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OP-ED: How women in East Asia became freer than their sisters in South Asia

  • Published at 06:25 am March 14th, 2021
Women at an RMG factory in Bangladesh MEHEDI HASAN

Rural patriarchy in South Asia, instead of being undermined as in East Asia, has been reinforced by economic development

Around 1900, women in East Asia and South Asia were equally oppressed and unfree. But over the course of the 20th century, gender equality in East Asia advanced far ahead of South Asia. What accounts for this divergence?

The first-order difference between East and South Asia is economic development. East Asian women left the country-side in droves to meet the huge demand for labour in the cities and escaped the patriarchal constraints of the village. They earned their own money, supported their parents, and gained independence. By contrast, the slower pace of structural transformation has kept South Asia a more agrarian and less urban society, with fewer opportunities for women to liberate themselves.

But growth is not the whole story. Cultural and religious norms have persisted in spite of growth. Even though women in South Asia are having fewer children and are better educated than ever before, they seldom work outside the family or collectively challenge their subordination. By global standards, gender equality indicators in South Asia remain low relative to regions at similar levels of development or even compared with many poorer countries.

Once equally oppressed

Both East and South Asian societies were patrilineal and patrilocal.

Patrilineal societies exhibit a powerful son preference. Families invest in boys as much as possible, since they are future providers, scions of the family line and performers of funeral rites. But daughters were perceived as less valuable because they would soon marry into another family. This difference in treatment is reflected in sex ratios, mortality, education, and stunting.

When Chinese families were plagued by cholera or famine, they drowned girls at birth or sold them as slaves. Elite boys were educated in the Chinese classics, but girls (however wealthy) were kept ignorant.

Chinese men were over four times as likely to be literate in the 1880s. In India before 1901 female literacy was almost zero. “Bringing up a daughter is like watering a plant in another’s courtyard” -- they said in Telegu. Girls grew up learning they were less valued and more constrained.

Patrilocality meant that a bride relocated to live with her husband’s family. Men lived on family land, supported by their family and village. Women did gain status once they had produced sons for the lineage, but a young bride was an outsider with no claim to resources. Moreover, she was closely policed by her husband’s kin, so had little autonomy. 

Patrilineal trap

The restriction of women’s freedom in traditional patrilineal societies emerged from a coordination failure which I call the “patrilineal trap.”

In patrilineal societies, the function of women is to produce sons who would perpetuate their husbands’ lineage. This generates profound anxiety about women’s sexuality. Since the paternity of sons must never be in doubt, the slightest hint of sexual activity by a woman outside the confines of marriage constituted a threat to the social order.

The entire sense of honour and shame in a patrilineal society is bound up in the sexual propriety of women. Therefore, the whole society is organized around removing any and all doubt about the virginity of unmarried women and the fidelity of wives.

Despite the grinding poverty of village life, women earning wages away from home was rare. Few families wanted to stick their neck out and be the first to send their daughter away, because she might be perceived by the village as promiscuous.

Social penalties

In abstraction, we might theorize that each peasant family faced a tradeoff between honour and income. They might be tempted to supplement their meagre earnings by putting their daughter to work outside the village, maybe in the city. But this incentive had to be weighed against the potential loss of honour and the severity of social sanctions. The social ideal was to keep the women at home. But the more women were secluded, the less their labour power could be harnessed for the benefit of the household.

So generally the poorest families were the most likely to send their daughters and wives away to work. Yet once family circumstances improved, the women would be brought back home to regain social respectability.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest families displayed their affluence by keeping women in seclusion and foregoing the financial benefits of female work. Upwardly mobile families sought status by following suit. 

There are analogues in the history of North America and Western Europe. Before the mid-20th century, women tended to work less outside the home when their husbands’ incomes were rising. The “negative income effect” (household income and women’s employment were inversely related) testified to the ideal that men work outside and women at home.

Seclusion and exploitation

East Asian families were slightly less obsessed with policing women’s movements than South Asian families, but this small difference could make a big difference when economic conditions changed.

