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Feminism in the Asian Culture: An Obstacle?
As one of the largest continent on Earth, Asia boast approximately 4 billion people with 47 countries(Wikipedia, 2009). From India to China, the derivation of differences across borders creates a unique and perplexing culture of its own.
Putting ethnicity, religion and borders aside, the Asian culture shares similar values such as filial piety, honor, and collectivism. On a more negative note, the female group is deemed less validated from their male counterparts across the Asian borders. For the sake of narrowing my topic of feminism in the Asian Culture, I will solely focus on the Oriental culture derived from Confucianism that ignited the patriarchal dominance.
Gender roles in the Oriental culture have always been prominently double standard. The inherent patriarchal Oriental culture strives men to be authoritative, domineering and repressive figurine whilst the women are expected to be docile, submissive and subservient of nature. Perhaps it was derived from its traditional cultural norms where the men were sole breadwinners of the family whilst women stayed at home. Since then, the discourse of expectations from each gender was severely divided thus causing a rift of roles between both sexes. The sexual division of power in the Oriental culture is viewed as “naturally intrinsic” for men to hold more substantial power than women ( Archer, 2001). This particular form of sexism from a mainstream perspective is only considered wholly cultural in the Asian community where solid gender roles are deemed appropriate. However, in this new age of time where the world is globally influenced through endless outlets, the rise of feminism has now posed a challenged as of what was long considered acceptable and only righteous of its culture to women claiming a more respected position in society. No doubt, the sexual division of power has usurped into the landscapes of beauty, sexual politics, education and her value in the Asian society.
The Oriental culture perception of beauty is seemingly distant from the Western’s cultural standard of beauty. While Western women relish the idea of exuding sex with tan skin, bigger breasts, curvier bodies, Asian women prefers whiter skin, smaller features and body figure. The idea of whiteness in the Oriental culture is associated with the underlying concept of the historical myth of distinction and an imperialist, racialized value of superiority. It is noted that white skin symbolizes purity, decency and docility. As the desire for white skin is routed for a higher status in society, the underlying myth distinction of white skin created the beginning of a gender disparity subtly requiring women to not only feel the need to be accepted and regarded but also noting the importance of being docile and subservient (Li, Hyun, Belk, Kimura and Bahl , 2008). Unknowingly, the Oriental culture thus created a standard of beauty which aptly, designed women to be submissive albeit the argument that Western women are also part of the submissive virtue in the Iron Maiden culture. However, the Oriental culture sees a sexual division to be appropriate and actually ingrained into the root of the culture. This could be seen clearly through the infamous Chinese culture of foot-binding. It is a custom practiced for approximately a thousand years on young women before it was banned in the early 20th century. The origin of foot binding began from the Southern Tang dynasty where tiny feet were viewed to be favorable. It translated to the fact that at the same time, it showcased the ability for men to afford their wives and also as a mean of sexual desirability (Wikipedia, 2009). Women were subjugated to immense pain at very young age in hopes to be marriage marketable. Considerably, this predated custom used beauty as a way to objectify women. In pursuit of beauty as claimed, the tiny feet culture obstructed women from working which in turn, short-handed women of their freedom. Unknowingly, this deformity subsequently created not only a deformed perception of beauty but also a deformed disparity in gender roles where men triumphed the weakness of women. The connotation of white purity as a sexual symbol works defiantly in men’s favor to view women as properties instead as equal partners.
Relationships in the Oriental culture are perceived through the lens of sexual politics where such relationships are seen in terms of power. Subsequently, this exploded the marriage industry with the ubiquitous “Asian brides” in many Western countries. Perhaps, this may be viewed as a business than exploitation per se, however, the concept beneath “mail order” brides is enough to exemplify an Asian woman’s worth. In a bride catalogue, Asian women were more desirable because they are unspoiled and submissive, thus, making them more manageable for men. Their “Oriental flavor” and less sexual nature distinguished them from being “rude” and “demanding” (Nakamatsu, 2005). Case and point, an Asian woman needs to be soft, demure, docile, agreeable and subservient if they want to be marriage marketable. The culture was; an obedient, and submissive wife is a good wife and a good wife does not retaliate her husband. She has to be less expressive and more suppressive to her own desires and needs be it physically, emotionally and sexually.
