Conservative misogyny in India and Indiana, a country and an American state with perhaps little else in common, now have an ideological meeting point in the fate of Purvi Patel.
Last week Patel, a 33-year-old Indian-American woman became the first person in U.S. history to be imprisoned for feticide. Among, apparently contradictory, charges, Patel was found guilty of both feticide and neglecting a child. For these crimes she was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Patel came into the public eye in July 2013 when she entered an emergency room bleeding heavily and presenting a protruding umbilical cord. She eventually revealed that she had suffered a miscarriage and had disposed of the fetus in a plastic bag that she had then put in a dumpster. Police rushing to the scene found the dead fetus leading to the case against her.
This is a case of he (the state) said, she said. Patel has claimed repeatedly that she had a miscarriage and that the baby was stillborn. At her trial she said, "I assumed because the baby was dead there was nothing to do."
The Indiana court however maintained that the fetus was alive at birth. It claims that Patel had first taken abortion-inducing pills (feticide) and when those failed, left the fetus to die on the floor (neglect of a child). Patel was then found guilty of these crimes despite the fact that no abortion causing drugs were found in either her system or in that of the fetus.
The facts of this case remain inscrutable. Only Patel will ever know whether the baby was born alive or stillborn. However in the face of ambiguity, the state of Indiana responded unambiguously: 20 years in jail.
The only undisputed facts are these: Patel had an affair with a married co-worker. She got pregnant. She went into labor prematurely and hid the body of the fetus. These few facts reveal Patel's case as that of a woman victimized by both her cultural heritage and by the laws of her adopted homeland.
On the stand Patel's father testified that the family is strictly Hindu and opposed to premarital sex. Fearing her family's response, Patel hid the pregnancy for between 23-25 weeks. As a South Asian woman I know firsthand the intense cultural pressure in our communities to remain silent on all matters pertaining to female sexuality or desire. This is a culture in which for the most part, expressions of female sexuality are deeply shameful and must be hidden at any cost. Patel is 33 years old, but being unmarried, her family most probably assumed that she was a virgin. Her affair with a married man and its consequences could not be admitted, perhaps even to herself. It was a shame terrible enough to make her dispose of a fetus and defer getting herself medical help until she had lost copious amounts of blood.
In the recent past, events like the grotesque Delhi rape case and the tremendous outpouring that followed it have cast a giant spotlight on the rampant sexism evident in South Asia. However Purvi Patel's fate makes it clear that women's rights over their bodies and their sexualities are also policed and threatened in parts of America.
The hyphenation of our identities as immigrants can be a powerful and empowering force. For Purvi Patel, however, caught as she is between a traditional culture which ignored and repressed her sexuality and one that criminally prosecuted the ramifications of that sexuality, this hyphenation has become a double prison.
Patel's story provides a frightening vision of what happens when conservative cultural and political ideologies rule over women's bodies. Women in both the east and the west continue to be punished by these misogynies. Some women negotiating the crossroads of these two worlds face a double jeopardy.