Gender Roles in Islamic Communities in India and the United States
ANTHR 318 Ethnographic Final Paper Gender Roles and How They Differ Between the U. S. and India While trying to decide on a topic for this ethnographic project, I would always find myself drifting towards the concept of gender and the role it plays in Muslim societies across the world. Maybe it might have had something to do with the fact that we were reading Deeb’s work at the time during class but gender issues have been fascinating to me for the most part of this quarter.
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Reading about the women of Lebanon and how they fulfilled the many roles they had in their respective families nd societies piqued my interest to learn how gender roles differed across different cultures. Being a natural born Indian and having had spent nearly half of my childhood I became extremely interested in how gender roles compare between Muslims communities here in the United States and communities in India. I decided to focus on the interactions between the two sexes in particular and how there are expectations behind these interactions.
Before getting into the details of the project and explaining how I planned on conducting this project, I would like to give Just a brief personal background on the opic. It is important to establish my own personal biases and views on the issue before diving into any research or analysis. Having spent my childhood in India, I am coming into this research with my views of gender roles in India solely coming from what I saw growing up and experienced along with the teachings of my family.
My family was relatively strict when it came to these matters and there were not many intimate interactions with individuals of the opposite sex unless they were closely related or it was mandated by some event or experience. I was brought up with the iew that women had to be respected but also had to be left alone to a certain extent. I bring my biases to the “American” side with my experiences after having moved to the States, especially those coming after enrolling in the University of Washington.
I saw many different gender interactions within the Muslim Student Association (MSA) here and that too has shaped my personal views on gender roles. As I will explain later, the MSA members are part of the sample of my research and it was advantageous having had previous experiences with them when conducting the study. Now the difficult part of the study became establishing an efficient and effective methodology in trying to conducting the research needed. The two main challenges I faced were time and feasibility.
Time was always an issue as schedules with the people I wanted to interview never seemed to work out and feasibility became a concern when trying to get data from overseas in India. I finally decided on asking a set of questions over an internet survey so that it could reach my entire sample, including those overseas, efficiently. The only concern became the seriousness with wnlcn tne partlclpants would take tnese surveys. At tne ena 0T tne clay an online set of questions seems so much more trivial than actually sitting down and having a conversation with the person.
But with the time and feasibility constraints, it became the most effective way I could conduct this study. I developed a set of questions and asked six people from each demographic, three male and three female, to answer them. I wanted to keep the subjects from the youth of the society to hone in on how the future generation’s view of gender roles is shaping up. The participants from the United States were chosen so that they were not a) Indian and b) were either natural orn citizens or had spent almost their entire life in the United States.
The only drawback was that the participants from the United States were either friends or acquaintances and the participants from India were relatives. However, once again, this was the most feasible option available to me at the time. I decided to answer the questions myself as I had spent time in both demographics and wanted to see how my answers would compare to the rest. The questions I asked were as follows: 1 . Do you shake hands with the opposite gender? 2. Should women be allowed to work? 3. What is the purpose of marriage? 4. What do you think is the role of women in Islam?
As the questions make apparent, the focus remained mainly on the interactions between the two genders and what the participants thought these interactions ought to be. After collecting the answers from the surveys and gathering the data, I was both surprised at some responses while got exactly what I expected from others. The main claim that can be made from reviewing the results is that the youth of the two demographics are actually very similar in their views on gender roles based on their answers. It seems that the strictness of gender interactions has curbed quite a bit in
India and the strictness I experienced within my family is not as apparent. The American participants all answered yes to the question referring to the hand shaking while only one Indian participant answered yes. This was an expected result personally going into the research as handshaking has become a kind of social practice here in the United States. It is still as widely accepted in India and not Just in the Muslim communities alone. There were also some differences in the answer to the question regarding marriage. They all seemed to hint at it being a necessity and an important stepping stone in life.
Apart from that each had their own reasons to marry. One of the male American participants said that marriage is done in order to help each other become better people. A female participant from India was keen on starting a family and believed that marriage is the avenue through which she can accomplish that. From these answers I saw that opinions on marriage depended mainly on an individual’s personal views more so than the cultural norms they were brought up in. Apart from this question, the answers to the others further exemplify why the claim for a sense of similarity can be made between the two samples.
All articipants across the board said that they believed that women should be allowed to work and the role they described for women in the folds of Islam were very positive and “modern. ” Many quoted the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) in making their claims of respect and tolerance toward women and their role in society. This is something that has been apparent even when I was living in India. The views of women tnemselves nave not really cnangea out tne Interactions Detween a man ana woman seem to be heading toward a modern interpretation. Thus, in conclusion, I found many similarities between the viewpoints of Indian and
American youth regarding gender roles in their respective societies. I was expecting that to an extent but was predicting a more split answer amongst the Indian participants. I felt that parts of India and certain families are heading towards a modern interpretation of gender roles but others are sticking to traditional and orthodox viewpoints. This was not expressed in the answers to the surveys. However the sample size was extremely small to generalize a country so vast and diverse such as India. With the time and resources I had, I had to make very long conclusions. However the experience was very worthwhile.
It was the first time I had to step out of an Islamic study and conduct it in as secular a view as possible. Being Muslim, Indian, and resident in the United States made it difficult at times to take unbiased or uninvolved approaches when conducting the research. I do not feel like my anthropological studies in the Islamic world are to end after this paper. Doing this research has really brought about a new found passion to try and learn more about my own religion from an outsider’s perspective. I believe that it will not only teach me many things but also will strengthen my own faith.