Motherhood in Diverse Cultures
Solita Sarwono *)
Women everywhere dream of becoming a mother. The desire and decision to become a mother, meaning to get pregnant, give birth and take care of a child, are strengthened (or discouraged) by the local culture, religion and even by the government.
In the Middle East countries applying Islamic laws, for instance, becoming a mother is a must for all adult women. All means to prevent, postpone and terminate a pregnancy are tabooed. It is hence not surprising that in Yemen each woman has in average 8 children. Many have even given birth to a dozen children or more. Religious obligation for motherhood, lack of reproductive health services, poor health and nutrition status of women result in a very high maternal death rate (1400/100.000 life births) and putting Yemen at one of the highest rank in the list of maternal mortality rates. However, such high rate of maternal deaths does not bother the families and the country as women dying in childbirth are considered martyrs.
As a contrast, women in main land China are forced to limit the number of their children. Each woman is allowed to have one child only, following the one-child policy implemented since 1979 as a means to slow down the growth of the population that has gone way beyond one billion now. In support of that policy all forms of birth control, including abortion, are practiced and provided free of charge by the government. The implementation of this policy is securely controlled at all levels and those who do not obey are severely penalized.
For instance, special supervisors control the menstruation of all the female workers of a factory employing a large number of female workers. Each month every worker has to show evidence that she does not miss her period that month. The supervisor controls the underwear and the sanitary napkin of the woman reporting her period and puts this report in the personnel record. Special attention is given to women already having one child. When such a woman is missing a period, the supervisor contacts the local clinic. A midwife of the clinic comes and examines the woman. If the woman proofs to be pregnant of her second child, it will be immediately aborted. The abortion can be done in the clinic or at the woman’s home. If she refuses to terminate the pregnancy, she will be fired by the company and lose her job. Finding a job in other companies will be difficult, as employers do not hire women having more than one child. Jobless, this woman will then become a burden to her family.
This strict one-child policy has a broad impact, as in the Chinese culture every family must have sons to pass on the family name. Since only one child is allowed, naturally boys become the favorite choice. As soon as the sex of the fetus is identified as female, most mothers will not hesitate to abort the pregnancy and get pregnant again until they have a baby boy. Sometimes early identification of the baby’s sex is not possible, as the doctors do not have the instrument. When a baby girl is born, the parents will ask the doctor to finish the life of this newborn baby. The simplest way to do it is by covering her tiny face with a blanket or a pillow. Through this practice of gender discrimination, according to Joni Seager in her book The State of Women in the World Atlas, in 1998 it is estimated that some 30 million baby-girls disappeared in China. Further, as a consequence of this gender discrimination applied for two decades, at present China has very many young men who cannot find women to marry. This situation forces these men to “import” their brides from neighboring countries, which in turn increases the population and counteracts the government’s policy to limit population growth.
On the other hand, not all male babies are welcomed and well taken care of in China. If the infant shows some physical or mental handicap, the parents will give this baby away or throw him away and will not report him in the registration office, giving the couple the chance to have another healthy baby boy. This cruel action is socially accepted, as the couple has no alternative. They must have a son who can pass on the family name and can provide a living to support the parents at old age. For this purpose they need to have a physically and mentally healthy son. In a mountainous area of China there are villages full of physically or mentally handicapped young people. Mostly men. Hundreds, even thousands of them are brought there in their infancy by their parents or relatives. Officially these poor people do not exist in China. They have no education and live from donation and mercy of people who care. Little or no financial support they receive from the parents. These boys do not even know who their parents are and where they live.
When Chinese women do not have the freedom to choose, women in industrialized countries such as in The Netherlands, have full freedom to decide on their reproductive rights. They are free to decide when they want to become a mother, whether this motherhood process is natural or artificial (adoption), how many children they want, and so on. Women also have the freedom to choose not to have any children at all. Moreover, women do not need to marry to become a mother. Many children in Holland are born and raised by unmarried couples. The decision to become a mother is affected by numerous factors: economic condition of the couple, their career planning, housing situation, quality of the relationship between partners, the woman’s age, and at times religion, namely Catholicism that encourages family forming and forbids the use of contraception and abortion. When the woman lives together with her husband or partner, this decision has to be made together since both of them will share the responsibilities of child-care. With the increase educational attainment, many Dutch women tend to postpone the birth of the first child in order to pursue their career. The average of women giving birth to the first child is 28-29 years in The Netherlands. This is the highest rate in the world.
Religion as a determining factor
The condition of Yemeni women is very much underdeveloped. The Yemeni culture is heavily influenced by Islam. Women’s freedom is limited. Most Yemeni women wear black long robe to cover the body and a black veil showing only the eyes. Girls may go to school until they reach puberty and many get married at the age of 15-16. This has resulted in the high level of illiteracy among women (85 % in rural areas, 46 % in the urban) as compared to the men (rural 35%, urban 16 %). Every woman must marry and have children. It does not matter whom she marries, a man old enough to be her grandfather, or being made a second, third or fourth wife, as long as she finds a husband. Remaining a spinster is a big shame. A childless wife is pitied and gives the husband the excuse to divorce her. Yemeni women’s space is limited to her house and garden only. When they want to leave the house they must be accompanied by a male relative. Lack of education and lack of freedom to move limit the women’s choice of employment. Women are even not allowed to sell things in the market. Fortunately there has been some progress in women’s life in Yemen in the past ten years. Women’s participation in higher education has been slightly increased, allowing them to occupy rather important positions in the government and in the education sector.
