Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Fight for Equality Goes On

I used to think Feminism was finished. That we were done with it. Not because it was irrelevant, but because I thought it had achieved its purpose, and was no longer really necessary. I was of this opinion by about age 15, when in high school, in Berkeley, California, as far as I could tell, women were equal to men, boys to girls. Pretty much every adult woman I knew had a career, had achieved as much if not more than some of the adult men I knew. Kids in school seemed equal, and so through the lens of that very limited (and perhaps rose-tinted) glass, it seemed to me feminism was no longer needed.

I was aware of feminism at the age of 15, because my mother was a feminist scholar and writer, someone who thought about and had written about gendered inequalities for most of her adult life. But at that point in my own life, I just didn't see the point. Why make such a big deal? Women were feminists, they had fought for equality, for their right to vote, to own property, to make decisions about their own bodies and health. Women had fought, and won. Or at least so it seemed to me.

It took me a long time to realize that although this might be true, in limited contexts, severe inequalities still exist for women in many other places. Of course by college I had heard of the Taliban, and of various other forms of discrimination in America and around the world. But I had never really confronted it face to face. I don't think it really hit home until I came to India for the first time in 2001. By that time I had read enough anthropology about India, and Indian culture and society to be at least somewhat prepared for the gender bias that permeates most of Indian society. Here the bias against women persists across boundaries of language, religion, social status, across pretty much every barrier that divides Indian society.

I don't want to reiterate a large body of academic (and non-academic) work on gender relations, roles, and inequalities in South Asia. For those that are interested, I'll put a few suggested readings at the bottom of this post.

Women's education and literacy still lag behind men. Women, even Ph.D. educated ones, are frequently expected to give up careers in order to marry and have children. The feminine role of wife and mother is one where frequently little compromise is allowed. I don't want to paint an entirely dire picture. These things are changing somewhat, and bit by bit, young women are being allowed (the key word: allowed) to pursue both a career and motherhood. This is not made easy, since facilities like daytime and after school child care are extraordinarily hard to find. Women may sometimes be far more educated than their husbands, with career and earning prospects higher than their husbands, but family and culture dictate that she should stay home, and the husband work or pursue his goals. I had this discussion just the other day with an educated and intelligent woman, married into an especially conservative household here in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. She told me her in-laws (with whom she now lives in a joint family) don't allow her to sit on chairs. Men sit on chairs, and women are expected to sit on the floor. She works at a shop which is owned and managed by her husband's family. She isn't allowed to pursue a real career based on what she studied. She is not allowed to leave the house by herself, without a male relative as a chaperon.

In the university where I am conducting my research, there are many young women students. But only one woman in the department faculty. Most of the students will never get the chance to pursue archaeology as a career.

Women are also, to varying extents, viewed as sexual objects, and not as equals and human beings. They are subject to harassment in public spaces: groping, grabbing, lewd comments. This is horrifyingly and surprisingly common. It varies to some extent from North to South, with less harassment in South India than the North, but still is present everywhere. This is not even to mention the frequency of rape, domestic abuse, and more serious forms of sexual abuse.

Indian women are not the only victims of this harassment. All women are subjected to it. I have personally been groped, had my breast grabbed, been cat-called, whistled at, had men expose their genitals to me, listened to innumerable inappropriate comments, attempts to kiss me, solicit me, and 'seduce' me. I have heard stories told by women whose experiences were worse than that.

I guess if you've been reading this blog up until now, maybe you'll realize where this post is going. Recently I started an organization: IAWAWSA, the International Association for Women Archaeologists Working in South Asia. In my last post on the subject, I talked a bit about the goals of the organization, but didn't go into much detail as to why I decided to start it. The above issues in contemporary Indian society affect both Indian women and foreigners like myself. I wanted to start an organization to support women, and their career goals, to support research conducted by women, and to bridge the gap between different nationalities, to talk about the issues of gender bias that we all have in common.

It turns out there is still a need for feminism, for empowerment. Still a need for equality.

