Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Gender Inequality

I'm hoping I haven't alienated my entire tiny readership by my constant absence.

Anyway, this post and this one too at Body and Soul inspired me to write something today. This post is taken from my comments there. (And spell-checked, too!)

Jeanne is writing about The Bookseller of Kabul, a controversial book by Asne Seierstad. Jeanne has a link to the firstchapterr of the book.

Reading it got me thinking.

The ethnocentricity of Westerners when looking at other cultures sometimes amazes me. We often try to eradicate sexism where it may not exist, or inadvertently make problems worse when trying to fix them.

Example: there's a group of people living in central New Guinea called the Grand Valley Dani, that had been pretty much left alone by the west until the 1950's. They had existed with stone-age technology up until pretty much the 1970s, when their culture was jolted into the 20th century.

The Dani were pretty much egalitarian between the sexes. Polygyny (having more than one wife) was practiced, but the women weren't "bought and sold" or treated as property. Husbandsrespectedd their wives. Women owned the gardens that they grew their food in. The men did hard physical labor like building houses and tilling soil, leaving women to thinks like plant potatoes or gather salt. Nobody had to work very hard and most of the day was spent sitting and gossiping.

One practice of the Dani, however, was kind of barbaric. If someone died, after the funeral some girls from the compound would have the first joint of a finger removed as a kind of sacrifice. As a result, most adult women were missing a joint on most of their fingers. They were still able to do things like weaving with their mutilated fingers, but heavy work was out of the question.

So, in come the Dutch missionaries and put a stop to this practice. Of course they do. The idea of mutilating little girl's fingers is pretty creepy to me. A generation later, almost no women have their fingers mutilated. The unintentional result of all of this is that now women do all of the work. They till the fields, build houses, tend the pigs, gather salt, do the cooking, everything. When a man needs more help with a major task, he used to gather all of the men from his neighborhood to help. Now he gets another wife.

So, ending funerary finger mutilation did not end gender inequality in the society. It seems to have made it worse.

My point is, that we can't just go into Afghanistan and take off everybody's burkas, or get rid of polygyny and expect that to solve all the problems. The burka is not the problem. Polygyny is not the problem.

Government regulations forcing you to wear a burka under threat of a beating or worse, now that was a problem.

Now they have other problems in Afghanistan that need fixing. What they're wearing doesn't seem to me to be one of them. Who they're sleeping with doesn't seem to be the problem, either.

People like the author of this book want to eradicate the traditions that offend theirsensibilitiess, but they don't want to help the women of Afghanistan gain real power in society.

Power of the type that women are still struggling to gain and keep here in America.

To quote this Salon article:

When I asked my English students what they would buy their mothers if they were given $20, burqas (more properly called chadoris) were the gift of choice; when I asked what improvements the girls sought at Balkh University, they mentioned a changing room to put on their chadoris at the end of the school day. I was surprised at my own vehemence when I suggested that they throw the chadoris out instead. Later, then-deputy women's minister Tajwar Kakar complained to me that the only topic female journalists wanted to discuss was the veil -- not education, not job-training, just the veil.

Getting rid of things like burkas or polygyny, or finger-mutilation among the Dani, make us feel good. We can see the little changes on the surface and ignore the actual problems deep beneath.

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