Friday, June 12, 2009

The Second Awakening: Special Mobile Edition!

Welcome again, ducks! Today's post comes to you live from Amtrak! I am on my way to visit my parents, and as we are a Green outfit here at TSA, we're riding mass transit. I am writing this on my trusty blue Acer Inspire One, which I bought for the trip to Thailand and has become my indispensable travelling companion--it fits in all my purses, and with the wireless broadband modem, I can blog anywhere!

Speaking of that trip, I passed through a large swath of Asia during it, and in honor of the first post I've written at 50 miles per hour, I thought I'd share some impressions of sex roles and segregation I gathered on the way.

Our first stop was Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. We only were there to transfer flights--if you're flying to India or Thailand, I highly recommend Etihad Airlways; they spare no expense, the planes are comfortable even in coach, and the food was actually good. But even that brief layover gave me a sense of the character of the place. There were women working, but mostly as servers; the salesmen we saw at the various stores were, well, men. Abu Dhabi is a crossroads in the Persian Gulf, so we saw all varieties of dress, from full burqas to women in completely Western dress. (The flight attendants on Etihad, though, wore these odd combination pillbox hats and veils.) The bathrooms were a bit different; there was an attendant/chaperone, and they follow the British custom of having full-own rooms with doors instead of stalls.

One definite difference: the metal detectors were sex-segregated, to make sure that you were only touched by someone of the same gender. (This was to be a recurring theme, we shall see, and one that usually left me pretty worried.)

India: Saying anything authoritative about India is an excercise in futility; it's too big, too varied, too everything. Our tour was exclusively in the northern part, so there were more Muslims there than other parts of India; again, there was a lot of variety in how Muslim women dressed, though when we visited the Jammu Mosque in Delhi, I saw quite a few people in burquas.

Indian standards of modesty are different than those found in America: bare bellies are fine (and an artifact of wearing a sari, as I know now--I bought two), but shoulders and knees should be covered. Both my boyfriend and I had to don ceremonial, wildly-patterned caftans when we visited the Jammu Masjid; once again, the metal detectors and clothing attendants were strictly sex-segragated.

Indian business and commerce are far more completely dominated by men than I was used to. We did meet several businesswomen, but almost exclusively in hotels; in stores, and the various "local craftsman" factories we were taken to by our guides (so we could be browbeat for 20 minutes in the hope of buying a rug/inlaid marble table/block printed cloth--the guide got a commission, of course), the people who did the talking were always male. As were all our guides; come to think of it, I think all the Indian guides I saw were male, as were a majority of the servers in restaurants.

Plate 1: The Author contemplates that the most beautiful building in the world was built for a dead woman.

Moreover, the quintessential picture of Indian poverty, I am sad to say, is a woman with her children. While I'm sure I saw some men begging--I certainly saw many, many poor people of both sexes; in India, if a space is flat, somebody's living on it--the people who approached us were almost universally women. (On the other hand, the people who tried to sell us overpriced trinkets while we waited on various lines were exclusively male.) Every public bathroom I went to in India had an attendant; I'm not sure if that was always true for my boyfriend, but it was for me. These were very poor women (or heartbreakingly, little girls) who handed you a napkin to use to wipe yourself in exchange for a small tip; we usually gave them 50 ruppes, around a dollar. I can't speak with any sure knowledge, but I would hardly be surprised to find that these women were Dalits.

On our way out of Indira Gandhi Airport (the first place I ever saw a traffic jam of luggage carts), we once again were run through sex-segregated metal detectors. These were more elaborate than the ones in Abu Dhabi; you were in a completely screened-off area, where you got wanded by the guard. Of the proper sex, of course.

Perhaps nothing captures the attitudes I encountered in India better than this: I was the one who booked the trip, who paid for it, who had negotiated with the tour company. When we arrived in Delhi, my name was on the card the tour representative held up at the airport exit. Yet when we got in the car--I was sitting right behind the rep--he turned to my boyfriend and said, "So, sir, is this your first time in India?"

