Friday, August 5, 2016

Male Privilege in Punjabi/South Asian Culture (Part 1)

One of my friends often says “silence breeds shame.” I’m writing this article to break the silence around this topic and choosing to start a conversation. I certainly learned a great deal while I was writing this, and did a lot of reflection. I am hoping that you will use the information that you learn to start your own conversations and then to make some changes in your own life. As always, feel free to share this post with others. This is a two-part post, please be sure to read the second part when I post it. 

What’s Privilege?
Privilege is “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit a specific social group” (1). Privilege fits into categories such as class, education, ability, gender, race, religion, and sexuality among others (2). We are all privileged in some way or another, for example I’ve got age privilege, thin privilege, education privilege, etc., but we may be underprivileged in other ways (2,3).  

What is Male Privilege?
Wikipedia defines male privilege as “a concept for examining social, economic, and political advantages or rights that are made available solely to men on the basis of their sex” (4). Basically, advantages that men having just for being men. Before men stop reading this post, I am not saying your life was without its own extreme hardships. As a man perhaps you have been underprivileged in other ways like your race or religion, and even simply you have struggled to live up to the expectations placed upon you to hide how you feel, support your parents in old age, be sexually experienced, be athletic and everything that people expect of you (5). Sian Ferguson writes, “Many people think that having privilege means that you have had an easy life. As such, they feel personally attacked when people point out their privilege…But that is not what privilege means. You can be privileged and still have a difficult life. Privilege doesn’t mean that your life is easy, but rather that it’s easier than others”(1).

I think concepts make a lot more sense with examples, so I’m going to point 3 from the list of 167 I saw online, but I recommend you check out the link as well and read the whole list (5). As a man:

  •  “you don’t have to carry a lifetime of both constant risks to your safety and constant doubts that you’re telling the truth about it” since women are statistically more likely to experience intimate partner violence (domestic violence), be stalked, be the target of street harassment, be raped, and be killed by a partner (5)
  • “you’re not stuck between the stereotype of your gender being dependent on a partner and the shame directed at women who choose to be or have to be” (5)
  • “advertisements are a lot less likely to objectify you, portraying you literally as an object or tool for men’s pleasure” (5)

2 more from Barry Deutsch’s list (6, based on professor Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”) he writes:
  • “I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege” (6)
  • “If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers” (6)

What does male privilege look like specifically in Punjabi Culture?
Gurmeet Kaur writes, “Indian culture has downgraded women in many ways for centuries: They have been deemed unworthy of education; restricted to being child bearers and housekeepers. In general, the male children have received preferential treatment in all areas of life. Women have been subjected to economic, social, cultural and judicial oppression from birth to death” (7).

In Punjabi culture males are the preferred gender, which gains them many advantages. They have the privilege of staying with their family (instead of living with in-laws) and getting married at an older age (females get told their “biological clock” is ticking so they should get married young, and get told things like they should give up their work or education). Traditionally, males have the privilege of carrying the family name, inheriting property, earning more, and receiving wealth in dowry (8,9). They have the privilege of having the freedom to mobilize wherever and however they choose while women’s movements are restricted, for example by the expectation not to go out late or talk to men (10). They have the privilege to express their opinions freely, to date (females expected to not date), to express their sexuality freely (females have expectation of modesty, and of being a sexually submissive partner), and choosing their partner for marriage (10).  Lastly, if they do not follow expectations outlined for them, men have the privilege that they do not have to fear retaliation in the form of violence like honor killings (see my post on izzat from June 10, for more on honor killings).

This preference for males has further created a severely unequal sex ratio (138 boys: 100 girls for Indian-born women with 2 children) in Canada (11). The ratio worsens severely after accounting for abortions, and in total this amounts to a missing 4,400 females over 20 yrs (11). The lead author states“’[t]he main implication is that among some immigrant communities, males are placed at a higher value than females. This is not just about abortions, it is about gender equality’” (11).

Why does “son preference” exist?
Marie Nilsson describes India as “a patriarchal (a social organisation in which women have a subordinate position to men), patrilinear (linage and inheritance through the male line) and patrilocal (a system where married couples live in the household of the husband’s family) society”, which supports and encourages the existence of son-preference (12). There are many ideas as to why son preference exists such as sons support aging parents, carry the family name, inherit property, earn more in their job, and can do manual labor on the farm (9). In addition, “[a father of a son] will be on the receiving end of such gifts [received in dowry] and wealth, as well as obviously receiving another female within the home, who would traditionally be made to do the lions share of chores within her in-laws home” (8).
Let me point out that despite the fact that women don’t have to live with their in-laws, can support their aging parents, can carry on the family name by keeping their last name, are legally equal, and are able to inherit property (example my dad’s grandfather passed his land to my mother instead of his sons or my dad), there is still a great deal of pressure to do things the way that they have been done traditionally. These same ways of thinking are carried forward by Canadian immigrants and their Canadian-born children. There’s a difference between a woman empowered to make her own choices and one that makes her choices out of forced expectations or the false appearance of choice. She could still make the choice to live with her in-laws for example, but it’s only a choice if the alternative of living separately is a real and valid option, otherwise no such choice actually exists.

