Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Reflection Paper #2: Dowry, Women in Tech, and the Anatomically Correct Oscar

Disclaimer: I know this is long, but I tend to get verbose when I'm passionate. I hope you can bear with me and that I'm able to be interesting enough to keep your attention to the end!

Since the last time we wrote a reflection paper I've found myself focusing a lot on the gender issues over the other two (race and class). Though those have played a role in my in-class comments and thought processes, they have taken a back burner recently to the gender issues that seem to be permeating much of my mind lately.

Following my presentation/discussion leadership on the topic in class, I received some additional commentary from some American friends of mine who live in India. Their take on the dowry system and the role of women in their area was interesting, so I wanted to include it in my blog, since I didn't have it in time to share it during my presentation.

Note: My friends live in a middle-class rural area, so their experience is going to be different that that of others in different areas.

Indians do not generally take an opinion on their roles. Role is something related to duty, which is very important to them spiritually. So a woman's role is hers because she was born a woman, which is because the gods decided she would be a woman, which is related to karma, past life, etc. So there's not a lot of internal freedom for forging a new role in life, although probably a city-dweller would disagree with me on that. Here is a saying about the ideal woman:

"Works hard (as a slave), Gives smart advice (like a minister),
Feeds and cares (like a mother), Is a sex-goddess in bed (like the apsara Rambha),
Is beautiful (like goddess lakshmi), Is forgiving (like mother earth),
These are the ideal qualities (and duties) of a wife."

This is still very much perpetuated as a good thing. If people see [my husband] doing dishes or putting up our laundry, I get scolded. 

The value of women is a changing thing. It used to be that people didn't want to have baby girls. It is still extremely important to have a boy, since the boy will eventually perform an important ceremony for his parents upon their death. But now people area happy to have girls. They see girls as being intelligent and caring. 

An interesting aspect of this is that women are generally, societally and in ancient writings, thought of as being more responsible...meaning that if a woman and man have sex out of wedlock, the girl is responsible but the boy isn't. This has contributed to the "rape culture" you probably hear about in India. Boys aren't taught that they can control themselves and a lot of their stories show that women are seductive tricksters. There is also a lot of violent pornography, which contributes to this problem as well. 

Women try to encourage each other to dress modestly and stay together, and occasionally blame others for being victims as a way to encourage others to protect themselves. Gossip is a way their culture reinforces values. 

Dowry is very important. In fact, I was just talking to a woman today about her daughter's dowry. She was telling me, eyes aglow, about all the lovely things they would gift to their daughter and her new family. Beautiful dishes, a washing machine so that she would have a little rest from her work, etc. 

On the part of the bride, a lot is spent on dowry, and it is thought of as a gift both to the daughter and the new family she is joining. It is meant to bless her and them. I have never heard of it being thought of as a negative thing, except in news articles about people in other areas of the country, with the throwing of acid thing. 

Also, it's not just the bride's parents who provide the dowry. All the bride's relatives help by giving gifts of clothing, jewelry and money to the bride, groom, and various important people in the groom's family's life. 

In fact, my friend mentioned that one of their local friends had a daughter getting married soon, and my friend and her husband would be expected to provide part of the dowry. It should be interesting for them to explain their position on the system and concept of dowry when it is something that is so entrenched in the local culture.

I was so glad to have this additional information from someone who is on the inside. It really does seem to be dependent upon class and geographic area of the country as to what is expected and what is accepted in terms of dowry. I also found it intriguing that my friend pointed out that women don't think to question their role because it was assigned to them by the gods and therefore their duty to fulfill their assigned role.

What if Christian women viewed their roles the same way? What if we lived our lives as though we were assigned the role of womanhood by God and quietly and happily fulfill that role? Well, the answer to that is complicated because the real debate is not whether women should accept their roles in life, but rather what, in fact, IS a woman's "role?" I think in Indian culture(s) it is much more well-defined than it is in western cultures, which is, I believe, part of the problem when attempting to resolve gender issues here in America (and other western places).

Throughout the discussions on the development of gender identity in children, the sections on how parents play a part in creating and maintaining gender stereotypes have really bothered me. Since I only have female children it is frustrating to me to be unable to say, "No, I don't do that." However, I have a hard time believing that I would treat male children any differently as far as language. Wood Chapter 7 says that parents tend to praise girls for being "helpers" and boys for being "independent." It's awkward to tell a child, "Oh, good job being independent!" so I don't say that to my girls...however, I don't think I would say it to a boy, either. I think if my (currently nonexistent) son were to help me set the table before dinner I would thank him for being a good helper. Is this wrong? Should I be focusing more on telling my children they are doing a good job thinking for themselves and taking initiative? This chapter really put a spotlight on the language I choose for my children--and also made me hope all the more that this next baby is a boy so I can put all of these interesting tidbits to the test!

