Sunday, August 22, 2010

More than a man: An essay on the Bhutanese woman

This essay was published in the second edition of Yeewong Magazine as the best entry on the theme of gender equality
Growing up in my family, I became used to looking up to my mother and other women members as equal partners in all family matters. If anything, they were the dominant ones. My mother always led as would a matriarch elephant. We followed in her footstep, secure in the knowledge that she was strong. Others chipped in whenever called for. Every body had our own roles , suited to our aptitude and attitude alike.
Now, people might think my father was dead or if not, he was a useless fella. But he was neither. In fact he was the pillar behind my mother's strength. He was there, strong and confident in himself. That may be why he never needed to prove to any body that he was the man of the house. There need not be a thing like that. And he was perfectly fine with having the woman rule the roost.

Things worked out just fine. There were some things which needed my father's muscles. He did them with grace and dignity. Others needed the affectionate deftness of my mother, for which she was always there. The other things like tending the household chores, attending the farm business or going to the village council could have been done by any body. It was a relation to make things work, with love and care. It was never about who was at the helm. Ego was a far cry in their lives. Each filled in the others shoe and the result is the six of us, well groomed and respectful children.
To a great extent, circumstance shaped their relation. In a reversal act of sorts, it was my mother who was the literate. So, she naturally came to do most of our external businesses. As a time honored tradition would have it, she was also the heiress of our family property. She had all the means to attain power which my father gladly accepted for he was always secure in his own prowess. It was a relation of equals. It did not make him any smaller to seek succour from his woman and he knew that he did not need to prove his manhood by dehumanizing her.
Education was power and so was tradition. But as much as I would want to believe that my idyllic portrait was an extension of the Bhutanese society, I have come to accept that it is indeed a rarity. Our society has its share of faults, not the least of which is a gaping prejudice against womankind. There is always a male ego which gets the better of good sense. It struck me when I was researching for this essay that men can indeed be very vain. And none more so than Aristotle himself who we gladly accept as perhaps the best of them. He is quoted as saying that “being a woman is a divine punishment since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal.”
We always claim to the contrary, but our society pervades such ill logic as well. How else would we justify the much abused concept of key-rap-ghu? And how would we defend, still, even in the age of sanitary pads, we still do not dare let our mothers and sisters enter the goenkangs.
Even my parents knew all along that things were tough in a society that did not see the gender hierarchy as they saw it. My mother's foray into the patriarchal world of rural Bhutan met with a less than enthusiastic reception. The domain of mankind was something they zealously preserved. The line was drawn. A woman trespassing it was viewed with suspicion and disapproval. Every effort was made to let the woman know her place and keep to it which was by the family hearth. My father was accosted for letting the woman loose, whatever that meant. He was seen as less than a man for respecting woman power though he knew better than that.
I can rattle up numbers at will which would show the Bhutanese society for the chauvinistic place it still is. There is less than 14% women representation in our parliament. Only a paltry 31% of our civil service is made of women. Most of these women are at the lower rung of the establishment. When even staunch Muslim countries are being headed by women, we have just one woman Dasho. As the things are now, we will have to wait just a little longer before we have our first woman minister, and a lot longer before our first woman Prime Minister is elected. Inspite of the much vaunted principle of people's representation, the percentage of woman leader at the grassroots level is a mere 1% and she is virtually lost in a myriad of her male counterparts.
At the root of all these dismal figures, one of the main causes is the inaccessibility to educational opportunities for woman. Discrimination based on biological differences, societal attitudes and beliefs about appropriate gender-specific roles and the choices of individuals and households based on all of these factors have played a role in denying women their right to education.
Research conducted by students of the Royal Institute of Management found that traditionally women in our society wove for their families and were not considered the earning members. They were typically involved in domestic tasks emphasizing child care, and did not enter paid employment. The traditional mind set that the girl child will be dependent on her husband has deprived lots of women of their rights to education. Figures speak volume again. The ratio of female to male in our tertiary educational institutes was 54:100 in 2007. It has not got much better in the subsequent years, if at all it has.
Every single year, hundreds of our young girls are faced with the decision to either make their own dreams or conform to their parental expectations. It does not help that the lives of so many of our families are still a constant struggle to make ends meet. Girls are usually asked to forgo their opportunity for learning so that their brothers have a better shot at worldly success. The stoic symbols of benevolence that our girls are supposed to be, they can but give up their lives and thus, live ever after to scrape off what little their men can provide them.
For all its show of equality, there exists a gaping divide between men and women. Some of them are not even as subtle as we think they are. Many women continue to struggle to survive with their many children by our hearth while men continue on their unsuccessful and, often, infidel acts in the world outside. The cases of domestic violence against our women which have been buried beneath the good sense of domestic propriety for centuries are just beginning to come out in the open. And they are doing so in droves. The newly established special women and child protection cell of our police service is flooded with such complaints everyday.
However, before we even begin to talk of our society along such derogatory lines, we must put things in their right context. We live in a region where women are considered little more than household objects. They are at best ornamental show-pieces and at worst, sex slaves. A stroll across the border is enough to remind of our own fortunate state of gender equality. In every sphere of life that can be deemed worthwhile, there are men. In the stores of our esteemed business partners, there are men. To see women, one would need to go behind the purdah of man-made decency. Chances are that one might not find them there either.
Compared to the statistics from across the region, we are much better off. They show that in south Asia, women have only half as many years of schooling as men. Strikingly, women account for only 10% of members of parliament worldwide. On both these counts, Bhutan fare much better and as it is, they are all that matter. Research shows that education can be the single most potent factor in uplifting women from their age’s old status of incompetence and indignity. Latest government figures show that enrollments for girls at primary levels are close to par with boys and their performances at this level are comparatively better. It cannot be long before the gender status is offset for good at our policy making level which is already comparing well with the best from the world. In fact, a MDG progress report on Bhutan regards us as a relatively “gender-balanced” society in the region.
A look into our genealogical history shows a matrilineal bend in our society. Men and women alike identified themselves by their mothers. They are the sons and daughters of their mother in the manner of relating their pedigree.  
The fact that this essay will go through at least two rounds of able editing by different women stands testimony for the strength of our women which is here to stay.

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