by Kelsey Erin Shipman
An International Perspective:
Gender Roles and the Unequal Distribution of Power
In contemporary American society, more and more people admit to a widespread inequity between men and women. Though complicated and permeating countless aspects of daily life, some of these inequities can be easily seen in salary discrepancies, the prevalence of domestic abuse against women, and disproportionate child-rearing responsibilities. However, it is wrong to think that this divide is an inevitable circumstance of any human society. Gender roles, privileges, and inequities differ in other cultures. It is useful to examine these differences in order to undercut the belief in inherent gender inequalities, visualize a more equal and unbiased system, and provide contemporary counterexamples to gender-determinist ideologies.
Two contemporary societies demonstrate the cultural basis of gender inequity in very different ways. Firstly, modern Khasis women in Meghalaya, India hold power in most areas of society and live under a matrilineal system. Located in a remote region of Northeastern India, the Khasis community numbers over 1.3 million people according to the 2011 Census. Though they share a (highly disputed) border, women in the nearby Central Asian country of Afghanistan face a very different reality. Afghan women suffer under a patriarchal system that severely limits their ability to work, attend school, and support their families. Under the reestablishment of the Taliban, Afghan women’s rights have further deteriorated. Restrictive cultural practices and archaic forms of physical punishment have become notorious in Western media outlets. While these two cultures differ in their power structures and gender birth preferences, they both have countermovements working to change the current gendered systems of power.
These two societies both operate under near-total rule by a single gender which includes the ability to inherit property, pass down family names, and operate freely in everyday life. In Meghalaya, India, “a matrilineal system operates with property names and wealth passing from mother to daughter rather than father to son” (Allen par.1). Khasis women experience a considerable amount of influence and power in their societies perhaps because they live in a relatively small and isolated state in India where they remain free from the influence of other patriarchal systems of power. Khasis men often leave school early to help their fathers with agricultural work which is considered by women to be “a great detriment to their education” (Allen par. 23). Because of this, Khasis women do not trust men to manage money and so dominate nearly every aspect of public and domestic life (Allen par. 22). In contrast, women and girls in Afghanistan have little power in society. Boys are “more highly valued” and experience a high level of freedom even as children (Nordberg par. 6). Families with only daughters are often pitied by others as “in the tribal culture usually only [boys] can inherit the father’s wealth and pass down a name” (Nordberg par. 6). In both cultures, the more powerful gender is also privileged at birth while the less privileged gender is thought of as undesirable or a disappointment.
In both Afghan and Khasis cultures, the birth of a child comes with parental hopes for the privileged gender. As girls are the only ones to carry on the family name or inherit property, they are clearly favored in Meghalaya maternity wards. “If it's a girl, there will be great cheers from the family outside” (Allen par. 11). In Afghan society, however, women are often seen as responsible for the gender of their child and so the ones to blame if a son is not born (Nordberg par. 11). Some women believe in the superstition that dressing up their daughter as a boy will help them have a future son (Nordberg par. 5). There are other benefits to masquerading a daughter as a boy as well. Afghan families without sons are pitied, and so presenting a daughter as a son (even as an open secret) can increase a family’s social standing. Referred to as a “bacha posh,” these children can “more easily receive an education, work outside the home, even escort her sisters in public” (Nordberg par. 6). In a society where women are largely restricted to the home, a bacha posh can help families bring in much-needed income and complete essential errands outside the house. However, after experiencing the freedoms of a boy, it is often difficult for these girls to return to the role of womanhood when it is time for them to marry. However, there is a movement in Afghanistan to increase the freedoms of women in society.
There is a growing movement for change in gender roles in both Khasis and Afghan cultures. In India, Khasis men are beginning to resist the near-total control of women and have formed a men’s rights movement. Some believe that their matrilineal society is “breeding generations of Khasi men who fall short of their inherent potential” and is contributing to an increase in alcoholism and drug abuse (Allen par. 9). Advocates for men’s rights insist that they are advocating for gender equality, not a move to patriarchy. Keith Pariat, president of the men’s rights movement in Meghalaya, says that “matriliny breeds a culture of men who feel useless” (Allen par. 15). However, the consequences of single-gender rule in Afghanistan are much more severe. Wives of Afghan men regularly suffer beatings and physical violence and lose custody of their children if they obtain a divorce (Nordberg par. 22). Unable to bear the loss of their children, but struggling to tolerate domestic violence, some women suffer from suicidal thoughts in the face of few realistic options (Nordberg par. 22). However, there is a growing movement in Afghanistan to elevate the role of women in society and reclaim some freedoms. Before the Taliban’s return to power, Afghan women were allowed to participate in government (with their husband’s permission) and many seek to improve women’s rights (Nordberg par. 25). However, it is hard to know the future of a gender-equality movement in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s reinstatement to power in 2021.
Both Khasis and Afghan societies exist under the strict control of one gender, but perhaps unsurprisingly given the largely unequal treatment between men and women, both are also experiencing movements for change. From inside these structures, it can be hard to believe in any hope for lasting change in gender roles. One Khasis woman says she has “never heard of the men's rights movement, but thinks the system will never change” (Allen par. 25). With the reinstitution of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the dramatic rolling back of women’s rights, it is easy to understand her perspective on a global scale.