Today the fifth and the last episode of the great Web series, “They’re all so beautiful“, was launched. The Web site features a forum on race and dating, dealing principally with the obsession some American men have with finding an Asian bride. The episode today (see below) deals in general with interracial marriages and features snippets of interviews with partners from different races. The first episode explores the general topic of “yellow fever”. The Web series is leading up to the showing of the wonderful documentary, “Seeking Asian Female” from Debbie Lum (who is also responsible for the Web site), on PBS on May 6. The film does a good job in portraying the culture shock of the young Chinese bride who is suddenly thrust into married life in the U.S. While Lum’s videos give a good sense of the degree of obsession with Asian women for some men, the Web site “Creepy White Guys” gives the sometimes disturbing (and disturbed) side.
One of the things many of the white males interviewed mention that they like about Asian women is their eyes, exotic and mysterious. In fact, appearance plays a major role in the fetish, with likely the perceived submissiveness of Asian women playing a role as well. Ironically, Asian women sometimes wish they had Western-style eyes. There has been a big increase in plastic surgery by Chinese women to get “double eyelid” surgery. This is a sign of the increasing wealth of the Chinese middle class, as well as its internationalization. Some Chinese women also get treatments to whiten their skin. When I spent the summer in Beijing a few years ago, I was in constant danger in walking down the street of having an eye poked out by women holding umbrellas, so as not to allow the summer sun to darken their complexions.
Hot 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.
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:
Interview 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.”