So now that I've talked about some of the issues and challenges that women still face in India, in the realm of equality, rights and freedoms, I want to address some points about what I want IAWAWSA to become.

The gender bias that exists in India is systemic. It is pretty much across-the-board. And if it is going to change, it needs to be confronted and challenged from all possible angles. I did not start an organization to give micro-finance loans to women-run businesses (though if you want to do that I recommend, and I don't belong to an NGO. There are plenty of those. I started an organization that I hope will help the people I know, women archaeologists, and simultaneously help further research in subjects I think are important.

Ultimately I do hope to be able to offer funding, scholarships and grants to women to do research and pursue their careers. But at the moment we are an organization that offers a less material form of support. We can offer the support and encouragement to each other as peers, and as mentors. We can offer the support of opportunities to learn, opportunities to do fieldwork, opportunities to conduct research. Until we have the funding to offer financial support, we will conduct conferences, seminars, and have meetings to get to know each other. We can develop more specific initiatives as we go along and gain in membership.

This brings me to my last conundrum. I started this organization with the express and specific purpose of helping women in a struggle for equality. The struggle is waged at both the level of colleges and universities, but also, and most importantly in the wider social context. I want to support women. I want to empower women. I want to have an organization FOR women. But the "for" does not necessarily imply that it is exclusively made up of women.

Exclusion based on gender is part of the problem. Excluding women from joining groups, being able to participate in a wide variety of activities a huge part of the problem. To exclude men would not solve anything. It would, it seems to me, just strengthen the divide between men and women, and create an atmosphere of hostility, rather than cooperation.

Civil rights for African Americans in the US were not won by organizations that discriminated against whites because they were not part of the category those organizations were created to help. A gay rights group is still a gay rights group, even if straight people join. And a group like IAWAWSA is still a group to support and empower women, even if men join.

In fact we need men to join. We need men to understand the problem. If the society as a whole is going to change, as it needs to for women to become equals, the change has to come from everyone. Women alone can't change the system. Not only would it be hypocritical to exclude men based on their gender, it would be counter-productive to our overall goal.

It has recently been suggested to me that if men are allowed join IAWAWSA that would change the nature of the organization. That would make it an organization FOR everyone. It would change everything. I strongly disagree . The stated purpose, the raison d'ĂȘtre of the organization, to support and empower women in the profession of archaeology, and it need not change if men are members. To the contrary, I think that male membership will strengthen the organization, and demonstrate that we are all equals.

I don't really expect many men to join IAWAWSA, but if they want to, if they want to support the cause of equality, and empower women to pursue careers and research, then I think that's wonderful. It gives me hope that more men will come to see the value and importance of equality. The sooner that happens the sooner the system will change.

I am curious though how you, my readers, feel about this issue: so I have a short poll here to find out what you all think.

Suggested (and very selected) readings:

Bumiller, Elizabeth (1990) May You be the Mother of a Hundred Sons. New York: Random House Books.

Jeffrey, Patricia (1979, 2000 reprint) Frogs in a Well: Indian Women in Purdah. Delhi: Manohar.

Desai, Neera and Maithreyi Krishnaraj (2004) An Overview of the Status of Women in India. In: M. Mohanty (ed.), Caste, Class, Gender: Readings in Indian Government and Politics (pp. 296-319). London: Sage Publications.


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I think it changes the nature of the organization, but I also think that you always want to encourage participation from anyone who is passionate about helping a good cause. I've been absent for a long time due to some things I had to take care of, but it's good to be reading you again!

E-lho said...

you make some great points in your post. Just yesterday I had a forty-five minute conversation w/ one of our male teachers here about women's rights in India because I am constantly surprised by the number of important rights and equalities women do not have here -- like, for example, the right to get themselves to and from places and the need for many of them to rely on male members of the family to take them places like work or school.

I applaud your efforts to help women archaeologists and I think you hit the nail on The head when you say an organization that excludes men just widens the gap beetween men and women. Men make great allies inthe fiht for gender equality; I wish more Indian men would take that position rather than speaking out in principle against sexism but silently supporting it in their families and society at large.

Anonymous said...