When we think of the South Asian subcontinent, what associations come to mind? Images emphasizing the region's beauty and exoticism may dominate--for example, the spectacular, marble-laden Taj Mahal, the breathtaking Himalayan Mountains, pictures of sacred cows roaming the streets of big cities, or Hindu devotees bathing in the holy Ganges River.
Such superficial knowledge offers Americans little understanding of the complex reality of a subcontinent with more than a billion people. Oversimplified views of South Asian women are also common. Westerners tend to think of South Asian women in terms of oppression, a stereotype that belies the diversity in women's conditions throughout this region. Although problems with human fights for women (and men) do exist, as in many other parts of the world, what often gets overlooked is the progress women have made over the past fifty years:
* the many grassroots groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) created to empower women, such as SEWA, a trade union and social movement registered in India in 1972 that organizes poor, self-employed women workers; (1)
* the success of the Grameen Bank, begun in Bangladesh in 1976, providing noncollateralized loans for women and men; (2) and
* the elections to high office of women of more privileged class backgrounds--in 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, the first woman in modern history to be elected prime minister of a country; Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India from 1964 until 1977, and 1980 to 1984; and Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan in 1988, the first female leader of a modern Muslim country.
In this article, we consider South Asian women within the context of the history and geography of this region's religions and cultures and offer insights into the progress women have made over the past fifty years toward greater control of their lives. We challenge the notion that South Asian women's stories can be reduced to tales of oppression, and suggest sources teachers may find useful to convey the diversity of women's lives in this region. Many South Asian women have gained educations, joined the labor force, and held political power at local and national levels. We conclude our analysis by discussing the novel Shabanu, a popular means for teaching about South Asian women in social studies classrooms, a book that, unfortunately, may both reinforce stereotypes and treat Muslim gifts in an ethnocentric fashion.
Brief Background on the Subcontinent
Although the term South Asia often serves as shorthand for the three largest countries in the region, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the label also applies to a larger set, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and the Maldive Islands. (3) Here, we concentrate on India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. With a population of more than a billion, India is much larger than its closest neighbors, Pakistan with a population of 145 million, and Bangladesh with a population of 140 million. (4) India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are all rich in cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity, the result of a long history reaching back almost five thousand years. Despite the distinct nations that have emerged in the twentieth century, in this region, histories, religions, and cultures are all intertwined.
These nations trace their roots to what has been called the "Indo-Aryan" civilization, which came out of Central Asia and took hold in South Asia around the Indus River Valley. This civilization's identity has remained intact through repeated invasions, although many of the invaders' customs and beliefs have been integrated into South Asian culture. For thousands of years, ethnic groups headed by princes, or maharajas, maintained their sovereignty. Only gradually under British colonial rule dating from the eighteenth century did the idea of India as a nation emerge. India embraces cultural and linguistic differences as vast as those found within Europe. …