Women hold up half the sky. – Chinese proverb
I had quite a liberal upbringing, thanks to parents who were more spiritual than religious, who weren’t very interested in politics, and who were less tiger parents and more “as long as you don’t get into trouble, you can do whatever you want.” Yet, as I grow older and know more about the world, there was a huge rift between them and I. They want me to aspire to marriage. Sure, a successful career and financial security are nice too, but they want me to find a nice man to take care of me.
For the longest time, I could not fathom how my well-educated, liberal parents could have such a backward view of women and their potentials. I could be anything, an engineer, a doctor, a writer, a politician, a Fortune 500 CEO, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But I also had to be a wife and a mother. It wasn’t that I could have it all; it was that I must.
Now, my parents never deny me any opportunities in life, evident by their letting me go galloping around the world for the past three years, and I know I am more fortunate than so many others. Yet I keep wondering: how deeply ingrained are these expectations of women in Vietnamese culture? And how come no one seems to have as much of a problem with it as I do?
I’d like to refer to these “cultural norms” as “invisible sexism”, because that’s what they are to me. “Visible” sexism and misogyny are easy to see. In the Maasai culture, having many wives is a status symbol. The Maasai man who took us to visit his home in Tanzania said plainly: “The cane we men carry is used to beat cattle, and sometimes wives.” In many parts of the world, women are viewed not as human beings, but commodities, measuring their worth by their reproductive organs and their obedience. Sex slave trafficking of young girls in Nepal and rural India, honor killings in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq, the continued practice of female genital mutilation in many parts of Africa, the extremely high mortality rate during child birth worldwide. These are the problems facing many underdeveloped countries, and one by one they are being addressed, both by courageous local activists and the international community. One such effort I have had the chance to encounter personally is New Light in Kalighat, Kolkata, a public charitable trust founded by Urmi Basu to provide the children of sex workers a safe haven, to allow them access to education and opportunities that can break them out of the vicious cycle of transgenerational prostitution.
But should the first-world nations get on too high a horse about gender equality, just because they don’t have to deal with the visible sexism? Are women truly equal to men in the United States, in Japan, in New Zealand? I would hazard a “no, we are not.”
Wage gap, victim-blaming culture in sexual assault, glass ceiling, the expectations of a woman to be subservient to her husband and take charge of raising children by herself. Why are there so few women in the Forbes World’s Billionaires list? Why are there so few women of color? In Japan, young, ambitious women are not getting married or having children because they want to avoid the expectations put on a housewife. Society wanted them to have their priorities straight, so they made their choices.
I recently read an op-ed by anthropologist Wednesday Martin in the New York Times, titled Poor Little Rich Women, detailing the lives of Upper East Side women in New York City, the wives of financial powerhouses on Wall Street. And I find her conclusion apt to conclude my own musings:
The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses — dependent and comparatively disempowered. Just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates her version of power from her man’s, might keep a thinking woman up at night.
Another sleepless night.