My Mongolian Femininity

As I sat on the bus on my way to UB, the woman next to me casually lifted her shirt and began breastfeeding her 8-month-old daughter. Such is life in Mongolia where women are immensely strong and have endless responsibilities. While women in the United States and in Mongolia appear to have similar goals and values, they seem to be cut from a different type of cloth. US women are generally more individualistic, deriving from a more individualistic culture, while Mongolian women seem extremely dedicated to family, and consequently, almost every role that falls under a woman’s umbrella, deriving from a more communal culture where familial responsibility is everything. From what I’ve seen so far, life in the US gives women more of an opportunity to explore their individual womanhood, while Mongolian women seem to have more cultural roles and gender norms to which to adhere.

Take for example, a woman’s role to serve food and drinks in social situations. The times that I have gotten together with Mongolians for an event, it is an unspoken rule that if there is cooking to be done, the women will cook while the men sit or play games (the only exception being boodog, the process of which is a man’s job since the goat’s body must be held while scorching rocks are placed in the body with meat and vegetables). Afterwards, the women serve the food; the men typically only serve alcohol. The interesting part is that the women appear happy to be serving the meals, as though it demonstrates their competency as a wife or mother. There is a saying I was told that if a woman makes good tsuivan, she will be a good wife. This seems to be engrained in Mongolian culture, that completing tasks traditionally viewed as a woman’s job demonstrates how great a woman is. This is not to say that traditional views of a woman’s role in a family are unseen in the United States, yet most American women I know would not immediately jump to start cooking or doing other expected tasks. While I would personally find it difficult to want to perform these tasks, it constantly amazes me how strong the Mongolian women are, not only completing their generally expected jobs such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids, but also working extremely diligently during the day. Furthermore, although it seems Mongolian women are happy to do these tasks, they could very well be frustrated at the amount of responsibilities they have, but have accepted their circumstances. I have occasionally heard phrases like “he is so lazy” thrown around about men who merely sit and watch, while the men who help receive side-compliments like “he is a good man”, so there’s definitely more than meets the eye when it comes to men and women and their acceptance of traditional gender norms in Mongolia.

Most of what I have said implied that American women do not want to do everything women are traditionally expected to do, while Mongolian women are fine doing traditionally expected tasks; however, there is clearly a generational shift in views that probably plays into the demographics I’ve met in both countries (mostly college women in America among whom the new feminist movement is strong and Mongolian women with typically at least three kids and a job). I know that in the US as well, women have difficulties dealing with taking care of the children while also balancing work. Each family’s dynamic is different, no matter if the family is in the United States or Mongolia. Yet views on a woman’s role in the household appear to be changing in Mongolia as well. I have met women typically around 30-years-old, give or take three years, who have two to four kids but don’t cook. They’ve specifically told me they don’t like cooking, they aren’t good at cooking, their husband cooks better, and their husband cooks every meal each day. These are the households about which people don’t hear. Even my host father cooked occasionally so my host mother could nap! During PST we were told by some of our Mongolian technical trainers that Mongolian women have to do everything, the men just sit around doing nothing. Afterwards, another trainer came over and told us that not every family is like that; things are changing. It seems this change is surrounding the younger generation (as cultural changes usually do) and families living in more developed areas (again, not surprising). In UB, I have seen women out on dates, women who, based on their age, might have already had two kids if they were living outside of UB. This seems to indicate a shift to focusing on individual work rather than working while also starting a family. However, it seems like the movement isn’t big enough yet to be driven by any particular group; it just happens in individual households.

The younger generation has also demonstrated new changes in femininity, mostly regarding appearance. Before coming to Mongolia, we were told that Mongolian women dress conservatively, as in shoulders should not be showing. Now with Peace Corps being a professional organization, this warning makes sense. Furthermore, as foreigners, PCVs are viewed differently, with community members making joking comments about how PCVs should meet a Mongolian and get married. As a result, even though views on clothing are becoming less conservative in Mongolia, we PCVs still typically adhere to the conservative views to be on the safe side. Yet I have seen many high school and college-aged girls wearing short shorts and crop tops or tight dresses, clothing styles I definitely was not expecting based on the advice we’d been given beforehand. However, this more relaxed style seems relegated only towards younger girls. One specific example demonstrating that the liberal approach to clothing has not spread across generations occurred when I was teaching a lesson. My cardigan had slipped, exposing the top of my shoulder from my dress. My counterpart reached over and pulled my cardigan back up. Now, Mongolians are known for dressing professionally, so perhaps this was just to make sure my attire didn’t look haphazard, but more than likely it was to cover my shoulder, as shoulders should not be showing in professional attire. The same occurrence might have happened in the US as well, since the professional attire of the older generations seems similar to that in the US (except for casual Fridays). What I’d be interested in seeing is how casual attire compares between the US and Mongolia. The casual attire of students could easily be seen during the summer, but all I’ve seen of late is solely professional clothing. Perhaps this summer I will get a glimpse into casual attire of older generations.

I will say that due to the communal culture of Mongolia, the women all look out for one another. Grandmothers will raise their grandchildren while the mothers work in UB. Female teachers are concerned about their female students in all respects but most especially regarding teenage pregnancies. Female community members and teachers alike have expressed their desire for the middle school and high school girls to learn about sexual reproductive health. The only difficulty is one that is similar to the most common conflicting opinion about sexual health education in the US: abstinence vs. contraception methods (i.e. safe sex). While Peace Corps, my fellow health volunteers, and I all agree that teaching contraception is key, the most common theme in Mongolia is that girls should only engage in sexual activities after high school, so they should not be taught contraception. This mostly stems from a misunderstanding that teaching contraception is the equivalent to promoting engaging in sexual activities at a young age. Rather, since teenagers are not constantly supervised, there is no sure-fire way of knowing what they do in their free time; thus, better to be safe than sorry. Hopefully, discussing sexual reproductive health will destigmatize the topic in Mongolia where giving “the talk” or explaining “the birds and the bees” is something most parents do not feel comfortable doing. That being said, if the women I have met so far are any indication of strength, the teenage girls for whom they are role models will turn out extremely well.

This post might have seemed slightly confused, switching from critically viewing female gender norms to expressing amazement at the strength of Mongolian women; this stems from my own confusion. It is difficult to come from a country in which young women are currently attempting to change gender norms to a country in which adhering to the norm typically demonstrates female competence. Yet excluding gender norms, there is no denying that Mongolian women have backbones made of cement and somehow seem to be able to accomplish everything and more while remaining calm and collected the entire time. There is much I can learn about composure, resilience, and compassion from the amazing women I have met so far.

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