“It’s so embedded in the culture that, in the end, unmarried women may live with men, but there is only one main goal for women… which is to get married.”

Sex, marriage, divorce and women’s rights were all frankly discussed at a special event, “The Good Wife”, hosted at Asia House as part of their widely anticipated Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in London, United Kingdom. This event was held in partnership with the Pan Asian Women’s Association (PAWA), a charity supporting teenage girls’ education in Asia.

Bringing together three leading female writers from Asia, the event discussed how female rights and gender equality have impacted women in certain countries. The panel, chaired by Radhika Sanghani, women’s writer at The Telegraph, comprised of playwright Sharmila Chauhan, journalist Ramita Navai and author Elif Shafak.

Sharmila Chauhan:  Comparing women’s rights in rural and urban India

Opening with India, Sharmila Chauhan compared the differences in freedom for women in rural and urban communities. She explained how female infanticide and the existence of “dowries” were still huge problems for women in uneducated, rural areas of India, while women in the cities were experiencing greater freedom.

New lifestyles and attitudes are emerging across the liberal upper and middle classes with online dating, marrying later and cohabiting before marriage all common among women. But despite these changes, Sharmila said women were still expected to be married:

“It’s so embedded in the culture that, in the end, unmarried women may live with men, but there is only one main goal for women… which is to get married.”

Women are also still being raised with unhealthy attitudes and guilt towards sex. She highlighted how Bollywood was a massive cultural force that “fetishised love without sex” and warped perceptions. She said:

“Indian women need to open up conversations about sex to demystify the topic and learn from India’s rich history of matriarchy and female sexuality.” 

Ramita Navai: Iranian women taking control of their bodies

British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai and author of “City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran” described how women in Iran were experiencing a “sexual awakening.

She noted that young people were now more sexually experimental and taking back control of their bodies. There is also more of a trend of middle class women marrying later and divorcing more.

“Iran is seeing an astronomical divorce rate that is changing the landscape. 20% of marriages are ending in divorce and the last 10 years the rate has tripled – divorce is no longer a taboo.”  

increasing numbers of Iranian couples are also cohabiting in so called “white marriages” – a middle class phenomenon that is seen by the state as a “massive threat to society”.

Elif Shafak: Women’s rights in Turkey is moving backwards

Finally, author Elif Shafak discussed how women’s lives were changing in Turkey. Despite the positive movements for women in Asia, she lamented how Turkey was generally experiencing a “negative movement backwards for women”.

She explained how politicians are increasingly threatened by gender justice and policing women privately, while neglecting their issues on the public agenda.

Elif also identified a lack of mutual support as a critical obstacle to equality. Although homes are under matriarchal control, women are not using their power to support other women, resulting in chains of patriarchy to persist.

“When women are divided, patriarchy benefits – bonds of sisterhood and solidarity must be cultivated. Real change can only come from a united bottom up women’s movement.”