The opinionated, boisterous, and energetic woman was viewed as a deviant who was disrespectful to her culture. Arranged marriage in the Oriental begs no difference either when a father relegates his daughter’s position in this institution reasoning that it is her duty to fulfill and not to be considered as a revolutionary affair (Croll, 1978, p108).
The feminism movement in Asia is different from other social movements. According to Croll, The reevaluation of women’s position did not just affect her status in society but also towards her self-belief, obligations and expectations. In China, the means of educating a woman was far distinguished from her male counterparts. Its mission was to create compliance rather than intellectual stimulation. For example, books such as Books of Rites of acceptable norms stated that “˜to be a woman meant to submit’. The Book of Changes noted that both men and women have their own certain places in the world. Ban Zhao, a famous woman scholar wrote a book called Nu Jie explicitly stating the utmost importance of an obedient, unyielding and unassuming woman. But with the fast growing feminist movement in the West, more Asian women were questioning their position in society. New scholars such as Chen Duxiu and other medias encouraging women’s rights were surfacing rapidly. Women begin to take up the pen as a source of emancipation thus arousing materials such as Girls’ Daily of Canton, New Youth and Women’s Bell (Croll, p85). It declared a woman’s right to joy, freedom, equality and occupation.
Although it seems that this new emergence movement was on its way to a newer redeemed mindset, female individuals were not able to placate their own family members outrage. Therefore, creating conflicts especially within the domestic spheres such as the notable event of May 4th where students applauded Li Jun, a female who ran away from an arranged marriage whom later joined the Work and Study Program (Croll, p107). An educated woman, then, finds herself caught in the middle as she finds herself in a more delicate position. Her traditional mother would cry afoul of her education and newfound revelation. Instead, she is now accused of going against her parents wishes and labeled as the ungrateful and disrespectful child which is heavily frown upon in the culture (Croll, p108) There, the Asian woman is torn between her new revelation and traditional parents.
All the rage of feminism is deemed to create danger zones for women. The culture so heavily influenced by Confucian made patriarchy seemed completely natural. The contemporary feminist thinking that encourages independence, autonomy and separation would only break the chain of inter-relatedness of a collectivist culture. Hence, it is no wonder why Asian women find themselves in a harsh predicament perceived to be deviants the same way heretics are viewed in religion.
From the landscapes of beauty, sexual politics and education, the elements of women suppression and oppression can be clearly identified. The Asian women, nonetheless, are forced into the spheres of obedience, dependency, timidity and subservience. Her unyielding tendencies make her a property of society and part of the hierarchy system. Liberation movements are always a struggle but such example like the Cultural Movement in China has proved otherwise (Croll, p310) . Women were beginning to condemn its traditional idea of capable housework claiming their rights in town hall meetings, votes and any other political work. Men used children as a form of blackmail since women were the biological care providers. Backlashes soon ensued with the argument that women’s limitation to domestic sphere alone is incomprehensible. That, child-rearing should be a matter of both gender and men should be able to stay at home and fulfill domestic chores as well! (Croll, p312)
The start of any liberation movement in the history of mankind was never easy. From the freedom of slavery to women’s right were just as a battle throughout the West. However, a liberation movement becomes more dangerous when coupled with culture. Since culture has such strong roots within the society, norms were hard to break. Especially if sentiments such as sexism are justified, and when the minority are the ones trying to break the chain, all odds are against them. Is it really true that Asian women are losing her sense of culture in hopes of gaining her sense of identity through feminism? As of one woman’s account in China, Sun Xiaomei was caught in a rift when she married the man of her choice instead of her mother’s choice eventually caused a breakup in the marriage (Croll, p 255).
