Friday, April 22, 2011

Cultural Preservation

Why should the woman on the left be treated with any less respect than the man on the right?

Sometime in the Autumn of 2003, I was heading from Bhubaneshwar to Puri - I had secured a seat by dropping a scarf onto it through the open window and I'd climbed aboard to claim my place. A Telugu man, who looked exactly as though he'd been fashioned out of two balls of gingerbread dough and iced with a white shirt, black pants, glasses and a cartoon mustache plopped down next to me and stuffed a duffel bag under his seat. I rode with my backpack on my lap - partly because I was afraid of razoring and petty theft, and partly because it was so big that I had no choice.

The bus started with a grimace and we began hurtling across the jungled countryside. Mr. Gingerbread introduced himself as Ashok ("My pleasure to make your acquaintance. May I kindly ask your educayshional qualificayshiuns?") and began a thoroughly pleasant discussion with me, mostly asking what I liked about India.

Finally, after assuring him that the dirt was no problem, that I found the auto-rickshaws kind of charming in their way, that saris were beautiful and salwar kameezes comfortable, that I enjoyed studying Tamil, the crowded buses were just par for the course and the food was ridiculously good, he paused.

He then sheepishly asked - "Is there anything you don't like?"

I paused too, because there was something I didn't like. Well, beyond the corruption and poverty, which nobody ever likes. Normally I'd wave this question off with "aaahh, no country is perfect, isn't it? Of course there will be small things, small small things only, that I don't like" (my semester in Southern India made it so that whenever I returned I picked up bits and bobs of the local speech patterns. I do the same thing in Taiwan), "but they are small and generally I like it." With emphatic bobbling of the head.

But I decided I could trust Mr. Gingerbr-err, Ashok - I liked his style. I hadn't told anybody in India about this thing I didn't like - although it ranks right up there in human rights reports with corruption and poverty - because my not liking it (like a little "thumbs-down" on Facebook, not that anyone outside of college used Facebook back then) wasn't going to change anything. Meaningful action would, and saying "I don't like it" isn't meaningful action.

At least I didn't think it was back then. I feel differently now.

Whatever the reason, I told him.

"There is -" intake of breath - "one thing I don't like."
"Oh, and what is that thing?"
"Well, it's...

...the women's rights issue. Basically I think that women have made a lot of progress in India and now you can see many female doctors, politicians and professionals...but in so many ways they're still treated badly."

Should we expect this woman to do her job sweeping the temples and then go home and take care of all the housework?

"What are you meaning by 'badly'?"

"Well, marriages are still arranged and while that affects men, too, it disproportionally affects women - the men's families size criticize the potential brides far more than the bride's family takes issue with the groom. He basically just needs to be same-caste, maybe, and making a good salary. She has to be accomplished, but not more accomplished than he is, and pretty, and fair, and slender, and a good cook and housekeeper. Basically, those marriage ads do care if the woman did well in school but are mostly concerned with looks and housekeeping. I think that's not fair. At home women are still expected to do most of the housework, or supervise the help if they have help - even if they work. If there is a divorce the woman still gets more blame than the man. He can go back to his life - she might get disowned by her family. There are still dowries.

"I just think..." I continued, "I just think it's not fair. It's not good for women. I love India. Don't mistake my meaning. I love to be here, but I want to see this change. I want women to be equal. It makes me sad that I can't do it on my own."

I didn't mention things such as dowry deaths, wife-burnings and domestic violence or emotional abuse because while I did want to be honest, I wanted to wait a bit before delving into those heavier topics with a stranger.

I have no message with this photo, I just like it.

Ashok was silent for a second.

"But...this is our traditional culture! The Indian women understand this! We all have to do what we can to preserve our heritage. The wife will traditionally handle the domestic issue only."

"It may be your traditional culture, but it's not good for women's equality today. It means that women will always have to do these things, even if they don't want to, and men don't have to do them. That means men will always do better in their careers than women. That means women will never have a choice."

"Men don't have a choice either. We have to do our career and make some money, isn't it?"

"Yes, but you can choose your career. You can do what you are interested in. Because men don't really do housework, it's easier to pursue hobbies if they don't like their job. Housework and child-care doesn't give any choice. It's always the same work - you can't choose to do housework you like. You just have to do it, and being in charge of all that means less time for hobbies...although of course many Indian women do have hobbies."

Why isn't this woman allowed to enter a mosque (I know - religious reasons. I'm not actually up for debating that).

"Well, we can't always choose our career. Our parents sometimes choose," he smiled.

I smiled, too, because he had me there. Three years previously I'd sat on the linoleum of a fan-cooled Indian living room while host mother's daughter in law taught her 9-year-old son, Shiva, how to do complex multiplication. Maybe Jenna can answer this one, she said, terrifying me. What's 17 times 42? Errrrrr.... "714!" Shiva had piped up. "Great job," I said. "You could be a mathematician." "He's going to be an engineer," Meena replied purposefully. But he's only nine years old I thought, and said so more politely. "Yes, and he is going to be an engineer."

