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Why These South Asian Desserts Are Fighting Sexism

South Asian culture traditionally marks the birth of a baby boy by giving sweets known as ladoo. For girls, there is no such celebration, something gender equality activist Raj Khaira hopes to change with her Pink Ladoo Campaign.

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Sep 30 2016, 3:00pm

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In South Asian culture, people often say, "Mere ladoo kithe ah" when there's something worth celebrating. It means, "Where are my sweets?"

On the day I meet Raj Khaira, founder of the Pink Ladoo Campaign, a blue box of Indian sweets known as mithai arrives at my house to mark the birth of a baby boy in the family.

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Traditional ladoo sweets made from gram flour, semolina, water, and sugar syrup. All photos by the author.

It's part of an outdated tradition in South Asian culture which only celebrates new babies if they are male. Friends and relatives give moist yellow sweets called ladoo, marking the new birth as a major blessing.

The Pink Ladoo Campaign wants to challenge this. Launched on October 11 to coincide with the UN International Day of the Girl Child, it aims to tackle the stigma surrounding baby girls by celebrating births in their own rights. And with their own sweets.

"It's something I've been thinking about since I was a child on and off because of the fact that my younger sister's birth wasn't celebrated in the community," explains Khaira, who was raised between Canada and England in a Punjabi household and would often speak to her family about inequality."The extended family was very upset when she was born and then I saw the way they reacted when my brother was born and it was so different."

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Gender rights campaigner Raj Khaira's pink ladoo.

Even now, the birth of a girl can be seen as a disappointment and a burden. Stemming from a culture of male preference in South Asia, boys are revered because they carry the family name. With girls, parents feel the financial pressure of jahez (dowries), and may even start saving as soon as the child is born.

Though such lengths aren't taken in the UK, negative attitudes towards baby girls prevail. In some instances, people even believe families can be cursed by having more daughters if mithai is distributed.

"The whole point of this campaign is to start a conversation," says Khaira. "We want to start a dialogue and we want to be the voice of this generation because our generation is screaming for someone to represent us and say we've had enough. I want us to unite as a community and elevate the status of women together."

That is where the ladoo comes in. Though there are around 300 different varieties of the sweet across the Indian subcontinent, classic yellow ladoo is typically made from gram flour, semolina, water, and sugar syrup. It dates back to the Chola dynasty of southern India, when it was handed to travellers and warriors as a token of luck or offering to the Gods.

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Pink Ladoo Project founder Raj Khaira.
pink-ladoo-sweets-confectionary Boxes of ladoo ready to be given as gifts celebrating a new birth.

"Ladoo is not just a normal sweet," Khaira adds. "It's a sweet that's really intimately tied with the concept of a celebration in our culture. It's symbolic because all these years I had been trying to think of something else to celebrate the birth of a girl but then I thought why not a ladoo? I wanted to make the campaign the symbol of a bigger protest because this is very significant in South Asian culture."

Initially, the places Khaira contacted didn't warm to the project. She funded the campaign costs but wanted to get the sweets donated. Luckily, she was approached by Barfia, London-based mithai chain who are involved in the local South Asian community and wanted to lend their support. Ambala, another company followed suit and many other sweet shops across the UK have started experimenting with their own versions of ladoo.

We're in an East London sweet shop when I open a box of the pink ladoo. The tangy smell of berries lingers around the neatly placed sweets. Traditional flavours are replaced with raspberry and coconut, but the ladoo is still crumbly—just like the classic version.

Kiran Toor, a mother-of-three from the Midlands was the first person in her family to celebrate her daughter's birthday with ladoo during a ceremony in her Gurdwara. Initially, reactions were mixed.

"People were a bit confused by the pink ladoo and they didn't understand what it was about," she says. "They'd never seen it before and sadly and they didn't understand why it was being offered."

But after the pink ladoo concept was explained to guests, they ended up requesting twice as many sweets.

"Reflecting on our event, all our guests asked us questions about the campaign and there was a lot of interest," says Toor. "The majority of people knew nothing about it. All feedback was extremely positive. Pink ladoo has definitely got people talking and has raised awareness of the social problems in our Asian cultures."

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Toor thinks girls are still seen as an expense rather than a blessing and that this must change.

"Compared to old times, even nowadays as soon as a baby girl is born, they say that girls are sort of borrowed," she says. "Their real families are those they marry into."

But Toor adds that conservative elders are beginning to change their ways and realise girls are no less than boys.

"Our daughter is a major celebration and has added so much to our lives," she says. "That's why you give ladoos, when your family has been rewarded with such an amazing gift and she has done the exact same that our boys did for us. This is what the pink ladoo was about. We just wanted everyone to know she's really special to us."

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Male preference culture remains a significant problem in the South Asian subcontinent with the birth of boys outnumbering those of girls by four to one in some rural areas, according to UN figures.

But word of Kharia's project is spreading fast. In Gujrat, Pakistan a group of volunteers launched the campaign from a university hospital. Posters were put up across campus and pink ladoo was distributed in 40-degree weather.

"I've been flooded by messages from women from all over the world just telling me how necessary this campaign is and how it's time someone did something like this," Khaira says. "The campaign is giving people the support that a social movement brings to give them the courage to celebrate their daughters. We want this to be a movement."

It's not a bad result for some boxes of pink sweets.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2015.