News / Asia

South Asian Women Caught Between Tradition and Modernity

Part of an ongoing series about women and the challenges they face across the world

Pakistan youths walk past a portrait of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto displayed at the site where she was assassinated in Rawalpindi (File)
Pakistan youths walk past a portrait of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto displayed at the site where she was assassinated in Rawalpindi (File)

South Asian women lag behind men in literacy, workforce participation, reproductive rights and most other areas. Yet the region’s array of female leaders put the rest of the world to shame.

With the exception of Nepal, Bhutan and Iran, Cornell University's Kathryn March, Feminist and Professor of Anthropology, Gender, Sexuality Studies and Public Affairs says, "Every single country there has had its highest political position occupied by a woman, at least once.”

March suggests the success of women leaders in India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries may be related to their family lineage.

Gender Indicators in South Asia

Shikha Bhatnagar, Associate Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council agrees, saying leaders like the late Pakistani politician, Benazir Bhutto, former Indian prime minister, Indira Ghandi, and the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, are all connected to powerful men and powerful families, which may have helped push them to leadership roles.

India, the world's largest democracy and a globalization hub, trails many of its South Asian neighboring in women's political representation, literacy and labor participation. Amna Tariq Shah, an English Literature and linguistics student at Peshawar University, sees similar extremes in neighboring Pakistan.

"We have had the first female Muslim prime minister [Bhutto]; the president of our Supreme Court Bar Council is a woman, and so is our speaker of the National Assembly," said Shah in an e-mail interview. "But on the other hand we have women who are confined to the four walls of their homes by their men.”

The price of marriage

Brandeis University's Harleen Singh, Professor of South Asian Literature, and Women and Gender Studies, says part of the problem is that South Asia women symbolize both a cherished culture and the fear of losing traditional patriarchal controls to modernization.

Take marriage, for example.

Amna Khalid Mahmoud, a Pakistani student studying in the U.S., says girls are usually allowed to study as long as their parents cannot find a suitable match for them. She says parents want to marry off their daughters at a young age - from 16-22 - in arranged marriages.

"And when she gets married, you're expected to offer a dowry to the family that the girl is getting married into ... Once she's married, she belongs to the other family, said Shikha Bhatnagar. "So that's not a long-term investment, where[as] a boy or son is expected to take care of his parents throughout his life."

Investing in sons

This contributes to a preference for sons. Cornel University's Kathryn March says South Asia’s equity and opportunity indicators are "very dismal," including what she calls India's "statistically-impossible sex ratios."

March says the 2011 census reports that there are 914 females for every 1,000 males in India today, down from 972 in 1901.

Despite strict laws banning infanticide, Singh says the deeply ingrained preference for male children in South Asian culture cuts across urban, rural, class, and literacy divides, thriving in patriarchal societies and in communities where old thinking prevails.

“And as long as they are bound by tradition and are dependent on their families and their husbands and the other ... patriarchal connections in their life, they will not have the will to be able to choose, or the means to be able to choose what they would want in terms of children or daughters."

Education, education, education

The Atlantic Council’s Bhatnagar echoes Singh, saying that female and sex selective abortion will decline as more women get access to health facilities and education, and as information seeps into remote and rural areas in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where there is an acute shortage of female teachers, schools, and facilities to support a female school body.

Bhatnagar suggests creating incentives to encourage teachers to work in rural areas and building more schools, particularly in rural areas in countries like Afghanistan, where girls have to walk very far to get to school.

Shreejana Thapa accompanies her daughters after school at Naubise village near Kathmandu (File)
Shreejana Thapa accompanies her daughters after school at Naubise village near Kathmandu (File)

But as modernization catches up with rural areas, women are becoming more aware of the value of educating their daughters, writes Mahjabeen Alam Baloch in an e-mail interview from Hyderabad, Pakistan.

With education, more women are branching away from their traditional jobs as garment workers in Bangladesh, brick workers in Pakistan, and farmers in India.  Even with new fields opening to them, student Amna Mahmoud says most families still don't allow a woman to work, except in female-dominated fields like teaching and health care.

Breaking through the glass ceiling

But urban, middle-class working women are becoming more visible in South Asia, as rapid modernization changes the work place, traditionally built around an all-male workforce. Singh says middle-class men and women now share integrated work spaces in places like urban call centers and multinational ventures.