In Erenly's notes for chapter 7 she posed a discussion question about male privilege, directing us to Steve's comment on page 175. I read Steve's comment and it made me frustrated and, at the end, kind of angry.

His worldview is very obviously traditional: The woman typically stays home and takes care of the children and the home while the man is the breadwinner. He says, "I have to get a job and make money; a woman can do that, but she doesn't have to." In most cases for most families in America right now, that is an outright laughable statement. Most households cannot possibly survive on only one income, and the woman is required to earn a living alongside her husband. For a majority of women in America, having a job is not a choice--it is a necessity.

Also, his perspective is skewed in favour of women to make his point. What if I rephrased his statement as though a woman had said it?

"I am sick of hearing about 'female privilege.' Where is it? That's what I'd like to know. I'm expected to sit there and let my date pay for dinner, a movie, or whatever we do as though I can't take care of myself; he has the advantage over me from having covered my cost. I'm not expected to be able to pay a cover charge to get into a bar; men apparently just have more money in their pockets so they pay the fee. If the draft comes back, all the men will have the privilege of serving their country while the women have to volunteer themselves, like we're some sort of weak animal who can't possibly be expected to hold a gun or drive a tank. People just assume a man has a job and does well for himself and his family; women are assumed to stay home and be mothers rather than have a career--and if we choose the latter we have to work three times as hard to get it as a man. So tell me where female privilege is in all of this."

That certainly changes the perspective of the statement, doesn't it?

Recently I read a couple of articles about women in the land of technology and was very surprised to learn through an NPR article that the original computer programmers who started the process toward what we know as computing and programming today were women. One main reason for this is interesting: In the 1930s and 40s men were more interested in putting together the physical pieces of a machine rather than dealing with the language behind making the machine function. Programming was considered "women's work."

In contrast, today I read an article on Fortune Magazine's website about why women leave tech careers. The title caught my attention, especially since I work in education (and we talk about who chooses what major and why frequently): "Why Women Leave Tech: It's the culture, not because 'math is hard.'" The article talks about a research project done with over 700 women who chose technology-related careers and are no longer in the field. An overwhelming majority cited becoming a mother as a major factor in their decision. Many women discovered that their line of work was not conducive to maintaining a family, as their male-dominated employment culture was extremely non-understanding of the situation in which a working mother finds herself--especially if she chooses to nurse.

I have always been told and believed that girls just aren't into the sciences as much as boys are. As I've aged I chalked that "fact" up to the idea that girls are more into communicating, talking, exchanging feelings, and making people feel good, whereas boys tend to be more interested in blowing things up, dissecting things, and figuring out how things work. In my line of work we constantly talk about gender and race disparities in various disciplines: Asians are known to be excellent musicians, mathematicians, and engineers; engineers are almost never female; nurses are almost never male; etc. So a lot of effort is put into recruiting these specific groups of people into the areas in which they are underrepresented. We tout our female engineering students. We brag about our male nurses. Though, to be perfectly candid, we never SAY that's what we're doing. But in marketing materials for a nursing program you'll almost ALWAYS see a male nurse in the group photo. In a PR article for a magazine you'll find attempts at demonstrating female student interest in the sciences on a regular basis.

These articles put into perspective the concept of societally shaped perceptions of gender roles and expectations. Women are no less capable of solving (and programming!) complicated algorithms than Asians are of being a television news anchor or men are of starting an IV and holding an elderly woman's hand while she falls asleep in her hospital bed. It's all about what society tells us we are supposed to do because we have or do not have certain body parts. (As a side note--why don't boys play flute? And why do so few girls choose brass instruments? Why don't Asians play viola?)

I took a look at guerrillagirls.com and was at first quite put off because their site is so horribly designed and difficult to navigate. There isn't an "about us" section or a "contact us" section, so I had to hunt a bit to figure out what exactly they do and who they are. After a bit of browsing a reference to their anatomically correct Oscar caught my attention, especially since we had a bit of a discussion about this topic in class recently. I thought several in the class would find this interesting; here are some stats they use in their story:

  • No woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Director--and only two have ever been nominated.
  • 94% of the writing awards in the Oscars have gone to men.
  • Only 3% of all acting awards--lead and supporting--have gone to people of colour.
  • 96% of films are directed by males.
  • No woman has ever won an Oscar for cinematography or sound.
  • Even 85% of makeup awards have gone to men.
There are more stats about race issues in Hollywood, so click the link for those numbers. They were very interesting, too.

