship and affection. Other differences took me longer to grasp. I gained an appreciation for the slower pace of Italian life only when I let go of my own time-dictated American habits. The relaxed Italian lifestyle helped me fully understand the beauty of living in the moment. We miss so much when we forget to pause and admire the world around us. By identifying the new aspects of my environment and their significance to its people, I was able to understand and adapt to the Italian lifestyle. Overall, this experience abroad taught me the importance of stepping out of my comfort zone. My willingness to immerse myself in the culture allowed me to gain a unique Italian perspective and a sincere appreciation for the culture.

This practice of cultural relativism is also valuable on an international scale as it’s lack can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings between countries.  In my Reproductive Politics class this semester, we read a paper titled “‘What About Female Genital Mutilation?” And Why Understanding Culture Matters in the First Place”. In an article about the paper, anthropologist Richard Shweder discusses the problematic narrative about Female Genital Mutation (FGM) in Africa which circulates in North America and Europe. These erroneous understandings of FGM characterize it as a terrible, abusive reproductive practice which strips African women of their rights and sexuality. It spreads a narrative that African culture does not respect the health and wellbeing of its women to a degree which requires international intervention. However, discussions about the practice of FGM with African women gives light to a different narrative. African women do not feel abused by the practices of FGM, rather they view it as an beautiful, coming of age ritual to which they look forward to. The practice of FGM holds a different meaning to African women that is not understood by the international community. Despite judgements and interventional policies from the West, these women continue to engage in these cultural customs and practices as they are meaningful to them. The topic of FGM is just one example of many in which lack of cultural relativism can lead to misunderstandings on an international level.

Selective Abortion in India

This semester I took a course titled Reproductive Justice through the Anthropology Department at OU. In this course we examined reproductive practices across the world using an anthropological lens. I wrote the following essay as my final paper for the class examining the widespread practice of sex selection in India.

Sex Selective Abortion in India

            My Indian parents had three kids. An eldest daughter, a middle daughter (me), and a youngest son. By the time my mother was pregnant with my brother, she was desperate for a son. In the eight years she had been married she had given birth to two daughters, receiving lots of judgement from her in-laws and social circles in India. She told me that she had even purchased a book titled “How to Birth a Baby Boy” filled with pseudoscientific practices claiming to increase the odds of birthing a boy. By the time she was twelve weeks pregnant, her father-in-law took her to his doctor friend to illegally determine the sex of her fetus. When she discovered her baby would be a boy, my mother was extremely happy, explaining she felt like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

As a child, I remember my mother’s unique affection for my little brother. While her love for my sister and I was never any less, her admiration for my brother was special. She would praise him for the slightest achievements and fondly refer to him as her chamatkaar baby (miracle baby). I would often get jealous, objecting against what I viewed as an unfair valuation of my brother. It was not until I was much older that I began to actually understand the broader spread of my mother’s affection for my younger brother. I came to know the value of a son within Indian culture through the discussions I heard between my mother and her friends. They were always quick to comment on the number of sons birthed within a family, counting those whose first child was a son as the lucky ones. The fiery feminist in me almost immediately became enraged by these discussions, defending that girls were just as capable as boys. However, conversations with my mother and family visits to India revealed the varying contexts of life in America and life in India in ways which helped me better understand the origins these sex preferences so commonly expressed within the Indian community.


The origins of the practice of sex selection in India can be traced back to British colonialism in the country during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Sex selection began primarily as a means of economic survival. As the presence of British colonialism had increased prices of land and living for indigenous communities, many Indians were forced into poverty. Trapped under the rule of colonial economics, Indians struggled to survive. During this time, many Indians began to favor the selection of male infants, popularizing the practice of female infanticide in the country. The logic being that sons would one day grow to work and provide for their families. In contrast, daughters were viewed as financial burdens on the families as women at the time lacked socioeconomic mobility. British census counts revealed the concerning magnitude of early female infanticide practice in India and resulted in the passage of the Female Infanticide Act of 1870. Misunderstanding the practice of female infanticide as culturally rooted, the British act was largely ineffective as it failed to address the economic issues to which female infanticide was tied. The act also had little impact on female infanticide as it was largely unenforced by British authorities and was later repealed in 1906 (Kalantry).

