Friday, March 12, 2010

Side Topic: Gendercide, Observations of Women in India and Thailand

There are many striking differences we've noticed between India and Thailand. One of the most striking, especially with the Gendercide issue of The Economist still rolled up in the daypack, is the difference in the role of women.

Articles from the Economist:
Gendercide: The worldwide war on baby girls (INTERNATIONAL)
Mothers in China: Sobs on the night breeze (BOOKS & ARTS)
The war on baby girls: Gendercide (LEADERS)
Distorted sex ratios in India: Haryana’s lonely bachelors (INTERNATIONAL)

The Gendercide articles, for those of you who haven't read it, talks about the unnatural difference in birth rates of boys and girls, not just in China with its one child policy, not just in Asia, but worldwide (though not among all groups). This is basically the result of the collision of traditional sexism in son preference with ultrasound technology and wealthier couples wanting smaller families (even where this isn't a government mandate). One of the areas where this is happening the most right now is in northern India. While one could hope that the end result of a shortage of women would be to give them more value, cultures change slowly, and one must not underestimate the hazards of an enormous demographic of young men with little to no chance of reproduction. The Economist also points to South Korea, a country that used to have this demographic problem, but managed to reverse it through wealth and raising the status and education of its women. The Economist is concerned that India and China will not be able to make this transition fast enough. Thailand was not mentioned at all.

I've never in the past given a lot of thought to what a society looks like on the outside if its women have equal status to its men. Oh, sure, I've given plenty of thought to what it looks like as a woman in a modern industrialized nation, equal pay to your male coworkers, job security through pregnancy, no forced marriages, all field open to everyone, no glass ceiling, certain concessions for breastfeeding mothers, etc. In India (or when you depart), you see all the things Western women take for granted. I hesitate a bit to use the phrase "take for granted" because while the meaning is spot on, the connotation isn't quite right: there's nothing wrong with assuming these rights and we shouldn't have to be "thankful" for them. Equal rights for women may be a privilege in truth, but women everywhere are entitled to them.

But anyway, back women in India: aside from needing to worry about being aborted after an unfavorable ultrasound, or dying in an "accidental" kitchen fire for lack of a large enough dowry, or any number of other "invisible" troubles a tourist isn't going to see, there are also big differences out there for all to see. Don’t even get me started about the child bride we saw in Mathura. You hear a lot about modesty when traveling to Asia. Make sure you are well covered. And as far as wearing long pants and sleeves go, this does apply to both sexes. However, Indian men are constantly scratching (and who knows what else) at their neither regions and whipping it out in public and in sight of everyone to pee by the side of the road. Indian women are actually as modest as their clothes and very often cover their heads as well. They don't talk to foreigners. We don't know if this was a sign of less education and therefore less English, or just that Indian women generally don't talk to strangers. We think it's that they don't talk to strangers, because while we saw women working (almost always construction or back room cooking), we never saw a woman driving a tuk-tuk, selling souvenirs, selling food, working in a shop, running a guesthouse, or working any other job that would involve interacting with strangers. This was most obvious in the town where we did our tiger safari, where ever shop advertised "women crafts" (at least one shop along there was honestly associated with a charity promoting women working and supporting themselves and their families), but where were the women who man these supposed women crafts? No idea. There were also just fewer women out and about, strikingly evident as you got on the metro where the segregated security line was always 10 meters long or more for the men, while the women's line was generally no more than 5 people if there was a line at all. (The one public job I saw women working was the security screening, which always included a full pat down by a member of the same sex as yourself.) Now, to the fair, there were some women we met who were exceptions, but they were all either in Delhi, Mcleod Ganj (which is culturally more Tibet than India), or Indian-Americans on holiday from the US. Every single one.

We talk in the US about women's clothing styles being a reflection of men's sexual desires. We talk about women being objectified and all that. But now that I'm in Thailand and suddenly seeing women dress however they wish again, I'm seeing it with new eyes. Women here not only have the right to talk to whomever they want, they can dress provocatively for whomever they want too. Sure, styles do often reflect male sexual preferences, but as long she is deciding who, if anybody, gets to come home with her, it's her desires that are truly being served. Here in Thailand we see women in all sorts of jobs that involve talking to strangers and foreigners. And we see them out in public as much as men. Now I don't know if they face discrimination in places a foreigner wouldn't see, or secret violence in the home, but outwardly Thailand looks like a fine place to be a woman.

From Delhi

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