In much of the world, having a son is far more favored than having a daughter. I can only speak for India based on my cultural understanding of the country of my family’s origin, where in many parts, girls are aborted or even killed after birth because they would bring financial burden to their families. Some mothers would be punished for birthing a girl and therefore make the unthinkable decision to allow their child to die. Especially in the poorer and more rural parts of the country, girls are not expected to become educated or seek jobs. They rely on their family to raise them and then rely on their husbands to care for them. However, to gain a husband, they must be able to offer a substantial dowry. Though illegal on the books since 1961, many ignore this law since custom is more deeply rooted than law. A family may drive themselves into financial ruin for the sake of a dowry, the only way to rid themselves of a financially dependent daughter. I am being harsh here, for I’m sure people love their daughters too, but the traditions and customs that are so harmful to girls continue to thrive because people don’t want to think differently and change their own circumstances.
I feel that much of what girls and women endure in the world has to do with the fact that they are brought up to believe what their roles should be: dictated by men. I enjoy visiting my family in India, but whenever I travel there, I have to brace myself for the cultural limitations on my freedoms. I cannot wear skirts shorter than ankle length, and forget shorts. I will wear slacks and jeans with a loose top with the knowledge that I will draw stares and inquisitive looks (in Kerala anyway — it is a bit more liberal in larger cities). I cannot go out for a walk alone or travel without the accompaniment of a male relative. This is more for safety than keeping tabs on where I go, however. In some homes, I would not be able to eat my meal until the men have eaten (luckily this is not the case in my family’s home). I observe as my male relatives are called to eat, never assisting in the food preparation or cleaning. They leave their dirty plates at the table because the women will clear it for them. They are not bad people because of this; in fact they are quite loving and support their families the way a man can and should be expected to support his family. It is just the way they were brought up, and it is challenging for them to see men helping out at home in American households where both partners work and provide for the family. When in India, I (for the most part) keep quiet about my opinions because I realize that my lone voice cannot shift the mindset of an entire culture that has been doing this for centuries. The only way to see and know that there is a different way (whether that way is better or not is up for debate) is to experience it firsthand and come to one’s own conclusions.
Who prepares food and performs household chores is a minor issue once we begin to examine more intricate gender roles in an ever advancing world. It still surprises me that these roles are so entrenched in Kerala culture even though this state boasts 99% literacy among both boys AND girls. Educating women is a huge priority in Kerala, yet antiquated notions of what men and women should do, how they should act, and what they should wear are still pervasive. So pervasive in fact that it shapes Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s viewpoint on women asking for raises.
Though Nadella has lived, studied, and worked in the U.S. for over 20 years, his brief comment on women not asking for raises because, essentially, hard work and good behavior will lead karmically to a raise caused a great deal of discontent among women. Since his comments, a number of articles and tweets have brought to light the struggles South Asian women face.
White American women also face the gender gap in their salaries, but add South Asian background to the mix and the issue is even more complex. Women have this dichotomy of being successful at work but then being expected to be the quiet, subdued homemaker at home. Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi’s put it bluntly and somewhat harshly (well, her mother did anyway), when she relayed the tale of telling her mother she would be president on Pepsi’s Board of Directors. Her mother told her to pick up some milk even though Nooyi’s husband had been at home for several hours and could have gone to get it before Nooyi even arrived home. When she finally came back with the milk and told her mother that she had this good news, her mother replied:
“Let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don’t bring it into the house. You know I’ve never seen that crown.”
This is true for so many South Asian women, especially in America. We have been educated and earned excellent jobs in competitive industries, yet in the home we are expected to perform the “womanly” duties even while working 40+ hours per week. The answer is not logically that the woman’s partner (if she even has one) should chip in, but that the woman’s career responsibilities are simply in addition to her household responsibilities. But it is not only the men who perpetuate this notion; women themselves teach their daughters and sisters and nieces that this is the correct behavior. South Asian women self-perpetuate their own social suppression.
Sonora Jha, journalism professor at Seattle University, responded to Nadella’s statements on women asking for raises with an eye-opening article in the Seattle Weekly. I first heard about it during this Public Radio International interview. The thing that struck me the most about her response was how she mentioned raising a son who is now in college. Growing up in America does not necessarily dictate that a young man, of any ethnicity, will understand patriarchy or the influences of a male-dominated society. Even reading through the comments on the PRI website by men who clearly miss the point of the article show that there is a lot of anger towards women and the progress we have made. Many commenters state that women should “just be thankful for what we have” and that it is easier to be a woman in America than it is to be a man. These comments sadden me because they show me that so many men are unable to comprehend the importance of statements such as Nadella’s. They assume we are just complaining and wanting pay raises without earning it. That is not the point at all, and I am not sure where to even begin to explain why these statements incite such responses on social media.
As I have said before, all I can hope for is to instill values that promote gender equality to my own future children. I feel that rearing sons would afford me such an opportunity. Daughters already will learn these injustices through personal experience simply by virtue of being girls. Boys, on the other hand can and should be taught to view girls with equal respect, love and admiration, the same way they would treat their male peers. It is not that I want to avoid footing the bill for a wedding, or because I think boys are better than girls that I want sons. I want sons who make this world a better place, and part of that is through appreciating the difficulties that women face each day.