I have up to now been unfortunately neglecting the main topic of this blog; chronicling the women’s struggle, beauty ideals, and experience of being a female in Mongolia. I think that has to do with me being overwhelmed by stimuli and impressions after arriving, and me needing to absorb and sort out these thoughts in my head. But I have oh SOOOO many thoughts and will try to give some initial impressions on the status of women in Mongolia:
A quick combing through the forums and travel websites of the internet will reveal a plethora of websites that make claim to the respect afforded women and the general equality between men and women in Mongolia. Travel websites and forums claim that Mongolian men have a lot of respect for women, which comes from the socialist past and the herder upbringing (appealing to the supposed power of women during the times of Genghis Khan), since a woman was an integral, celebrated part of the family. Others claim that women are very strong here, because they are on-average more highly educated than men.
And a cursory exposure to this country (trans-sib tourists, maybs) could seem to validate this. In the vein of quick judgements, women are not ‘covered’ here, they have legal equality in all aspects, have little polygamy, nor is there genital mutiliation. And EVERYWHERE EVERYWHERE EVERYWHERE in government, offices, stores, banks, science, universities… are women.
This country is basically run by women. In the university affair’s office, there are only women, in the state foreigner’s office, there are 20 women and 3 men (according to my own personal calculation 🙂 ), in all the NGO’s I have been to, there have been maybe one out of 10 workers that are men. WHERE are all the men? Does that mean that women are in control of this country?
Unfortunately, no. Out of 76 members of the State Great Khural (the Mongolian parliament) only four members are women. This ratio stands greatly at odds with the day to day governance of this country. And this fact reflects a pervasive idea that is still deeply ingrained in Mongolian culture: that is, that men ultimately make the decisions.
The fact that women are everywhere in the bureaucratic and civil runnings of this country is less a result of gender egalitarian thinking, and more a result of historical circumstance. For those who don’t know, Mongolia was a soviet satellite that was greatly, greatly funded by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union wanted to make an example of Mongolia, and flooded it with money. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, these money sources disappeared virtually overnight and the infrastructure of the country collapsed. Life got REALLY hard and changed very rapidly. And pastoralist, nomadic families started sending their daughters into town to go to school and get educated, giving them a possiblity for another life. But the sons had to stay home, in order to help with the labor. So, essentially, it was the preference for a son to remain at home for work, which led to the rise of a class of educated Mongolian women.
However, despite the ranks of amazing, highly-educated Mongolian women… patriarchy remains. Yes, women are not veiled, nor forced into marriage, nor denied basic rights, but violence towards women is rising. With the rapid economic changes in Mongolia, pastorialism is no longer as sustainable as it once was. People are now dependent on market forces and global changing weather patterns, which has caused many nomads to give up their lifestyles and move into the cities. However, not being educated, these nomads have few job opportunities, and turn to the bottle (aka vodka).
The result is what I have called a patriarchal “sandwich effect.” At the top of Mongolian society, are the well-educated men, who rise to prominance more easily than women, because of the deeply ingrained belief that men have the decision-making capacity. Underneath is a class of highly-educated women running all aspects of the country. And under them are a lot of very poor -and often drunk- men. And due to the cultural ideals of what it means to be a man -aka, the bread-winner, providing for the family, and being a strong, nomadic man- these men feel very threatened in their masculinity. So, they lash out. They beat women. They attack them on the streets and after dark. Rape is a growing and big problem. And these are all ways for these men, who feel threatened through their failing of reaching the cultural ideal of masculinity, to utilize violence in order to show women their place. And many Mongolian women live with fear.
So, Mongolian women are not equal, despite what the travel broschures are trying to sell you. Both above and below women are marks of patriarchial cultural hierarchy; at the top are men who have been propelled by their gender and below is an angry backlash against female personal power. To be a woman in Mongolia means to live in a country where traditional gender divides are failing, men are reacting to their loss of power, but also to be at the cusp of change.
Although there is a backlash, the fact remains that women run this country. They are starting to get together, and are starting to discuss words like “feminism,” and starting to write and talk about their experiences. And as a feminist, it is inspiring to be here at this time where women are starting to realize the power they have.
More on one women’s organization that is doing exactly that next time I get a breather :). ❤
(Anthropological sidenote: One of the best ethnographies on Mongolia covers the rise in maternal mortality and stresses on women after the fall of the Soviet era: “Free Markets and Dead Mothers” by Craig Janes 2004)