Differences on women's rights and choice between the US, India and the Middle East

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The general belief is that the Western world is ahead on women’s issues because most Western women, or Westernized women, do not wear veils, do not wear clothes strictly for modesty, have access to education and full employment and are not forbidden to go out, or live an independent adult life, free from male permission, supervision, domination and control.

We are beginning to see that those changes or improvements to women’s status, rights, freedom and choice in the United States of America – once known for a vibrant and dynamic feminist movement, and amazingly female sensitive policies – are now under direct threat due to the rise of Conservatives and Religious Extremists who have penetrated America’s State and Federal politics, and are influencing its policies.

There are three segments to any woman’s rights, independence, status and choice:
- Her “self” – which includes a woman’s own beliefs, confidence, communication, will, dare, assertiveness, and her individual personality, attitudes, actions and psychology.
- A woman’s “family and her immediate social support” – which includes her family’s beliefs, judgments, approvals, disapprovals and general behavior towards her, her choices, actions and wishes.
- The larger society – which includes social laws, public policies and the way a woman is treated in all public spaces, including her work place.

In any society where any of these three aspects to a woman’s core identity, sense of self, wellbeing and life itself are ignored, neglected or dilly dallied with, women’s status and freedom are likely to be limited or absent. It is not enough if a woman is assertive, confident, and daring; she must live and operate in a family and a society where a woman’s personhood, personality, individuality and independence are respected, protected, promoted, appreciated, welcomed and well understood in the right ways.

It is not enough if a woman’s family is supportive, progressive and liberal, she must live (and work) in a society where laws and policies are sensitive to her both as a woman and as an individual, with her own personhood and with equal rights as that of a man.

In this regard the US, India and the Middle East are stark contrasts to each other.

An Indian woman employee I met at a hotel I stayed in last year (2012) said, “I know, madam, laws in India permit me to do many things. But family madam, family! They don’t even let me go out after 7:00 pm. I am constantly getting phone calls from my mother and father in the day asking me where I am and what I am doing. They don’t do that with my brother as much. They want me to stay pure until I marry. They will never let me date. They will introduce me to the guy they think I should marry. They will not force me... but they will pressure me, persuade me or nag me. I run on pressure, fear and on guilt with my family madam. That is where most of my stress as a woman in this country is for me!”

That pretty much sums up India. Its laws for women have been way ahead of most Islamic countries or even the Vatican. India is a secular democracy with a large diverse Hindu populace with an assertive active non-Hindu minority. But so much of Indian women’s struggle, even today, is not with their State laws and policies. It is mostly with their families (nuclear, joint or extended) and their immediate environment.

Indian women are not compelled to watch what they are doing and saying because the State may disapprove of their behaviours, or punish them for those considered immoral for a woman, unfeminine or dishonourable. Indian women are constantly worried, almost obsessed, about what their family and immediate community may say, do or not do.

In many Indian villages and its feudal communities the family, usually a large extended or joint family, was the only source of economic support, material protection, physical security and survival for women. Hence the approval of the patriarchal father or male figure, and his consort of female elders, were important. Without their approval, and gestures of protection, the woman could end up on the street with no protection: poor and/or prostituting.

Women in such feudal environments, with limited support, opportunities and protections beyond, are not merely coping with, managing, adapting and adjusting to State laws or policies that restrict or constrain them. Most women in these communities don’t even know what the State policies are. They are struggling to manage all the economic, cultural and/or psychological pushes, pressures and persuasions their family authority figures and relatives place on them.

In the Middle East the problem is both reverse and more severe. Even Middle Eastern families that are very progressive and liberal are forced to deal with conservative and highly sexist State laws and policies. An Arab woman once said to me, “My parents are educated; they have lived abroad; they believe in the education of their daughters and they would like us to drive, go to work and do many things that men do. But the laws of the country we live in forbids many things I want for myself, and my parents want for me and other women”.

My aunt, who usually wears a saree - once considered a traditional attire of modesty and decency in India - was hit with a baton by a morality police in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia when she went out without her Abaya (a full black veil). She needed to constantly check her attire, appearance and her whereabouts in her own upper class neighbourhood in Saudi Arabia. Even with an Abaya (a full black veil that covers a woman from head to toe) she could not visit many places by herself or as a woman. She found her experience very constraining and to leave Saudi Arabia and manage her life as a single parent while her husband, my uncle, worked there for many years as an engineer. She confirmed what many progressive Saudi women themselves state, “Our personal views, thoughts, beliefs, wants and needs as women are constantly thwarted, limited, distorted and punished by State laws and policies”.

