Annie Syed: The Reconstruction Of Male-Female Relations In Developing Nations And Its Implications For Nation Building
Annie Syed attained her B.A. from the University of Kansas in English Literature and International Studies and her Master’s in Secondary English Education from City College in New York where she was a NYC Department of Education teacher. She then went on to receive her J.D. from CUNY School of Law in New York and thereafter completed a clerkship for a judge. She remains an activist in projects involving human rights in the States and in Africa and Asia. She is working on finishing a manuscript titled Her Sizwe along with other writing projects. She also contributes to Isca Media. She calls New York City home although she lives a bicoastal, transcontinental life practicing yoga as often as possible.Annie blogs at annieqsyed.com
Disclaimer: Although there exist exceptions to all types of generalizations and stereotypes, they remain exceptions; therefore, until the exceptions stand out to the extent that they defy the rule, the majority determines the actuality. That being said, I am grateful to know some anomalies who also happen to be my friends who are exceptional beacons for their communities and countries. Moreover, this article is at best a prologue to a possible research paper in need of further substantiating research.
Much to my mother’s delight I will probably never pay for another manicure (she is rather frugal) unless an exceptional “occasion” calls for it. My most recent stay in Johannesburg in 2009 forced me to clip, file, buff, (including that whole cuticle thing) and polish my own nails and then do so again every two weeks. Why? I REFUSED to pay for a manicure more than I would ever pay in NYC. I was too annoyed at the outrageous prices to give in (and this is my own nails–not add ons of any sort!). Even now after having returned to the States I have gotten in the habit of maintaining my own manicure. It has gotten to the point that I find a certain relaxation in doing them myself and I have concluded I do a better job myself! (Pedicures–that’s a different story–my younger sister is the champion in that department–my mother is often asked where she gets her pedicures done thanks to my sister’s expertise!).
This habit was borne out of an exchange at a beauty salon in a shopping center in the Morningside area of Jo’burg. I know those who are from or have been to Jo’burg are thinking, “Ah! That’s your first problem! Who told you to go get your nails done in Morningside and not come out broke!” But low and behold I found the prices outrageous in Kensington and even in East Rand albeit a bit more reasonable. Besides, one shouldn’t have to travel half way across a city to get something affordable–and I don’t say this because I don’t travel half way across NYC to get something done but that is due to QUALITY not PRICE.
So there I was in need of a desperate manicure and after confirming the prices at one or two salons I stood a bit annoyed at the third and final salon in this particular shopping center. It was mostly empty and they could tell by my accent that I was from the States. I think my frustrated look gave it all away. I was about to walk out and this one very beautiful South African woman (I refrain from mentioning her ethnicity–not skin color–but ethnicity) who was getting the works done on her hands said to me, “I take it you are not from here.” I told her where I was from…no, I was not visiting for the first time, and small chat followed. And she said, “Welcome to South Africa sister, I suggest you get a man who can afford a lifestyle if you want your nails done regularly.”
Nails were a lifestyle? THEY ARE NAILS! Their very growth implies they are DEAD on our body!
I told her it wasn’t the money–I just refused to pay something that didn’t even cost that much in NYC at decent places. She didn’t understand and I walked to a pharmacy and bought all the equipment I would need to take care of my own nails thereon forward. I could hear my mother’s standing ovation all the way from California (given my typical self would have just said ‘whatever’ and paid ‘this once’ but nothing was typical about this last stay in South Africa).
A few weeks later I was in the company of some men and their respective “lady friends” and I was informed–yes, full consensus of the group of five men– “It is not that our women only want money…we don’t mind spending on them really, because how much we are worth is evaluated by how the woman we are with looks.”
But she will always look like how she is born, no? Silly me! He meant everything that is not her but that which is ON her.
“What kind of car I drive is not enough. Your woman [he didn’t just mean wife or girlfriend] must look like she is well spent on…from her own means or through you…” said one man.
So, ‘gold-digging’ inverted. Or something twisted like that.
Then there was the other extreme: I had the opportunity to spend some time with certain very successful professional women who couldn’t emphasize enough: “I make so much that I don’t need a man to pay for my fill-in-the-blank.”
But, is it not okay for someone who cares for you to offer to take care of something for you?
So that is the literal material end of it.
What about the men–highly ambitious, intellectual men with wives and girlfriends whose potential probably is more than either realizes and hence both are foredoomed an unfulfilling partnership. Both looking for stimulation (physical or mental) outside the confines of the commitment because by nature humans feel the urge to grow (to what extent we cultivate this innate desire which promotes personal development or whether we whither in complacency varies from person to person). Or worst case when the men and women in their respective partnerships are limited to their myopic view of what ‘role’ either is supposed to play: usually male equaling just that of a provider, female that of a child bearer or for any other gratification.
Wait–where else had I been witness to all of the above before? Yes, perhaps small pockets here and there in the US, but those were far and few…oh wait–I remember–few months prior to landing in South Africa–in Pakistan! Oh and every other country in the Middle East!
My travels and experiences in Asia and Africa have affirmed for me that countries competing with the United States on any and all levels can never surpass or even come close to contending against the United States unless women from these continents in their respective countries and communities are seen as more than objects which satisfy sexual desire or child bearers.
In “Our Ten Contributions to Civilization” (Atlantic Magazine, March 1959) Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, wrote that over the years United States has made its weight felt more by ideas than by wealth. One such idea that he discussed is the role of women:
Women played a man’s part as well as a woman’s in taming the wilderness, and until very recently, moreover, they were fewer in number than the opposite sex and hence commanded a high scarcity value. From early times foreign observers marveled at the unusual educational opportunities open to them, their immunity from molestation when traveling alone, their freedom to go out of the home to agitate for temperance, antislavery, and other reforms. “From the captain of a western steamboat to the roughest miner in California,” wrote one visitor, “from north, south, east, and west, we hear but one voice. Women are to be protected, respected, supported [...].”
