Friday, March 7, 2008

Walking the Wire

The challenge posed to anthropologists is one of balance—is the study of human culture an art, a science, or something in between? Is it possible for the anthropologist to attain objectivity when her observations are limited by a subjective perspective? How does one truly grasp the experience of another human when we are so conditioned by the circumstances in which we have developed? To be successful as an anthropologist, it is necessary to exist fluidly, to acknowledge differences without passing judgment, and to constantly consider an emic perspective, or the insider’s viewpoint, alongside one’s own. For Dr. Christina Joseph, this is a tactic that has worked well for her both in her professional field and as a woman in the world.
Dr. Joseph, 48, is a professor of anthropology here at the University of Georgia, specializing in the intersection of religion and politics in Southeast Asia where she continues to do her fieldwork. Although she was born and educated in India, Dr. Joseph moved to the United States in 1985 to pursue a career in academia. Her fieldwork, primarily conducted in the small village of Pushkar, India, focuses on sacred space and ritual, including the role of women therein. On the domestic front, she also teaches perspectives on multicultural women's issues in the United States. A self-proclaimed feminist, Dr. Joseph's upbringing in India greatly contributed to her interest in anthropology as well as women's rights.
"My mother always insisted that my sister and myself get an education so that we could always support ourselves with respect to whatever happened," said Dr. Joseph when I asked her about her family life, "she never went to college so she never had a choice." Arranged marriages are still prevalent in India; for many women, it is the only opportunity to support themselves. Although Dr. Joseph's mother had what is referred to as a "love marriage" (she had a choice in her husband), she married when she was very young. Said Dr. Joseph about her mother, "she was a housewife and she was always aware of the limitations, so she wanted us to have opportunities beyond that." Dr. Joseph, who met her husband while attending graduate school in India, also had a love marriage. Her family was Christian, so they lived somewhat outside the caste system, but many of the customs associated with arranged marriage disturbed her from an early age.
In an arranged marriage, the bride's family offers a dowry to the husband's family in exchange for taking in the daughter. Oftentimes the husband's family will continue making dowry demands after the couple has already been married; problems arise when the bride's family is financially unable to meet these demands. As it is not an option for brides to return to their families if they are unable to pay, one of the ways husbands can get rid of the bride is a dowry death. These deaths often occurred in the kitchen, where much of the cooking takes place in ovens on the floor. Most women wear saris that contain some polyester, which is highly flammable, and if they were set on fire in the kitchen it was very easy to make it look like an accident. During the 1980s, before legislation was passed, when the bride's family attempted to file suit with the police, the complaint was usually dismissed or ruled an accidental death. According to Dr. Joseph, "There was very little consequences for the man at that point…so what the women's groups started doing was that they started shaming these families…they would go and hold demonstrations outside the families' houses, hoping that by publicly shaming them that other families would not give their daughters because usually the men would just go back and marry some other woman and get another dowry."
Similar crimes against women can occur simply when a woman gives birth to a female child; these killings are not necessarily common, but they do happen frequently enough that Dr. Joseph was acquainted with a victim. I had heard of these so-called honor killings and female infanticide still being practiced in India and other countries, but it was unsettling to interview a woman who had actually been affected by these practices. Coolly recalling the details of the traditions in the country where she was born, Dr. Joseph was as horrified by dowry deaths as I was, but, like a good anthropologist, she sees both sides: “If you think about it, some of the realities of life, like if you have to get a daughter married off and get a dowry, and that is something which a lot of families can't afford, so with infanticide as it was practiced in the old days (poisoning or strangling female infants), there was a lot of economic pressure because [the families] couldn't afford to bring up a daughter and raise a dowry.”
When Dr. Joseph began working in the United States, she encountered a different kind of pressure. I asked her if she had had any issues working within academia since higher education is a field still dominated by males and she said, “oh yes, it's a common thing in academia. This is something that came out; apparently the women faculty do not make the same as men faculty make. When you see that you bring in as many years and time as your male colleagues and you don't get the same pay, then that definitely is an issue that still needs to be resolved.” Dr. Joseph’s goals for feminism lie primarily in bringing women to the level of quality they are purported to already be experiencing. She feels very strongly that feminism is nothing without activism: “It's not only about believing in women's rights, but also working toward women's rights." And although the United States is not home to dowry deaths or female infanticide, the discrepancy in wages earned by men and women, the sexism in the media coverage of our presidential election, and the efforts to control women’s bodies through anti-abortion legislation are evidence enough that we still have quite a way to go.
