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.