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The Best of 2015: Gender Politics Around the World

with Ira Trivedi, Nadia Hashimi, and Adrienne Mayor

In part II of a two-part series highlighting the best Foreign Affairs Unedited podcasts of 2015, we revisit some of our favorite conversations on women and gender from around the world. Featuring interviews with Ira Trivedi on bride trafficking in India, Nadia Hashimi on Afghanistan’s female sons, and Adrienne Mayor on the myth and reality of the Amazons.

Don’t miss an episode of Foreign Affairs Unedited, subscribe on iTunes or on PodBean to have this podcast delivered right to your audio player of choice.

To learn more on the subject, check out these related articles:

When a Bride-to-Be Is a Bride to Buy by Ira Trivedi

Afghanistan’s Female Sons by Nadia Hashimi

Warrior Women: The Myth and Reality of the Amazon by Adrienne Mayor

This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below. Music credit: FreeMusicArchive.org / The Stealing Orchestra & Rafael Dionisio, Podington Bear, Jurica Jelić

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ALLAWALA: This is Foreign Affairs Unedited, and I’m Katie Allawala.

Today we’re bringing you the second episode in our Best of 2015 series. We’ve covered a lot of ground this year, but we’re particularly proud of our work on women and gender around the world, including interviews Nadia Hashimi on Afghanistan’s female sons and Adrienne Mayor on the myth and reality of the Amazons. First up, though, a look at bride trafficking in India.

ALLAWALA: Nuh, a sleepy, sepia-toned town is a two-hour drive from New Delhi and borders the new-age city of Gurgaon, which sports swanky skyscrapers, luxury residential townships, and gargantuan malls. Nuh, too, is fast transforming from rural to urban: Shopping complexes and car showrooms have sprouted up next to mud huts and maize fields. And yet, that economic growth has not translated into much social change.

It is in Nuh that Ira Trivedi met Shilpa.

TRIVEDI: I was in a small little restaurant or a dhaba, as we call them here, a roadside café. And she was... She was just cleaning around the dhaba, and I just started talking to her. And that's really how the story began.

ALLAWALA: That’s Foreign Affairs author Ira Trivedi. She spent months talking to Shilpa, who was introduced to her as “molki,” a derogatory term that translates from Hindi as “purchased.” Across India, there are thousands like her. In Haryana, the state in which Nuh is located, over 9,000 married women out of 10,000 surveyed households were purchased from other states. For Trivedi, this is a problem begins with female infanticide.

TRIVEDI: There's a direct relationship.  Because female fetuses are aborted in such high rates, there is acute sex ratio. And the interesting thing is that, we haven't actually seen the extent of this feticide, because it became really bad around the early 2000s, and those babies haven't yet come of age yet; they haven't become of marriageable age. And so, that's the number one reason that there is a big, a big gender gap and there's not enough women in the society for marriage.

ALLAWALA: In fact, over the last three decades, there have been an estimated four to 12 million selective abortions of girls in India. The rate has ticked up in recent years with the introduction of cheap ultrasounds, through which parents can determine the sex of a fetus. But poorer, rural communities, like Shilpa’s hometown, however, may have limited access to ultrasounds and as a result, exhibit a much more balanced gender ratio. In other words, in many wealthier communities, there aren’t enough marriageable girls. In many poorer ones, there women for the buying.

TRIVEDI:They're not part of the local community or even the state. They're brought in from various places in India that are selectively chosen that are very poor, and where there maybe more balanced sex ratios.

So, that's why West Bengal is so popular, because West Bengal, even culturally, women are quite empowered there in the sense that it's not as much of a patriarchal society as parts of North Western India.

ALLAWALA: In this, Shilpa’s story is sadly typical in a country where, by some estimates, the number of trafficked women is growing by 20 percent each year.

TRIVEDI: She was from a very poor family. Her father was a farmer in a small village in West Bengal, far quite far removed from anything really urban. The one exceptional thing which stands out is that Shilpa had four sisters and no brothers. So having five sisters and five daughters for a farmer is really considered to be unlucky. It's like a curse.

TRIVEDI: What I found quite interesting is that her parents seemed to be, they never talked about the fact that they felt overly burdened by their daughters or they did not have a son. Shilpa was the youngest of all of her sisters and also the prettiest, and in India, pretty means fair skinned. So at a very young age, Shilpa's... Who she identifies as chachaji, which is "father's younger brother. So I don't think in actuality he was her father's younger brother.

