The word “women” is very illustrative. I see it as the combination of two words: womb and men— she is a being that contains the future; both physically and spiritually. This expresses the fundamental importance of her role and highlights her strong yet nurturing essence.
Of course, there’s also the dumbed-down version where many have interpreted the composition of “women” as the idea that women cannot exist without “men”. She is defined by him; her father, husband or son and also exists for him. It is the proverbial argument – Eve was created for Adam but it was because Adam needed her. Thus, does he own her or honor her? For the average woman busy navigating life, these alternating perceptions are the undercurrent of existence.
South Asia, which includes the countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, is an interesting crossroads of culture, religion, tradition, modernity and society. The women of this subcontinent play both roles described above, and in a very covert fashion. They are the givers and the needy; the bread winners and the bread bakers. Call it hypocrisy or just circumstance, but the most challenging aspect of a South Asian woman’s existence is living these dual personalities.
For societies that are predominantly patriarchal, it’s interesting that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all had women in ruling positions. Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and India’s Sonia Gandhi are all powerful women who have commanded or are commanding male-dominated societies. On the streets of these countries, however, the same men who voted for female presidents can often be found holding their daughters back from pursuing an education or career.
Illiteracy among females
Currently, the U.N. states that half the female population of South Asia is unable to read and/or write. It’s a conundrum that must confuse young women growing up in South Asia. It also sends the wrong message that opportunity and social equality are only for elite women—not the middle class, and definitely not the poor. Many women who want to gain an education are neither supported by their male counterparts nor in any substantial way by their female-run governments.
This double standard also applies to working women. The fight against poverty is a constantly raging battle for many families living in South Asia: the poor live it; the middle class fears descent into it; and the rich remain indifferent to it. Under these conditions, many families send each and every member into the work force. Men, women and children desperate for every dollar the damaged economy can spare them fill the region’s factories, fields and shops. South Asia’s child labor statistics are in the millions, and many of these laborers are young girls who will stay in these positions for a lifetime.
As a means to survive, the laboring of women and girls is not only acceptable, but expected. However, the act of a woman pursuing a career for the purpose of self-actualization is often frowned upon. There is a sharp distinction between a “job” and a “career.” It’s OK for a woman to leave the home to perform a labor-intensive, often dangerous job for the benefit of the family, but it’s not OK for her to pursue a career for her own benefit.
The irony is that this cultural attitude keeps the cycle of poverty well-embedded in South Asian society. When women aren’t given educational opportunities and a chance at a respectable, stable career, they remain dependent on men. On one hand this is considered the traditional way of things, yet it doesn’t take long for those same women to be seen as burdens. The amalgamation of this is seen in the high rates of female feticide —studies suggest about 12 million over the past three decades in India alone—and the greater desire for male offspring that is still prevalent in South Asia today.
Although education and poverty are social and economic problems, their nucleus is the cultural framework around which they revolve. From this same framework come issues such as women’s safety. According to U.N. Women, an act of violence is perpetrated against a woman in South Asia every three minutes. India and Pakistan are two of the five most dangerous countries for women in the world, as indicated by a poll carried out by the legal news service TrustLaw. What makes these countries so dangerous are lack of finances, education, and employment, health and nutrition, as well as weak .
The business of honor killings
When a society defines its honor and morality through the actions of its women, it also places the burden of these on women and diminishes men’s responsibility in upholding them. The outcome of this is that women end up shouldering the blame when tragedies like rape occur, resulting in ignorant acts like honor killings and the silencing of victims through shame and duty. Even more astounding is that behind the scenes there is a whole different story unfolding.
An article in The Guardian UK recently highlighted the case of a 45-year-old Bangladeshi woman who admitted that she and many poor women like herself regularly migrate across the border to India to work as dancing girls in bars. “The men can’t earn a living, so they send us across the border. All this I made with money I earned in Bombay,” the woman says in the article, pointing to her brick house before adding that the money also allowed her to put two sons through college and marry off her daughter. In a society where morality—especially for women—is vigorously policed, and conservative tradition is said to be a priority, this reality is simply hypocritical.
The challenges that South Asian women face on a daily basis are two-fold. In the fight for survival they are up against physical hardships that are compounded by social cultural norms, keeping many well ingrained in the cycle of abuse and poverty. Mario Joao Ralha, team leader for South Asia at the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm (ECHO) sums it up precisely:
“I believe that the most widespread and silent killer of women and girls is a combination of poverty and the low status awarded to women,”