When she returned to India to do her fieldwork, Dr. Joseph came across another kind of conservatism. Growing up she lived in an urban environment, but Pushkar is a small village where religious ritual plays a large part in each individual’s life. The manner of participation, however, is different for men and women. According to Dr. Joseph, Pushkar, which is predominantly populated by Brahmins, is “very conservative, in the sense that women are extremely circumscribed in what they can do.” Men and women eat, work, sleep, and make pilgrimages separately from one another, creating invisible boundaries that are simply not transgressed in their society. Married women are expected to keep their faces covered whenever they are in public. Younger girls have more freedom because all the men in the village are considered brothers, though they are not so liberated as the boys. Dr. Joseph told me about one particular girl who made some noise in the community by leaving to go to college in a neighboring town, which was, until then, essentially unheard of. The girl’s father, however, was a lawyer whose dealings with people from a variety of backgrounds exposed his family to the prospect of a world outside Pushkar; Dr. Joseph emphasized that their family was unusual, though she is optimistic that more and more girls will make an effort to leave home for an education.
As someone who enjoys perhaps too much freedom, I balked at the idea my options being limited in any way. Obviously the women in Pushkar were accustomed to the traditions in the village, but I wanted to know how they felt—bitter? How would they feel after seeing another woman working independently in their town? What was conversation like? Said Dr. Joseph, “[the women’s] curiosity was limited because they didn't know much beyond their world…we would talk and say things like, what did you wear for your wedding, Christians wear white but not red, things like that. Conversation was kind of limited to the things that they were interested in. I don't think they had a grasp of the city life in India, what kind of life I lead in the city. Sometimes the daughter [one of Dr. Joseph’s informants] would get really annoyed when she wasn't allowed to do things or she had her period and she wasn't allowed to go to school and college…and she would rail at all these backward customs,” but ultimately most of the women accepted their roles. One of the problems, says Dr. Joseph, is that they are completely dependent on men. This is not something I could easily digest. My first inclination was to suggest that they leave if they are dissatisfied, head for the city where they could go to school and make their own way, but it is impossible for that to happen in India. Because these women are dependent, their forms of resistance are limited to mocking the men when they leave on pilgrimages, or by women from the “big village” throwing rocks at men from the smaller auxiliary village. These are not necessarily submissive women, but they cannot speak out publicly.
I asked Dr. Joseph how she felt while staying in Pushkar and she said, “I did see it as oppressive because my movements were restricted…that was the advantage of being an outsider, that I wasn't subjected to all their rules. I was subjected to some of them; I couldn't dress in jeans and had to wear Indian clothes and be fairly covered up and all that…but if I wanted to follow the men around…usually all of the processions only involved men and the women watched from the rooftops, and that's what they wanted me to do also.” Dr. Joseph politely declined, but she said she “had to consciously choose all the time…it's all about striking a balance and being accepted in the community.” As an educated woman, it was important to avoid alienating the men and women in the community who were serving as Dr. Joseph’s informants, and to not allow her own feminist convictions conflict with what she was asked to do while in the village. Many times she found herself caught in bind, like when choosing a food line before eating: “I didn't know which line to get in because my host was a male but I was a woman, so it was always very awkward,” she laughs, “I usually solved the problem by not eating.”
Dr. Joseph feels that progress is being made in India, both on the micro and macro level. In small villages like Pushkar, more and more girls will have an opportunity for education, and local protests against dowry deaths, in addition to legislation, have been effective in shaming the men who commit these crimes. As India plays an ever-increasing role in the global economy, Dr. Joseph expects the country to continue making progress in achieving social equality, for men and women of all socio-economic levels. One of the things she stresses is that it is not only women who are oppressed: “I think [oppression] is a much more nuanced concept that you think of in the west, and that's where [Western] feminism fails in a lot of instances because it doesn't take into consideration all the issues… men are projected as being the oppressors, but in third world countries sometimes the men are just as oppressed as the women. Consider the caste system.” In the United States, she says, the focus is on obtaining equal rights, but in many other countries the goal is simply raising the standard of living for all humans. “A good model of feminism that works in the US may not apply in another country because the social structure is different,” Dr. Joseph says, and she uses domestic violence as an example. In the United States, battered women have access to support groups and safehouses, but there is no such network in India. The tactics used to fight oppression are entirely dependent on context.
Dr. Joseph is also concerned about where feminism in the U.S. is heading: “I think this generation, they all know what feminism means, but I don't think they associate it with activism. Nobody wants to be a feminist anymore just like nobody wants to be an environmentalist,” she laughs, “I don't know, maybe it's becoming trendy again.” She was half-joking, but it’s a sad commentary on the female consciousness in the U.S. today. We tend to take our freedoms for granted while ignoring more subtle forms of oppression, and we make assumptions about the “right” way for women to live. Trained as an anthropologist, Dr. Joseph is able to look at life for women in multiple communities with a more objective lens, but she walks a fine line, like a trapeze artist on a wire. Activism is fundamental, she says, yet part of her job is suppressing her personal feelings out of respect for another culture. Maintaining balance, and giving and taking in the process, may be the key to achieving equality for humans of all races, genders, and classes.

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