So chachaji, as she called him came and said that I will get her married to a friend of mine in the state of Haryana and her parents thought that this would be good for Shilpa. They thought that this would give her opportunity, that this would give her... This would empower her. This would give her a better life than she would be able to lead in Achuri and plus they had four other daughters to think about, to marry off and to pay dowries for. In a place like Achuri, if there is no dowry, she will not find a husband and having an unmarried daughter at home in these parts is considered worse than death, quite literally.

So, she went off with chachaji to Haryana to a town called Nuh, which is about a 1,000 miles west of Achuri. And this is where she was sold to her husband who was 20 years older than her and she never heard from chachaji again.

ALLAWALA: The man who sold Shilpa got 7,500 rupees ($120 dollars). He gave her parents 2,500 rupees (around $40 dollars), which they thought was an act of largess.

TRIVEDI: I still don't think she fully comprehends what happened to her. For many, many years after she was sold, she lived with her husband and with her husband's family and with his brothers and she was raped by several of them, several times. And she thought this was part of married life. This is what she thought was standard to girls that got married. So she did not really think this was anything extraordinary that was happening to her and then she had four children, in a very quick sequence. Then, her husband died. Her husband died in a road accident and very shortly after her husband's death she was actually removed from her household.

Her husband's brothers and her husband's parents said that we just can't support you. If she had in fact been from the local community, this would not have happened to her because marriage in a place like this is a familial relationship. So, if Shilpa was from Haryana, her parents, her brothers and sisters would have had relationships with all of her husband's family. But because none of her family had relationships with his family, it was very easy for them to just kick her out and say, "Now, leave."

TRIVEDI: So, over the past few years, she's built a life for herself. She's done all sorts of work. She's done labor. She's done building, sort of construction work, all forms of manual labor. And then, she works now as a maid for various small families in the same town actually where she was abused. She doesn't feel comfortable to go back to her village. I asked her and she said that's not even an option.

I think she accepts her life. She's told me that she accepted her life then and she accepts it now. She does feel like she's more free, that she has more... That she can do and feel more than she did in the past. She's also beginning to realize, just beginning to realize what happened to her.

ALLAWALA: As to what the world can do about the problem, Trivedi sees lots of work ahead.

TRIVEDI: Look, I think the first thing is for people to hear about it. And I'm really, really grateful for Foreign Affairs that they published this piece because if no one really knows what's happening, then no action can be taken. There is really no short-term solution. There are NGOs, like Empower People which are coming up, which is positive. It makes a difference to the lives of women like Shilpa. But of course, we need a much, much longer term solution. We need to solve the issue of feticide, which is only getting worse every single day in India.

The worst hasn't yet come. And dowry practices, there needs to really be a very, very, sort of a national campaign against dowry. That's the only way that this will get eradicated because it exists from the poorest of families, all the way up to the richest. 

ALLAWALA: That was Ira Trivedi on India’s stolen brides. Now heading a bit north, in Afghanistan, there are girls, there are boys, and then there are the bacha posh, a temporary third gender for girls who live as boys. The practice is at least a century old and is used by families of all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities to navigate Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal society, which values sons over daughters. Foreign Affairs’ Rebecca Chao talked to author Nadia Hashimi to learn more.

CHAO:  So, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your background.  When did you first come across this practice of bacha posh?

HASHIMI:  So, it's interesting -- when you grow up, within a culture, it's sometimes hard, I've realized, to pin down when's the first time you heard about something.  It's kind of like, you know, when was the first time you heard about the Easter bunny. 

So, it's -- it's something that kind of floated around the consciousness of the people.  We'd heard about it, people had mentioned it.  But we also just -- within the Afghan community, again, I don't think we gave it much thought.

And I've realized that, in the last few years, you know, since I've written the book about it and -- and I've just engaged people in -- in harder conversations about the practice, and kind of picking it apart and thinking about what it means, and is it good, is it bad.  People are kind of analyzing it now and realizing, yeah, I guess it is sort of an odd thing to do.

But there were sort of -- you know, everybody knew of one when they were living in Afghanistan.  So, it's a -- it's sort of this interesting practice that's lingered in the background.

CHAO:  And so, why would Afghan families practice bacha posh? 

