If you haven’t heard of the term Aqeeqa, then don’t even try to guess what I am talking about. My Muslim readers know exactly where I am headed, particularly if they are from the subcontinent, as in Pakistan-India-Bangladesh.
I first learnt of the celebration of Aqeeqa when my brother was born. I was ten and we were living in Pakistan. My sister and I had yearned for a baby brother and jumped for joy when Daddy walked in bearing news of a baby boy. I recall my grandfather saying, ‘When are you doing the aqeeqa?’ The aqeeqa buzz started and I started hearing ‘goats,’ and ‘order the goats’. I must have asked my grandfather what aqeeqa and goats was all about.
“When a boy is born, you sacrifice two goats and distribute the meat to the poor,” he said. “And when a girl is born, you sacrifice one goat.”
One if a girl, two if a boy.
I am sure I didn’t bat an eye.
I am sure I didn’t ask, ‘why is that?’
I am sure I didn’t scream out, ‘why the heck are we discriminating between the sexes!’
All I knew was that we—as in me, my sister, my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles—we were so thrilled to finally have a boy in the family, that—well, I must have rationalized it by equating the number of goats with the level of joy. The happier you are, the more goat meat for the poor.
I don’t believe my rationalization was off target. Growing up in Pakistan, and long after, the birth of a boy was cause for celebration, and the birth of a girl was met with ‘may your next baby be a boy.’ When I entered my teens in the mid-sixties, I started resenting this attitude. It bothered me when families would joyfully announce the birth of a boy, and make a hushed announcement if it was a girl; how friends and family would descend on the baby boy’s home bearing sweets, and wonder if they should even make a visit if it was a girl. I saw women getting pregnant again and again, praying that this time it be a boy. Some men took a second wife, hoping for a son. I saw the aqeeqa goats as a measure of celebration – one if a girl, two if a boy.
My quiet outrage did not translate into action. I was 21 when I gave birth to my first-born, a boy. We took a trip to Pakistan, and celebrated the aqeeqa with guess what, two goats. I did not have the wherewithal to deal with the traditionalists in the family—grandparents, in-laws, neighbors... When my second son was born, we were back in Pakistan, had the aqeeqa, and I just went with the flow. Chicken!
I was in my thirties, when I finally confronted an elder in the family.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “We rely on our sons to support us financially. If we didn’t have sons, who would pay for the wedding of my daughters; who is going to take us in when we are old? I see families with daughters only and let me tell you, they are deep in debt. You need sons.”
I could see where he was coming from, but I still huffed and puffed.
“Daughters are a liability,” he said.
You can see where that argument went.
“Why are daughters a liability?”
“Because they don’t earn a living. Once they are married, they belong to their husbands, and I wouldn’t ask my son-in-law to support my family.”
More huffing; more puffing.
In my forties, I started studying Islam, and that is when I discovered the intersection of religion with culture, or let me put it this way: of how culture is erroneously equated with religion. I think I found the answer to the goats. The Quran stresses that a child is a blessing from God, be it boy or girl. Both are equal in worth. There is a tradition that Prophet Muhammad would distribute lamb meat to the poor when a child was born. But nowhere is the Quran or in the prophet’s example is there any mention of ‘1 if a girl, 2 if a boy.’ So where the heck did that come from? Culture? I posed this question to a learned sage, who illuminated me. Ready? Since boys and girls are equal in God’s eyes, if you are going to prefer a boy to a girl, then pay for it. Two goats.