The modern ‘Great Game’: women’s role and status

The identity and role of women is still being debated in nearly every nation. Women »»

The identity and role of women is still being debated in nearly every nation. Women still struggle for equal rights and fair political representation around the world.

Turkey is a rapidly developing country which offers sophisticated facilities in its major towns and cities. Although the economy was traditionally predominantly based on agriculture, mining and simple manufacturing, in more recent years this economy has become much more diversified. In many respects, Turkey is rapidly modernizing.

But what about the status of women? How has it changed in Turkey and, for that matter, around the world? I would like to draw some parallels between the role and status of women in different places around the world with one of my favorite books: Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim.” It is set in a part of the world I love -- Central and Western Asia. As you read the book you become engaged with the story of a boy named Kim from whom you can learn a lot about dealing with cross-cultural and identity issues. The story is seemingly a tale of espionage, but it is really about a search for identity.

“Kim” is the delightful story of a boy who becomes a challa (pupil) to a Buddhist lama after being recruited by the British Secret Service, then becoming an ideal cover for a spy mission.

We have all heard the phrase “The Great Game,” which is used as a euphemism for espionage. Many associate it with “Kim” since Kipling uses it. However, the phrase is usually attributed to Arthur Conolly, a 19th-century British intelligence officer. Before Kipling the term had different connotations. It was first used to describe the rivalry and strategic conflict between the British and the Tsarist Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia, specifically in Afghanistan. The classic idea of the term connotes heroic acts across the frontier of Central Asia or politicians in London and St. Petersburg behind closed doors plotting and negotiating. When thinking about the character Kim, I remember how he grew up essentially an orphan in India, with his identity a fusion of East and West. The two influences of the lama Kim befriends and the spymasters he works under are equal forces in forging the boy’s identity.

In the contemporary world it is not uncommon to read about women who feel like second-class citizens or devoid of an identity of their own. In some countries they are even addressed as “the mother/wife of so and so.” In many countries, particularly in Asian and in some parts of the Middle East, a woman’s status is determined before birth. One of the major problems holding women back is the favoring of males in schooling. Women are accorded different rights and privileges because of the government and customs in the area. For example, many American, British and Canadian Muslim women and Turkish Muslim women are discriminated against because they cover their heads; Pakistani and Afghani women have some political rights but are often exploited by men; Asian women are paid less than men for similar work and underrepresented in top leadership positions.

Some nations have not understood that the region can suffer economically and in other ways from not better utilizing women’s skills. In an Associated Press report by Elaine Kurtenbach titled “Women’s lower status risk for Asian future,” the author provides data from an Asia Society survey, The Economic Forum and other sources. Here are a few key points:

The loss of productivity for Asia is estimated at $89 billion a year because of limits on female employment.

The gender gap was narrowest and women’s leadership strongest in New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Mongolia.

The gap was widest in Pakistan, Nepal, India, South Korea and Cambodia.

South Korea and Japan have the fewest opportunities for women in leadership even though the nations rank high in human development.

Although Asia leads the world in the length of time women have governed as heads of state, this is attributed to a dynastic tradition.

Turkey is not directly mentioned in the report, but, perhaps surprisingly, it has less of a glass ceiling than exists in many European nations. Women in managerial positions are not at all unusual and they are well accepted. Female executives are not limited to human resources or marketing positions: Women are as likely to be heads of financial or operational divisions, or may even be managing directors.

I will explain how the quote below from “Kim” relates to the status of women in my next piece.

“I am not a Sahib, I am thy chela.” – Rudyard Kipling in “Kim”

(To be continued.)

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey, 2005.” Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]