Some American feminists may lynch me for even remotely glorifying that women in the US have the same privileges and status as men and the reality is ideal. I am not asserting that at all. There is still a long way to go between men and women when it comes to pay scales and equal treatment that is beyond lip service. I have experienced my fair share of floating around in a world that is very much still an “old boys’ club” by all standards and it impacts women of color extensively.
The substance of my intention in writing this is to bring to light the way women are exercising their “empowerment” so granted in their respective countries as compared with women in the US. Moreover, my hope is to invite a critical discourse as to the role men and women play in advancing certain gender associated personae which implicate the “progress” of “developing” countries.
To avoid a discussion over semantics, I would like to define “progress” and “developing” for the purposes of this article as simply as possible.
Gender inequality, which remains pervasive worldwide, tends to lower the productivity of labour and the efficiency of labour allocation in households and the economy, intensifying the unequal distribution of resources. It also contributes to the non-monetary aspects of poverty – lack of security, opportunity and empowerment – that lower the quality of life for both men and women. While women and girls bear the largest and most direct costs of these inequalities, the costs cut broadly across society, ultimately hindering development and poverty reduction. (”Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals” Report from the Gender and Development Group-World Bank, (2003).
By progress I mean where men and women are seen as equal contributors to holistic relationships in personal, social, and professional realms. Progress also means where women do not have to unnecessarily worry about any forcible violations such as rape and sex trafficking. Implicit in my definition of progress is growth, opposite of entropy, that which leads to human evolution based on personal development.
I despise the concocted terms “Third World” and “Developing Country” but to not turn the rest of this article into a socio-political analysis I accept the term “developing” as generically implied and accepted.
A quick refresher on sex and gender: sex is determined by physical anatomy; it is biologically defined and gender is defined by social and cultural affiliations.
In the field of law I had to quickly decide what kind of a female lawyer I wanted to be: a female canine mammal in a black suit or a human being who also happens to be a woman. That one was easier than the gender personae thrown one’s way as a female educator–mother, sister, friend, auntie, teacher, mentor, baby sister, social worker–not to mention the different hats to be worn for interacting with male versus female students.
One of the former Chief Judges of New York State’s highest courts, Chief Judge Judith Kaye, made the first conundrum easy for me. Upon a meeting with her we discussed what she had meant when she had once been quoted to say, “Wherever I go, I carry my gender with me.”
It was simple enough. Being a professional woman did not mean I didn’t wear red nail polish or sometimes enjoyed my recovering addiction to lip care products. It also didn’t mean I had to like wearing heals, suits, and anything else that felt like a zip lock bag for my spirit to be packaged and tossed in a freezer.
I am never more conscious of my gender than while traveling. I suppose such is the case for most women who travel. I feel fairly safe in cabs and anywhere in NYC but driving around in Pakistan or South Africa my body is alert on a whole different level–unless I am surrounded by male company I trust with ease. Most concerning is that in a lot of developing nations “rape” is still considered an act propelled by uncontrollable sexual desire when in fact it is actually a crime of violence, asserting power through aggression. Until local communities in Asian and African countries understand this, no matter what legislative means we choose the laws can not be implemented effectively.
Moreover, as the women in South Africa and other countries feel more empowered to ‘own’ and ‘buy’ on their own they face challenges that women do in the States as well: how to balance the relationship, support the partner’s goals, raise children, personal development, how to find “equivalent” partners to co-create with etc.
Yet what is most intriguing is this new shift (in my naive perspective it is new, maybe not?) which is taking place in developing countries. Women in these developing countries have started associating power, independence, strength with “I don’t belong in the kitchen” or “I can’t take care of ALL THAT plus my husband/boyfriend/partner AND children.”
Now it may seem like this issue is presented every where and more so in already “developed” countries such as the United States. However, in my observations and experiences (sorry to disappoint this is not a research thesis article!) that is not the case.
What I have gathered from my very extensive and varied interactions is that females are redefining what being empowered means but it is having some negative impact on the nuclear family (and not because of the challenges of multitasking required of every woman every where) but due to the expectations women have of the gender defined roles they ‘think’ they should be holding up and those roles as imposed and expected of them from men.
Although this mentality is prevalent in the United States as well, it has far different implications for countries where female roles have been defined for eons very differently than what the new wave of “equality” and “freedom” has brought. This has a whole new type of impact for the African or Asian family unit as compared to another more “developed” country.
It all seems headed towards permanent destruction…
…until I, some way or another, find my way to the farmlands and remote villages embedded far and deep within these countries…where they neither see me as white nor brown nor “mixed” and can’t even tell where my accent is from…there I see the values and traditions which once defined the fabric of these nations…but these are the ‘poor’ people who can not read and write…so they don’t really make the rules…in these lantern lit homes, certain roles are particular to women and men which call for different duties, and their uniqueness does not mean that they cannot participate in a manner which nurtures one another’s fullest potential or at the very least to live as authentically as possible within their understanding of one another’s strengths and weaknesses to nurture a future generation….
I end with the following quotations on point:
Women are never stronger than when they arm themselves with their weakness.~Marie de Vichy-Chamrond, Marquise du Deffand, Letters to Voltaire
Women do not find it difficult nowadays to behave like men, but they often find it extremely difficult to behave like gentlemen. ~Compton Mackenzie, Literature in My Time, 1933
One is not born a woman, one becomes one. ~Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949
A woman’s class, integrity, and resilience glows even in the dark. ~ a.q.s.
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