Invisibility and being pushed around by men were the hallmarks of the trip for me.

Cambodia: Once we left India, we noticed a marked change in the presence of women in business--in that we actually saw several. Men still did most of the jobs that involved talking, including guide to foreign tourists. Like India, my boyfriend was spoken to first and more often.

I have no idea what the rules for the separation of the sexes are in Cambodia, but there seemed to be something subtle going on around us: our guide, Mr. K, constantly talked about the pictures of the apsara, or dancing girls that you see in bas-relief everywhere on the Angkor temples. He was often wistful about it, whispering: "Aspara. Dancing girls. Very beautiful girls." We suspected dating was pretty complicated in Cambodia.

Plate 2: Mr. K wants you to know he feels nothing for these women. Nothing!

Thailand: We passed through Thailand twice, actually: once, very briefly, on the way to Siem Reap in Cambodia, and then of course of the Purpose of the Visit. Thailand, least in Bangkok and Suvarnabhumi Airport is huge, and more modern than LAX or Newark Liberty; if not for the presence of signs in Thai, you'd hardly know you weren't in America.

Plate 3: It's like Los Angeles, just with worse traffic.

In Thailand we finally saw something approaching gender equity. Women were firmly entrenched in the workplace, at about the same proportion that you find in America. Men talked to me--sometimes even first!--and women were definitely assertive, at least to me.

That isn't to say that there wasn't a lot of sexism; there was. Thai (or at least Bangkok) culture has something resembling a mix of 50s-style mores, plus a thousand years of Buddhism, plus modern capitalistic ruthless. My nurses told me, for example, that it was still considered somewhat risque for women to smoke--I mean, holy Mad Men!

But at least in Thailand (and Cambodia) I could pee by myself; there weren't any bathroom attendants. And the metal detectors were unisex.

This is the face of progress, ducks: a man being wanded by a female security guard.


  1. I'm usually a lurker at this blog and quite like your writing. But! As someone who is a) involved with an Indian citizen and is b) currently a guest in an Indian home in West Bengal, I'd like to mention a few things. India is quite big and its social composition is complicated - people are separated both by class and community, as well as by space. What you wrote is similar to saying that white, Christian Texans are representative of the US. While the particular state represents some attitudes common to Americans, that's not the case across the board. And even less so when you consider the "white Christian" part. Same with India, fortunately. There's also the class issue - the poorer people are much less egalitarian than the middle and upper class, hence seeing mostly men working those roadside food stalls and shops.

    Personally, I'm finding India to be really refreshing, particularly Calcutta. A lot of the advertisement and marketing for food isn't fat shaming, the women tend to run on the thicker side by US standards yet are comfortable showing a decent deal of their backs and stomachs, and make-up isn't a big industry. (Unfortunately, skin lightening products seem to take make-up's place - but light skin is seen as being desirable for men to have too.) Women show up in advertisements for schools offering various business degrees (without men), a lot of my boyfriend's friends are females involved with business and journalism, and as far as 40 year old women and younger go, working is fairly standard. Then there are the non-gendered things which are nice - people talk very openly and casually about appearance (like, being called "fat" by someone is not a bad thing), people don't really have the concept of "personal space" and tend to be physically affectionate (though PDA is strangely enough looked down upon among couples), and... I don't know! The list goes on.

    There are obviously a lot of bad things in India. But the positives of the country are quite good, if not wholly visible to tourists in a particular area. (Which is understandable, of course.)

    AND! Speaking of gender equity in Thailand, Bangkok's redlight district (or a redlight district close to Bangkok) offers bizarre, exploitative sex shows which include both men and women doing animals. True story.

  2. Oh. And of course you mentioned the part about not saying anything definitive about India and I kind of looked over that. So please just take what I said as another perspective about another part of India.

  3. Amber,

    No worries! I really liked what you had to say, thank you for adding your perspective!

    I find what you have say about women moving into the professions really wonderful--and I wonder if the differences we observed might have been a difference in Bengali and Rajasthani culture; Mumbai is definitely a more cosmopolitan, business oriented city than Delhi (or Agra and Jaipur, our other destinations which have tourism economies.)

    I did find the lack of fat-shaming to be refreshing, I should have mentioned that.

    I don't think you can underestimate the profound impact colonialism had on India--you can see it in the skin-lightening you mentioned, or the mendacity of the servers that I encountered; in my more cynical moods, I told my boyfriend that the British had found India a nation of serfs and left it a nation of servants, but that is far too harsh and not really true of the less-touristy sections of India. But I do think it explains some of the contrasts I found between India and Cambodia and Thailand--Thailand was never colonized, and seems to have a different attitude about its relationship with western culture--a sort of "we're choosing to pick these elements to bring into our culture" attitude, rather than the very complex psychologies regarding western norms I found in India. Simplistic, maybe, but the conquest and subjugation of India was an enormous tragedy for the world, really, and the Indian people most especially.

    I didn't get to the Bangkok nightlife, so I won't comment on it; nor would I deny that part of what may have made me favorable contrast Thailand to the other countries is that I was able to move in the more westernized parts of it--and familiarity bred comfort.

    Visiting the non-western world was definitely an experience I'm still sorting was really profound.

    Thank you so much for commenting, Amber, I really found it helpful...for all the ways India overwhelmed me, I still fell in love with it and want to go back for a proper visit...if I can only get motivated to pick up my Hindi studies again...


  4. Are you sure that the interest in skin-lightening is a relic of colonialism as much as a desire to emulate the upper-class/"Brahmin" phenotype? Aryan invasion, Sanskrit, that type of thing? (A somewhat earlier colonization than you're thinking of!) Not to mention the very ancient concept that paler skin = wealthy and doesn't have to work outside in the sun? Look at ancient Egyptian wall paintings, for example.

    Not to defend colonialism, but the assumption that that particular aspect of culture is necessarily or entirely attributable to it seems rather simplistic to me.

  5. Fascinating, all of it. Thank you for posting, and Amber, for commenting!

  6. @anonymous: absolutely, that is also a factor in it...I just don't want to ignore/reduce the impact the global "normalization" of whiteness has on all parts of the planet, especially as carried by American media.

  7. "in my more cynical moods, I told my boyfriend that the British had found India a nation of serfs and left it a nation of servants"

    What the eff.

  8. @Samia,

    You're right, it was a shitty thing to say.

    Had I not been consumed in snark, I could have communicated in a better way my feeling that while the Mughal/post-Mughal Indian world wasn't exactly a utopian democracy, the British Raj left psychic damage that is still healing.

    I try to own when I fuck up, so I'm leaving the post unaltered.

    As brief and sheltered as it was, my stay in India made me angry and sad about colonialism: can you look at the Jammu Masjid or the Taj or Agra Fort and really tell me that a foreign power could bring culture to India?

    And I am sorry for giving offense.

  9. I recommend you read some of the essays by Indian writers in Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity (a generally wonderful book on whiteness studies).

    This isn't directed at you, C.L., but I have to wonder why some Westerners who travel to foreign locales will single out giant buildings as symbols of culture (almost like it's the only sign or something). Maybe because we in the West think skyscrapers are some kind of big deal, and we're looking for parallels that we can understand? It's like...damn, read something sometime. In the case of India, there's an ancient, winding, rich and often contradictory series of philosophies, sciences, poems, arguments, and paradoxes that underlie a lot of the SE Asian cultures. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote an interesting book called "The Argumentative Indian."

    Really, I just cringe when a white American visits a new (esp brown) country for a few weeks and comes back trying to play like they bought the damn place. It's imperialistic and dismissive, reducing an entire nation to a series of street vendors and eager-to-please cab drivers, you know? I've lived in various parts of the U.S. for maybe 12 years now (I'm Canadian) and still don't feel comfortable making general statements about it! So why do some USAians feel so damned good making pat statements about big-ass, OLD countries like China or India? Based on visits to 3-4 cities??? wtf. Plus HELLO if you're white you're getting a different experience of the place, period. Please don't fool yourself, peeps.

