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Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan

Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan

Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India

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In Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Northern India, rumors about a woman having an affair, marrying a man of her choice, or even just spending time with the “wrong” man can cause irredeemable disgrace to her entire family. The only recourse for male relatives is violence: beatings, disfigurement, and sometimes murder. Female relatives of the offending male may even be raped for the sake of honor.


Title: Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan
Author: David G. Mandelbaum
Publisher: University of Arizona Press
ISBN: 0816514003

•  Relatively short and easy to understand, but aimed primarily at students and researchers
•  Provides important data on a cultural phenomenon that puzzles many in the West

•  None

•  Anthropological study of women's social roles in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Northern India
•  Traces the connections between women's seclusion and conceptions of honor
•  Explains the cultural and economic basis for they way women are treated


Book Review

Why does this happen and what is the connection between the efforts to seclude women from the eyes of strangers and the emphasis on the honor of men? This is the subject of David G. Mandelbaum’s classic work Women’s Seclusion and Men’s Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Mandelbaum (1911-1987) was the first American anthropologist to do fieldwork in India and his studies on Indian culture, especially this one, continue to be important resources for students of anthropology and India.

This particular book is useful because a study of the role of women in a society can reveal a great deal about the nature of society generally — including the roles of men. And how do men and women relate in Northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh?

    What men traditionally require of women in these regions is closely linked to what men expect and require of one another. Women are not expected to require much of men, at least not directly, openly, publicly. This determinedly masculine emphasis is among the more intense expressions of a theme that is common across the world’s cultures. ... [A] woman’s behavior directly affects the personal and family honor of the men closest to her. These men believe their honor and the linked demeanor of the women to be of central importance in their lives.

The focus of Mandelbaum’s study is “purdah,” a concept which concerns many different ways to to cover and conceal women — from veils to hidden rooms and even to women’s actual behavior when around men. Contrary to what many may assume, this is not really a religious concept. Both Hindus and Muslims offer religious arguments for the way women are treated (Muslims more so than Hindus), but these aren’t arguments used by Muslims and Hindus in southern India. Ultimately, one has to conclude that we are seeing a cultural phenomenon that is largely disconnected from religion. Why is there a difference between the north and south?

Women's Seclusion, Men's Honor
Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan
    One fundamental economic factor is suggested by Wadley... It is that women’s work contribution to the staple crop, rice, in the south is proportionately much greater than are the inputs from women’s work to the growing of the staple northern crop, wheat. ...[T]he system of purdah is partly based on the economic dependence of women, particularly on their exclusion from control over productive resources. ...Women provide much labor in the growing of rice; they provide relatively little in the growing of wheat. The wheat-growing lands of the subcontinent are also most of those which purdah practices are strong. In the Dravidian-speaking south, the staple is rice, raised by labor-intensive transplantation, and, as we have noted, restrictions on women there are much less stringent and central.

If the reasons offered for restricting women are not fundamentally religious, then what arguments are used?

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