Prior to the development of medical prenatal diagnostic technologies, female infanticide in India occurred after birth through means of strangulation, suffocation, poisoning, etc. If not killed immediately after birth, unwanted female infants instead lived on to experience abuse, neglect, and abandonment throughout their lives (It’s A girl). These practices commonly continued until the advancement of medical technologies which allowed for the determination of fetal sex prior to birth. Female infanticide entered the medical realm in the 1970s with the development of amniocentesis, a medical procedure which examined fetal DNA extracted from amniotic fluid for genetic abnormalities. Affluent communities soon took advantage of this expensive technology due to its ability to also determine fetal sex. If the fetus was determined to be a girl through amniocentesis, most families opted for abortion. An early study examining the effects of this technology over a 12-month period in an urban hospital discovered that “96% of girls (430/450) were aborted, whereas all 250 boys, even with the risk of a genetic defect were born” (Madan and Martijn 426).

Selective abortion rates rose more dramatically with the introduction of ultrasound machines in the 1980s. The noninvasive technology used high-frequency sound waves to produce images of fetuses with the benefit of diagnosing developmental abnormalities early in pregnancy. Due to its inexpensive and accessible nature, the use of ultrasound technologies to determine fetal sex quickly began to be used by Indians from all socioeconomic backgrounds. As with amniocentesis, many used this technology as a means to identify and abort female fetuses.

While ultrasound quickly became the primary technology used, other medical practices were also introduced to aid with identification and selection of fetal sex. In the early 1980s and 1990s, X and Y sperm separation methods became available. The invasive and expensive method allowed couples to preselect the sex determining chromosome of fertilizing sperm. Fetal DNA testing kits also became available for home use in the mid-2000s. This technology detected fetal sex from cell-free fetal DNA in maternal blood. The test only required blood from a finger prick and provided results within a few days (Madan and Martijn).

The rise of medical technologies facilitating fetal sex-selection dramatically impacted India’s sex ratio. By the 1981 census, the early effects of these technologies could be observed in the skewed sex ratio of 960 girls per 1000 boys. Overtime, this figure continued to decline to 945 girls per 1000 boys in 1991. Rising concerns about the imbalanced sex ratio resulted in the passage of the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act in 1994. This act prohibited the disclosure of fetal sex by medical practitioners to patients unless there was a risk of a sex-linked disease. The act was later expanded in its 2003 amendment to include the prohibition of preconception techniques to manipulate fetal gender and was renamed the Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act. However, the enactment of this ban proved to have little impact as India’s sex ratios continued to skew from 925 girls per 1000 boys in 2001 to 912 girls per 1000 boys by 2011 (Madan and Martijn). Some doctors continue to provide the services of fetal sex determination if compensated accordingly. Working against the regulations of the PCPNDT Act, such doctors have created a high profit, underground industry by addressing the demands of Indian families (It’s A Girl). Like the parents, these doctors view the practice of female feticide as a more acceptable and humane alternative to female infanticide.

Modern Context       

The modern context of selective abortion in India closely reflects its early practice. Female infanticide continues to be closely tied to economic concerns, occurring as a result of cost/benefit analyses comparing the reproduction of sons vs. daughters. The differences in the valuation of sons and daughter reflect the social roles and responsibilities they inherit in a deeply patriarchal society. Sons are generally viewed as the breadwinners of the family. The birth of a son serves as a financial investment in a family’s future as men in India are more capable of economic success due to a historically unequal distribution of resources and opportunities amongst men and women. In addition to providing the hope of economic prosperity, sons ensure the survival of the family lineage as sons are also given the responsibility of taking care of their parents in old age and carrying the family name. For Hindus, the son’s responsibility even carries into the afterlife as only the son can conduct his family’s death rituals. It is believed that the son’s funerary role is crucial to the attainment of moksha, release from the cycle of rebirth (Kalantry).

The birth of a son is highly valued in Indian society. Couples who birth sons are applauded and respected by their friends and family for their good fortune. Within the family household, the birth of a son can even serve as a means of social redemption for the mother who prior to the birth of a son exercises the lowest social power within the household of her in-laws (Stone and James).

While a son provides economic, social, or religious insurances for a family, traditionally, a daughter’s only responsibility is to be married. As a result, the birth of a daughter is generally calculated as a financial loss as she is raised by the family only to eventually leave the household and join that of her husbands. After marriage, the daughter is completely integrated into their husband’s family both socially and financially. With her new role as wife, she will have new duties and responsibilities prioritizing her husband’s family. While married women will maintain contact with their parents, they become primarily associated with their new family through the bonds of marriage. As a result, many families rationalize their engagement in female infanticide by the financial losses associated with the birth of a daughter. A popular Telegu saying expresses this sentiment, “Rearing a daughter is like watering a neighbor’s tree” (It’s A Girl).

