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Revisiting Glorified Motherhood

Mongolia’s Order of Glorious Motherhood and its Impact on Sex and Sexuality

Originally published in Issue 3 at CUriosity in Fall 2020.

Sandwiched between its two giant neighbours Russia and China, Mongolia is a special country. It reminds us of the times when the Mongols were fearless because of their brilliant skills in fighting and Genghis Khan created the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. But these times are in the past. Today the empire exists no more, but the country remains large: about 1,400 times the size of Hong Kong, however, with barely 2.01 inhabitants per square kilometre, comparing with Hong Kong which has 6,659 per square kilometre (as of 2019). One day I sat on my bed and imagined. If I were Mongol, the dream of reviving the glory of the nation would be in my blood. It is unlikely though. But why? Let’s take a look at the demography of the country.

Unresolved demographic problem

Being one of the least densely populated country in the world, Mongolia has a population of around three million. Since both of its two geopolitical neighbours Russia and China have much bigger populations, the Mongolian government has been taking population issues seriously. As an incentive to enlarge its population, the government issued a policy honouring women for having children. The policy awards mothers the Order of Glorious Motherhood medals once they give birth to and raised a certain number of children. The awardees are given monetary benefits and are allowed to retire early. In 1958, women awarded the First-Class Order of the Mother Glorious received 200 tugriks, while women given the Second-Class Order the Mother Glorious received 100 tugriks. The subsidy was equal to between a quarter and half of the average monthly salary for a worker at that time. While many focus on the positive impacts of this policy on mothers and their status, in this article, I hope to look at the knock-on effects this policy has on the lives of people of different sexualities in Mongolia.

Policy intervention came about

Historian David Christian once said childbearing, for centuries, has been regarded by Mongolians as patriotic. “The Order of Glorious Motherhood” is the Mongolian version of Russia’s “Mother Heroine”. It was first implemented in 1957. Today, mothers of four are awarded the Second-Class Order of Glorious Motherhood while mothers of six are awarded the First-Class Order. Previously, the Second Order was awarded to mothers who brought up at least five children and the First Order for mothers of over eight children. The relaxation took place in mid-70s due to positive outcome of the policy as reflected in a rise in fertility. Yet, people had become wary of having many children after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and fertility fell again to an all-time low in 2002. In view of this, the Order of Glorious Motherhood was upped by the government in 2006, causing a mild rise in fertility.

On the lives of women in Mongolia

Gender stereotypes are reinforced as the policy came into force. As mothers are praised in an unprecedented way, family expectations on girls have become immense to an extent that distorts the place women have in society as working women are encouraged to give up their jobs and become stay-at-home mothers. Following the 1989 democratic movement, Mongolia was in an economic transition switching to a free market economy. There has been a so-called reverse gender gap in Mongolia where families from rural areas have been eager to send their daughters to study and work in cities. Boys are seen as indispensable for domestic work and herding, while girls are seen as more flexible and should pursue education.

Consequently, over 60 percent of university graduates are female. As Lily Kuo from The Guardian finds out, despite being successful in their careers, women are still expected to be married by the age of 29. Not dismissing their ability to achieve work-life balance, but to the extent in which these women can materially benefit from the policy, that is to raise at least four children, it is very difficult for them to work. Working mothers either face “double burden” from both working and taking care of their children or retreating to home, and the latter further reinforces traditional gender roles. This motherhood awarding policy that reinforces women’s role as mothers could therefore possibly roll back gender equality and hinder women empowerment.

On a deeper level, the policy goes against women empowerment as it is essentially planting a “coercive” idea in society that tells women they should have more children. Central to women empowerment is individuality and autonomy. An empowered woman should have the liberty to decide her career, her marriage, and every other aspect of her individual life. However, as Morris Rossabi, a professor of History at the City University of New York, observes, women in Mongolia think of pregnancy as a civic duty rather than an individual decision, therefore giving more births is “encouraged” actively rather than a result of personal interest or planning. This neglects women’s right to decide how many children they want to have or whether to have children in the first place. Early in its implementation, the Order was even coupled with regulations to prohibit contraceptive use and free abortion. This is effectively no longer “encouraging women to have babies”, but more like telling women “they really must have more.” It gives rise to the perception of these women as incapable of doing anything except procreating.