And it is there that women are caught between tradition and modernity.

"Women can still be tradition-bound to ask for their parents' permission in when and where they can go out, if it is not for work, and they are still beholden to pressures from their parents about whom they can marry, or not, and when," said Singh.

A young woman like Nausheen Rooh-Afroz, a recent Dhaka University graduate, lives with her parents in Bangladesh and has to abide by their rules. She majored in International Relations, but works as a contract employee dealing with migrant workers.

"Here, job opportunities for woman are very limited even [if] they are highly educated," said Shahidanaz Huda in an e-mail interview from Bangladesh. "But I am hopeful. The scenario is changing slowly as more woman come to [different] fields."

Huda, an accounts officer at the University of Dhaka, says female accounts officer were unheard of a few years ago. Now, she says, women are becoming more vocal in demanding their rights.

Microfinance

And as more women enter the workforce and earn a paycheck, they gain more leverage in families where husbands often make the important decisions. And they've been getting a lot of help from a tool that is more prevalent in South Asia than anywhere else in the world -microfinance.

A woman waits for customers at a vegetable market in Bhutan's capital, Thimpu (File)
A woman waits for customers at a vegetable market in Bhutan's capital, Thimpu (File)

"The traditional model, which was made famous by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, gathers together groups of five women - and it is almost always women - who agree to be responsible for each others' loans," explained David Roodman, a senior fellow with the Center for Global Development. "And they take out small loans - they might take out $50 or a $100 - and they make weekly payments over the course of six months or a year. And there is no collateral like most lending in rich countries."

The downside is that a woman who is unable to pay off her loan comes under peer pressure so that others don't have to pay it off instead. In that sense, Roodman says microcredit can limit a woman's freedom. But it also empowers women by virtue of the fact that the loan will only be extended to her.

"It was a bit revolutionary because it drew women into a public space from which they were normally prohibited from entering," said Roodman. "Traditionally, there's something called purdah, which prohibits women from going to public spaces ... And this has provided them a kind of leverage ... So it's changing the rules a little bit.”

The rules are definitely changing. But only through education, economic development and inspiration from leaders like Indira Ghandi and Benazir Bhutto can the region’s women prove not only that they are as good an investment as men, but that they too can walk the path to power.

You May Like

Photogallery Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving With Feasts, Festivities

Holiday traditions include turkey dinners, 'turkey trots,' American-style football and New York parade with giant balloons More

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

With two years left in term, analysts say, president has less to lose by taking conversation on race further More

Video Italian Espresso Expands Into Space

When Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti headed for the ISS, her countrymen worried how she would survive six months drinking only instant coffee More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
South Africa Sees Male Circumcision as Way to Reduce HIV Infectionsi
X
November 28, 2014 3:31 PM
South Africa remains plagued by AIDS despite massive government and NGO efforts on prevention and life-sustaining Anti-Retro-Viral programs. But the country has opened up another front to reduce new HIV infections: promoting circumcision. Emilie Iob reports for VOA News from a pioneering circumcision center in Orange Farm, Johannesburg.
Video

Video South Africa Sees Male Circumcision as Way to Reduce HIV Infections

South Africa remains plagued by AIDS despite massive government and NGO efforts on prevention and life-sustaining Anti-Retro-Viral programs. But the country has opened up another front to reduce new HIV infections: promoting circumcision. Emilie Iob reports for VOA News from a pioneering circumcision center in Orange Farm, Johannesburg.
Video

Video To Make A Living, Nairobi Street Vendors Face Legal Hurdles, Physical Violence

The Nairobi City Council has been accused of brutality in dealing with hawkers in the Central Business District - in order to stop them from illegally selling their wares on the streets. Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

Throughout the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama has urged calm, restraint and respect for the rule of law. But the events in Ferguson have prompted him to call — more openly than he has before — for profound changes to end the racism and distrust that he believes still exists between whites and blacks in the United States. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Online Magazine Gets Kids Discussing Big Questions

Teen culture in America is often criticized for being superficial. But an online magazine has been encouraging some teenagers to explore deeper issues, and rewarding their efforts. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky went to this year’s Kidspirit awards ceremony in New York.
Video

Video US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Parade

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.

All About America

AppleAndroid