HASHIMI:  Afghanistan is a very patriarchal society, families tend to look at their sons in a very different way.  Sons traditionally become breadwinners, not only for their own families but also for the families of their parents. 

When they get married, their wives sort of are enveloped into that nuclear family and they bring grandchildren in and, you know, carry on that family line.

Daughters are of course part of the immediate family, as they're raised, though, there is this understanding that once they marry, they're absorbed into a different family the same way the sons' wives are brought into this one.

And so, I think the way families have traditionally looked at daughters is -- is that, you know, daughters are with you for a time but then you lose them.  And so, that sort of created a distance and between that and the economic benefit, which is a concrete benefit of having a sons over daughters has sort of progressed and the shell (ph) between them has widened.

CHAO:  I was wondering personally, because you said that almost every family knows of a bacha posh, do you personally anyone who was a bacha posh as a child or is currently one?

HASHIMI:  On my husband's side of the family, he has two cousins who were actually raised as boys for a while.  I have another family friend that I've spoken with who, after discussing my book and the topic coming up at dinner, she happened to be talking with her mother -- and her mother, who's in her 90s, said, oh, you know, actually, I was one when I was a child.  And she didn't even know that...

CHAO:  So when someone reveals to you, like at the dinner, Oh, I was a bacha posh, what kind of conversations do you have about her experience?

HASHIMI:  So, what happened in that situation was -- it was very interesting.  I ended up speaking with the woman's daughter after their conversation.  And she was so surprised, because she had no idea that her mother actually from the time that she was born until she was about eight or nine, I believe, had been living as a boy.

And she asked her mother, you know, why -- why did you never tell me this?  And she said, well, it just never seemed like the right time or -- then she kind of just forgot about it.

But I think that questions are  so different and it depends on the circumstance.  That particular individual had been -- her mother had declared her a boy at birth, because her father was disappointed that they weren't having any sons and was looking into marrying a second wife.  And so, to dissuade him from doing that, she decided to tell him that their most recent child was actually a boy.

And so, the child was able -- kept that charade up for about eight years until she -- she said she herself decided that she wanted to be a girl and she was a girl.  So, the circumstances are sort of interesting in terms of, you know, at what age did it start, at what age did it end, and then, you know, what effect that had on that individual?  Are they very masculine, very, you know, strong willed-- how are they in their marriage with their husbands?

And all those questions sort of come into play, because it's interesting to figure out what those years as a boy in a society where gender is so different -- what those years had -- what kind of lasting effect they have on the individual.

CHAO: And so this woman who decided to voluntarily transition back into being a girl, during those seven or so years that she was a boy, her father never knew?

HASHIMI:  I'm not sure exactly in what year her father found out.  The story that she told me was that the father didn't know, and clearly the father was not on diaper duty in that day (ph), because he didn't find out for quite some time. And he did end up marrying a second wife.  And I believe their first child was a girl, as well.  So, he was just destined to be disappointed, I think.

CHAO:  So, what are some of those benefits that families receive by practicing bacha posh?

HASHIMI:  A lot of it is -- is really this sort of intangible benefit of having a son and being able to boast that they have a son.

There is unfortunately a real -- you know, when people announce that they're having a child, if it's a girl, it's not really celebrated in the same way that a son is, especially for the first child.  There's sort of this big pressure on a woman to have a son as her first child.

CHAO:  And what about for the girl herself?  Are there any benefits for her?

HASHIMI:  So, she will have some benefits -- and I think that's the problem with the practice, is that she actually does get benefit out of it, and that's what makes it harder for her to re-transition into being a boy.

It's not so much that it's just the liberty of being able to walk into the street, but it's a different way of being able to carry yourself.  So, it's a different confidence that the child is allowed to have.

You know, girls are taught to be meek and you -- you don't look people in the eye, especially strangers; you keep your eyes sort of downcast.  You keep your voice pretty humble, you don't really shout in the streets, you don't run through the streets. Your behavior is carefully watched when you're a girl.  You always have to be appropriate.

Whereas young boys, you know, that's the -- the saying of "boys will be boys" -- sort of translates within to the Afghan society, as well. 

CHAO:  And then when a girl’s time as a bacha posh ends, usually, how do they make the transition.

HASHIMI:  So, the transitions are abrupt.  They're informal.  There is no ceremony or, you know, like a -- a reintroduction into society.  Or there's definitely no debutante ball or anything like that.

And I think that is what also creates hardship; they're very ill-prepared for it. 

