SOOOOOOOO much has happened in my life (again!), but I decided a few weeks ago that I wanted to do a series of entries on culture clashes.  Well, in my recent travels I again found myself in instances contrary to my belief in gender equality where I asked “why? Why?!” and got “well, that’s just the way it is. It’s tradition,” as a response.

So this entry is about these instances of ‘tradition’ that leave behind a sour taste in my mouth.  So, is it tradition, or is it patriarchy?  You decide:

Traditional Gender Roles Meet Modernity

Эхнэр нөхрийн эрхэм үүрэг: (the wife’s and husband’s important duties)

  • Гадаах ажлыг эр нь мэднэ external, public work the man knows
  • Гарах орохыг эм нь мэднэ go out and in the woman knows (this refers to women traditionally leaving the father’s house for the husband’s house when she gets married)
  • Саадаг нумыг эр нь мэднэ the quiver and bow the man knows
  • Сааль савыг эм нь мэднэ dishware the woman knows
  • Аян жинг аав нь мэднэ trade and travel the dad knows
  • Ааль  аашийг  ээж нь мэднэ family disposition the mom knows
  • Ардаг догшныг аав нь мэднэ the inexperienced and wild dad knows
  • Авах гээхийг ээж нь мэднэ to get and lose mom knows (referring to children)

– found in “намжил, Т. Монгол гэр бүл. Улаанбаатар: 1999”

"Mandukhai the Wise" is a very famous movie depicting the life of queen Mandukhai in the 15th century. Here she is seen sitting next to her husband, Manduul Khan. Her place next to her husband is considered self-evident to many and she is respected in Mongolian popular culture for it.

Even though the gender role descriptions above might seem archaic to some, it is important to keep in mind that Mongolians are very keen on tradition (and nomadism is still widespread!), and thus old gender roles are very much relevant to contemporary gender norms in Mongolia.

A few weeks ago when I was with Zaya in the hotel owner’s house (I discussed this in previous entries), I was trying to pass through a narrow opening between a chair someone was sitting in and the wall.  Suddenly, all the women in the room let out a huge gasp (I think it is appropriate to point out that it was the women who gasped) and covered their mouths in shock and horror, and I looked at them quizzically.  Looking down, I saw that the youngest child, a boy (around 1), was sitting on the floor between my legs staring confused at me.  I realized that I had just committed a grave offense; I had inadvertently stepped over the only male child of the household, which was akin to wishing his death.

Zaya said to me: “You just stepped over their child…and their first-born male!”

I suppose the most culturally sensitive reaction to this is to apologize profusely.  Which I did.  But I admit…I was a little peeved that this was such a big deal.

I know in the aforementioned example it is not ok to step over anyone in traditional culture, but because it was their male child, it was especially severe.  It is just one of the many many many cultural regulations in traditional Mongolian households (thus, stronger in the countryside) that preserve the symbolic superiority of men in the family and are readily maintained by women (thus the round of female gasping).  Some other examples:

  • When you visit a household and give a gift, it must be given to the husband (since he is the head).
  • When food is served, no one can eat until the male has started.  And if the oldest male is not there, even the youngest boy has to eat before any of the women (regardless of age) can eat.
  • In the yurt/ger, the back right part of the ger is considered the male sitting area and it is considered the higher, elevated part of the ger.  The female area is front right and is considered the lower part.  In Mongolian, to move or sit in the higher area is described as moving up (дээшээ сууж) and to sit towards the female area is moving down (доошоо сууж).  Family members are not supposed to sit higher than the head of household (the male).  People still sit in these divides, even in modern apartments where the divide in some households has been adjusted to apartment form.
  • Furthermore, Zaya – as a Mongolian mother – was treated accordingly in every family we lived with.  I – as a foreigner – was a bit exempt, but she was woken up at the crack of dawn to chase after kids, constantly told to make food and barely allowed to rest.  As a woman, she was forced into this role over and over again, even though she was not a member of the family.  I told her to just refuse to look after the kids the next time, but she said, “You want to do your research and not get kicked out, don’t you? That’s just the way it is here.”

I am not going to describe more than these right now (there are lots of little nuances along these lines), but I think they are sufficient to illustrate my point.  There are many things that regulate symbolic dominance in the household that are done passively and considered matter-of-fact in many Mongolians’ lives.  Women are relegated to the domestic and childrearing sphere, congratulated profusely when they ‘find’ a boyfriend, and continue many traditions (through spatial & role divides, linguistic divides and customs) that maintain the male dominance in the home.  And when I ask women why they do it, I get told it is tradition.

