I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Okay, that is a lie – I think about this constantly. And even if I try not to, I’m repetitively, daily reminded of it in my interactions – personal and professional. Now, I can’t stop thinking about it.
What perpetuates mysoginistic cultural norms? Most all the cultures that I know of have them somewhere in their history – many still have them. This post focuses on India, where I live now.
A recent article in the NYTimes just brought to light a story that most of us who have lived here for any short period of time will come to know – so many women here don’t (formally) work.
In fact, they’re encouraged (forced) not to work outside the home. Startlingly, while India has been widely publicized for “developing” so much, from 2005 to 2012 women’s labor force participation has FALLEN from 37% to 27%. Um, sorry, by what skewed world standard is that development?
The article discusses two possible reasons for this decline, clearly pointing to the latter as the probable cause for most of it through its heart-wrenching story:
- “India’s boom has created jobs in segments that are not generally accessible to women” (e.g. construction)
- “Unless their choices are dictated by destitute poverty, Indian families seek the status that comes from keeping women at home.”
In the article, women of a small town in North India – who could make more than double what their drunkard husbands make in a month – are punished when they decide that they would rather work in a factory than be beggars. Punished how? By being called prostitutes. Threatened by mobs. Ostracized by not only their own communities, but their own mothers. Unprotected by the police. Beaten down until they give up.
A recent paper by de Hoop et al (2014) makes a keen observation about interventions that aim at increasing women’s empowerment in rural Orissa: when women join Self-Help Groups (SHGs) – savings groups – in villages with more “liberal” social norms, their well-being is increased. However, then they do the same in villages with more “conservative” norms? The tradeoff isn’t worth it. They feel less empowered – they ARE less empowered. Social sanctioning trumps all. Ah, and there’s the rub about empowerment – you’re only actually empowered if someone else will acknowledge it.
I’d like to point out that this horrific misogyny doesn’t just exist in in the village world of Geeta and Premwati (a world, mind you, that is quite worth paying attention to – the majority of Indian women live there), or the world that de Hoop is studying.
It’s a common phrase that I’ve heard from close Indian family and friends – “oh, well, these things don’t happen in OUR circle of friends and family.” India is developing, India is great, our progress will just continue. We obviously outshine China, and the Middle East, and Africa (you know, that entire continent) – our social norms are way more progressive, and besides, we are more cultured and are going to be making more money than everyone soon.
But guess what just happened? A close friend/family member – in OUR circle – recently had an arranged marriage decided upon* (in this case, her parents registered her in a state and caste-specific marriage bureau, her family and his family met at her house). She and her potential husband-to-be went in a bedroom to get the chance to talk alone for 10 minutes. She told him up-front that she potentially wanted to study more and even work – ….and asked if he was alright with it. He said he was. His mother confirmed that the boy cooks dinner for himself since he lives with his brother in the city, not with his parents. All of these were interpreted as wonderful signs of a nice boy and suitable family for marriage – not just that, but the phrase “open-minded” was tossed around a lot. Soooooo open-minded!
Hold on. Rewind for a second here. What!!! It is 2016. This is OUR circle – educated, middle class, living in a big city, Indians. And the question – about whether SHE will be allowed to be further educated and work – has to be asked? In the 10 minutes she had alone, this is what she needed to ask?
Yes. Definitely. It does have to be asked. It’s perfectly normal to ask – if after marriage a girl will be ALLOWED to partake in these scandalous activities of being educated and working and earning money. Otherwise, she may be married off and later find out that she’s not allowed to do anything except stay at home taking care of her in-laws, husband, his family and friends (if he has any brothers and their wives, of course – sisters, meh, they’ll go elsewhere to take care of their husband’s family!), and her kids.
And what’s the other term I hear a lot? Oh, that’s right. All the stories about all the women who choose this life. They like this life. They want this life. “You know, there was that one friend of a friend that we know, who decided that she wanted to live separately from her husband, so they moved out of his parents’ house. A few months in, she just felt so lonely and she hated it – she loved being with her sister-in-law in the same house – they were such good friends and support systems for each other- they moved right back in! She says she prefers it so much!” Now, we are all socially conditioned – of course we are. I have many of my ambitions because of expectations laid out by my family, society, chosen career. And I have no doubt that this story is probably very true, for many – close support systems are incredibly beneficial and healthy.
But some social conditions are more narrow than others – they allow for less choice – they only allow for a narrowing of possibility, nothing else. Why don’t we question that more? Why is it so scandalous, irreverent, disrespectful to my culture to even ask the question? Is this happening because this is what women think they can have, or because even if given a wider set of choices (and of course, there are extremes – too many choices can be stressful), this is what they would choose?
An ailment of the poor?
Misogyny is not an ailment of the poor. It is a social sanctioning, patronizing, disgusting norm pervading through many levels of Indian society – rich to poor, professional to personal, high caste to low caste – and not only is it not getting better, it’s getting worse!
It would be great if the most well-off and educated Indians – those who have the power to potentially change something around here – would get over their egos and self-delusions and admit it rather than calling those who admit it “those secularists”, those “anti-nationalists” who are just trying to be controversial and anti-Indian culture, bring trouble to social rigidities “that have worked fro generations”. Let’s ask the question: worked for whom??? Stop conflating rigid norms and nationalism with values and culture. Cultures evolve – this happens everywhere. Values are not good values in themselves just because they have been passed down from generation to generation – they are good when a person has the freedom to reflect on them, to change them, and choose to follow the ones they decide.
I, for one, see what Indian culture has to offer as a whole lot more (and the potential to be better) than this. And if those who have power in society just admitted this, maybe, just maybe, something could start changing around here for the women. Couldn’t you zoom out for one moment, and think about whether this could be true?
*Quick aside for a definition: In and of itself, the term “arranged marriage” for Indians can mean many different things – from “set up by our parents/close friends” to what I describe to the story in Meet the Patels to “child married off by her parents”