A few weeks ago, Indore, a city in Madhya Pradesh in central India, suddenly came into focus. A well-known newspaper carried a front-page report that Indore had become the site of “hundreds” of sex change operations on children. Apparently surgeons attached to local institutions were “illegally” performing these operations and parents from different parts of the country were flocking to Indore to have, not surprisingly, their girls turned into boys. The newspaper said their reporter had spoken to seven doctors who confirmed that each of them had done 200-300 such surgeries.
Could this be possible? How had such a development taken place suddenly? What was this surgery the newspaper was talking about? As confusion spread, the establishment, the prime minister’s office, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights and the Indian Medical Association reacted with alarm and speed. Investigative teams were sent to Indore, state-level action was discussed and possible legislation was talked about. Among women activists, a more balanced discussion took place — could this be possible medically? And why Indore, which did not figure badly on the sex ratio front? Was this kind of surgery legal? And if not, how had it been allowed to happen?
It took a while but eventually answers began to appear — answers that have important lessons for us today. First, the report turned out to be patently false; a shoddy piece of sensationalist journalism written by someone who had not taken the trouble to check the facts. For a few days, the newspaper in question became like the television — breaking news, rushing in to be first and hang the consequences, and if they got the facts wrong, well so what, they could simply change them in the next round or rely on the fact that people’s memories are short anyway.
Here’s one of the things the report got wrong, for example. According to the journalist, the surgery being performed on the children was something known as genitoplasty, which means a sex change. But is a sex change operation possible on children? A report published subsequently in a different paper quoted an email in which the Indore chapter of the Indian Association of Paediatric Surgeons refuted this claim, saying: “We the paediatric surgeons of the city have never ever performed any surgery to convert a normal female child into a male child because it is not possible even to think about it practically, technically, medically anywhere in this world.” Instead, they pointed out, what the children were undergoing was corrective surgery, a not uncommon procedure by which children born with ‘different’ genitals — say an overgrown clitoris or a stunted penis — can be operated on to have them corrected in order to enable them to lead a ‘normal’ life.
The newspaper, however, had scant regard for these niceties. They’d smelt a story and they were determined to make it into one. In the end, the confusion was resolved, but several questions remain. The first of these is to do with the role of the media — do media institutions not have a responsibility to present facts as clearly as possible? Do they not have a responsibility to research these facts well and ethically before they make them public? (Given that we have just been presented with chapter and verse in the Murdoch saga, this may not be a question media houses ask themselves, but also given what happened to Murdoch, perhaps it is time they did.) Journalists who reported the ‘sex change’ story did not bother to find out the difference between sex change and corrective surgery, nor between legality and illegality, not to mention many other things.
And there are other questions: Surgeries and doctors are one thing, but what about the parents of the child — what is it that they were seeking? A normal child? And yet, who defines what is normal and what isn’t? Why do we place such a value on ‘normalcy’? Is it not possible for us to conceive of a world where difference is not the exception but also the norm, a world where people who are not ‘normal’ can be valued as much as those who are? The story of the Indore surgeries is about ‘normalising’ a physical body but, at a deeper level, it is also about the ways in which our social fabric is knit on something that is valorised as normalcy, and that isn’t only physical. So children who go to school are normal, those who don’t aren’t. Women who marry are normal, those who don’t aren’t. Perhaps it’s time we began to think about this.
And then there’s another thing. The erroneous story compounded its errors by making another unfounded assertion that many, or practically all, parents going in for ‘genitoplasty’ were having female children turned into male children by having penises constructed. So valued is a male child in our society, the journalist seemed to say, that even a constructed male organ, which does not serve the purpose of reproduction, is better than no male organ.
Here, however, despite the patent error, the journalist hit upon something fundamental in our society — the preference for boys. Doctors tell us that it is not possible to graft tissue in a child to construct a penis, ‘to change a female child into a male’ but people will believe what they want to believe. And add to this the complexities of social acceptability and medical practice. If the ‘defect’ to be corrected is minor and the child’s sex is clear, then the problem is less acute. But if there is greater ambiguity, and it is up to the parents to ask the doctors to ‘assign’ a sex, then it goes without saying that most families will ask for male children and irresponsible media stories will only add to this.
What is really needed in our society is to have a wide-ranging, free and open discussion on the question of intersexuality and its meanings in real life. But for that, alas, we have to wait a long time.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 28th, 2011.