Sikhism beliefs on Equality of Women
Mai Bhago, from 
Some of the articles I read got Indian Culture and religion mixed up. Sikhi is very clear in that females are considered equal to males: “From the woman is our birth, and in the woman’s womb are we shaped. To the woman we are engaged and to the woman are we wedded. The woman is our friend and from woman is the family. Through the woman are the bonds of the world. Why then call her evil, who gives birth to the world’s leaders? From the woman is born woman, without the woman there is none” (13, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji p. 473)
We know that our Gurus not only wrote and spoke out about equality (banning practices like purdah, female infanticide, dowry, and sati), but they also encouraged women to participate fully in religious activities (like being granthi and doing sewa) and appointed 52 women as missionaries (14). Sikh women have proved themselves equal with amazing role models such as Mata Gujri Ji, Mata Khivi Ji, and warrior Mai Bhago (7).

Raising our Daughters
I’m going to introduce this paragraph with this quote from ‘Witty Punjaban’, who wrote about her experiences growing up as a daughter in a Canadian Sikh family: “The damage done to my psyche by our culture’s sexism is irreparable… When sons are favored and offered the family’s best resources such as unlimited funds, houses, cars, positive praise and unconditional love — they grow up to be more confident and self-assured in their ways. Daughters – even second generation ones – continually question their self-worth so that in general, a Punjabi female will deal with issues like depression at a higher rate than Punjabi men" (15).  

Punjabi parents often teach children that authority figures (who are usually male) are extremely powerful, and therefore they must not be challenged under any circumstance. These authority figures can be anyone older in the child’s life, people in positions like teachers, doctors, police officers, etc. Perhaps the intention is to teach children to respect their elders and follow the rules, but as I have heard from some of my friends, it often is accompanied by instilling fear. In particular for females, many of the restrictions they face in their lives are based on the fact that other people know what is best for her (and because of safety, which I will talk about in part 2 of this post). I believe this makes our girls feel they are not competent to know what is best for themselves, and instead of trusting their own feelings and beliefs they are asked to let other people define their reality. Perhaps this is not so bad when those other people are all-loving parents, but it opens the door for other people to abuse their power and closes the door for her empowerment. We raise our girls to be people-pleasers that are too scared to assert themselves, seeking reassurance for their decisions, which gives everyone else the power except her. When she speaks up, methods of emotional blackmail like guilt and shame are used to bring her back to the same place. This may not happen to all girls, but I think it happens to most growing up, even with wealthy or educated parents. At some point, some people get tired of this pattern and attempt to break free and some will and some won’t.

I have mentioned above that my parents raised me to be a strong female. They have broken many of the patterns of expectations on females that existed in the generations before them and I credit them greatly for doing that. My parents raised me to be a strong independent woman. Instead of pressure to get married and sending us the message that our worth is tied to a man, growing up I was told to get as much education as possible, and to be able to financially support myself so I would not be dependent on anyone. They also gave me the freedom to choose a partner if and when I choose to have one. I think most families have not been able to give the type of support that my parents have given me. Continually when they are challenged by me to change their ways of thinking, sometimes it’s met with resistance and it takes them a while, but they have been willing to adapt and learn. More importantly I have somehow realized that I need to be the one to both challenge them, and to continue to speak up, speak out, and let my voice be heard. I have learned to go from the person who was too scared to speak, to the one who refuses to be silenced. No matter how educated, “forward-thinking”, wealthy, etc. your family may be, it doesn’t save you from the effects of male privilege in western and Indian culture. Despite everything great I just told you, there are still many ways I was raised under the expectations of Indian culture. The expectations of being the image of a perfect Punjabi girl have weighed heavily on me for almost my whole life, but I never looked at them. For me that was normal and there was no alternative. The beliefs are carried forward in subtle ways that soak our subconscious unless we challenge it or think about it. I have had a hard time recognizing and changing some of my belief systems that got carried forward, but unless I do it, then I will pass on those values to my children.

Male privilege is prevalent in both western culture and Punjabi culture, but presents itself in unique ways in Punjabi culture. Son preference has had many negative effects on Punjabi females, starting off even before birth with the fact that the sex ratio is now skewed due to sex-selective abortions even in Canada. I want us all to recognize the role male privilege plays in the oppression of women. We need to start practicing our Sikh religion’s beliefs in equality of women and challenge these ways of thinking daily, in the way we raise our daughters and in the way we talk to and behave towards females. I will be posting part 2, on male privilege and intimate partner violence/sexual violence soon.    

Link to part 2 


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