Speaking of tradition and gender:

Alcohol and Masculinity

Vodka is frequently the inebriant of choice - a gift from the Soviet Union

Today I was walking down the street in the center of town when I saw a well-dressed, yet disheveled-looking man stumbling towards me.  Upon realizing he was drunk and yelling “shar uctei xuuhen, shar uctei xuuxen!” (blonde girl, blonde girl – I am blonde in relation to Mongolians), I bolted into the nearest entrance, which happened to be a cheap woman’s clothing store.  The guy stumbled through the door after me – mumbling something about guns and bullets and foreigners – when I turned in this store surrounded by seven elder and very shocked women and yelled in Mongolian “Get out! I don’t want to talk to you!”  Promptly all seven women swooped down as if in a swarm of motherly birds and placed themselves between me and the drunken man, yelling at him in Mongolian to go and calling him various names.

After the women forced him to leave, one woman checked the street to make sure the coast was clear and another escorted me to the next corner as a bodyguard, and I felt like I just been ‘rescued’ by a bunch of old grannies.

This event illustrates very well my understanding of alcohol in this country, including the highly gendered and custom-laden aspects of its usage and abuse.

In the above-listed traditional delineation of what it means to be a woman and a man in a Mongolian family, the man’s role is clearly a public one that includes finance, i.e. being the ‘bread-winner.’  The expectation that the male in the household should have a sturdy, firm hand and control over the family, which includes being able to financially support the family is still very prevalent in the countryside of Mongolia.  Yet in this developing economy, where education is the key to success (and women comprise the majority of the educated class) and both men and women are forced to work to maintain a family, these gender roles are being turned on their head.

Through the course of my research, I have seen that both alcohol and tobacco usage seem to have a very gendered aspect.  Obviously, the association of both of these ‘vices’ with masculine traits – being independent, strong, determined, fearless, wild and kick-ass (think Marlboro man)– are universal.  Tie in the fact that smoking and drinking were traditional acts done amongst Mongolian men in nomadic society as a form of public relationship building (passing the tobacco bottle), and you have an action that is traditionally and modernly connoted with masculinity.  A dangerous combination.

Especially in UB, where employment for both parents is important for survival, that fact that women are on average more highly educated and capable of getting a job has serious implications.  Many men I have encountered express regret at not being able to live up to the traditional roles expected of them and drown out their sorrows in alcohol:

  • This summer in Dalanzadgad, I lived with a young family (around 28) who had just received their first child. The wife of the family was a teacher with a steady job at a local school, and had been to college. Her husband had neither, occasionally working as a driver when he found a client. His disappointment at not being able to fully provide for his family and be a ‘man’ – as he told me in an interview – drove him to disappear a lot with his friends, in order to get away.  At one point during our stay there, he disappeared for almost a week, turning off his phone and never calling to say where he was. His wife had no clue and was worried, but he showed up a week later, saying he had been ‘out’ with his friends (he had been on a drinking binge, going from one nomadic family to the next drinking fermented mare’s milk). When she got angry, he yelled back at her and she gave up, saying it was just how men were.
  • The wife of the hotel owner was exasperated with the fact that her husband was drunk around 80 percent of the time.  On the day we stayed with the family, her husband had disappeared on a drinking spree with his friends and had also turned off his phone.  He said that as a result of his success, it was necessary for him to go out, drink and hold parties to maintain public favor.  He was always drunk, and his wife, left at home running after two kids, expressed exasperation at being forced to look after kids without help, while her husband ran around throwing parties and drinking.  On our last day, Zaya and I sat in the hotel lobby when the wife rushed in asking if we had seen her husband.  He had disappeared again.  When we said no, she left whispering she wanted a divorce.
  • When we were living with a nomad family outside of Arvaiheer, we woke up one night to screaming in the next yurt.  The wife of the man in the next yurt (ger) had gotten so fed up with his drinking that she tried to stab him in the night.  He had apparently not received any money for months, but got some cash from a local company for his help that day, which he drank away in a day.  Although, I think this example is important to show that Mongolian women fight back too.
  • There are many many other examples; i.e. a drunken old nomad in the bus from one aimag center who yelled at all the women in the bus for not respecting him since he was old and a male.  He yelled at me, accusing me of working for a mining company and manipulating Mongolians, and he yelled at Zaya for supposedly being manipulated and loud.  He ended up, in his frustration, hitting Zaya and another girl on the head with a vodka bottle when we complained about him smoking in the bus.

So my theory is –which I haven’t been able to check since there is no research on this and it isn’t my personal project- is that Mongolian men frequently use alcohol in this country because of its masculine connotations (success, public sphere, etc.).  In a changing economy, where women and men are capable of being able to work and be educated, the loss of the traditional dominant public masculine sphere has driven many men to supplement the failure of the masculine role by symbolically enacting masculinity in other ways, aka alcohol usage.  And thus there is a rise in male drunkenness – and unfortunately as a result of this – abuse towards women.