    Okay. I'm done ranting now. Sorry, I have issues with some of my friends who've done the study abroad thing and came back little appropriative hipster jerks. ;) It's weird when someone thinks they know what it's like to be you, but they never come right out and say it. I can't describe it, but it's a palpable feeling and marginalizing as hell. Maybe you've even felt this way around cis feminist women like me? God, I hope not, but it's quite possible.

    I should think it's obvious the "we're bringing culture to India!" thing was bullshit on the part of the Brits; bringing culture to the huddled masses has been a common justification for a lot of invasions by all sorts of crazies. They trotted that one out when it was convenient and spent the rest of the time enslaving Indians and forcing Indian children to hate their language and culture (the culture they lacked, of course...hmm).

    Tomorrow I'm going to pick up a finally-available book by Uma Narayan (I think that's her name), who is a pretty observant Indian feminist. I may post a review on my blog when I get done with it. :) She writes a lot about appropriation of Indian culture in particular.

    Have you seen any of Deepa Mehta's films? If not, I highly recommend them! Water is probably her best-known work. Mehta touches on LGBT issues, religious fundamentalism, colonialism, domestic violence, etc. Most of her stuff focuses on the experience of Indian women; some are period pieces.

    I have not read any bell hooks yet...I am a bad feminist. :/ Sounds like good stuff! I would love for you to blog your feelings about the book you're reading.

  10. @Samia,

    Thank you so much for your graciousness in wanting to continue this dialogue--I really appreciate it!

    I tend to agree with you in re: great monument taking; I really regret not spending longer in India, and not getting a chance to really go out and experience the country beyond the confines of hotel-car-incredibly beautiful ancient monument. Next time, when I can actually speak more than 10 words of Hindi (plus another useful language--Bengali?) I hope to do my more typical for me visit beyond the touristy zones.

    I will definitely seek out the book you recommend! Indian cinema is definitely a hole in my cinematic education (& I think I missed the big Satyajit Ray festival they were having locally, durnit), but I remember hearing great things about "Water" when it came out...rental time, I think!

    And that will still be only scratching the surface of Indian arts...though I found that the research I had done when I wrote a book on Indian mythology (6th grad reading level, so I didn't get *too* deep) did help a lot (I managed to summarize the Mahabharata in 2,000 words, something I still consider to be the greatest feat I ever pulled off in print), especially when I was recognizing scenes from the Ramayana at both Angkor Wat and the Royal Palace in Bangkok. But that also shows an aspect of Indian culture not thought about often in the West: its pervasiveness in South Asia, where the Ramayana is the national epic of at least three countries that I can think of.

    As for bell hooks, expect to keep hearing that name--because reading her has been like reading all the things I had been trying to piece together on my own, except much more brilliantly and forcefully written.


  11. "Really, I just cringe when a white American visits a new (esp brown) country for a few weeks and comes back trying to play like they bought the damn place. It's imperialistic and dismissive, reducing an entire nation to a series of street vendors and eager-to-please cab drivers, you know? I've lived in various parts of the U.S. for maybe 12 years now (I'm Canadian) and still don't feel comfortable making general statements about it! So why do some USAians feel so damned good making pat statements about big-ass, OLD countries like China or India? Based on visits to 3-4 cities??? wtf. Plus HELLO if you're white you're getting a different experience of the place, period. Please don't fool yourself, peeps."

    Why do you single out whites, USAians, etc.? Canadians do it, Chinese do it, Indians do it, Africans do it, not sure why you take more offense when it is a white American.

    Everyone bases what they know on the few places they see. Many Japanese people I've talked to base the US on New York and movies, not any more enlighted than a White American visiting a few cities in India.

    Be specific to the person who is making the post or to everyone in general, but don't generalise a small group of people when it isn't unique just to that group.