The financial burden of birthing a daughter increases with the traditional Indian marriage custom of dowry. The practice of dowry can be described as an exchange of wealth and status occurring between the families of the bride and groom. In the exchange, families of newly married brides are expected to pay a heavy sum of money, property, or valuable items, to an amount reflective of their socioeconomic status, to the families of the groom. The average dowry usually values to be well over ten thousand dollars. The dowry system contributes to the stratification of the class system as it only allows for marriage between those of the same socioeconomic group. Families offer dowries to attract husbands of equal or higher rank. Many Indians blame the dowry system as a primary motivator for the engagement of female infanticide as the practice places high economic pressure on families with daughters. Families of high-class status do not want to transfer their wealth to another family upon the marriage of their daughters. Families of low-class status do not have the financial means to afford appropriate dowries upon the marriage of their daughters. As a result, families rationalize the practice of female infanticide in the context of the dowry system as the lesser of two evils. Recognizing the financial loss associated with the birth of a daughter, advertisements for ultrasounds in India state “pay five hundred rupees now [US $ 14] rather than five lakhs [Rs 500,000 or US $ 14,000] later” (Madan and Martijn 426). This perspective encourages the abortion of female fetuses, contrasting the low cost of ultrasounds and abortions to the high cost of future dowries.

The dowry system’s direct impact on the rise of female infanticide in India resulted in the passage of the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. However, the act had very little impact on preventing the practice as families can circumvent regulation by claiming dowries as voluntary gifts at marriage. Today, engagement in “dowry persists not only because the law is ineffective or difficult to enforce, nor because of the pressures and demands of the groom’s family, but also because the families of the brides, in spite of growing public awareness of the tragic consequences, continue to give dowry” (Stone and James 128). Many families continue to engage in the practice as a means to maintain their class status by marrying their daughter to a husband of equal status. The exchange also allows families to compensate for less attractive characteristics (dark skin, low education, etc.) by offering higher dowries.

Not only does the dowry system increase the vulnerability of the female fetus, it also increases the vulnerability of the newly married bride to domestic violence. In India there is a significant rise of dowry deaths, cases in which “married women are murdered, usually burned to death, by husbands of in-laws whose demands for more dowry from the bride’s family remains unmet” (Stone and James 125). In less severe cases, women are subjected to verbal and physical abuse if dowry desires are not satisfied. This harassment usually continues until the dowry is eventually met or the husband decides to leave the marriage for a bride willing to pay a higher dowry.

With a population of 1.3 billion, India is the world’s second highest populated country. In an attempt to subside the issues related to overpopulation, India’s government has instituted state family planning programs advocating for a decrease in the average family size. The desire for a smaller family has also been expressed by Indians. With a national decline in the agrarian lifestyle, families no longer need to produce children as means of labor. Instead, the urbanization of India has increased cost of living, making smaller family sizes more attractive as they are more affordable. In the 1950s, the fertility rate in India was 5.9 children per woman. By 2009, this rate decreased to 2.6 children per woman (Kalantry). With the reduction in family size, families had less opportunities to fulfill their son preferences. Therefore, the desire for a small family also contributes to increased engagement in female infanticide.

Parents in India selectively abort female fetuses due to a number of systematic economic and social forces. The practice goes deeper than a sexist preference. Rather it occurs as a product of the broader economic inequalities and social customs which are inescapable by the individual family. By choosing to engage in female infanticide, parents must contemplate the harsh realities and complex social obligations of world in which they live. Due to the greater economic security promised by the birth of a son, families display a preference for at least one son. Most families are indifferent to the genders of their other children. However, financial limitations often result in parents developing a non-preference for daughters to due traditional marriage practices and the active dowry system in India.


While it is important to understand the context within which female infanticide occurs, it is also important to understand the consequences of its continuation. It is estimated that there are 300,000 to 700,000 missing girls or cases of female infanticide each year since 2000 in India alone (Kalantry). The United Nations estimates that 200 million women are missing worldwide due to female infanticide (It’s A Girl). Though the context of this practice varies worldwide, female infanticide also commonly occurs in China, South Korea, and Taiwan (White). The normalization of this practice in India has resulted in a dramatic increase in the selective abortion of female fetuses. Medical technologies such as amniocentesis or ultrasound, originally intended to diagnose genetic abnormalities, have been adapted for the primary purpose of prenatal sex determination and female feticide. In regions lacking access to appropriate medical care, more violent methods of female infanticide such as strangulation, suffocation, poisoning, or burning are conducted.