There will also be fiercer competition between mothers and non-mothers in the workplace. This concerns little about gender differences, but more about stigmatisation. Even if these women continue to work after they have more than four children, they are likely to suffer from the “motherhood penalty”, which refers to additional disadvantages working mothers experience compared to childless working women. Halpert, who researched into pregnancy as a source of bias in performance appraisals, noted that visibly pregnant women are considered less committed to their roles by their employers, less authoritative and more emotional than women who are not visibly pregnant. Award-winning economics journalist Ann Crittenden also argues that across the world, for women under the age of 35, the pay gap is larger between mothers and non-mothers than between men and women. Her view is supported by Correll et al. (2007), who suggested women with children are six times less likely than childless women to be recommended for hire. Despite a lack of quantitative research specifically on the case of Mongolia, it is sensible to deduce that the more children a woman has, the more disadvantaged she is in the workplace.

Some believe that the policy also perpetuates patriarchy symbolically. On the Second Order medal, the woman is wearing deel, the national Mongolian dress, with her “combed and split hair” that shows she is at a young age. Since mothers are considered “glorious”, it would make sense to value baby girls more as they are expected to become mothers one day. However, a baby boy instead of a girl is shown on the medal. As far as feminists are concerned, the depiction of the woman as young, traditional, patriotic and committed to her baby and the depiction of the baby as a boy demonstrate the embedded values and beliefs of patriarchy. On top of that, the focus on the award has shifted from celebrating mothers to honouring children instead. This is reflected by an unprecedented change of the occasion the award ceremony takes place – until 2017, it took place on 8 March, the International Women’s Day; however, since 2018 it became 1 June, Mongolia’s Children’s Day. From a feminist point of view, this has significant implications for the status of women. Symbolically, since International Women’s Day is an occasion to promote gender parity and recognise women’s contributions to society, awarding it on Children’s Day instead reflects the underlying significance of celebrating motherhood has diminished. Rather, now, it is to celebrate love for children.

Mongolia. An Order of the Glory of Motherhood, 1st Class Badge, Numbered (Source: Purveyors of Authentic Militaria)

On the lives of men in Mongolia

Men are also affected by this policy in a few ways. On the up side, men benefit because, assuming most women are in a stable relationship with their male partners, regardless of whether it is in the form of marriage, their male partners will enjoy the “children’s allowance” provided by the government as well. This will be especially helpful for men who struggle to make ends meet. Considering these men are oftentimes the breadwinners, this policy helps offset the costs of raising children through, for example, tax reduction. On the down side, a lot of men in the Mongolian society live very unhealthy lifestyles. World Bank found that 47 percent of adult men in Mongolia smoke, compared to 6 percent of adult women. In 2016, adult men in Mongolia consume an average 12.8 litre of pure alcohol per year, while that of women is just 2.1 litre. Men’s unhealthy lifestyles have contributed to a huge life expectancy gap between women and men—74.2 for female and 65.7 for male. Many of these behaviours are associated with “toxic masculinities”—attitudes and behaviours of some men who adhere to traditional male gender roles and feel the need to act in a vigorously dominant way. Honouring motherhood is likely to aggravate toxic masculinities if there are no measures in place to educate the society about the objectives of this policy.

On the lives of sexual minorities in Mongolia

The policy also has a knock-on effect on sexual minorities in Mongolia. After the policy was introduced, there is generally greater family pressure on girls to have babies, regardless of their sexual orientation. This marginalises lesbians and gays who refuse to engage in heterosexual sex because their preference does not realise a woman’s reproductive function. This is a similar case to what Hildebrandt (2018) discusses has happened in China. He illustrates how the heteronormative one-child policy negatively affects perceptions and lives of sexual minorities in China through putting greater reproductive pressure on the only child in the family. Mongolia is a similar case to China, despite a different nature of the two policies — one is family planning and the other is pro-natalist. Seeing the government institutionalising heterosexuality as part of the social order and framing it as a merit rather than just one of the many types of sexualities, some parents in Mongolia push their daughters and sons to have babies. Those who refuse to have heterosexual sex are stigmatised even more severely, given that traditional norms in Mongolia have already put tremendous pressure on sexual minorities. Meeting parents’ expectations, which include marriage (and same-sex marriage is not allowed) and procreation, cannot be more acute for sexual minorities in Mongolia. At an individual level, there are instances of violence against LGBT persons. At the state level, this social policy adversely affects sexual minorities as it institutionalises a heteronormative assumption that when girls grow up, they will be married to men and have many babies. It emphasises the notion that while women are denied certain opportunities because they need to fulfil the duties of motherhood, lesbians are denied the right of social existence because they do not (or cannot) marry and have children.