CHAO:  I remember you mentioning in your piece that women tend not to marry their sons to former bacha posh.

HASHIMI:  When they're bringing a daughter-in-law into the family, it's someone that they -- they want to be able to get along with, that they think will raise children well for them, that will help care for them as they enter their golden years.  So, they're looking for that kind of an individual.

You know, when they're looking at a girl who was a bacha posh when she was younger, I think they're going to be looking more specifically at how her behavior is in the contemporary times.  So, if she is now 19 or 20 years old, but she was bacha posh when she was seven, that may not really matter if in the last seven years or so, she has been a very respectable girl.  Then that experience that she had earlier on probably isn't going to come into play.

If this is a girl who was a bacha posh until she was, you know, 15 and is now 17 years old, and they're looking at her for marriage and she is very stubborn and you can tell that she doesn't want to get married, then that obviously is not going to be the most attractive wife or potential bride to bring into the family.

CHAO:  What was your own childhood like?

HASHIMI:  I wish I'd been more appreciative of it when I was younger.  I can look back and realize, you know, how amazing my parents were.  I grew up in suburban areas outside of New York City with parents who were very Afghan in culture.  And, you know, they both from their families brought together within our family a sense of education being paramount, of women being able to do anything.

And so, when I look back now, especially the more and more that I've, you know, thought about gender and what it means and I can tell you that I've never in my life heard from any man in my family that I could not do something, or that I could not achieve something because I was a girl.

I mean, I have a lot of uncles, I have my father-in-law.  And every step of the way has been an encouragement.

I think if every -- not just every Afghan girl, but if every girl had that experience around her where people didn't really say, "well, you can't do that because you're a girl," I mean, how much different would it be on the mindset of those girls and what would their -- how would that change their potential?

ALLAWALA: That was Nadia Hashimi, author of the book The Pearl that Broke Its Shell and the Foreign Affairs piece “Afghanistan’s Female Sons,” talking to Rebecca Chao.

For our last segment today, we’re going back in time to look at the origins of the myth of the Amazon women. It is said that the boundless steeps of Asia gave flight to tales of heroes and heroines because the conditions there are so harsh. From about 700 BC to AD 500, the vast territory of Scythia, stretching from the Black Sea to China, was home to diverse, but culturally related nomads. The steep tribes were masters of horses and archery, the boys and girls learned how to ride and shoot so that everyone could hunt and make war.

The horse and the bow, in other words, were the great equalizers. Women could be just as tough, fast, and deadly as men. So starts Warrior Women: The Myth and Reality of the Amazons, a piece by Adrienne Mayor, research scholar at Stanford University. I sat down with Mayor to talk about Amazons, folklore science, and her next project.

MAYOR: I've always been interested in oral traditions and mythological stories and legends from antiquity that have to do with nature, attempts to explain mysterious or puzzling, or very striking phenomena from nature. Things that people observed or heard about in nature. I just had a hunch that there might be kernels of truth or reality, scientific or historical reality, in stories about nature that are perpetuated in oral myths. That's how I got interested in it.

And I first applied a study of natural knowledge or folk knowledge, folk science, to how ancient Greeks and Romans described the large fossil bones that they found all around the Mediterranean. But it could be applied to all sorts of natural phenomena from different peoples, to volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, other natural features of the landscape that require some sort of explanation.

ALLAWALA: So, backing up, what did the ancient Greek and Romans think about the bones?

MAYOR: I wrote a book about it called The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. It's now been reissued with a new title, it's now called The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoth and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. And so, I show how observations of the large, stony bones of long-extinct, very large mammals and even dinosaurs were interpreted as giants, or monsters, or even ancient heroes that lived in the deep past. That's how the Greeks and Romans interpreted such discoveries.

ALLAWALA: Your most recent book is The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World. So what drew you to that project?

MAYOR: I've been collecting stories about Amazons from ancient Greek and Roman sources for about 10 years, and so my file was growing fatter and fatter. But then, I was also really interested in the Scythians, that's the blanket term that the Greeks had for the stepped nomads. The nomads that ranged from the area of Ukraine all the way to China, and I'd always been interested in those peoples and how they interacted with the ancient Greek. And so, I was really paying attention to the archaeology that was taking place in ancient Scythia. And what I learned that they were starting to find lots of graves, I think they found, now, so far excavated about a thousand Scythian graves from the 5th century BC, onward.

