For almost two decades now, Fazal Sheikh has been working among displaced people in East Africa, South America and Asia, making photographs and recording testimonies that bring home to us the realities of their lives. For his last book, Moksha, he went to Vrindavan, one of India’s holy cities, where Hindu widows come to live out their last years. It was while listening to their stories that Sheikh began to comprehend the full extent to which women in India are the victims of religious and cultural codes that reduce many of them to little more than child-rearing servants. He returned to India to find out more from young women growing up in a society that, whatever economic advances it may boast, is still widely prejudiced against them. This book, Ladli — which in Hindi means ‘beloved daughter’—is the result.
The stories told here will come as a shock to many: the abortion of thousands of healthy fetuses every year because of their gender, the murder at birth of baby girls, the abduction and rape of adolescents forced into prostitution, the exploitation of child labor, the physical abuse of domestic workers and, worst of all, the murder of young women whose dowries, or performance as wives, does not match their husbands’, or their husbands’ families’, expectations.
Through a network of street-level activists, Sheikh builds up a picture of India that undermines its new role as a modern democracy. His portraits have a directness and articulacy that painfully reinforce the stories they tell. Some of the strongest voices in this book belong to older women, who have overcome personal tragedies and are determined to fight so that other women might avoid them.
What does it say about a country that it mistreats its women? It is not for lack of legislation that women continue to be abused in India, but because the police, the judiciary and the government fail to enforce the laws made to protect them. How can such an ingrained system be reformed? To answer that, we need to understand more about its victims, and in this Fazal Sheikh is a reliable guide.