Challenging the Unwritten Rules in South Asian Culture…One Pink Ladoo at a Time!

By: Sundeep Hans

My parents were ecstatic when I was born…or so I’m told. I was their first child and by virtue of being the first it was special (!). Yet, there was no celebration of my arrival. They were happy, but nobody was in full Punjabi celebration mode. There was no party, no drinks (well maybe a few uncles had a peg or two)…and, more importantly, no ladoo! Here I was this bundle of joy — the first of what would ultimately be four children — and nobody thought to deliver some ladoo’s to celebrate? I made them both parents for crying out loud! My sister was born a year later — definitely no celebration — so there was a pattern.

In many South Asian cultures, particularly in North India, the families of a newborn deliver of ladoos (traditional South Asian sweets made of flour and sugar) to all their friends and families. Traditionally, however, only male births have been celebrated in this way. If you have a baby girl, at best, you might expect a lukewarm “congratulations” followed by almost feverish reassurances that the “next time it will be a boy, you’ll see”, and at worst you might be besieged by people who could be mistaken for mourners, sadly “tsk tsking” at your fate.

When my brother was born a few years later the celebration was epic! There were parties (plural!), champagne, whiskey, and ladoos. Tons and tons of ladoos. Ditto, ten years later when my second brother joined the party. I remember that because my grandma made them in huge batches at our house. Seeing box after box packed lovingly for delivery, my sister and I asked how many boxes they had filled when we were born. I remember feeling outraged when we were told that no ladoos were delivered at all because “we only do it for the boys”.

We were little kids, but even still, we understood the unfairness of this tradition. Both my sister and I issued our joint indignation at the unjust treatment we and other girls were meted at our birth. We did not let up either. We kept asking ‘why’ every chance we got. There was never a good enough answer either. It didn’t make sense to us, especially since in Sikhism, the religion of my family, the belief in universal equality is one of the most important principles of the faith. In fact, gender equality is enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (our holy scripture).

The Pink Ladoo Project takes aim at this gender biased custom prevalent in the South Asian community in the diaspora. The result of an idea birthed in my hometown of Brampton, back in 2013, it is celebrated on October 11th every year to coincide with the International Day of the Girl Child . Through the delivery of pink ladoos (as opposed to their usual yellow colour) to all families of newborns, both boys and girls, the goal is to plant the seeds of change in the community, literally “one ladoo at a time”.

This year the project had its Toronto launch at two hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area; Brampton Civic Hospital and Etobicoke General Hospital. These two hospitals are a part of William Osler Health System (Osler) and serve a diverse population, which includes a large South Asian community. As the community and clinical partnerships lead for Osler, I had the pleasure of liaising and coordinating with the Pink Ladoo Toronto team.

The army of volunteers, both women and men (!) bedecked in beautiful pink shirts were at both sites, and for the whole week they supplied our staff, physicians, patients, and families with a steady stream of delicious pink ladoos. People came out in droves and hung messages in support of gender equality on the ‘support trees’. The week long awareness campaign culminated on Sunday, October 16th with volunteers visiting the Women and Children’s units at both sites and delivering pink ladoos to all of the families of newborns. It was a tremendous success, and it was profiled in the local news agencies, both print and media. It got a lot of traction on social media as well.

The conversation about gender equality that the Pink Ladoo Project started (especially relevant this year) is proof that culture isn’t this static thing. We don’t have to rigidly hold on to something because “it’s always been this way”. We can change it. By asking ‘why’, we can challenge these unjust customs because nobody can reasonably justify injustice.

I’ve seen this at work in my own family. The relentless barrage paid off because fast forward to about two years ago when my sister had a baby girl (my parent’s first grandchild), my parents were the ones asking “when will we do the ladoos” and “how many ladoos should we order”. We all celebrated this new life entering the world…and everyone celebrated with us! If the unfairness of a cultural practice is so blatantly obvious, it’s time for some self-reflection. It’s time for us to get rid of these unwritten rules. It’s time for change.

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