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

Video Analysts: Beijing Parade a 'Bazaar' of Stolen Technology

Show commemorating victory over Japan in World War II involved long, medium and short range missiles, a range of tanks and 200 fighter aircraft More

Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism

Although most analysts say it is unlikely he will get the Democratic nomination, Sanders' campaign opens up questions and issues that are otherwise marginalized More

Video On IS Frontline, Kurdish Fighters Ready for Offensive

Peshmerga soldiers say although they need more heavy artillery, they are poised to take the fight to the Islamic State extremists on their turf 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.
Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outragei
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 04, 2015 11:36 AM
The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outrage

The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Russians Observe 11th Anniversary of Beslan School Attack

This week, Russians have been observing the 11th anniversary of the attack by Islamic militants on a school in Russia's North Caucasus region that killed more than 330 hostages, including 186 children. The three-day siege and massacre that started on September 1, 2004 took place in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, and is one of the bloodiest terrorist acts ever in Russia. VOA's Mike Richman reports.
Video

Video Native Americans Debate: Father Serra, Saint or Sinner?

Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month.  But some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video China Announces Troop Cuts at WWII Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday announced plans to cut the world’s largest military force by 300,000 troops. The announcement was made during a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War II. The event was shunned by most Western leaders and for some is raising fresh concerns about China’s military ambitions. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

VOA Blogs