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

Kurdish President: More Needed to Defeat Islamic State

In interview with VOA's Persian Service, Massoud Barzani says peshmerga forces have not received weapons, logistical support needed to successfully fight IS in northern Iraq More

Sierra Leone's Stray Dog Population Doubles During Ebola Crisis

Many dog owners fear their pets could infect them with the virus and have abandoned them, leading to the increase and sparking fears of rabies More

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

New methods for mapping pain in the brain not only validate sufferers of chronic pain but might someday also lead to better treatment 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.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs