Rejecting likeability

By Slowking - Own work, GFDL 1.2

Chimamanda Adichie by Slowking

The Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, has published a new novel, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions. The book was written after a friend asked for advice about how to raise her newborn daughter to be a feminist. In an interview on NPR, Adichie talked about some of the 15 suggestions in the book.

On “feminism lite”, the idea of conditional female equality:

“It means raising a girl to believe that she is inferior to a man but that the man is expected to be good to her, that women are somehow naturally subordinate to men but men have to treat women well. And I find it dehumanizing to women because I think that surely we have to have something more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s well-being.”

On teaching difference:

“I think it’s important to just say to kids, look; the norm of our existence as human beings is difference. We’re not all the same, and it’s OK.”

On girls rejecting likeability:

“I think the way that a lot of girls are raised in so many parts of the world is that idea that you have to be likable. And likable means you have to kind of mold and shape what you do and say based on what you imagine the other person wants to hear. And I think instead, we should teach girls to just be themselves and that idea that you don’t have to be liked by everyone.”

That last point is an interesting take on a communication style associated by Adichie with women, but often seen as part and parcel of an indirect or implicit The idea is that in high context communications, often seen as characteristic of Asian cultures, one tends to use means beyond explicit language to guide what one says, using knowledge about the interlocutor’s social status, for example. Part of that process is taking into consideration the possible reception of what you say on your conversation partner, gauging that reception by observing body language and other indicators. In Western cultures generally, that kind of communication style is indeed more associated with women than men. Women are seen as being more observant and better listeners, making them more adept at sensing what the other person is feeling. The danger Adichie sees here for women is that using this approach to conversing leads women to adopt a persona which hides their real selves.

Adichie is not alone in this view, encouraging women not to see being “nice” as a guide to their behavior. The reaction to the “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump led both to a call for solidarity among women, but also to a celebration of the right of women to assert their own personalities.

Two bodies at war

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

It’s likely that the debate tonight will have little to do with substance, but rather with how the two candidates are perceived by viewers, which may not be determined to any great extent by the content of their answers or the explanations of policy differences. Rather, it is likely to come down to non-verbal communication, namely body language, gestures, and paralanguage, i.e., the tone of voice and speech characteristics. In a recent piece in the Atlantic, James Fallows discusses this aspect of the encounter. In reference to Donald Trump’s body language, he quotes noted anthropologist, Jane Goodall, that “the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals”. Indeed, his imposing physical stature on the stage at the Republican primary debates did seem to overpower the other candidates. The exception was Carly Fiorina, who was alone in standing up to him in the early debates. This time around, he will be facing no men but a woman who is unlikely to be cowed by the kind of chest-beating and belittlement he bestowed on his male competitors. As Fallows comments, “The potential first woman president of the United States, who is often lectured about being too ‘strident’ or ‘shrill,’ is up against a caricature of the alpha male, for whom stridency is one more mark of strength.”

Fallows points out, correctly, I believe, that one of the keys to his success so far has been the simplicity of his messaging and the language used. After the first debate, the transcript of Trump’s remarks was run through the Flesch-Kinkaid analyzer of reading difficulty, which indicated they matched a fourth-grade reading level. In politics (in the US), that’s a good thing. If it’s spoken language, the simpler, the better, making it more likely that listeners will both understand and retain what is said. According to the article, and experts on body language Fallows consulted, Trump’s facial expressions tend to have a similar narrow range. Jack Brown of BodyLanguageSuccess.com, commented that Trump’s range of expressions was considerably less that that of most people, with an interesting corollary:

The reason most people betray themselves through body language—we’re generally poor liars; others can tell when we’re faking a smile—is that our face, hands, and torso do more things involuntarily than most of us are aware of or can control… The payoff in this understanding of Trump’s body language, according to Brown, is that it explains why he can so often say, with full conviction, things that just aren’t true.

Fallows points out that in the first US presidential debate in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, those who heard the debate on radio thought it was a draw, but those who watched it on TV gave the win to the elegant, relaxed Kennedy over the sweating, shifty-eyed Nixon. Today, with high-definition TV, we will be able to spot the possible beads of sweat before even a candidate notices. Fallows says that, “the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.” If the battle of words becomes too much to bear, I might just try out his advice tonight.

Update: 9/28/2016
Yes, the non-verbal side of the debate was fascinating, especially in the last hour, in which Trump get increasingly feisty and defensive and Clinton began to smile more and more. There was one segment that proved particularly memorable, after Trump had engaged in one of his rambling responses, ending with, “I have much better judgement than she has. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she does.” Clinton’s response: “Whoo. Ok.” and a broad smile and several shakes of her shoulders:

debate

The shoulder shimmy seemed a perfect indicator of how the debate went – Clinton delighted in Trump’s difficulty in presenting himself as “presidential”, namely thoughtful, well-spoken, and serious.

Burkinis & European integration

burkini_banThe highest administration French court (Conseil d’Etat) today overturned the ban imposed on some French beaches and swimming areas of women wearing a “burkini”, a swimming suit that covers the body and includes a hood. The ban has led to the strange scene in the photo above, of four policemen at a beach in Nice forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing. The ban follows other measures in France that have sought to use the tradition of laïcité, the strict separation of church and state, to prevent the wearing of head scarves in schools or the burka when driving. The measures have been widely seen as discriminatory, as they target Muslim women. If integration of immigrants is socially desirable, forcing Muslims either to reject traditions and religious beliefs or to stay away from public spaces does not seem to be an effective strategy.

There has been discussion recently in Germany as well of passing regulations aimed at how Muslim women dress, with suggestions from the state interior ministers representing the conservative CDU to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab in public places including schools, government offices, court rooms and in traffic. A recent poll in Germany found that 81% of respondents favored simply banning the burka in Germany. It was exactly a year ago that Chancellor Merkel at a press conference famously commented “Wir schaffen das” (We will get it done) in the context of integration of the flood of refugees coming to Germany. At the time, she received considerable praise for her welcoming attitude, both within and outside of Germany. That positive assessment has changed considerably in recent months, following the attacks on women by foreigners New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, and especially by a series of small-scale terrorist attacks in several German cities this July. It may even be that Merkel will be in trouble in the national election a year from now.

In a report from NPR today, the changing attitude in Germany was discussed in the context of a small town in Germany (population 280) struggling to integrate over 80 immigrants. The story illustrates that the difficulties of integration go well beyond appearance and language. Some of the immigrants took swimming lessons, but the locals were upset that they didn’t stay in their lanes – public behavior in Germany insists on Ordnung (order), meaning in a pool context, you stay in your lane. The rumor mill soon turned that behavior into intentional harassment of the Germans by the immigrants – it was not possible for the locals to accept that others would not have the same appreciation of what they likely saw as a universal human value, expressed through the proverb Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

High heels empowering?

Japanese women taking walking lessons

Japanese women taking high heel walking lessons

I’m currently in Russia and one of the many cultural differences to the US is in how young women dress. I’ve been spending a good amount of time at playgrounds with my 5-year old grandson and have seen a lot of young mothers with their children. Inevitably, the women are dressed very well, often wearing high heels, not something you are likely to see in North American playgrounds. High heels have been in the news recently, with a group in Japan, the Japan High Heel Association (JHA), advising women to start wearing them for personal “empowerment”. As reported in the Daily Mail, JHA managing director ‘Madame’ Yumiko argues that wearing heels will help ‘Japanese women become more confident’:

She explains: ‘Many women are too shy to express themselves. In Japanese culture, women are not expected to stand out or put themselves first.’ Her solution is for women suffocated by such strict protocols to simply ‘throw on a pair of heels,’ arguing the freedom it brings can unlock the mind…’Chinese or Korean ladies don’t have these problems,’ she said. ‘It’s a result of Japan’s kimono culture and shuffling about in straw sandals. It’s ingrained in the way Japanese walk. ‘But very few Japanese wear a kimono all day anymore. We should know about Western culture and how to wear heels correctly,’ she added.

The JHA has started offering etiquette lessons (400,000 yen or US $4,000), with many young women signing up, according to the article. Critics have pointed out that this is just the wrong behavior to be advocating to women in an already staunchly patriarchal society, in which women have struggled to obtain equal rights to men.

The advocacy for heels comes at a time when women in the west are protesting that fashion accessory. Julia Roberts went barefoot on the red carpet during the Cannes Film Festival in May as a sign of protest against women being ejected last year from the festival for wearing flat shoes. A campaign in Britain to end high heel only policies at companies is being supported by a number of Members of Parliament.

Hijab question

hijab

Frank Boston/Flickr Creative Commons

For American Muslim women, the question of whether or not to cover their heads can be a difficult issue, as outlined in a piece on National Public Radio. Wearing the hijab can automatically change the dynamics of interactions with other US Americans. One Muslim woman in the piece had this perspective:

“Before I wore hijab, making friends with people who weren’t Muslim was a lot easier,” says Maryam Adamu, who was born in North Carolina to immigrants from Nigeria. Before she began wearing a headscarf three years ago, people didn’t know she was Muslim — until she told them.
“I, like, Trojan-horsed my Islam,” she says, laughing. “Like, ‘You’re already my friend. I know you like me. Now you know I’m Muslim, and you’re going to learn about this faith.’ ” Once she started wearing a headscarf, she encountered a social obstacle she hadn’t seen before. “Now, I have to work a lot harder to get into people’s lives who aren’t Muslim,” she says.

Of course, hijabs, or other clothing associated with Islam such as the body-covering burqa are not the only clothing or body modification which can tend to put folks automatically into particular categories. Black leather, along with multiple tattoos, for example, may point to motorcycle club membership. But few decisions on dress and appearance are as complex as the decision facing US Muslim women in regard to head covering. They face widespread assumptions in the US, which are largely negative, with wearing a hijab most often seen as a sign of oppression. In reality, there are many possible factors, as Yassmin Abdel-Magied demonstrated in her TED talk. A provocative perspective was offered in a Washington Post op-ed by Asra Nomani. An opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this year by Ruqaiya Haris presented an interesting perspective on the introduction of high fashion hijabs, modeled by white Westerners:

As a Muslim woman and the intended target consumer, I thought that the pale white model wearing the clothing served as yet another stark reminder that eastern culture may only be celebrated when it is glamorised by western society, which can in turn capitalise on it. In the context of global Islamophobia, there is something that makes me feel quite uneasy seeing a towering white woman praised for looking glamorous in the same clothing that often leaves Muslim women perceived as “extremist” and puts them at risk of being attacked or even criminalised in some western societies.

Do kids need chaos?

adventure-playground-australia6

An adventure playground in Australia

There have been a rash of stories in the US media recently about playgrounds, over-protective parents, and the absence of creative play opportunities for US children. It reflects a perennial complaint about the litigious nature of US society, with stories about schools removing playground equipment because of the fear of lawsuits. A story earlier this year in The Atlantic on “The Overprotected Kid” raised a lot of interest. A recent story on NPR contrasted the presence of “adventure playgrounds” in Europe with their absence in the US, outside of a few isolated examples. These are playgrounds that are not as carefully risk-free as US playgrounds tend to be:

There are only a handful of these “wild playgrounds” in the country. They embrace the theory that free, unstructured play is vital for children and offer an antidote to the hurried lifestyles, digital distractions and overprotective parents that can leave children few opportunities to really cut loose.

The example discussed in the story is the Berkeley Adventure Playground. It doesn’t have the organized look and feel of the typical playground, but offers children the opportunity to do “dangerous play” such as hammering nails or painting. Similar is the Tinkering School outside of San Francisco, the subject of a TED talk by Gever Tulley. One of the comments posed on the NPR site about the story was something with which I – and probably a lot of baby-boomers – identify: “We had a place like this when I was a kid. We called it ‘Outside’”.