Shiva's probably an engineer now.

Why should these girls get fewer opportunities and endure more social expectations and criticism - especially regarding looks, marriage and children - than the boy?

Ashok pulled me out of my reverie. We can't be dismantling our traditional culture!

I hear it so often. I heard it in China, too. I've heard of it in Japan and Korea. You'll hear it said in Central America and to some extent the Philippines (although less so). Sometimes I hear it from the far religious right in the USA. I've read it on the Intertubes (I know, but still) and seen it debated in anthropology books talking about groups like the Quechua and tribes of northern Laos. I've seen and heard it all before: women's rights remain an issue, and yet gender roles play a big part in this traditional culture.

I thought then, and still think, that this is utter bollocks (pardon my British).

As I told Ashok, and still believe, it is entirely possible to preserve cultural norms while allowing for greater equality. In cultures where minorities or tribal groups were discriminated against (which is to say all of them, basically), those groups have gained greater rights, treatment and equality without fatally wounding the culture of a place. (I realize some fans of the antebellum south would pause - yes, freeing the slaves did wound pre-Civil War Southern culture, but certain aspects did not die out completely - red velvet cake, debutante balls, certain wedding traditions and cultural norms. Regardless, I think paving the way for a group of humans to be treated as, well, humans was worth the loss).

Look! Men doing laundry! It's a miracle! (I kid - I realize that they're Brahmins washing their own dhotis, and anyway, my husband does laundry of his own volition).

I fail to see how allowing women to be equal members of society with the same expectations as men - physical safety, sharing of housework, career goals, education, right to an opinion, respect regardless of looks, equal work and salary opportunities and freedom from harassment or discriminatory treatment - would "destroy" Indian culture, or any culture.

It might change it a bit, but that change would be heralding half of society gaining equality. I do not think it would change things so much that there would be reason to fear: the fear that Ashok felt, and that many feel even now, is made-up. It's a "Future Bogeyman", a fear of change, not a fear of any realistic outcome.

Seriously, if you start treating women as equals, what will happen? Well, saris and salwar kameezes will still exist because they're fashion items - plenty of women wear them because they want to - not because they have to. Temples and templegoers and the panoply of gods will remain the same, as will their methods of worship.

Does she deserve any less than her husband?

Food might be cooked more often by the men of a household, but it will remain largely the same - expecting men to share an equal burden at home doesn't mean that channa masala will suddenly cease to exist, or that butter chicken will disappear through a space-time distortion.

More women might drink alcohol, and more women might travel alone, but is this such a huge deal? More men will have to pick up dustcloths and brooms and hold crying babies - is this the end of the world? How does this meaningfully change the culture?

(No, it changes it because women traditionally swept the house and held the babies doesn't count, because I used the adverb "meaningfully").

The divorce rate would likely go up, and there might be more pre-marital sexual activity. You could see these as downsides, but really a huge number of those divorces would be as a result of women leaving abusive or loveless (or affair-strewn) marriages - that's a good thing. I don't actually believe that India's currently lower divorce rate means that those who are married are any happier than in any other country, just that they're unhappy but still married. Pre-marital sex is something to be cautious of, for sure, but it would be little more than leveling the playing field (plenty of Indian men have premarital sex, and comparatively fewer women who do not live in major cities do, although it certainly happens and is now more common in bigger metropolises). This is nothing that better sex ed couldn't handle.

I don't mean to say that no Indian men help at home (many do) or that they all have these expectations (many don't). I'm speaking very generally, because there are a billion people in India. If you are going to say anything at all, you by necessity have to be either very general or painfully, almost individually, specific.

Guess what - if we end gender discrimination in India, this bit of cultural history will still be there. It won't disappear.

But, you know, Taiwan has managed to transition to a culture of relatively equal gender relations - problems persist, but it's at the top of the heap in terms of progress in women's rights...and yet has retained a remarkably resilient traditional culture. The food is still there. The night markets are still there. The temples and fortune tellers are still there. Cultural norms, expectations and modes of expression and communication remain largely unchanged other than the normal rigors of adapting to the modern world. The only difference (besides a higher divorce rate, especially in Taipei), is that women can fully participate and not be treated as expectation-laden beasts of burden.

Taiwan is, quite refreshingly, one of the places where I have not heard this pile of steaming crap about how keeping women down is imperative to preserve this amorphous thing called "culture". Taiwan is also one place where I can say with conviction that traditional culture has successfully transitioned into the modern world. Japan and Korea share a similar distinction, but deep gender issues and discrimination persist.

Although there is still work to be done, Taiwan is an example that they don't have to.

My parents have a remarkably egalitarian marriage, as do my in-laws. Choices made are choices made together (I presume, but with confidence), and yet are they any less "American" than couples 150 years ago where the woman had no chance of owning property, voting or having a career in the professional sense?

So...bollocks to all of it. You can have deep cultural roots - roots so deep that you don't even know from where they're growing - and treat women as equals. Yes, you can.

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