We know from history that societies immersed in sexist cultures and religions successfully brainwash a large segment of their own women into agreeing with the “rigid narrow patriarchal beliefs, doctrines and laws”. In many parts of the Middle East, and some parts of India, traditional and conservative women themselves become perpetrators and enforcers of their family’s and community’s sexism - cultural or religious. In this regard progressive women who want true liberation struggle and suffer the most. They are constrained both by their own families and by the State.

As one woman protagonist screams to Allah in a novel (paraphrased), “Why did you make me a woman? My mother asks my own father to honour kill me because I chose to love a man outside my family and outside their approval. The State will not care for me, save me or protect me. It considers me an uncouth woman and hence deserving of punishment. It condones this honour killing. Why should Allah, the State or my own parents kill me? I shall kill myself... not to preserve the honour of my family or my religion, but to preserve the honour of my dignified self that refuses to accept any of this”. The protagonist kills herself.

Though the woman’s grief and anger are understandable, this kind of ending, popular in many novels, is annoying. It is similar to the stories in old Hindi movies, where the raped or rejected woman can only redeem herself, or find salvation, by killing herself, dying in an accident or by becoming a nun for life.

Many educated middle class Hindu women get angry over sexist words, insensitive remarks or gestures of disrespect. Imagine having to deal with a family that believes and practices honour killing? It is sometimes difficult in many societies, with extreme violence against women, some of it institutionalized, to point out the subtle forms of sexism. Violence against women and extreme forms of sexism can overlook the more subtle forms of cultural sexism, psychological abuse of females and condescending attitudes towards women.

As one Pakistani woman noted, “I was so distracted by extreme violence against women like honour killings, acid thrown on faces and brutal rapes...that educated middle class Indian women’s complaints about psychological sexism, sexism in the work place, sexism in communication and sexism in attitudes appeared trivial. Now I know...if we don’t stop the subtle forms of sexism then community and culture will dwindle to extreme forms of violence against women”.

The United States was an exception to many women’s traditional roles and rules widely prevalent around the world. With the rise of “liberal feminism” in the US, activists’ focus was on women as independent beings with their own personalities, passions and pursuits... who needed to become more confident, clear, educated, assertive, self directed and self determined persons in their own right. And with the rise of “radical feminism”, the feminist focus was on changing “public attitudes and beliefs” as well as “policies and laws” that would protect and promote women’s choices: their diverse needs and wants, their safety, their opportunities and their passions.

This combination of both “liberal and radical feminism” not only helped make women become more independent, confident, better risk takers, and assert their position within the family and the community well... it also provided laws and policies that defended women against denial of equal opportunities and rights in the work place or in the larger community.

Polices and laws addressed gender inequalities and disparities in education, health care, the judiciary, the law enforcement system, the media, the church, on labour rights, in corporations, politics, etc. Laws and policies also focused on mistreatment of women in families and communities: be it domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, stalking or gender discrimination.

American women benefitted from changes in family attitudes, beliefs and behaviours; shifts in community perspectives, priorities, policies and laws, as well as transformation of their own self, towards greater gender rights, equality, parity, independence, self sufficiency and social integration. It was not a perfect approach, nor did it achieve everything. Even in the year 2000 American women were earning less than men with the same qualifications and credentials; women confronted “the glass ceiling” in many companies and corporations; there were more women, usually single parents, who were on welfare and in poverty than men; single and divorced women were economically worse off than single or divorced men; fewer women were in high level jobs in companies, government departments and universities than men; fewer women were in the fields of science and technology than men... and only 15% of elected representatives were women. It was not, as noted earlier, a perfect system. But at least in vision, theory, law and public attitude women’s status as equal members of society was popular, well accepted and well noted, by women and men. Conservatives were a minority and a political non-influence.

In such societies women become more confident, self aware, self determined, independent, and assertive, while their families become more sensitive and supportive of women’s personhood, individuality, independence and their adult rights, and the laws and policies of the land both protect and promote women as independent intelligent women with their own personalities, needs, abilities, capabilities and passions.

Unfortunately, the new anti-abortion and anti-choice bills being passed in many Southern and Conservative States is not only an attack on women’s bodies and reproductive choice... it is a slow attack on the basic status of women itself. Patriarchy, be it cultural, religious, economic, social or political (or all five), targets women in three ways. It tries to control women’s bodies, their minds and their rights.

Acute patriarchy in many cultures and religions made women property of men. Women were made dependents of men from birth, and had no choice but to submit to men obediently, diligently and devotedly as subservient servile second class citizens in their own families and communities. Even women’s spiritual salvation in many countries was tied to “women serving men, and sacrificing for them”.