It’s not just the design and functionality of playgrounds that determines the nature of children’s play, it’s also the attitudes and behavior of the parents. In this regard, the US and the UK may be similar. A UK ex-pat mom in Germany expressed her surprise at German and Swiss parents allowing children to have pocket knives. An ex-pat US mom had a similar reaction to the unsupervised freedom allowed Dutch children.

Does it really matter that kids in the US don’t typically have the same opportunities for free-form, independent play? Or that parents are over-protective? Some would say yes, that children need the unstructured playtime to engage with other children, not with their parents or other adults. Certainly, there’s no question that freedom stimulates creativity – always being strictly under control is not ideal for the development of free, adventurous thinkers. It’s also important for social skills. According to Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, those social skills also result in better learning in school, results that have been shown in a study measuring social skills and academic performance in third grade, then again in eighth grade. Pellis comments: “We can ask which of the two data sets, social skills or academic performance is a better predictor of their academic performance at eighth grade? And it turns out that the better predictor is social skills.” He adds: “Countries where they actually have more recess, academic performance tends to be higher than countries where recess is less.” This reflects the recognition of the importance of social learning, a central concept in learning theories and recognized increasingly as an essential component of effective online learning. Interestingly, the pedagogical approach used in mainstream MOOCs today (massive open online courses), the so-called xMOOC moves away from a emphasis on social learning, the central component of the alternative, free-form, construcivist model (the cMOOC).

Pasta not rice

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil  & her parents

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil & her parents

“I ate pasta, family ate rice,” says Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil, who comes from a Filipino-American family and wrote that phrase as a contribution to the Race Card Project and as a way of characterizing one aspect of her cultural identity. As a girl Melanie was embarrassed that she couldn’t offer visiting school friends main-stream American snacks like hot dogs or Tater Tots – such things weren’t to be found in her family kitchen.  Melanie’s friends were mystified (and she was mortified) by the huge rice dispenser which was the centerpiece of her family kitchen. Her family ate Filipino food, and rice was served with every meal.  In middle school Melanie told her family she wasn’t going to eat rice any more and her accommodating mother made her pasta instead.  Her story is not unusual for immigrant families.  Fortunately, Melanie’s subsequent story is common these days as well.  In her 20’s she came to discover that her Filipino heritage made her special, and she has since embraced Filipino cooking. Ironically, as she told NPR, she is now making sure Filipino traditions are kept alive in her extended family, making sure the young people in her family know how to make the traditional dish of lumpia, (similar to an eggroll):

“I would prepare my grandmother’s lumpia recipe and kind of set up a lumpia sweatshop, if you will,” Ramil says. “For each of my cousins’ children … there are about 25 or 30 of them — I would put a place mat in front of them, lumpia wrappers … a little bowl of raw meat.”

Melanie is making sure such traditions have some permanence and extend beyond her family, writing a blog, Lola’s Journal, based on her grandmother’s life (and cooking).

For many of us food is an important part of our cultural identity, which may or may not be tied to ethnic backgrounds. Melanie’s story shows us that sometimes that connection is complicated and changes over time.  I’m writing this on Thanksgiving and I’m looking forward to a new tradition my family started last year:  the 10-minute instant Thanksgiving dinner, consisting of a purchased roasted chicken (how great that our main grocery store is open on Thanksgiving), boxed stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables and gravy, heated-up rolls. No gourmet feast, but it does allow more time for socializing, games, and emptying my growler, not to mention eliminating the 5 a.m. turkey preparation – a tradition I’m willing to pass up.

