Women

Women from China and the West find common challenges

In Brief: 

A conference on "Women and the Welfare of Humanity" seeks to discuss how women might play an increasingly influential role in their careers and in their families to improve the well-being of humankind -- especially in the face of the vast changes going on in modern society.

A conference on "Women and the Welfare of Humanity" seeks to discuss how women might play an increasingly influential role in their careers and in their families to improve the well-being of humankind -- especially in the face of the vast changes going on in modern society.

WIENACHT, Switzerland - Trying to explain that families must move away from the authoritarian, patriarchal model if they are to be healthy, Dr. Hossain Danesh used the word "macho" - causing much perplexity among the large number of Chinese women in the audience at a recent international conference here.

"In the modern family, the authoritarian approach will not work," said Dr. Danesh, a Canadian psychiatrist who is now Dean of Landegg Academy here, where the "Women and the Welfare of Humanity" conference was held. "In families based on equality, we don't expect to have people who are 'macho.'"

Professor Chen Yiyun, a highly regarded Chinese sociologist and family specialist, and one of the few Chinese who spoke English, was at that point translating. She drew only blank stares, however, from the 50 some high-level women managers, judges, academics and government officials as she tried to explain the word - a Spanish-derived bit of North American slang for exaggerated masculinity.

But the Chinese delegation - as evinced by a burst of knowing laughter - finally seemed to understand the concept after May Chen, a children's book publisher from Taiwan, stood and, with a combination of pantomime and guttural sounds, vividly portrayed a large man with a cigar, a broad, curly mustache and a huge pot belly.

In a humorous way, the incident reflected much about the interactions and ultimate results of the four-day conference. For although there were many differences in the cultures and understandings between the Chinese delegation and the 70 other women and men who came from some 20 European and North American countries, there was also much mutual recognition of the problems and challenges faced by women everywhere.

Held here from 6-9 June, the conference's purpose was to discuss how women might play an increasingly influential role in their careers and in their families to improve the well-being of humanity - especially in the face of the vast changes going on in China and the world.

According to the women from China, the changes wrought by the introduction of the market system in many sectors of Chinese society have brought new problems. As discussed at the conference, these problems include too much emphasis on making money and not enough on family life; a greater number of infidelities and abandonment by husbands caught up in the new materialistic life-style; and new inequalities between women and men in the workplace, inequalities which include a greater sense of job insecurity among women, unequal hiring practices, and less recognition for the importance of family responsibilities.

In seeking solutions to these problems, which many of the Western women said they also face, participants embraced the idea that prosperity in one's career and harmony in one's family stem from creating a balance between material practicalities and spiritual realities. The theme was stressed not only by the Bahá'ís present, but also by a number of the Chinese.

"We also have to reach full development spiritually, otherwise it will be very destructive and humanity will destroy itself -- I am fully in agreement with this idea." 

--Ms. Hou Hui Nan, secretary-general of the All-China Research Society of Family Culture

"We also have to reach full development spiritually, otherwise it will be very destructive and humanity will destroy itself - I am fully in agreement with this idea," said Ms. Hou Hui Nan, secretary-general of the All-China Research Society of Family Culture, who headed the Chinese delegation. "Material prosperity is becoming higher and higher. But there is a gap between the spiritual needs and the material needs (of the people). So at present in China we have a lot of studies on the cultural dimensions and the spiritual dimensions of human life."

Other speakers developed similar themes, suggesting that when the material and the spiritual elements of life are combined, a third way emerges. In business, it was explained, this third path might combine elements of the market system and state planning - but in a manner which would put service to the people first.

In a talk entitled, "The Ethics of Prosperity," for example, Dr. Faramarz Ettehadieh, director of Imperial Finance Group in Austria, said true prosperity cannot be created solely in material terms. There must also be a spiritual component.

"Can we have Yin without Yang?" he asked. "It is not possible. And to have material prosperity only is not possible. For instance you can have a wonderful house and a husband and children, and you can look at it as materialistic prosperity. But if suddenly the man goes away with another woman, what is this? It is not security. You need spiritual prosperity, too."

Various speakers also said the solution to reestablishing unity and harmony in the family can be found only by moving further towards full equality between the sexes, and not back towards the patriarchal model.

Chen Fang Fang, secretary of the Communist Party at the Zhujiang Film Manufacturing Company, explained that in Guangdong Province, where much economic activity is now taking place, nearly 95 percent of the women work, in part thanks to the law established by the Government that promotes women's equality.

Nevertheless, she said, traditionalists still say a woman's place is in the home. "Although they work," Ms. Chen said, "many women still have to do most of the housework. They play a different role compared to men at home." The solution, Ms. Chen said, is to promote self-respect in women, to educate both sexes to trust and support each other, and to improve "democracy in the family" - equality in decision-making.

One outcome of the conference was an agreement, made between Landegg, a Bahá'í-sponsored educational institution, and the All-China Research Society of Family Culture, to hold an international conference in Beijing sometime late next year on the theme of ethics and their application to family life and society. Another outcome was an informal agreement between a number of the participants to support microcredit programs for women. More specifically, for example, Dr. Ettehadieh has pledged to expand a microcredit program operated by Imperial Finance Group, likely with collaboration of some of the Conference's participants. Landegg has agreed to provide academic and professional support to this expanded program.

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