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Freedom veiled in tradition? Being a woman in South Asia

INDIA | Monday, 22 July 2013 | Views [1550]

On September 19 1893 New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to give women the vote. We have a proud tradition of woman’s suffrage, and a society (for all its faults) that still values equality. I am no feminist but having spent nearly six months in South Asia I have developed a new appreciation of the hard won freedoms that I enjoy as a New Zealand woman; the freedom to pursue education and career opportunities, the freedom to speak out and share my opinions, the freedom to choose how I conduct my relationships, the freedom to live independently without fear of exploitation or abuse, the freedom to practice my religion without persecution. At home I am not judged by my sex, or my family status or the way I dress. I am judged by my own actions, and I can choose to earn or to lose peoples’ respect by how I choose to conduct myself in the world.

Having grown up in such a society it is tempting for me to think that these freedoms are my rights and that I should enjoy these freedoms anywhere I go. Even more naively, I assume that every woman has the right to enjoy these freedoms. But this world view is brought into stark contrast with the reality of life for women here. Through many conversations and experiences I have been challenged about the rights and responsibilities of women, and the perceived fairness of the expectations placed on women in different cultures. I have seen such vulnerability, brokenness and oppression of women that it has made me boil with anger. But I have also come to see that perhaps in gaining our individual rights, we may have lost something of the security that comes when a woman’s role is defined and protected within community.

That Question:

Being a Bideshi (foreigner) in Bangladesh you are constantly asked the same questions:

  • “How are yooou?”(Usually shouted from the street as you ride by on a rickshaw)
  • “Your country?” (The answer to which is usually followed by a discussion of the merits and failures of the NZ cricket team)

And then there is THAT question, the one which seems to have a simple answer, but is actually fraught with cultural misunderstandings and unforeseen complications:

  • “Are you married?”

A simple “No” will not suffice. You can get away with a “No, not yet” in a quick exchange at the market. But, in most cases you need to be prepared to engage in a much more thorough interrogation of western traditions around love, marriage and family.

With very few exceptions, a woman in Bangladesh WILL get married. It is a certainty. Love marriages do happen, but if she does not find her own man, a woman is assured that her family will find one for her – usually before her mid-twenties. For a woman marriage is security; her role is defined first as a daughter, then as a wife and as a mother. Depending on the financial position of her family she can study and she can work. But she will never be alone. She understands that marriage is not all about romance, and while she and her husband may genuinely come to love each other, she understands that duty, respect and companionship are a solid foundation on which to build a family. Of course, she may not be so fortunate in the choice her family makes – some girls are married off (illegally) as young as 13. Some find themselves in abusive relationships or subject to a domineering mother-in-law. But on the whole, in Bangladesh a married woman has respect, rights and a degree of freedom within the community that a single woman cannot enjoy.

And this explains their incredulity when I patiently explain for the hundredth time that I’m single, and happy being so. They cannot comprehend a culture in which a single woman is safe, secure and respected. They worry “Who will protect you? Who will provide for you when you are old?” They cannot separate the idea of being alone with the feeling of loneliness. Their lives are so entwined within community that independence is a fearful proposition. “Why doesn’t your family find you a husband?” How do you explain that in our culture it is just not done! My Bengali friends were horrified to discover that love marriages are the only option in the west, and they were full of sympathy for these poor Bideshi women whose future happiness and security rests solely on the fickle hope of stumbling across ‘love’, by which we have come to mean romance, in the Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan, Hollywood tradition. 

Through the eyes of my Bengali friends, we have paid a high price for our freedom.

Surrounded by Wolves:

From the relative security of community in Bangladesh, I headed back to India and spent 2 weeks on the tourist trail. Travelling alone in the North of India I became aware of my vulnerability in a way I’ve never experienced before. I think all women recognise that just by virtue of our sex we are, to a greater or lesser degree in different situations, vulnerable to the intentions of the men around us. No matter how emancipated or independent we have become, there will always be men who see women only through eyes of power or lust.

By God’s grace I have travelled this far without any harm befalling me – I have prayed for and experienced his protection. But I have been acutely aware of how dangerous it is to be a woman alone, particularly in this culture. Normally I get angry when I see women forced to cover themselves to protect men from their own weak minds, but as I travelled, I found myself looking at the local women, their faces covered by colourful scarves, wearing the symbols of marriage, their status as respectable wives & mothers, and I was a little envious of their security.

As a western woman too, I am burdened by the expectations created by Hollywood – the expectation that I must be easy, willing to jump into bed with anyone & everyone. And so I can’t walk down the road without the wolves circling. It is frustrating not being able to look people in the eye in case they get the wrong impression, not being able to fully trust anyone. I don’t like having to appear rude in order to rebuff the attempts of men who want to chat me up or take my photo. I felt like I had to become prickly, defensive and cynical just to make it through a day of sight-seeing. Do I blame the men? Do they hold personal responsibility for the way they view me, or are they simply a product of their culture? Do we as western women hold some responsibility for the perception they have of us? I wonder if we have taken our freedom too far, particularly our sexual freedom, and in doing so have trapped ourselves under a whole new set of expectations that are not bounded by the security of community, family & tradition. Maybe, by leaving behind the traditional roles of wife, mother and daughter-in-law we have become easy prey for the wolves of greed & lust.