And in the recent years, once they got DNA testing, and bio-archaeological methods, they were finding that about one third to even 40% of the skeletons that were buried with weapons of war and horseswere women, were the skeletons of women. And before they had this scientific testing, they had just assumed that all the skeletons they found with weapons in this region, a region where the ancient Greeks said that Amazons lived, they just assumed that anyone buried with weapons would be male. But science began to prove that that was wrong and calling that assumption into question. And there were a lot of reexaminations of older skeletons that had been identified as male just because they were with supposedly masculine weapons, turned out to be female. That really captured my attention, and that's why I began my book with the reality, the facts about Scythia that we know from archaeology, comparative ethnography and other historians from antiquity. I wanted to start with the facts about these people, and then move to the myths and stories that the ancient Greeks and other people told about them.

ALLAWALA: So when you were collecting all of the stories, were there any that you came across that really resonated with you, I guess, which is your favorite?

MAYOR: Well, of the myths, my favorite is the story of Princess Alia, who led a band of mercenary Amazons from the area around what is now the Republic of Georgia, the Southern Caucasus, to help the Trojans in the legendary Trojan War, and she fought a duel with the great Greek champion Achilles and, of course, because it's told from the Greek point-of-view, Achilles wins and kills her but just as she's dying, he removes her helmet and sees how beautiful she is and recalls how brave she was, he actually falls in love and regrets that they could not have met in other circumstances. So that's a romantic story. Of the Greek myths, that's my favorite but I must say that I'm really enamored of the non-Greek stories because in those stories, the Amazons are doomed to death like they are in all the Greek stories. In the non-Greek stories, Persia, Egypt, even China, Central Asia, in oral traditions and written literature, anyone who fights Amazons admires their courage and beauty and they want to be allies of the Amazon, they don't wanna kill them.

ALLAWALA: So what do you think explains the difference between the Greek stories and the ones from the rest of the region?

MAYOR: We have to blame the urban setting and the agricultural lifestyle of the Greeks, that's what encourages patriarchal and patriarchal societies and domination, suppression of womens' freedoms. And that's exactly what the Greeks had in their society; their wives and daughters were kept inside minding children, weaving, spinning, they weren't allowed outdoors much, they were really not free like the Amazons. The Amazons were notorious for their freedom; their sexual freedom, their freedom to hunt, to be outdoors, to go to war, and the Greeks, both men and women alike, were fascinated by these stories. Maybe it was a safe way to explore the idea of women who could be equals of men.

ALLAWALA: Well not that safe, I guess.

MAYOR: [chuckle] I think that the Greeks were extremely ambivalent about the stories of Amazons, they found them both thrilling and rather daunting at the same time. We find that's not an uncommon reaction to independent women in patriarchal societies.

ALLAWALA: Not at all. [chuckle] Are there other themes in the stories that are particularly attractive or repellent to modern audiences?

MAYOR: That whole heroic notion of the women warriors known as Amazons is extremely appealing. It was appealing in antiquity and, throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, they're always portrayed as heroic, courageous, and the equals of men and that's just extremely attractive and has been since antiquity. But then I think what disturbs a lot of people, maybe some feminists, is that the Amazons are notorious for their violence. They're said to glory and warfare and killing and I think that that might be disturbing for some people today and yet we do have the example of the Kurdish women I think there are about ten thousand of them now, fighting the Islamic extremists in Syria and they're fighting for their life, not just for their own independent freedom but for their culture and society. So I think people can understand the violence and yet, it can be off-putting for a lot of people.

ALLAWALA: What's one thing that you'd like readers to take away from the foreign affairs article or your book?

MAYOR: Well I think one message is that ancient historians and classical scholars have long argued that Amazons were purely imaginary and that there was nothing real about that story. I think we now have enough evidence, archaeological and otherwise, to call that into question so we can say that the Greeks did not just make this up out of whole cloth, and the other point is that the Greeks weren't the only ones who were fascinated with Amazons. But I think the key to the whole appeal of Amazons is the Egalitarian society. There was once a time and place where equality was taken for granted, it was logical and necessary and I think most people can get the message that if it happened once, it could happen again.

ALLAWALA: That was me talking to Adrienne Mayor. Check out her piece on ForeignAffairs.com. We’ll be back with season two in January. Until then, please leave us a review on iTunes. It will really help other people find the show!

  

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