The Role of Women in Traditional & Contemporary Society
The roles and attitudes of women in traditional and contemporary society are a recurring theme in literature. Reading about how women are regarded in two distinct cultures lends readers broader understanding and insights as well as a greater appreciation for the identity and capabilities that women – then and now – have assumed. Two powerful literary pieces that highlight the traditional expectations heaped on women and the roles ascribed to them are The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Traditional views on women as individuals who are expected to uphold moral values and be devoted wives and mothers are gleaned right at the start of The Woman Warrior. In chapter one of the book, a woman is condemned and even raided by an entire outraged village for getting pregnant when “her husband had been gone for years” (Kingston 3). In narrating the ensuing events, the author leaves a clear imprint on readers’ minds that in Chinese traditional society, the sanctity of marriage and the devotion of her entire life to serving her man while upholding virtues were all considered very important.
One will also note that way back when Chinese traditional mores subjugated women to the confines of the home and to the caprices and needs of their male partners, double standard or gender bias quite noticeably existed. The author, during one instance in the first chapter, expresses, “Adultery is extravagance” (Kingston 6). It is ironic that while “a man could have sexual relationship with numbers of women (and) he could also bring those women into his family as concubines,” (Watson 239) women in stark contrast were instantly subjected to serious social rebuke and punishment for not living up to their expected roles as morally fit nurturers of home and family. When Kingston expressed in the first chapter, “To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was a waste enough. Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil,” (Kingston 6) she was, in effect, underscoring the shackling conditions, immense frailty and social stigma that the average women in traditional Chinese society contended with. When the author likewise lamented, “My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex” (Kingston 6) she was echoing a sentiment that cuts across cultures and generations of women, who, just like some of their male counterparts, do exhibit human weaknesses especially when it comes to giving rein to their emotions or cultivating personal relationships.
Another riveting literary masterpiece, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, likewise tackles a woman’s role, attitude and actions while grappling with trying circumstances in her life. The main difference between The Woman Warrior and Interpreter of Maladies is that the latter mirrors modern people surviving and interacting with others in the contemporary era. In contrast to the first chapter in The Woman Warrior wherein a male character is noticeably absent or portrayed as having abandoned her, Interpreter of Maladies (particularly the first chapter entitled “A Temporary Matter”) focuses on how a woman faces life’s trials — with her husband. They are a young Indian couple living in America and grieving over the stillborn birth of a child. The book starts with the couple having a normal conversation and expecting a blackout in their neighborhood. While relationship trouble or marital tension is evident, as gleaned from the husband’s words: “… the thought of how he and Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible” (Lahiri 4), it is highly evident that the man has a deep respect for his wife. In the male partner’s eyes, she is someone worthy of his admiration and support. In the book, the husband sees her wife as one capable of being prepared for what life brings, “good or bad” (Lahiri 6). The contemporary woman is likewise pictured as capable of holding a career and managing her finances. “She kept the bonuses from her job in a separate bank account in her name. He liked that Shoba was different. It astonished him, her capacity to think ahead” (Lahiri 6). In contrast, the condemned woman depicted in the first chapter of The Woman Warrior is described as one who “always did as she was told” (Kingston 6).by those whom she depends on for her sustenance (usually a man) or her very life.
Indeed, as societies and cultures evolve, women, while still cast in traditional roles, have found themselves gaining a greater hand in carving their own destiny and making their voices heard. This is a reality that has always been depicted in literature. Whether as memoirs or other non-fiction works, Chinese women (in certain instances, as written by Chinese authors) are depicted as subservient, frail in more ways than one, and searching for their distinct identity. In most literary works, such as those written by Amy Tan (the Chinese-American who was herself born to immigrant parents from China, just as she portrays in some of her books), the Chinese main characters discover something unique or special about themselves while linking their past cultural heritage to their present circumstances in life. It is noteworthy that “by exploring the history of women’s development in Chinese culture, it will be possible to elucidate the specific methods that women have been able to use in an effort to assert their power and authority in society” (Jensia, par. 1)
Also playing a crucial role in modern Chinese women’s development as unique-thinking, sensible, and in some instances, feisty individuals are the educational opportunities that have been opened up for them. With the planting of the seed that gave rise to its formal education system in the Zhou dynasty, China soon produced more quick-thinking, flexible and versatile womenfolk who blazed trails not just in the workplace but in society-at-large.