Hand prints on the gate:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying that any woman ever deserves to be objectified, disrespected or abused. The burden of responsibility for maintaining the dignity of womanhood rests on men – who must choose to respect, honour, protect and cherish women. When the men in any community or culture fail at this task, women lose their voice and everyone suffers. During my time in Rajasthan I was confronted again and again by the historical victimisation of women that perhaps still colours the cultural perceptions of woman in India today. 

A woman’s value was (and still is in many cultures) determined by the men in her life. She was the property of her father, her brothers and her husband. Men, knowing the minds of other men, sought to protect their women by keeping them out of sight. Within the confines of the women’s quarters, behind screens and veils, the wives, daughters and concubines were neither seen nor heard. A striking example of this is Hawa Mahal in Jaipur. A beautiful five story structure with galleries, balconies, stained glass and lattice-covered windows, Hawa Mahal was built so that the women from the palace could watch parades and ceremonies in the street without being seen. Today, women in both Hindu & Muslim families are hidden, covered to various degrees by fabric, by walls, by cultural expectations of modesty. It seem so wrong to us western women - we who consider self-expression and engagement in all levels of society to be a right. But I can’t quite bring myself to condemn the practice completely, not when the intention is to protect, not when I’ve seen the wolves circling & wished for such protection myself.

While women have been afforded some degree of protection by these cultural practices, any woman who stepped outside of her traditional role was subject to a gross double standard. Standing at the entrance to a lake where royal bodies were cremated in Jaisalamer, is a gate built by a woman. And not just any woman; she was a prostitute to the royal family. How she found herself in that situation I don’t know, but she must have made the best of her lot because she earned enough money to build herself a home. In a gesture that can only be interpreted as a most pointed snub at the men who had used her, she made her home into a gate right over the steps that the King would have to walk down to get to the holy lake. The King was furious – he could not walk under the home of a prostitute! (even if she was HIS prostitute), so he ordered the building destroyed. In a stroke of genius she built a small temple on top of the gate, a holy shrine that no one would set their hand to destroy. And so the gate stands today a monument to a woman who made her own way in the world of men.

Most women, however, would never have such an opportunity. On the palace gates at Jaisalamer fort, bright red hand prints betray a grizzly history of state sanctioned abuse. In Hindu tradition, widows had no value; following the death of her husband, a woman (who may still be in her teens) was not allowed to re-marry. Nor was she allowed to work to provide for herself. She was powerless, helpless and friendless. Her only way out was death. In a practice called ‘suttee’ widows were expected to sacrifice themselves to the memory of their husbands – they were burnt to death. Following battle, the widows of all the men killed on the frontline would make their way to the palace. With henna they would leave their final mark, a hand print on the palace gates, before surrendering to the flames. Women were sometime burned before their husbands went into battle, to save them from rape – a fate considered worse than death. Suttee was practiced across India for centuries and, despite being outlawed in 1829, incidences of widow burning have been reported as recently at 1987.

A small hope:

The status of women in India has changed significantly in more recent times. Strong, intelligent women such as former Prime Minister Indira Ghandi have inspired generations of women to positions of leadership in politics, education and business. In the upper and middle classes, women are respected and have the same opportunities that I enjoy at home. But when you look deeper, particularly in those communities where people are less well educated, the traditional perceptions and expectations of women persist.

Just a couple of minutes from where I am sitting right now is Sonnogachi, one of the largest red-light areas in South Asia. Thousands of women (and undoubtedly many underage girls) service hundreds of thousands of men each day. Most of them did not choose this life – they were trafficked, sold or tricked into the trade, or forced to sell themselves out of sheer desperation. Despite the betrayal and abuse that has brought these women to the streets, society sees them as bad women, worthless, dirty. They are seen as commodities to be traded, objects to be used, and as a shameful secret best ignored by a progressive and modern society. They themselves say that they are rubbish, irredeemable. The very existence of this situation, this place, betrays a brutal and shameful attitude to women that still exists, not only within this culture, but throughout the world.  

But there is a small hope.

These women have not been forgotten. Over the last 10 years or so, a number of organisations, businesses and individuals have found their way into this community* – most would say that they have been called, led by God on a journey to live and work alongside these women. They all have the same goal – Freedom; to offer these women freedom from the trade, freedom from injustice and oppression, freedom from addiction and the effects of trauma and abuse, freedom from the stigma placed on them by society.  There are no easy answers here, no ready-made solutions. In fact spending any length of time in this place leads most to question everything they were once so certain about. But at least these women are gaining a voice.

The end?

So is there a conclusion to this hodge-podge of experiences and ideas? Not really. It is enough to say that being here has challenged my understanding of what it means to be a woman in this world, and what freedom actually looks like. And I have an inkling that change will not come just through women fighting for their own rights, but through a change of heart and attitude of men towards the women in their communities.


*Check out the following links for more information about how you can support the work for freedom in Sonnogachi:





Tags: bangladesh, forts, india, jaipur, jaisalamer, women


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