Sunday, June 14, 2009

Vietnamese women: trapped in the kitchen?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

As I write this post, I'm sitting in a little cafe called "La Place," looking out over the square outside St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi. It's a peaceful Sunday afternoon - the motorbikes, which zip through Hanoi in droves and make street-crossings a daily adventure, are not out in full force, and I'm drinking (against my best judgment) lukewarm Diet Coke. The whole scene is very Westernized - and yet not, because the Vietnamese fight to hold on to their traditions in the face of globalization, modernization, and the accompanying "moral vices" that many feel are inextricably tied to these changes. Sadly, as desperate as the Vietnamese are to become economically modern (every lecture from a Vietnamese scholar or government official that we have attended has focused insistently on the need to "catch up" to Western countries), they see moral corruption as a terrifying accessory to progress. And moral corruption, for this very patriarchal society, almost always includes that little thing we call "women's rights."

Two nights ago, while cruising through Ha Long Bay (one of the most beautiful, physically striking places I have ever encountered) on a tourist boat, one of my professors suddenly began to talk about a dinner that he attended at the house of a Vietnamese professor who had helped to set our program up. The Vietnamese professor (male, of course) had invited all three of our Princeton professors to a sumptuous dinner, cooked by his wife. Oddly enough, however, none of my teachers actually met the woman who had prepared their meal. She stayed in the kitchen as each of the courses were carried out by the children, and the host chatted unconcernedly with his guests. The wife never emerged.

This is apparently not unusual. My professor spends a good deal of time in Vietnam, has Vietnamese friends, and says that for intelligent women, the situation is very bleak. Women who seek higher education are repeatedly warned that they won't find a husband - and this is actually not entirely false, because Vietnamese men's egos are fragile and easily bruised by women who challenge them intellectually. Apparently, though, as modernization continues and women are becoming less and less financially dependent on their husbands, domestic strife is becoming more common, and people are thrown into a moral tizzy by the increasing numbers of women who are opting to stay single. Case in point: the book I found in a Vietnamese bookstore, called The Crisis of Single Women. Apparently, the abundance of single women should be considered a national crisis - the author called for social supports and programs for women who have been "disadvantaged" by their own independence. Because clearly, however much of a choice single women may think they're making - especially if they have decided to have children on their own - they are violating the natural order, where men bring home the bacon and women cook it, and wives shut up and look pretty when their husband's friends come over.

I've been spending some time with three Vietnamese young women who are taking the seminar with us ("us" being the 14 other Princeton students who have accompanied me to Vietnam). They have fantastic English (way better than my completely nonexistent Vietnamese) and are clearly very smart, and I'm looking forward to talking to them about growing up intelligent, articulate, independent and female in a culture that at once ostensibly embraces equality for men and women (or at least the Communist party, in theory, does) but also condemns women who try to step out of its bounds. Not least here, I'm interested in learning about sex education and how you can teach about sex in a culture where daring to assume that unmarried people might be having sex is completely taboo. I'm volunteering part-time at Pathfinder International, a global reproductive health NGO, while I'm in Hanoi, and here there's another curious tension - contraceptive use is actually quite high among married women, and the birth rate is steadily going down, but young people have almost zero sex education, and so (surprise surprise!) the HIV rate is rising alarmingly. See a connection?

I'm going to keep exploring these issues with the people I meet and with Pathfinder, and posting them here, over the next five weeks, while I'm getting to know this wonderful, confusing place. What are you doing this summer? Equal Writes isn't going to be as active as we are during the school year, but that shouldn't stop you from letting us know about your "gender encounters," wherever you might be. Stay in touch through our comment boards!

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