Yesterday I had a fascinating conversation with the director of the Erdenet Children’s Palace regarding sexism in education and the way it affects Mongolian family dynamics. The Children’s Palace is the seat of this aimag’s branch of the Department of Children and Family Development (that’s a loose translation); essentially, it’s a youth center, offering classes in music, art, dancing, and wrestling, hosting competitions and plays, and providing a number of other services. It’s also where I’m taking music lessons in exchange for helping their director with her English. During yesterday’s lesson, we read and discussed a Time for Kids article on Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani girl who was attacked by the Taliban last year for her women’s rights activism. We talked about how the Taliban doesn’t believe women should be educated, or indeed do anything besides keep house and have children. As far as I’ve seen, that’s the effect sexism has on women in most countries: it keeps women out of school and out of the workforce, especially its upper echelons, insisting that they stay in the home, “where they belong.”
In Mongolia, however, things seem to have taken an alternate course. I recently learned a saying that closely reflects the prevailing attitude: that “эрэгтэй чадна,” or “men can.” (The statement is as incomplete in Mongolian as it is in English, implying that men can do anything and everything.) Men are considered stronger, more capable, and so families concentrate on educating their daughters to bring them up to snuff; boys can get by without extensive education, it’s thought, but girls can’t. In one stroke, we’ve somehow managed to inflate the male ego and lessen his ambition and work ethic, but also to increase the opportunities available to women.
I’ve spent a long time pondering this reversal of the usual paradigm. How do two cultures start with the same assumptions about male superiority and arrive at such different conclusions about who should or should not be educated? The most obvious difference between Pakistan and Mongolia is that one is Muslim and the other Buddhist, but I’m insufficiently schooled in the doctrines of either religion to try to argue causation on that point.
Mongolia also spent seventy years as a Soviet puppet state, and it’s tempting to regard communism as an equalizing force. But it certainly didn’t erase the idea that men are naturally superior; at most, it seems to have planted the impulse to “lessen” the discrepancy between the sexes, rather than widen it by consigning women to the home. And even so, the focus on women’s education seems to be a recent development; from what the director tells me, education opportunities were much rarer for women as recently as ten to fifteen years ago, which would imply that it’s a post-Soviet response rather than a Soviet development.
Whatever the reasons, it’s a widely observable fact: Mongolian universities are very female-heavy, with the exception of agricultural and “technology” universities (the technology in question being that which pertains to the mining industry, at least in Erdenet). The sharp gender divide in my classes reflects this trend as well. The farming, tractor driving, auto mechanics, agricultural machinery, and electrician courses are populated by boys, while the biology and accounting classes are female. There are two or three girls in the electrical course, and one boy in biology; aside from those few students, the divide is absolute. The best students in the high school classes I’ve observed were always girls. And when we gave presentations during last week’s outreach trip to Arkhangai and Zavkhan (to be recounted in the coming weeks), all the questions we received about scholarships and studying in America were posed by girls.
Naturally, this discrepancy has effects that extend far beyond the classroom. Teaching is a female-dominated profession even n the states, but it’s even more so here. Most managers are female as well, though a lot of schools have male directors. And as for the profession requiring the most schooling, the WHO lists Mongolia first among those countries (called “notable exceptions”) reporting more female than male physicians.
And according to the (female) director of the Children’s Palace, the education discrepancy has repercussions for family life as well, even if they sometimes take a few years to show up. Mongolia’s is a very child-centric culture, and the desire for marriage and children is deeply instilled in the vast majority of Mongolian women. People start their families young here; it’s not uncommon for couples to have children in their late teens, and it’s extremely common for them to have them in their very early twenties. Higher education doesn’t typically delay things, either; women who have children while attending university usually send them to be raised by their own parents until they finish their studies, as my school’s director did.
The demographics of my school’s faculty are telling: of the twenty or so teachers, five are men, and about five are women over thirty. The rest are women in their early to mid twenties. To my knowledge, only three of those women are single, and the married ones all have at least one child. I’ve been asked multiple times why I’m not married, why I don’t have children; if I protest that I’m only 23, the asker usually laughs and says that she’d already had two children at my age.
But unfortunately, these early marriages aren’t always happy or lasting. Divorce rates in Mongolia aren’t as high as they are in the Western world, but they’re certainly on the rise – especially when you consider “divorced/separated” as a single category. The director cites education inequality as a reason for these rising marriage failure rates. Women get married early because they want families, she says, but educated women are often unhappy with uneducated husbands. The rampant alcoholism in this country doesn’t help either; men are expected to get drunk on holidays and during celebrations, and if they do so more often, most people turn a blind eye. Domestic abuse is similarly (I would argue relatedly) common, and similarly ignored. I lack the statistics to back this up, but I’m going to postulate that educated women are less likely to tolerate an abusive or alcoholic husband. And you have to wonder whether Mongolian men, like their Western counterparts, feel emasculated by wives with higher incomes, and whether those feelings contribute to the drinking and spousal abuse problems.
“Men can,” they say, but men can do what, exactly? Drink? Hit their women? If that’s the case, no wonder divorce is on the rise. What makes men so superior that they don’t need an education? Lack of education and feelings of entitlement and superiority do little to endear Mongolian men to Mongolian women, and even less to foreign women. The mixed-couple statistics are incredibly skewed: plenty of Mongolian women date and marry foreign men, but very few foreign women date Mongolian men, and even fewer marry them. Of the mixed couples I know personally (married or engaged, not just dating), four of the five pair a Mongolian woman with a foreign man. The one outlier is a fellow Fulbrighter who met her Mongolian fiancé while he was in the US on a work/study program.
Mongolian men, as you might imagine, don’t think very much of this pattern. The nationalist movement concentrated in the capital resents foreign men for stealing Mongolia’s wealth and its women. As a result, every American man who attends a security briefing at the Embassy is warned against dancing with Mongolian women, lest a Mongolian man take offense and start a fight (an event I’ve witnessed). But I can’t imagine that starting those kinds of fights does much to improve their image.
Not that all Mongolian men are violent, drunken brutes who dropped out of school; far from it. There are plenty of kind Mongolian men: sweet ones, jolly ones, brilliant ones. I know men who fit all of those categories. But most of the ones I know did not attend college either, and few of my male students demonstrate ambition to learn anything beyond catcalls.
Empowered, educated women are undoubtably a good thing, but entitled and uneducated men are not. While I applaud Mongolians for sending their daughters to school, girls aren’t the only ones in need of schooling. Education inequality and the gender preferences behind it, no matter which gender they “favor,” do a society no favors.