Friday, April 08, 2005

Barriers to women's employment

Earlier this week, together with my local staff, we hired three new people for a small town a few hours outside Osh. Today, Aisultan, one of the local staff that helped make the hiring decisions approached me.

“You know, I’ve heard something about one of those girls that we hired. I heard that she goes from man to man.” Her face was serious and she looked concerned and nervous. She seemed to think we’d made a mistake.

“OK,” I said. “Is that illegal?”

She looked at me blankly.

When I’d asked this candidate her three main goals in life, goal number three was to find a man. She is separated and the mother of a daughter. I suppose that in order to fulfill this goal, especially being in her late twenties (old in these parts), she needs to date some different people to find who is right for her. “So, do you have male employees who date different people?” I asked Aisultan.

“It’s different for a woman,” Aisultan said. “It’s a small traditional town where everyone knows each other. She could harm our reputation there.”

“If dating other people needs to be prohibited, that’s fine,” I said. “But to allow your male employees to do so and not your female employees is discrimination. Give her two weeks and see how she works.”

I asked her specifically where she heard this information. “How do you know that the person you heard it from doesn’t have something against this woman and is trying to prevent her from getting a good job?” She agreed to check out her reputation with another local organization.

We’d already offered the job and had her sign the contracts. She’s supposed to start on Monday. I couldn’t believe I was being asked to retract the offer because of rumors that she dated various men. And this was among a group of employees in which a male employee forcibly kidnapped a female employee to make her his wife. There was no talk of punishment for him. In fact, he just applied for a promotion. But a woman could lose her job for a reputation of being with more than one man.

I later asked Gulnara, our office manager, what she thought.

“Even I think it’s worse for a woman to date around than it is for a man. For some reason, I see it as natural for a man and somehow bad for a woman. In our culture, a woman is expected to be with one man for the long term.

“I know it’s OK for Americans,” she said. “I’ve read about Madonna’s affairs.”

She thought I should respect the local culture, even if it meant discriminating against a woman. “Women face a lot of discrimination,” she said. That was an understatement.

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