I also highly recommend checking out genderads.com; it has a collection of over 4,000 ads that depict the way gender is used to sell products and services in various ways. I see it on a minor level when I browse magazines or (unfortunately) happen to see television commercials, but they've dug deeper--even including ads from as far back as the 1950s. It will be both eye-opening and maddening, to tell the truth. And prepare yourself for a good hour or more browsing their collection and contemplating their discussion questions. (They even have links on how to use their site in the classroom, which I absolutely love. Definitely well-thought-out project and a well-designed site.)

I think I've blathered enough with my thoughts on things we've discussed in recent class periods, so I'll end here. I'm really grateful for the things this class has taught me and the new thought roads I have to explore, especially as a parent raising the next generation. It's really put a whole new perspective on how I speak to my children, the language I use when referring to individuals, and how I view media reports and gender stereotypes. While I've always had these issues percolating in the back of my mind, this class has really brought these issues to the forefront and given me new ideas to consider, and I love that. I hope I never stop seeing more, even when this class ends.


  1. Thanks Becky for sharing. It’s always eye-opening to hear your perspective. I thought it was interesting that it isn’t just the bride’s family that contribute to the dowry but even friends of the family as well. It changes the perspective of how a dowry works with that bit of information. I also found it interesting that they find it a privilege to take part in a dowry. It’s a source of pride for the family it seems. You really see how this a way of life and deeply part of their culture.
    It was surprising to me that women view their roles as assigned by the gods. It makes sense why many women in Indian culture don’t subscribe to the ideals of western feminism. Their views of a role of woman is deeper than an idea. It’s religious and spiritual for them. That makes a huge difference.
    Congrats on your next child! God bless you!
    The point you made on women in technology was so interesting to me as well. It reminded me of a documentary I saw on the history of film editing. For a long time editing films were solely meant for women. They used the film strip at that time and the idea was that women had the best hands for handling that type of work. Men would direct and produce and they’d have a room filled with women doing all the editing for the movies. It’s interesting because ironically editing has a big influence on where the story goes.
    Finally, the fact that “85% of makeup awards have gone to men” is shocking. It’s sad that men dominate so much of the categories in films. Films and the stories they tell should be representative of all people, not just the ideas of men. Hopefully things will change.

  2. Thank you for that perspective from India. It is interesting to not just read about it, but to get someone’s actual experience. I suppose from reading this that the laws do not really affect the culture, because dowry is supposed to be outlawed. It also amazes me how collective thoughts can be so entrenched in the people with regard to their roles. I’m thinking maybe it has to do also with the caste system and the idea that everyone is predestined to be born a certain way and stay that way their entire lives.
    I think the idea of a woman’s role in western culture is clear, at least traditionally – she is supposed to be a wife and mother, care for her children and her husband and home. But just like in India, these ideas are based on culture. And I do not think it is even possible for neat roles to exist for each sex, just like you say. From my perspective growing up with a single parent, it was not possible for there to be clear roles, because my mother had to do everything – she had to be the breadwinner and the homemaker. So, if women had to just take on ‘women’s roles,’ how would that have worked out in my family? I think roles cannot be defined and enforced, sometimes because it’s just not possible.
    The statistics on the Oscars are really surprising. I already knew they were not skewed, but I had no idea they were that skewed. I think throughout history it has always been the Caucasian male who has had power over every other race and sex, and the Oscars are a reflection of that today. It all goes back to the question: Are we really making progress or just running in place?
    I agree that this class has been eye-opening. Culture is a phenomenon that is so subtle, that it affects you without you even realizing it. Every day, all around us there are gender roles and other norms being enforced that we don’t necessarily agree with.

  3. Becky as always, I enjoyed reading your blog and your perspective of certain issues, specially since you have children and can bring a different perspective than when I think about the issues that we have been discussing in class. It was eye opening to know about the dowry system in the region your friends are living in. I had no idea that the dowry is expected to be paid by extended family and friends and it was something to be proud to be able to do. Its interesting how culture varies with in the same country.

    I really liked your rebuttal to Steve's male privilege comment from the book. I think that women do have a lot more responsibility on their hands than men do. A well rounded women is expected to have good education, a career and still be able to take care of the home. The stats on the Oscar where surprising to me, I had no idea that there were such disparity between genders.

    Oh, I couldn't help but notice your comment about the next child. Congrats :)