In Albania religion is not the main factor encouraging motherhood. Many Albanian women have a good education as a result of the compulsory education program under the communism. They go to high school or higher education. Naturally these young women want to be employed, build a career and become economically independent, utilizing their knowledge and skills attained through their education. Since its independence in 1991 Albania has watched its women moving forward, actively participating in politics, private sectors as well as in hundreds of NGO’s scattered all over the country with a population of around four million people. What drive Albanian women to have a family are the tradition and social pressure. A woman is not considered “complete” before she becomes a wife and a mother. Normally a wedding precedes the birth of a child, although in urban settings unmarried cohabitation has become popular among young people. It is therefore a common view to see a beautifully dressed bride who is clearly pregnant. The important thing is for the baby to have a father when it is born. After the birth of the baby the young mother may want to space the birth of the next children or not to have any more children to pursue her career. This is made possible by making various contraceptives available and affordable. Abortion is also legal. Now Albanian women have 2-3 children.
Indonesian women, Javanese women in particular, are taught to obey and serve the husband, to raise children, take care of the household, maintain harmonious social contacts with relatives and neighbors, as well as to support the family economy. Despite their important roles in family life, however, in most Javanese families women’s position and power are still lower than that of the men’s. Father and husband have more say in family decisions. This power imbalance has triggered several women to introduce some change by way of gender training and projects to empower women and to increase women’s participation in various activities.
Balancing the gender roles
In The Netherlands the position of men and women in the family, work and society is more equal than a few decades ago, thanks to the improvement of women’s education and increase of women’s participation in the economy. Most Dutch families try to give the highest education to all their children, when they are capable to do so. At present around 160.000 youth are enrolled in universities/higher education and this number is one percent of the total population. Half of the student population is women, whereas a century ago women only occupied 5 % of the university enrollment. With this educational attainment 51 % of women aged 15-64 years take part in the labor force (men’s employment is 76 %). As a comparison, in the early eighties only one out of three Dutch women was employed. As a consequence of this high rate of employment among women, the family and domestic duties have to be shared with the male partners and are no longer the burden of women only. Groceries shopping, cooking, washing, cleaning the house, ironing, washing and feeding the children, taking the children to school, these are all done together or in turns with the partner. Dutch men are quite good in doing those tasks as they are trained to do them since they are in primary school. With increasing number of women being the breadwinner of the family, more men are assigned with domestic tasks and family care.
When Holland and other western countries perceive assigning men to take the role as family care giver as an achievement of the gender equality promotion, in China this practice has been a long tradition. It is not an indication of gender awareness, but rather, it is done for practical reasons. The communist government, coupled with poor economic condition, has forced women to work together with men and provide financial support to the family. Women are employed in agriculture, industry, and education sectors or in government institutions in China. It is easy to guess that the proportion between male and female workers is unequal, as up to present women get less opportunity to reach a higher position in all sectors. Nevertheless, most women work outside the house. Therefore, whoever stays home longer or comes home earlier has to do the domestic work. If the husband comes home early, he prepares dinner for the family and does other household chores. China men are quite good with cooking. Moreover, with the absence of daughters in the family (one-child policy), sons must learn to do domestic work to make them independent. On the other hand, the wives are also willing and capable of performing the typical men’s jobs, like repairing the leaking roof, painting the walls, and so on. They see this division of labor as normal.
It is clear that the roles of women in family care, domestic work, maintaining social contacts, and in employment, as well as the problem of gender inequality are to be found all over the world. Cultural variations give certain stress and colors to different aspects of men-women relationship and to the intensity of the imbalance of the relationship. Indonesian women ought to feel fortunate for not to be living in an extreme environment. It is true that religion, tradition and social pressure still demand women to marry and become a mother, but women also enjoy the freedom to determine the number of children, the time to get pregnant and to space the birth of their children since they use of contraceptives is not tabooed but recommended. With this freedom the Indonesian women can control their own body and get more opportunities to seek a job they like and to build a career, especially the better educated women.
Indonesian women are not housebound, before or after the marriage. They are allowed to take education as high as possible, provided the family economy supports it. They can take a job in all sectors and can reach all levels, from a simple vegetable seller in the market to a Minister and even to a Vice President. We have to be proud and grateful for that. On the other hand, we must not neglect the fact that there are dozens of millions of Indonesian mothers who are still illiterate, who have to work hard until they die, or who are unemployed, yet they still have to feed their children. These poor mothers have never heard the children or others wishing them “Happy mother’s day”, let alone received medals on the Hari Ibu. Improvement of their living conditions should become the highest priority of the government and of all individuals who care.
*) Psychologist, sociologist, health education specialist and gender trainer, residing in Holland.
Unpublished article (2007) written based on the author’s observation in conducting gender training in various countries.