Blonde angel

angelThat is how the Greek press described the 5-year blonde, green-eyed girl found in a raid on a Roma camp.  There was immediate suspicion that she had been abducted by the family with whom she was living and she is in the custody of the Greek authorities.  Meanwhile DNA testing has confirmed that she is the daughter of a Bulgarian couple.  It’s not yet clear how she came to live with the Greek Roma family.  The Bulgarian family has 9 other children and the poor living conditions of the family has resulted in the majority of children being taken from the family home and placed with relatives, foster families, or local authorities.  In Ireland this month two blonde, blue-eyed children were taken from their Roma parents, then later returned when DNA confirmed they were in fact the parents.  As a recent article in the NY Times points out, Roma are now the ones fearing that their children will be taken away.  The active scrutiny by officials and the intense interest of the public in such cases is of course based on age-old stories of Gypsy child-snatching.  It’s not likely that any suspicions would be aroused should blonde children be seen with Greeks or parents of other nationalities who happen to be dark-skinned.

France has also been the scene of controversy involving Roma families and government officials.  A 15-year Roma girl was taken into custody while on a school field trip and then deported to Kosovo together with her family. This follows controversial statements from the French interior minister expressing doubt that Roma had the ability – or the desire – to integrate into French society.  These and other incidents, including mass deportations of Roma from France have raised discussion in Europe of the “Roma question”, a disturbing echo of the “Jewish question” posed in 20th-century Germany.

Women: Incorruptible

copsInteresting story recently from Mexico about women being used exclusively as traffic cops.  The reason?  To fight corruption in the police force, a chronic problem in Mexico.  The assumption is that women are less likely to take bribes to forgo issuing traffic citations or to strong-arm motorists into forking over cash instead of being arrested.  Ecatepec Police Chief Carlos Ortega Carpinteyro, cited in a story on NPR, says women are much better suited for traffic duty: “When a man is approached by a female cop, even though he is the stronger sex, he calms down and will listen to her…women are more trustworthy and take their oath of office more seriously. They don’t ask for or take bribes.” So far the women traffic cops in the Mexico State don’t have full police authority – they can only issue warnings.

Are women really less corruptible.  Tania Lombrozo points out in her blog that the results are mixed.  In a recent study from Rice University, researchers found that corruptibility of men versus women depends on the kind of government in place: “We find strong evidence that a gender gap in corruption attitudes and behaviors is present in democracies, but weaker or non-existent in autocracies.” According to the article, this correlates as well with the role of women in politics – in democratic countries having a larger number of women participating in government lessens corruption, but not in autocratic regimes.  They provide an interesting explanation of why women are different from men in terms of corruptibility:

Women are more powerfully subject to social norms because systematic discrimination against them makes their position more tenuous. Insomuch that sex discrimination means holding women to a different (higher) standard than men for the same reward, it is riskier for them to flout the formal and informal rules of political culture because transgressions are more likely to invite retaliation. Thus, if a political culture discourages corruption, women will avoid corrupt activities more and profess greater aversion to it (compared to men) because they anticipate suffering more severe consequences than their male counterparts.

Whether the new approach will work for Mexico remains to be seen.  Mexico ranks high in the corruption index of Transparency International (105 out of 174 most corrupt).  It’s interesting to note that the countries that are listed as the least corrupt are also among those that in the recent World Happiness Report rank as the “happiest”, namely the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Canada.

What’s beauty?

miss-america

Miss America 2013

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is determined by the beholder’s cultural values.  Beauty pageants have been in the news lately.  The selection of the first Indian-American woman as Miss America is a clear signal of the diversification of US society but as well a demonstration of the wide-spread prejudices that still exist against Americans of color.  Racist tweets abounded after news of her selection.  The new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is not the first woman of color to win the crown.  There have been seven black Miss Americas, starting with Vanessa Williams 30 years ago. A Hawaii-born Filipina won in 2001. Interestingly, it’s been pointed out that Davuluri would not have been likely to win the Miss India title:  her skin is too dark.  Bollywood beauties tend to have whiter skin. In fact, Davuluri performed a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest.

Also in the news recently was the winner of the World Muslimah 2013 contest, a Muslim-only beauty pageant in Jakarta, where according to the Guardian, participants were judged not just on their looks but their ability to recite verses from the Qur’an and their philosophy on modern-day Islam. The comment by the winner, Nigerian Obabiyi Aishah Ajibola, after the contest:  “We’re just trying to show the world that Islam is beautiful.”