Decades of female infanticide in India has dramatically skewed the nation’s sex ratio. The 2011 Indian census revealed the child sex ratio to be 919 girls per 1000 boys and the adult sex ratio to be 943 women per 1000 men. The dramatic gender imbalances in India’s population increases the vulnerability of women as millions of men are unable to find a mate. The shortage of women has been predicted to increase violent crimes against women. In India, the rates of reported rapes, kidnapping, and abductions have increased. In 2006, there were almost 20,000 reports of rape and 20,000 reports of kidnapping in India. By 2011, this figure increased to 25,000 reports of rape and 35,000 reports of kidnapping (Madan and Martijn). Analysis of crime rates and sex ratios by state show that “states with some of the highest rates of crime against women are the ones that have consistently had low sex ratios over the years, whereas states with a low rate of crime against women have the highest sex ratios” (Madan and Martijn 428). In regions with lower sex ratios, young girls are kidnapped as a means of securing a future bride for sons. Large scale trafficking across India facilitates the sale of young daughters as a means of addressing the demand for female brides. Girls may even be “bought for all the males in a family (forced polyandry) and expected to produce sons for the continuation of the male family line” (Madan and Martijn 429).

The practice of receiving repeated abortions can also have a negative impact on the mental and physical health of women. Wives often do not want to engage in the practices of female infanticide but are persuaded to do so in order to preserve their families and marriages (It’s a Girl). The documentary It’s A Girl provides a powerful account of an Indian women named Dr. Mitu Khurana who experienced extreme domestic abuse and manipulation due to her resistance to the practices of female feticide. Now a leading activist against female feticide, Mitu was the first Indian woman to initiate proceedings against her ex-husband and relatives under the PCPNDT Act. Mitu charged her ex-husband and in-laws of illegally testing the gender of her twin fetuses without her consent and pressuring her to terminate the pregnancy after discovering that she was pregnant with twin girls. However, despite the strength of Mitu’s case, the Indian court system disappointed Mitu and fellow victims of domestic abuse after seven years of civil proceedings by deciding that the evidence was insufficient. This decision as well as the lack of enforcement of similar legislation (the Dowry Prohibition Act) reflect the frightening “reality of the country in which sex selection is not seen as a crime, either by the doctors or the people” (“India Activist to Fight Sex Determination Ruling”). Dr. Khurana understandingly expressed great disappointment in this decision as well as a fear for the continuing, unregulated increase of female feticide in India.


The practice of female infanticide leads to a cycle of violence against women at all stages of life. The worthiness of a women must not be determined based on the burdens ascribed to her before her birth. The women and girls of India deserve meaningful change which allows them access to the same opportunities to life afforded to male fetuses. However, for this to occur, the Indian nation must address the socioeconomic disparities between men and women produced from structural institutions like marriage. Engagement in traditional marriage practices, specifically the practice of dowry, characterize the birth of daughters as substantial financial losses for families. In order for this to occur, the Indian community and government together would need to make a significant commitment to establishing the practice of dowry exchange as it has already been proven that policy by the government alone will not result in its abolishment (Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961). As many people of the Indian community already express a dislike for the practices of dowry, this plan could realistically be actionable with a united front.


Works Cited

Davis, Evan Grae, director. It’s A Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World. Shadowline Films, 2012.

“India Activist to Fight Sex Determination Ruling.” BBC News, BBC, 7 Oct. 2015,

Kalantry, Sital. “Chapter 5. Sex-Selective Abortion in India: Magnitude, Causes, and Responses.” Women’s Human Rights and Migration: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws in the United States and India, by Sital Kalantry, University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc, 2017, pp. 126–151.

Madan, Kamlesh, and Martijn H. Breuning. “Impact of Prenatal Technologies on the Sex Ratio in India: an Overview.” Genetics in Medicine, vol. 16, no. 6, 2013, pp. 425–432., doi:10.1038/gim.2013.172.

Stone, Linda, and Caroline James. “Dowry, Bride-Burning, and Female Power in India.” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 18, no. 2, 1995, pp. 125–134., doi:10.1016/0277-5395(95)80049-u.

White, Tyrene. “Domination, Resistance, And Accommodation In China’s One-Child Campaign.” Chinese Society Change, Conflict and Resistance, by Elizabeth J. Perry and Mark Selden, Routledge, 2010, pp. 171–196.