And upon asking the wife of these men as to their husband’s alcohol usage, I frequently hear “it’s just how it is” or “it’s just how men are.”

Modern difference feminism – Hatan uhaan (Queen intelligence)

Mongolian queens

Most foreigners living in Mongolia have heard the stories of royal Mongolian women saving the day and uniting the country.  Chinggis Khan’s greatest allies were his wife and mother, he gave many lands to his daughters to control, Sorqaghtani Beki (a widow of a khan) manipulated and controlled Mongolian politics for 23 years, Queen Manduhai successfully raised and united the country under one khan through her skill on the battlefield, and, as the legend goes, Princess Aigiarm never married, because no man could ever defeat her in wrestling.  That is also the reason for why Mongolian wrestlers currently wear a traditional outfit that leaves the breast open, so that no woman could disguise herself and win (which they had done!).

The point is Mongolian women are no strangers to the idea that women can be powerful, intelligent, and cunning. But this power has always come within the sphere mentioned above – as the partner or supporter to a male, a khan or head of household.  And this current growing awareness amongst women – tied with the need for women to work and gender roles to ‘modernize’ – has lead to the rise of a popular difference feminist movement, “үгүйлэгдсэн ухаан” (missing intelligence), otherwise known as “хатан ухаан” or queen intelligence.

The figurehead of the movement - Ariunaa

Ariunaa, a very famous Mongolian singer (also a spokeswoman for the communist party… coincidence?), recently spearheaded a movement, TV show, and congressional committee meeting discussing the formation of the studies and support for ‘queen intelligence.’

According to them, as inspired by the aforementioned powerful Mongolian queens, women should equally aspire to be the ‘queens’ of their families and promote ‘queen intelligence.’  This stream of thought states:

–          Women are fundamentally different than men, i.e. they are naturally more nurturing, peaceful and equitable, thus less corrupt than men

–          Government could benefit from having more women, because it would correct a lot of the current problems by adding a more nurturing touch, i.e. pursuance of education reform, more socially minded laws

–          Women shouldn’t simply ‘relegate’ themselves to position number two, but should rather take pride and become the supporter of the family (the queen to the king, the neck to the head)

–          One of the most important things for women is to become intelligent, because they need to pass on that intelligence to their kids to make them positive societal actors

The historian Naranbuu (Н.Нагаанбуу) in describing his approval of queen intelligence:

“I wish for women to be second. I want to be first in my home. I don’t want my kids to carry the name of their mother. Women and men are different, and queen intelligence fits wonderfully into this second position. Throughout Mongolian history, women always lost favor when they tried to become number one.  When women become the mayor of a sum (like a province), something is missing.”

D. Arvin, one of the current three female Mongolian parliament members (apparently queen intelligence is popular amongst the few female parliament members):

“The mother needs to pass on knowledge regarding life to her kids.  However, today’s mothers don’t carry out their commitment to teach their kids morals, they give their kids to kindergarten and school. The community isn’t developing well, because people’s knowledge isn’t being utilized (implying women’s unique knowledge). There was enough time to give birth to rulers, raise them, and implant queen knowledge in [earlier queen’s] minds.”

Obviously, many people will identify this as difference feminism (although Naranbuu might be pushing that) – the idea that men and women are fundamentally different, but that women’s activities should be promoted to balance a society dominated by male approaches to problems.  By promoting women and reintroducing the mothering, nurturing hand, those problems should supposedly be corrected.

I don’t agree with this, but I can totally understand why this form of feminism is finding resonance amongst Mongolian women in light of the gendered circumstances discussed above.  The idea of queen knowledge gives those women who want to pursue a career and modern ideals of equality a way to uphold these morals in a way true to Mongolian traditional culture.  AND they get to throw in Chinghis Khan’s name to boot to lend the argument veracity.  A win win.

Obviously, the anthropologist in me feels a pang of doubt when I express my disapproval at gender roles in a culture not my own.  But alone the fact that in a society where women are much more educated than men, only 3.9 percent of parliament members are women reflects a failing of this equal, but different argument.

So… is it tradition or patriarchy?

(Und so nebenbei für all diejenigen, die sich für Gender in der Mongolei interessieren.  Ein Zeitungsartikel über die Frauenrechtsorganisation, mit der ich aktuell zusammenarbeite, wurde neulich im Luxemburger Wort veröffentlicht.  Klicken Sie hier, um den Artikel über unsere “Young Women for Change” zu lesen!)