Finally, there’s also the news that the French Senate has voted to ban child beauty contests.  Reportedly, the law was prompted by an infamous photo spread in the French Vogue in 2010 of then-10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau in sexy poses and heavy make-up. It seems Honey Boo Boo won’t be moving to France any time soon.

Getting clean feet

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 5.25.04 PMMany cultures have rituals to indicate respect, through body movement such as bowing or through using gestures, as in shaking hands. Less common are those involving feet, although of course in many cultures etiquette (and sanitation) call for removal of shoes when entering a house.  A ritual that has been in the news this Easter weekend is foot washing (“Maundy”), a Christian tradition conveying respect and humility.  Many denominations engage in foot washing on Maundy Thursday as part of Holy Week, recalling Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  It’s clearly an action that creates a dramatic social leveling between the participants.  In fact, the word Maundy apparently derives from Latin mendicare, to beg.  Apparently, the practice goes back to ancient traditions of hospitality, when guests were given water to wash their feet.

Foot washing is traditionally practiced in the Catholic Church, including the Pope washing feet on Maundy Thursday.  The feet the Pope washes are exclusively attached to males, as the disciples were all men.  Hence surprise this week when new Pope Francis washed the feet of two women.  They were inmates of a youth prison in Rome and one of the girls was a Muslim.  The action was received positively by many, as a further signal that this Pope is charting a quite different course from his predecessor, with less importance attached to pomp and ceremony and more to inclusivity and outreach.  However, traditionalists are dismayed, as they have been by other actions by Francis that go against Catholic tradition.  There is even the fear that including women in foot washing could be a small step towards the ordination of women as priests.  It will be interesting to see if the Pope opens up significantly to other religions in meaningful ways. Comment from Scott Simon (NPR): “Sometimes great change can be revealed in small gestures.”

Who can marry?

Same_sex_marriage_debate_What_does_that_mean_for_NY_same_sex_couples-101821Hot debates today on the first day of the US Supreme Court’s arguments over same sex marriage.  It doesn’t seem likely that the gay marriage ban in California will be overturned – I suspect the Court will throw out the case on technical grounds without making a decision.  It’s not just the Supreme Court that’s having trouble “going into uncharted waters” (as one Justice put it today) but also American politicians.  In recent days, a parade of Republican and (less surprisingly) Democratic politicians have pronounced themselves in favor of same-sex marriage.  This of course comes after President Obama last year famously announced that his views are no longer “evolving” but that he is now in favor of marriage not just civil unions for gays and lesbians.  It seems this is a moment when the tide has turned in the US on the issue, as is evident in recent surveys.  The pattern seems to be similar in terms of immigration reform, with US politicians following popular sentiment that there should be a road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The movement towards inclusion and away from exclusion seems slow but relentless.  Not everyone is on board at this point but the momentum seems clearly established.  Of course it is that fact that is bringing politicians around — they tend to like winning elections — rather than any new insights into social justice and equality.

It’s not just the US that has been debating same-sex marriage. Two days ago hundreds of thousands protested in Paris against the proposed law legalizing same-sex marriage in France.  Recent surveys indicate that the protesters are trying to swim upstream, as the majority indicate support for the new law, although there are reservations about adoption by same-sex couples.  In France too the momentum has been helped by the support of President François Hollande.  The importance of leadership in this area points to how vital it is for future leaders to learn the lessons of open-mindedness towards difference that intercultural communication theory strives to impart.

Sarita’s World

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12-year Sarita Meena

In the past few months there has been a lot of coverage on the gang rape and subsequent death of an Indian student in New Delhi.  The tragedy has shone a spotlight on the treatment of women in Indian society as well as on the caste system, as the victim (as were the majority of the perpetrators) were from the Dalit caste (“Untouchables”).  There is a perception that lower caste women are “free game” for men from the higher castes.  This case, however, does not follow this pattern and brings up the additional issue of the migration of rural inhabitants to cities and the social difficulties that often arise from that situation.

