Study Guide

Sold Gender

By Patricia McCormick

Gender

We hid in the elephant grass to catch sight of Krishna, the boy with sleepy cat eyes, the one I am promised to in marriage. (2.BeforeGitaLeft.3)

This is a pretty common practice in some cultures. No, not spying from elephant grass—the idea of an arranged marriage. A boy and girl are promised to wed one another when they come of age. Arranged marriages have caused some controversy in recent years, but they are still fairly common in some countries and regions around the world. What's important here is that Lakshmi has grown in a society in which she doesn't have a choice in her husband—and in many things about men.

Ama says we are lucky to have a man at all. She says I am to honor and praise him, respect and thank him for taking us in after my father died.

And so I act the part of the dutiful daughter. (5.TheDifferenceBetween.3-4)

Here we see the importance of having a man within the household. Even though Ama and Lakshmi are arguably better off without the stepfather (c'mon, he does like no work ever and gambles away their money), having a man is socially better for them than having no man at all. It allows the women a certain status level that they would not have without a man in the house. But Lakshmi is clearly only acting the part. This lets us see the ability she has to deceive others, something that will serve her well in Happiness House.

On the mountain we mark time by women's work and women's woes. […]

This is also the seasons when the women drink the blue-black juice of the marking nut tree to do away with the babies in their wombs—the ones who would be born only to be buried next season. (7.Calendar.2,10)

Because of women's difficulties on the mountain, they take steps to prevent pregnancy from occurring. And they have to do it on the sly, because if the men knew that women were preventing children, well, who knows what would happen. This is one way that women retain power in a novel that, at first, seems to show only their powerlessness.

Now, she says, you must carry yourself with modesty, bow your head in the presence of men, and cover yourself with your shawl.

Never look a man in the eye. Never allow yourself to be alone with a man who is not family. (11.EverythingINeedtoKnow.2-3)

The rules of society revolve around gender differences and respect. So when Lakshmi gets her period for the first time, which is when she transitions from childhood into womanhood, Ama instructs her on how women should act if they want to be socially accepted into their village. Notice the words that are used. "Bow" and "cover" imply that Lakshmi should hide her strength (and we know that she has a pretty strong personality), as does the avoiding of men's eyes. We have to wonder how Ama deals with these rules.

I understand slowly, then all at once, that my stepfather has taken my cucumbers to Bajai Sita, the old trader woman, and sold them. I understand, too, why his cot is empty. Most likely, he has spent the night gambling—and losing—at the tea shop.
I know this is so when Ama comes out of the hut and does not meet my eye. (18.WhatIsMissing.5)

There's a lot more than cucumbers missing here—like respect, and power, and the ability to act on the injustices served up by the stepfather. This is a reminder that men in this society don't have to justify their actions—their gender justifies it for them. Unfortunately, this event somewhat foreshadows the way that gender appears in the Happiness House.

I feel a tiny sting on the backs of my legs, and I realize that Auntie has thrown a handful of gravel at my heels. To keep me moving forward. (41.MovingForward.4)

This is Lakshmi's first inkling that not all women are in it together. And a hint at how women can gain power in a society where men have traditionally held power… by repressing and betraying their own gender.

At the center of the group, a girl my age crouches in the dirt. Her scalp has been freshly shaved.

[…] "That's what she gets," he says "for trying to run away from her husband." (60.Disgraced.1, 5)

"Try to escape with that head of hair," Mumtaz, says, "and they'll bring you right back here." (70.Sold.29)

Lakshmi is told by Uncle Husband that a shaved head is a symbol of disgrace, and there is some truth to this in India. A shaved head implies that the person whose head is shaved has broken a set of rules. The lack of hair is meant to be a punishment, as hair is perceived as valuable both to the individual and society. But while Uncle Husband is telling the truth, he's also using the socially accepted practices to control Lakshmi and her actions by instilling fear in her—just like Mumtaz does.

One day, a customer addressed his friend in my language as they left.

"How was yours?" he said. "Was she good?"
"It was great," the other one said. "I wish I could do it again." (97.TheCustomers.4-5)

Key to the brothel's success are the men willing to pay to have sex with girls and women; in other words, to value women for sexual satisfaction alone, instead of as humans.

"When they heard I was coming," she says, "they met me outside the village and begged me not to come back and disgrace them."

"Did you get to see your daughter?" I say.

Monica cannot meet my eyes.

"They told her I was dead." (130.TheLivingDead.10-13)

This is one result of how gender and perceptions of sex affect how society functions. Even though we might assume that Monica was manipulated into coming to Happiness House like Lakshmi was, the reactions of her family upon her return are not sympathetic in the least—instead her family rejects her. Monica is blamed for her prostitution, while the men and women who bought her and abused her are not. What choices does Monica have left once her family rejects her?

"I will come back for you," he says. "I will come back with other men, good men, from this country—fathers and uncles who want to help—policemen who are not friends of Mumtaz. We will take you away from here." (169.Believing.6)

There are plenty of despicable men in this book—the stepfather, Uncle Husband, the parade of clients who rape Lakshmi. But it's important for us to remember that some of the people who provide Lakshmi with the most hope—and most practical help—are men, too.