The contemporary Chinese women’s metamorphosis did not occur overnight, though. It was a gradual yet steady transformation. As aptly described in the academic milieu:
The early 1900s became a turning point in the education of women in China. As Chinese society was changing rapidly, so was its treatment of women… Until this time, women were only expected to fulfill their duties as wife and mother. It soon was believed that society expected them to gain an education as well (Ratcliffe par. 4)
This is something that augurs well for women on the brink of joining the fray, or competing, in the new global order. Indeed, both education and the changing socio-political landscape in China have played pivotal roles in shaping women’s character and future.
The similarity in The Woman Warrior and Interpreter of Maladies lies in how both authors turn attention to the immigrant experience in America. In The Woman Warrior, the author articulated, “Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America” (Kingston 5). Though the difficulty of Indian immigrants living in American urban cities is not highlighted in Interpreter of Maladies as heavily as it is in other books, one cannot discount that they do face certain challenges as part of their unique cultural identities and the social realities befalling them. Within their tribes, they are not likely to be perceived as feeble in mind and character. Nonetheless, as Paula Gunn Allen, an essayist who has Indian-American descent expressed:
Most Indian women I know are in the same bicultural bind: we vacillate between being dependent and strong, self-reliant and powerless, strongly motivated and hopelessly insecure… we suffer from the societal conflicts caused by having to identify with two hopelessly opposed cultural definitions of women (and) through this destructive dissonance we run happy prey to the self-disparagement common to, indeed demanded of, Indians living in the United States today (Allen (81).
Across countries around the world, women’s roles in home and society have undergone major transformations. The first chapter in Interpreter of Maladies embodies the modern woman who has been wisened up by personal and societal circumstances that have tested her grit and character.
Modern women now appear to be a far cry from those who allow themselves to be subjugated by the men who exert considerable influence in their lives. Many women in the contemporary scene exhibit independent thinking and strong disposition, and as such land good jobs too. Their male partners, in most case, even take pride in the accomplishments and capabilities of these women in their lives.
In fact, certain studies show, how “a large percentage of men in India prefer working spouses… this reflects the change in middle-class urban India… society is patriarchal and women have a major role to play in shifting perceptions on power” (Kumar, par. 2+). This reality was illustrated in “Ä Temporary Matter” contained in Interpreter of Maladies.
“Over the last few decades there has been a tremendous change in laws, attitudes, and norms affecting women’s status, roles, and development in society in India” (Dhawan, par. 1). Given the “rapid social changes in women’s career and family roles” (Dhawan, par. 1) and the fast-paced lifestyles and societal developments they have been thrust into, new attitudes and more decisive ways of doing things and interacting with others – which necessitate their being more in command — have come to the forefront.
It can be said that women nowadays, as compared to their traditional counterparts who have yet to overcome the barriers posed by culture and their personal circumstances in life, tend to wield greater power and are able to seize opportunities – in work, community, and the world at large. These contemporary women, as distinct from highly subservient females in age-old societies, are those who are out to prove that they can take action and accomplish deeds that are at par with, if not better, than their male contemporaries.
Allen, Paula G. “Where I Come From Is Like This.” Diverse Identities –
Classic Multicultural Essays. Ed. James Lester. Illinois: NTC Publishing Group, 1996. 75-83.
Dhawan, Nisha. “Women’s Role Expectations and Identity Development in India.”
Psychology & Developing Societies, 17 (2005): 81.
Jensia, Isra. “The Role of Women in Chinese Culture.” associatedcontent.com. 20 Oct. 2008.
27 Oct. 2008
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Kumar, Arun. “Yale panel finds women’s role changing in India.” indiainteracts. 27 Sept. 2007. 28 Oct. 2008. <http://indiainteracts.com/gossip/2007/09/27/6040/Yale-panel-finds-womens-role-changing-in-India/>.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. Boston: Mariner Books, 1999.
Ratcliffe, Heather A. “The Education of Women in Contemporary China.” Indiana
University. 3 May 2005. 28 Oct. 2008
Watson, Rubie S.1991. “Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society” Wives, Concubines and
Maids. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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