Women’s labour was both exploited and neglected while men depended on it for their survival, success and welfare. Many men would not be able to eat if it is not for the cooking and serving done by their women. Yet these same women who cook and feed their men everyday are criticized, mistreated, neglected and abused by men who depend on their work and contributions. Black labour, also once slave labour in the US, suffered the same fate. White colonial masters depended on slave workforce for their survival and success, but treated the very labour they depended on with contempt, violence and brutality.

The new emerging policies, mostly in Conservative Southern States, attacking “women’s reproductive rights” is a step towards limiting “all” women’s rights. As Gloria Steinem stated (paraphrased), “It starts with the uterus, then it moves to other parts of the body, then it goes to the brain and then the mind. Soon, quite abruptly, the woman is deemed property of a man... under his absolute control”. This is where America is going...or could go.

Instead of “only” focusing on the woman and her independent self, or “only” on a woman’s family and her immediate social networks, or “only” on public policies and laws that empower or disempower women, we should focus on all three: the self, the family/ community (or society) and the State laws/policies.

A society that demands from individual women, as well as their families, networks, cultures, governments, laws and policies, dramatic changes or improvements in attitudes, beliefs, social values, visions, behaviours and actions, that enhance women’s rights, freedom, choices, empower women as women and as people. Such a society would be an enlightened civilized society.

India should focus on empowering, liberating and expanding the individual self of women, and the attitudes and behaviours of patriarchal men in their families and communities who inhibit or restrict them. It should work to change women’s roles, expectations, autonomy and assertiveness, while also changing the attitude of men and women towards gender segregation, disparity and differentiations (subtle or obvious) that psychologically and socially restrict a woman’s independence, intellect and choice. It would be a great first step to get majority of women and their families in India to at least embrace the very laws and policies that are way ahead of where many women are culturally, socially and psychologically.

The United States, on the other hand, needs to fight to sustain what it managed to achieve - in terms of better laws and policies, changes in family/community attitudes and actions as well as transformation of the individual woman’s beliefs and behaviours - twenty or thirty years ago that both protected and promoted women’s rights, freedom, choice and equality.

The Middle East has to work at all three levels, to work towards changing women’s own attitudes, psychology and actions (that move away from sexist conformity and compliance); to improve family/community beliefs and behaviours with regard to gender equality and parity, and to create more female sensitive and gender equal public policies and laws.

First published click here to read.

Also read
1. Hindu women as life partner
2. Five elemental women
3. Origin of Saree
4. Let us not make Men out of Women
5. Vivekananda’s vision of Women
6. Pictures of women of Barmer Rajasthan
7. A Tribute to Indian Women
8. Worship of God as Mother in Indian tradition
9. How British created the dowry system in Punjab

Editor - India's progress is intertwined with the respect accorded to and progress made by her women. The more she progresses the more India will progress.

Note the British Parliament granted franchise to its women in 1918. Down to 1850 A.D. in England, a woman could not take a walk, much less a journey, alone, nor could she ask a fellow worker to visit her, unless the worker was a girl. When two ladies spoke at a meeting convened for the purpose of supporting a women’s cause in Parliament, a Member of Parliament said “Two ladies have disgraced themselves for speaking in public”. When the House of Commons was built in 1844, it was great difficulty that a Ladies Gallery was sanctioned.

Jagdish C Joshi wrote in The Times of India “The phenomenon of feminine theology in Brahmanical religion tradition is unique because all over the world the female gods were replaced by male gods. Diana and Berecynthia, Isis and Cybele were exiled with the coming of Christianity although female hierophanies reappeared in the figures of Mary and the female saints. However, the figure of the version and its supporting theology are subordinate to her son.

Of all the religious practices and beliefs concerned with feminine divinities it is Shaktism which gives the Goddess a place of supreme importance. In this tradition female is raised above the male as Durga described as Shakti, the energy of the cosmos. Without her we are told in one of the texts that the world is lifeless and even, the great Shiva is merely a corpse. An analysis of the legends, doctrines and abstract philosophies indicates the first, the Goddess is portrayed as power, and the female Shakti element is identified as the essence of reality, the male element playing a subservient role. Second she is identified with Prakriti, the primeval matter. As such she is identified with existence or that which underlines all existent things. Thirdly, she is described as giving food to all nourish all life and to cause decay. Fourthly, the Goddess incarnates in herself all the brilliance and power that the Gods collectively possess and her pervasive magic gives them sufficient power to be able to battle with all evil.

It is an exuberant celebration of the various forms of Devi, the Goddess, and their role in her victory over the demons who are supposed to be tormenting the people of this earth. She is also described as the embodiment of supreme eternal knowledge which becomes the cause of the release from bondage”.