Taking pleasure into account

Pleasure, unlike gender, gets far less attention than it should. Policymakers, scholars, and legal practitioners often ignore pleasure as an important aspect in the making of social policies. A pleasure lens enables us to reorient our focus from broader structural issues to individuals when examining social policies.

Sexual pleasure is an important aspect of life. Awarding mothers with multiple children has pros and cons for women sexuality and their pursuit of sexual pleasure. First, the policy largely ignores women’s sexual pleasure since the national official discourse determines sexuality as a means for reproduction, not for pleasure. In Mongolia, sexual intercourse as pleasure and as a form of expression of sexuality is discouraged in mothers. Being mothers oftentimes implies women’s desexualisation—an attribute acknowledged by the majority in Mongolia that mothers should put their children first at the expense of their own sexualities. Mothers are always caught between viewing their bodies as an asexual and selfless source of maternal nurturance and as heteronormative sites for pleasure. This policy neglects their sexualities in many ways: when a woman’s baby is young, her sexuality might or might not be expressed because either she gets pleasure from breastfeeding or she does not feel good breastfeeding; as the baby grows up, the mother has to spend time taking care of the baby and sexuality will be interfered, especially if she is meanwhile pregnant; when her first child turns into a teenager and her second child becomes a toddler, she is having a third child; after all the hassle and when all of her children become adults, she is seen as too old to engage in sex and derive pleasure from it, as old people are seen as asexual and their sexualities are often frowned upon in society. It is important to understand that women are just women before they become mothers, and not all women will become mothers, so they should be viewed as individuals with their own likes and dislikes, not just carriers of eggs serving their reproductive function.

It is equally important to understand that pleasure does not only come from erotic experiences. In a broader context, it can also mean pleasure of parenting and a sense of pride. Regarding parenting, some people see it as hard work while some people get immeasurable satisfaction from it, and the pleasure has nothing to do with sensations. In his book How Pleasure Works, psychologist Paul Bloom writes “pleasure is affected by deeper factors, including what the person thinks about the true essence of what he or she is getting pleasure from”. He goes against the conventional view of pleasure as entirely sensory. Parents treasure their children’s kindergarten art not because they feel good touching it, smelling it, but because they believe this is an object painted by their children—it is the pleasure people get from loving others. Back to the policy, while it encourages couples who already have children to have more, it also encourages childless couples to consider having children. This changes the minds of these people who would otherwise choose not to have children. More people get to experience the pleasures (and unequivocally, pains) of raising children.

Regarding the sense of pride, the assumption of the policy is that mothers will feel proud when they receive the medals. Pride is also a kind of pleasure. In her article, Mongolian researcher Turmunkh Odontuya discusses the mixed feelings mothers have when they receive the medals. Some mothers said they were happy and proud of themselves. However, she observed that many mothers, particularly young mothers, were unhappy. Some said they felt embarrassed because some working women stereotyped them as useless people. One woman described glorious mothers as “unskilled people who was only capable of giving birth”. This reflects that the policy carries a discrepancy in meaning between governmental and individual spheres. Despite endorsement from the state, certain people in society are disrespectful towards these mothers. They consider these women as incapable of managing their personal lives. From this we see this motherhood-awarding policy has a knock-on effect on others’ perceptions of those women who are awarded the Order, which leads to those glorious mothers either feeling proud or ashamed.

Some final words

Mongolia is a pluralistic country with relatively strong respect for women’s rights. Beneath the surface, however, are stereotypes, gender inequalities, and lingering concerns over the impacts of its pro-natalist policy on people with different sexualities. While designing a good policy is important, it is equally important to identify unintended consequences the policy may have on the social structure and different stakeholders’ interests. For centuries and around the world, the celebration of motherhood serves to recognise the sacrifices mothers make for their children but also in the meantime attempts to exert discursive control over what women ought to and ought not to do. Knowing about this is the first step in freeing women who are caught in the cycle of repression. Next time when you see a woman with children on the street, please see her first as a woman, not as a mother.

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