Political and social movements advocating for change in women’s position and role in society have made great strides across Asian countries regarding education, employment and women’s civil and political rights (Basu 1995; Kerr et al 2004). Moreover, economic policies and practices at governmental and non-governmental levels have also helped to expand the economic and financial opportunities available to Asian women across different classes (Poe et al 1997; Lopez-Claros and Zahid 2005). However, “despite the intense efforts of many agencies and organizations, and numerous inspiring successes, the picture is still disheartening, as it takes far more than changes in law or stated policy to change practices in the home, community and in the decision-making environment” (Lopez-Claros and Zahid 2005: 1-2). Researchers have pointed out that, efforts to close the gender gap in areas of employment, education, well-being, and politics need to pay attention to the ways ongoing changes and new opportunities translate into gender relations within the family (Agarwal 1997; White 1997). The family remains in most (Asian) societies the primary agent of socialization, as well as regulator and enforcer of social norms and practices; this is particularly true of those norms and practices relating to gender relations. As a result, how changes related to gender opportunities and roles are perceived, enacted, and responded to within the family shape significantly the outcomes of governmental and other institutional efforts to change the status of and help empower women (Agarwal 1997; White 1997; Mosedale 2005).
Empowerment is a complex phenomenon and it sits within complex environments. Thus, developing effective approaches for understanding female empowerment requires paying attention to gender relations in the family in three ways. Firstly, it requires understanding how women negotiate and manage expanding opportunities in their roles in the family and their relationships at home with men, in-laws, and children? Secondly, it is necessary to ask how men are being socialized in this evolving context in terms of how they relate to and view women and particularly, the changing place of women. As White (1997) points out, “Change in gender relations cannot take place in a vacuum…if positive changes are to be achieved for women, men must change too” (15). Furthermore, gender relations in the family are larger than that between husband and wife, and extend to relations between and with in-laws, parents and children. Thus, thirdly, it is important to interrogate how generational, class and gender differences, as well as how one’s specific position and role in the family, mediate how these changes are perceived, experienced, negotiated and managed by men and women in the family (Agarwal 1997; White 1997).
Therefore, in this research study, to understand both the impact of change on women’s relationships and roles at home, as well as the perception of these changes in families, this research study has the following objectives: 1) to document change and opportunities for Muslim women in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan; 2) to describe how these changes and opportunities are perceived in Muslim communities in these countries by both men and women and 3) to understand how these changing experiences for women are impacting on gender relations in the family.
Specifically, in this study, the research questions are:
- How are expanding opportunities for women in employment and education perceived by men and women?
- What are the gendered expectations in the family regarding employment of women and education of women?
- What are the actual behaviors and practices of family members in relation to these expectations?
- How are these actions/practices perceived by others in the family and what are the responses to these actions by others in the family?
- How do individual family members manage these perceptions and responses of other family members to their own actions?