Nevertheless, the feminist movement is still at its infancy. There are still traces of benevolent sexism even though the effort of its feminist movement. A domineering women is still not fully acceptable in the Asian culture albeit the liberation movement. Xu Zaizhen, a member of a women trade union finally came to realization that her domineering tendencies were unnecessary (Croll, p255). Despite all the effort of fighting the patriarchal system, still, the masculine domineering disposition is considered unwomanly. This routes back to the Oriental standard of beauty of docility and subservience. In a point, it is still going back to square one.
Nonetheless, there are still new problems emerging facing women in the contemporary society. Since women have gained the rights of working, socializing and partaking herself in society, she finds herself in a new light of trouble. Although it may appear that our society seems less patriarchal now, there are still little cultural nuances embedded in society. Asian women now, find themselves in a deeper but different grave.
There is no doubt that globalization has impacted women all over the country especially in Asia positively. Yet, there are different implications for women and men in the effect of globalization such as the economy. With the increasing privatization of institutions such as healthcare and education, women find themselves disproportionately affected and short-changed once more. The privatization of hospitals increased the cost of health care thus disallowing middle to lower income families to seek healthcare (Ayco, 2006). The collectivist culture forces women to regard herself as service providers at home is suddenly strapped with another burden of providing traditional healthcare (Ayco)
The privatizing and rising cost of education also place women at a disadvantage. The Asian culture heavily emphasize on male heirs because he carries on the family legacy with his last name. Therefore, girls are still deemed less valuable and more often encouraged dropping out from school. Subsequently, women lacked of education than her male counterparts tend to be employed for lower but highly intensive labor (Ayco). Also, the docility and subservience that the Asian culture cultivates makes it easier for women to be taken advantage of.
In a nutshell, it is hard to ignore the apparent sexism displayed in the Asian culture. What is harder when these sentiments are deeply ingrained into the root of the culture, deeming it to be wholly acceptable. From beauty to education, the elements and types of sexism are inevitable. However, with the ubiquitous technology serving mankind today, Asian women were given the opportunity to be influenced by the feminist movements across the globe. It gave them a chance to ponder and reflect on their position in society critically, rationally and logically. It is definitely a harder task when cultural values and the modern ideas are instantaneously clashed. There are no right and wrong answers per se, but rather a matter of mindset. However, despite the vast progression, Asian women are still facing a different set of sexism in her society influenced by the traditional perception on gender disparity. One has to realize as well that the feminist movement should not only be targeted towards women but men as well to continue this driven effort.
So, is it entirely possible to completely erase the patriarchal nuances in the Asian culture in the near future? The answer is vague but the effort in this liberation movement is certainly a work in progress. The humankind has not progress thus far was it not for change throughout the course of humanity. Some may view this as a travesty if one society loses its culture due to modern ideology. But then again, if it was for the betterment of society, then would not it be an effort worth fighting for? Our world is a vast playground of unique perspectives and culture with constant challenges for us to struggle. Nonetheless, I reckon this will set a precedent for another change of a different culture yet unknown in the future.
Archer, Louise. (2001). “Muslim Brothers, Black Lads and Traditional Asians” :British Muslim Young Men Constructions of Race, Rape and Masculinity. Feminism Psychology 2001 11, 79. doi: 10.117/0959353501011001005
Asia. (2009, August 30). In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 30, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asia
Ayco, Ramon T. (2006). Women’s Problems and The Feminist Movement. Scribd. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/12834546/Womens-Problems-and-the-Feminist-Movements
Croll, Elisabeth J. (1978). Feminism and Socialism in China. Routledge & Kegan Ltd. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=-4c9AAAAIAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=feminism+in+China&ots=aIhZjuaZGd&sig=fqCmQuLzuJfA7XMpEMVNS2YgGsc#v=onepage&q=&f=false
Foot binding. (2009, 24 August). In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 26, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_binding
Li, Eric., Hyun, Jeong Min., Belk, Russel., Kimura, Junko., & Bahl, Shalini (2008). Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures. Advances Consumer Research, Vol 35. Retrieved from http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v35/naacr_vol35_273.pdf
Nakamatsu, Tomoko. (2005). Faces of “Asian brides”: Gender, race, and class in the representations of immigrant women in Japan. Asian Studies, 28. doi: 10.1016/j.wsif.2005.05.003
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