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The Paper Bag Princesses

June 24, 2005 -- Today the web site Hindu Business Line (Madras, India) ran a generally fair piece by Sreedevi Jacob about the recent trend of female nurses from the Indian state of Kerala migrating to the U.S. or the U.K., rather than the Gulf nations that were once their main destination for good jobs. Unfortunately, the Women's Feature Service piece reports, these nurses are finding a distinct "shortage of bridegrooms" among their male Kerala counterparts in the new nations. This is because those "highly skilled professionals" do not want wives with the traditional stigma of being nurses, who are felt to do "the dirty job of touching 'unknown' men."

The piece describes the emigration of nurses from Kerala, which has reportedly produced more nurses than any other Indian state. It lists two of the "pull" factors attracting the nurses to the U.S. and the U.K., namely the relatively high salaries and longer life expectancies, which fuel the growth of "old age homes." (Of course, the latter is only one factor in the developed world nursing shortage, which is driven mainly by poor working conditions and a lack of resources and respect). But the "flip side" of the "new boom" is the "shortage of grooms." The piece explains that since the early 1970's, a wide range of Kerala workers, "skilled" and "unskilled," emigrated to the Gulf states, so (as one nurse says) "[g]etting a decent marriage proposal wasn't really difficult there." This remained so into the 1990's, when many "girls" from poor Kerala families trained for nursing jobs in the Gulf and were able to make enough money to "clear family debts." But as the piece notes, "first generation Keralites in the UK and US are generally highly skilled professionals, like software engineers or management graduates. And they are not ready to settle down with nurses."

Why not? Because of the continuing "stigma" among Indian families who "feel nurses do the dirty job of touching 'unknown' men." The piece reports that researchers have found that "Indian nurses have never got their due because of this negative stereotyping." The piece notes that Sheba George of UCLA reported in her book When Women Come First: Gender and Class in Transnational Migration that because many Kerala nurses were the emigrating pioneers, establishing themselves before bringing their families over, they became the main breadwinners, resulting in "drastic changes" in gender relations. But despite the importance of the money the women earn, nursing is still subject to the "dirty" stigma, as people continue to feel that (as another nurse says) "interacting closely with the sick is not 'respectable.'" She notes that "[n]o Keralite professional in the UK or US wants to marry a nurse--unless, of course, he falls in love with her." It appears that these financially self-sufficient nurses are trapped: relationships with men earning less than they do are fraught with "emotional disturbances," while "qualified men" (those earning good salaries) are not interested in them. The piece does not address how the "highly skilled professionals" who are not interested in nurses feel about physicians (who do, after all, "interact closely with the sick"), nor whether a nurse would be all right if she limited her practice to female patients. Although it is not entirely clear, the piece appears to suggest that there may be some relief in sight for these nurses, to the extent that young male Keralites are now opting for careers in hotel management and social work, fields with salaries that are more or less on par with those of nurses in the U.S. and U.K. The piece does not explore whether anyone has called for reducing, rather than simply adapting to, what it terms the "negative stereotyping" against nurses. The piece also does not say whether the "highly skilled professional" men also refuse life-saving nursing care when they or family members are seriously ill, for fear of the nurses' "dirt."

In reading this article, we were reminded of the 1985 children's book The Paper Bag Princess. In Robert Munsch's story, a fearsome dragon terrorizes a castle and kidnaps the handsome prince. Because of the dragon's fiery breath, the young woman who was about to marry the prince is left with nothing to wear but a large paper bag. But rather than cowering or crying, the young woman marches straight to the dragon's lair, whereupon she uses flattery to trick the dragon into exhausting itself and collapsing. With the dragon safely out of the way, she rescues the prince. But instead of thanking her for her skill, courage, and hard work, the prince can only make derogatory remarks about her bedraggled appearance. She realizes that, despite the prince's surface appeal, he is a sexist fool who does not even appreciate that she has saved his life. She happily moves forward without him.

See the article "Nursing a grudge" by Sreedevi Jacob in the June 24, 2005 edition of The Hindu Business Line.

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