Gender Equality in South Asian Countries

By: Huma Price, London
I would like to make it clear right at the outset that when I talk about Gender Equality in South Asian Countries I talk about JUST THAT. I am very conscious of the fact that as soon as somebody raises a voice against fundamental injustices within societies, they are quietened and accused of being enemy agents and speaking for other forces.
I am very proud of my Asian heritage, my fluent ability to speak read and write Urdu, my knowledge of Urdu poetry and literature, my interest in Asian fashion and my integration within the society and country I was born in. Highlighting inequality and oppression in certain aspects of that society does NOT mean that I am dismissing the whole culture; I am dismissing only the abusive practices.
Gender inequality is so ingrained within South Asian Communities in its customs, culture and tradition that it is uncomfortable for people to hear about it. They realise that at some point they may have colluded in it too. This is not pleasant for people who may be generally broad minded but don’t really question their own culture and accept it blindly.
We need to start acknowledging that there are areas crying out for improvement simply because gender equality is not an issue that is confined to the countries many of us have left behind. It exists in every community that is settled in the west that originates from South Asia. And it doesn’t help anyone when people from various South Asian countries “blame” the other for it and try to pretend it doesn’t exist within their own culture.
After a wedding in Indian Pakistani and Bangladeshi community the bride ALWAYS goes to the boys’ house. Even where the couple may have bought a house of their own as many more educated and well off couples from South Asia do in the west and possibly even in their home countries, for the sake of custom girls will still go to the boys home for the night. THIS is a fundamental feature of Patriarchal model on which South Asian societies are based.
The dictionary defines patriarchy as a society where the family community and country generally are headed by a male and he has full control. In such a society women don’t necessarily exist as full human beings in their own right. They exist in relation to men. So their identity is as mother, sister, wife or daughter of a particular man rather than an individual in their own right.
The most striking thing about such a society is that when women are pregnant, they and everyone around them wishes them to have a son particularly their in-laws. There is even stronger pressure on women if they have already given birth to one or two daughters. So in Patriarchal society females as a gender are devalued even before they are born.
And this is the beginning of their socialisation to fit into patriarchal society. The most revered women in such societies are MOTHERS, particularly the mothers of sons. Women’s most valued contribution to such societies is the production of heirs to continue the status quo of male control. That may be one reason women are attached to their sons sometimes to an unhealthy degree.
The early socialisation of girl children is different to boy children as boys are geared towards careers and becoming achievers. Even if more enlightened families educate their girl children their upbringing is generally geared towards the role they will play in their husband’s life after marriage and the care and comfort they will have to provide to their husbands, their families and children.
As an example a dear friend of mine, who is a Head Teacher told me about a young brother and sister in her school who were both very clever but the sister was gifted and talented and could probably take A’ Level Maths at the age of 9 or 10 and pass it with flying colours. She told me that when the father used to come in for parents day he would always ask about his son.
When the teacher tried to tell him about his daughter’s abilities he would sigh and say “She has to go to another home and look after the kitchen, what good are her abilities in Maths for us and them”. A child’s abilities were left unappreciated and undeveloped by a father simply on the basis of her gender. THAT is the position of Gender Equality even today in South Asian communities.
As a woman grows into her teens and her sexuality develops, it is immediately imposed upon her that she is the “honour” of the men in her family. Therefore she is under strict control about what she wears, who she befriends, how she conducts her social life. Not only that, she is also trained to serve her brothers and father.
So it will mostly be sisters doing the house work while brothers sit around. This is seen as useful training for when the girl is married and will have to serve her husband and his family. In addition to that brothers are also assigned a job to keep an eye on their sisters to ensure that they are keeping the men’s honour intact.
Needless to say that it is THAT attitude when taken to extremes which results in honour killings. So Gender Equality in patriarchal societies means that men don’t carry the responsibility of their own honour. They are mostly free to do what they like. If their sisters or daughters do the slightest thing that endangers the men’s honour, the women have to be made accountable for their actions.
Marriage is generally arranged in a way that benefits men. This is because after marriage a girl is taken to the husband’s house and has to fit in there with their ways. There is a lot of cultural emotionalism attached to weddings with the girls’ side weeping and lamenting that they are “losing” their daughter forever as she is now the “honour” of someone else’s household.
It is said that in the older times girls were told that they must now leave their new home ONLY on their funerals. The most amusing things about this for me is that people from various South Asian communities try to blame each other for this type of mindset when in essence they are all the same when it comes to the socialisation of girls to serve their husbands and in-laws.
And while South Asian communities pride themselves on their “family values” they don’t quite make it clear that it is patriarchal family values they value. Therefore, parents who only have girls are left on their own after their girls have all married. There is no established system of looking after families with only girl children such as a custom that the last girl to be married has to bring her husband to live with her parents. That would be much frowned upon by Patriarchy.
I am not saying that the extended family system must be scrapped. I am saying that the parents of girls MUST be given equal importance in how they will be looked after by their daughters and sons in law after the couple’s marriage. Until this happens it makes sense why people only want to have sons.
So much so that women have to give birth every year until they have finally produced the heir to the family. When it was noticed by the powers to be that this was causing a massive explosion in the population, selective termination of female foetuses was introduced.
So it is not considered interference in the work of God if female babies were killed off before being born, BUT it is considered interference in the work of God if women wish to use contraception. The problem with contraception is that it can prevent the birth of a baby boy too. And that is not acceptable in patriarchal societies so religion is used selectively to keep the women deprived of any power over their own bodies.