A recent story on the radio program The World discusses girls in rural India and how their role is undergoing significant changes.  The story follows a young girl named Sarita in a rural, very conservative area, who is seen (with hair cut short) playing sports with boys after school.  That would have been unacceptable not many years ago, as in fact would have been girls just attending school in that area.  The majority of women in the school did not attend school and are illiterate.  The girl’s family is unusual in that the two older sisters have been sent away to college.  Sarita herself dreams of being financially independent.  At the same time Sarita follows Indian traditions in a number of ways.  She worries about her parents, when she and her sisters marry and, as is customary in India, go to live with her husband’s family.  When it is suggested to Sarita that she could perhaps have her mother come and live with her future husband’s family, she rejects the idea out of hand:  it wouldn’t be seemly. Like other women in India in a changing environment, Sarita will have to decide how important it is for her to keep to traditional ways of life or strike out in new directions.

A video on YouTube shows a typical day in Sarita’s life:

Sex in Egypt

sexInterview recently on Fresh Air with the author of a book with a surprising topic, sex in the Arab world. Shereen El Feki’s book is entitled Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Some of what she discovered in interviews across Arab cultures is not surprising, for example, the condemnation by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood of the recent UN resolution on violence against women. Despite the Arab spring, traditional views of women’s role in society remain largely intact, in the words of El Feki: “The patriarchy is alive and well in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Just because we got rid of the father of the nation in Egypt or Tunisia, Mubarak or Ben Ali, and in a number of other countries, does not mean that the father of the family does not still hold sway.”

Some of what El Feki found in her research was surprising to me:

  • Beating a wife is seen by a majority of both men and women as justified if a wife refuses to have sex with her husband or particularly if she is unfaithful.
  • Lingerie is seen by many middle class Arab women not as a tool of male oppression but as a tool of empowerment – women are not supposed to have sexual needs and wearing sexy lingerie is an acceptable way for women to initiate sex.
  • Female genital mutilation is wide-spread: “According to a 2008 survey of ever-married women in Egypt under the age of 50, about 90 percent of them are circumcised. And more recently that youth survey I mentioned of Egyptian young people, about 80 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds have been circumcised.”  And the main drivers are the mothers and grandmothers of the young women.
  • There is tremendous pressure on young men looking to marry to be able to afford what has become the expectations for new married couple:  “What has happened in Egypt and most of the Arab region is that countries have opened up to the full flood of global capitalism. So there are things to buy, there is 24/7 advertising. It’s a very consumer culture now, and marriage becomes an exercise in conspicuous consumption. And you will often find young men – certainly they’ve told me that frankly, brides and their families, they ask for too much. They want to have the perfect apartment and a car, and the appliances. And then there are all sorts of financial aspects to a marriage. There’s something called mahr which is the money that is enshrined in Islam, that a husband gives his wife on marriage. And then there are things like shabka, which is the jewelry, which is – a bride is expected to be given. So there are all these things and it’s very hard for men to afford this.”

Love Hunters

PeoplesSquareMarriageMarketArticle today in the NY Times about marriage brokers in China, a time honored tradition there, but one that has changed significantly in recent times. The article tells the story of two different spouse searches, one in which a parent plays the role of matchmaker, as is often the case these days in China, and the other – new to me – of agencies being paid exorbitant amounts of money to find the ideal mate. In the latter case, the resources that go into finding a spouse are extraordinary.  In the instance described in the article, there were multiple teams of love hunters (up to 8 in each team) scouring multiple cities for the exact match to the demanding  requirements.

The other extreme are the parents who spend much of their free time in city parks at marriage markets trying against the odds to find a partner for their son or daughter.  Despite changes in Chinese society, it’s still expected that people in their 20’s get married.  Women in particular need to find a mate before they turn 30 or risk being labeled “leftover women“(剩女 shèngnǚ). It’s as awful a way to sum up someone’s life as is the label “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants.