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The missing middle; Women in South Asia

The Economist. 422.9029 (Feb. 25, 2017): p32(US).

Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2017 Economist Intelligence Unit N.A. Incorporated

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Powerful women have not empowered women

ON THE Indian subcontinent, as in no other part of the world, women have risen to the pinnacle of politics. Indira Gandhi of India, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar are all famous names. Less well known is that Sri Lanka was the first country ever to elect a woman prime minister, or that it has also had a female president. For 22 of the past 25 years Bangladesh, a largely Muslim country with more people than France and Germany combined, has been led by a woman. And the chief ministers of numerous country-sized Indian states, from West Bengal in the east to Tamil Nadu in the south, have also been women. India’s democracy is not pretty; these are the winners of bare-knuckle contests.

Yet for all such headline-grabbing successes, the fine print tells a different story. Although there has been steady progress in such things as stamping out female infanticide and spreading women’s education, statistics continue to reveal a stark sex divide. At 27%, the share of Indian women who work, for instance, is less than half the level in China or Brazil (and also in neighbouring Bangladesh, although slightly higher than in Pakistan).

In 2012 a household survey found that four-fifths of Indian women needed their husband’s or family’s permission to visit a local clinic. A third said they would not be able to go alone. More than half also said they could not visit a shop, or even a friend, without someone else’s approval. For many, the very idea of going out was alarming: 70% said they would feel unsafe working away from home, and 52% thought it normal for a husband to beat his wife if she ventured out without telling him. In November, following a shock government move to scrap higher-denomination banknotes, a domestic violence hotline in the city of Bhopal in central India registered a doubling of calls, largely from women whose spouses had discovered they had secretly been saving cash.

On your bike

For wealthy and middle-class Indian women, freedoms have steadily grown: Anubha Bhonsle, a television anchor, recalls the strangeness of being the sole female driver of a motor scooter on many streets when she started commuting 15 years ago. “No one would give a second glance now,” she says. Yet in many professions women remain rarities. Barely 10% of the 700 judges in India’s higher courts are female, and only 17% of the 5,000 officers in the Indian Administrative Service, the elite corps of bureaucrats that runs the country.

Women are scarce even in politics. In the lower house of India’s parliament only 12% of MPs are women. State legislatures are similarly male. True, women’s share of seats has risen, but slowly: 50 years ago the proportion of women in the lower house was 6%.

It is only in village and district councils that women hold much sway, but this is partly due to laws that assign either a third or half of seats to female candidates. Earlier this month tribesmen objecting to efforts to impose a women’s quota in local elections rioted in Nagaland, a state on the border with Myanmar that is one of the few exceptions to such rules. Naga men insist that local custom precludes female village chiefs.

Such troubles reveal one cause of slow progress to sexual equality: Indian politicians have generally found it more rewarding to cater to subgroups defined by caste, religion, ethnicity, language or local grievance, rather than to broader categories such as women. This is equally true of female politicians, and of regional leaders less constrained by democracy. Sheikh Hasina, the current, iron-fisted prime minister of Bangladesh, has recently moved to reduce the legal age of marriage from 18 to 16. Given that child marriage is already common, especially in the impoverished countryside, women’s-rights activists are upset. But analysts explain that apa, or “big sister”, who has hounded opposition parties including Islamists, is looking for ways to deflect conservative anger.

In order to succeed female politicians in the region often make a point of acting tough. Mamata Banerjee, the diminutive but formidable chief minister of West Bengal, once dragged a male colleague out of the well of parliament by the collar when she was an MP in Delhi. Like Sheikh Hasina and Mayawati, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, as well as Jayalalithaa, a recently deceased former film star and long-serving chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms Banerjee has carefully repressed her sexuality. These women are ostentatiously “married” to their cause or their party.

Such care is understandable. Male rivals have not shied from using sex to malign female politicians. One party leader in Uttar Pradesh lost his job for accusing Mayawati, who comes from a downtrodden caste, of “selling tickets like a prostitute”. A colleague went further against Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party. Absurdly, he accused the head of the Gandhi dynasty of having worked for a Pakistani escort agency.

With so many obstacles blocking the path to power, it is hardly surprising that so many of the region’s successful female politicians got a head start. Amrita Basu of Amherst College finds that more than half of India’s female MPs in the past decade had family members who preceded them in politics. Quite often such dynastic links have been dramatic. Ms Suu Kyi in Myanmar and Sheikh Hasina are both daughters of slain independence heroes. Sonia Gandhi and Khaleda Zia, a former Bangladeshi prime minister and bitter rival to Sheikh Hasina, are both widows of assassinated leaders. Both Jayalalithaa and Mayawati entered politics as devoted lieutenants to charismatic, populist politicians; in Jayalalithaa’s case her mentor also played the lead in many of her films.

For women to play a more normal political role in the subcontinent, perhaps it is in films, and in popular culture in general, that change needs to happen first. All too often on the region’s screens, actresses who are paid a fraction of what male stars get portray women who lack agency in their lives. There is, though, an inkling of change. This season’s blockbuster and already the highest-earning film in Bollywood history, “Dangal”, tells the heart-warming story of sisters who become champions in the male-dominated sport of wrestling. Yet the main hero is not one of the girls, but the father, a former wrestler, who bends them to his will.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)

“The missing middle; Women in South Asia.” The Economist, 25 Feb. 2017, p. 32(US). Academic OneFile, libproxy.clemson.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=clemsonu_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA482226766&it=r&asid=512427ca61048c6375feb9e4cb16ce72. Accessed 9 Aug. 2017.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A482226766

Farewell my guardian; Saudi Arabia

The Economist. 422.9032 (Mar. 18, 2017): p54(US).

Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2017 Economist Intelligence Unit N.A. Incorporated

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I’m leaving on a jet plane

Chafing at being treated like children, some Saudi women are leaving the country

CAN Saudi Arabia keep its women? Last month’s appointment of women to head two big banks and Tadawul, the kingdom’s stock exchange, offers hope that the path to a fulfilling career is not completely blocked. But the restrictions of Saudi life remain so irksome that covertly, silently, many women are finding ways out.

On family trips abroad, some jump ship. Some, having been sent to Western universities at the government’s expense, postpone their return indefinitely. Others avail themselves of clandestine online services offering marriages of convenience to men willing to whisk them abroad. Iman, an administrator at a private hospital in Riyadh, has found a package deal for $4,000 offering an Australian honeymoon during which she plans to scarper.

Propelling the flight is the kingdom’s wilaya, or guardianship, law. Although it has received less publicity than the world’s only sex-specific driving ban, it imposes harsher curbs on female mobility. To travel, work or study abroad, receive hospital treatment or an ID card, or even leave prison once a sentence is served, women need the consent of a male wali, or guardian. From birth to death, they are handed from one wali to the next–father, husband and, if both of those die, the nearest male relative. Sometimes that might be a teenage son or brother, because although boys are treated as adults from puberty, women are treated as minors all their lives.

Iman, a divorcee, is subject to the guardianship of her brother, who at 17 is barely half her age. He lets her work as a manager at a hospital, but pockets her earnings. She says she is kept like a chattel, while he spends her money on drugs and weekends in massage parlours in neighbouring Bahrain. Her ex-husband refuses to let her see their children. Her brother prevents her from completing her studies in Europe. If she protests, he threatens to beat her.

She tried going to court to have the guardianship transferred to a more sympathetic elder brother, but the judge dismissed the case, she says, while talking on his phone. Though she dressed demurely in a full veil, she suspects the judge objected to her presenting her own case. Social services offer poor refuge, since hostels for abused women resemble prisons where the windows are barred and visitors banned. When she hears other women say that their brothers don’t beat them, Iman assumes they are lying “because they are scared of social housing”.

Estimates of the number of “runaway girls”, to use the Saudi term, are imprecise, but, says Mansour al-Askar, a sociologist at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh, the rate is rising. By his estimates, over a thousand flee the kingdom every year, while more escape Riyadh for Jeddah, the kingdom’s more liberal coastal metropolis.

Dissenting Saudi scholars insist that the guardianship laws stem not from Islam, but the Bedouin customs that still hold sway in much of Arabia’s hinterland. Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, was a merchant who sponsored her husband. His subsequent wives moved between Medina and Mecca without him. “Islam freed women from the wilaya,” says Hassan al-Maliki, a theologian in Riyadh who has sometimes been jailed for free-thinking. “A woman can choose whom she marries.” But the clerics who man the judiciary maintain that guardians protect the vulnerable and keep families and, by extension, society together. Last December the courts sentenced a man caught denouncing the wilaya on social media to a year in jail. Another Saudi study, at a university in Mecca, acknowledged that some runaways might be fleeing physical abuse, but said that most had been influenced by the “misuse of social media, copying other cultures and weak beliefs”.

Economists note that the guardianship system makes Saudi Arabia poorer. More than a quarter of the 150,000 students the kingdom sends abroad every year are women. Given that many defer their return or choose to remain in more liberal places like Dubai, much of the $5bn the government spends on their studies each year is going to waste. “Saudi Arabia is losing the battle to keep its talent,” says Najah al-Osaimi, a female Saudi academic who has settled in Britain.

Awkwardly for reformers, some of the most tenacious advocates of the wilaya are women, particularly in obscurantist southern provinces like Asir. Despite such beguiling hashtags as #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen and #IAmMyOwnGuardian, a social-media campaign to end the wilaya system attracted just 14,000 signatures.

Use them or lose them

Saudi Arabia’s leaders acknowledge the need to make the kingdom more women-friendly. Already, more women attend Saudi universities than men. And although some men still send their own photographs when they apply for jobs for their wives (and even attend their interviews), in 2012 the kingdom waived the need for women to have their guardians’ approval for four types of work, including clothes-shop assistants, chefs and amusement-park attendants.

In upmarket malls, women can be seen selling aftershave, boldly spraying samples onto male hands. Broadminded men can give their female wards five-year permits to move unaccompanied (though they get updates by text message whenever their charges travel abroad). Countrywide, the dress code has relaxed a bit. In big cities, women have added streaks of colour and patterns to the black abayas or cloaks that the state requires them to wear. Even in Burayda, the bastion of Saudi Arabia’s puritanical rite, women have cut slits for their eyes in veils that hitherto fully covered their faces, and let their abayas slip from their heads to their shoulders.

Nonetheless many women seethe with frustration. On social media, footage of women riding motorbikes has gone viral. So too has a female silhouette, whisky bottle in hand, dancing on her car roof. A female pop group, clad in black, sings songs of protest from dodgems, toy cars, skateboards, roller-skates and other wheeled vehicles that they can legally drive. Unless the system adapts, warns Mr al-Askar, the sociologist, it risks crumbling. Judges and the police should work together to strip oppressive men of their right to be walis, he says. But for Iman, the hospital manager, reform can’t come soon enough. An Australian honeymoon awaits.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)

“Farewell my guardian; Saudi Arabia.” The Economist, 18 Mar. 2017, p. 54(US). Academic OneFile, libproxy.clemson.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=clemsonu_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA485712791&it=r&asid=8141ea4b41ca6830f24c4a3f3744e219. Accessed 9 Aug. 2017.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A485712791