Last week, I sat on the floor of a community hall watching 12 men devour full plates of steamed corn, sweet potatoes, and bananas, washing down their mouthfuls with swigs of black coffee. The women who had graciously served this food sat on the other side of the room, watching their husbands, brothers or neighbors eat and quieting their own bellies with nothing more than gritty coffee. I felt a knot growing in my stomach.
We were holding a meeting to assess a project to train farmers in sustainable production methods, a collaboration between the UN World Food Program and the local government in a rural village in Nusa Tenggara Barat province, Indonesia.
Throughout the meeting, the only woman who spoke was the richest woman in the village. She had participated in the trainings, she was married to a local politician, and they owned several hectares of land. The rest of the women spoke only when I addressed them directly, and even then they giggled and hid their faces with the excess cloth from their hijabs (the traditional Muslim head covering).
When the meeting was over, the women would take what food the men had left on the plates to divide among themselves in the kitchen.
Gender inequality in Indonesia is borne out in people’s diets. It is one of the reasons that the World Food Program operates here. We ran a program on this very island providing nutrient-rich supplemental foods to pregnant and lactating women, because they especially don’t get enough of the nutrients that babies need to thrive. It affects their children, leading to high rates of stunting and malnutrition.
I wanted to stop the meeting and say, “Hey, why aren’t the women eating? Lets share!” I probably could have, but I didn’t. I tried my best to get them to speak, addressing my questions—in my limited Indonesian—directly to them. (We often hold separate meetings with women and with men, so that each side feels more comfortable speaking, but on this day we did not have the time or staff to do so.) The fact that I was asking the women their opinion was clearly making everyone uncomfortable. I felt like if I pointed out the fact that men ate while women did not would be culturally insensitive for the situation. Who was I to challenge the structure of their community?
Though I sat on the female side of the room, I was served a plate of my own. I’m a woman, but I’m a foreigner, my skin is lighter and I speak English, so I fall outside of all their cultural paradigms. Still, I wondered if these women think I bow my head and serve my husband dinner every night. They watched me break the rules, eating before men do, speaking directly (and thus impolitely). Do they think I come from a place where gender no longer affects status? Do they know that in my world, I am also not equal to my male peers? That I am likely to earn less than my male peers for the same work? That even in America, a white female senator from New York has to put up with sexual harassment from her male colleagues? I felt that pointing out the gender inequality before me was on the one hand hypocritical, and on the other hand, my responsibility.
Of course this is not the first time I’ve seen firsthand the painful differences between the lives of women and men in a developing country. But that sick feeling in my stomach is there every time, from South America to Africa to Asia, and I struggle for the best way to handle these situations, knowing that this inequality is not something I must correct for them, but for myself too.
Yes, almost everything about my life is different from these women’s. I am from America, I went to graduate school, I live in a big house with a fancy bathroom, I earn my own salary. But I am still affected by the structural inequality of my society. In my home country, the government still argues over whether women have the right to control their own bodies, and elite universities ignore sexual assault cases and marginalize the survivors. Women still do more of the housework than their male partners across the US, even if they earn more money than their spouses. And American women lag behind men in representation in leadership positions, in everything from executive boards to Congress. No matter how different our lives are, we are all women. Our inequality within our respective societies rests on the same principle—that we are women, and so our struggle for equality is somehow interlinked. (This subject was explored eloquently by Carol Colfer, an anthropologist, here.)
Sitting in the community hall, I couldn’t eat the food in front of me while the rest of the women had only coffee. I looked at my male co-worker eating heartily alongside the other men in the room, and I realized he had never noticed that the women would not eat (he expressed surprise when I pointed it out to him later).
As the male leaders closed the meeting with a prayer, I thought of Sheryl Sandberg, who argues that women will be better off when more women are in power, and that women need to “sit at the table” and participate to affect their world. These women were not at the same table, literally; they needed someone in power to even notice that they were not eating!
Most of the problems I see in rural villages where WFP works will be solved by reducing poverty. But gender-based inequality, the poverty of women compared to men, cuts across all income levels. The problem persists in my own community, even among the leaders, and the wealthiest. It is holding back Western society just as it is holding back this village.