In northern and southwestern China, rural girls had their feet bound by their families undertaking textile handwork in order to keep them working intensely at the spinning wheel. There was no compunction about treating them like mules or chattel slaves. But when railways brought cheaper industrial goods, families ceased to bind their daughters’ feet, so they could move into new productive activities. Even before Maoism (which increased female labour force participation), women’s economic contributions were similar to men’s in the highly commercialized Lower Yangzi region.

Women in East Asia were not treated better than in South Asia, but they were seen slightly more as an economic resource. And this meant that female employment was more responsive to economic conditions in East Asia.

South Asia has seen quite a different pattern. For example, even as commerce flourished in the early 1900s, many castes in Uttar Pradesh restricted female mobility because they prioritized honour over earnings. Ahir men prevented women from selling milk. Urban Dalits put their wives in seclusion. When mills opened in Calcutta, Bengali women worked from home at a third of the factory wage.

Early marriage

The age of marriage was always much earlier in South Asia than East Asia. In 1931, Indian girls’ mean age of marriage was just 13 years. Chinese girls were marrying at 18 years and Japanese girls even later.

Pre-pubescent marriages indicate a strong preference to control female sexuality. Daughters were married off before they were physically able to reproduce for the “wrong” lineage. Thereafter she would be guarded by his kin.

East Asia shares many characteristics with South Asia: Powerful, patrilineal, patrilocal clans policed female reproduction. But the age of marriage was always higher and there was much more inter-ethnic marriage. 

South Asians guarded female reproduction more zealously. This was manifest in child marriage, purdah, and strict surveillance. All of these were less responsive to economic conditions. When the industry moved from home-production to factories, women stayed at home. Female workers in industry fell from 17% to 11% between 1901 and 1921, then remained low. Families forfeited earnings to maintain respect.

How East Asia overcame the patrilineal trap

East Asia overcame the patrilineal trap because it industrialized rapidly, and families were willing to exploit female labour in response to new economic opportunities. In the long run, East Asian women gained autonomy and status by moving to cities and working in factories, freeing themselves from the control of their families, earning their own money and building social support networks. Industrialization was necessary but not sufficient: Female emancipation required the prior willingness of families to treat women as an economic resource.

East Asia witnessed the classic case of balanced growth: Rapid productivity growth in agriculture, which released labour into other sectors; combined with rapid growth in manufacturing and services, which absorbed the rural labour.

Thanks to the late age of marriage for girls, there was an abundant supply of young, unmarried, educated women who could be hired by the thousands simultaneously.

And the demand for labour was so strong that the opportunity cost of keeping your daughter at home increased for entire villages. This synchronized effect helped overcome the coordination problem of individual families being unwilling to stick their neck out by putting their girls to work in the factories. When all families wanted to do it, there could be no social condemnation.

East Asian states realized that women were cheap but efficient workers. Thus the Meiji Government called on girls to “reel for the nation.” Emulating the Japanese experience, factory managers in South Korea, Taiwan, and China sought to capitalize on low-cost, educated, disposable labour -- in food-processing, textiles, electronics, and subsequently services.

Norms about women’s work shifted. With the economic rewards high, and the fear of social condemnation removed, factory work soon became a normal, predictable, and pervasive stage in the life cycle of East Asian woman.

Why is South Asia still in the patrilineal trap?

There has been much less industrialization than in East Asia. Since India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh still remain 63%-65% rural, traditional agrarian institutions are more persistent in South Asia. Villagers continue to rely on kinship and caste networks for survival, and women remain subject to patriarchal constraints.

Female seclusion remains the social ideal, reducing the supply of female labour. Women in South Asia have been less responsive to labour demand despite falling fertility and rising female education. Elsewhere in the world, these changes are normally associated with female labour force participation.

At the same time, industrialization in South Asia has been less labour-intensive (ie the industry has absorbed less labour) than in East Asia. The labour shortages which caused employers in the “Asian tiger” countries to resort to hiring women have never materialized in South Asia. Men are first in line for jobs, and employers need not hire women.

Idealized female seclusion

Today in South Asia, female seclusion continues to be idealized. This is because South Asians continue to be embedded in caste and kin networks, which are kept alive by the slow pace and unique nature of economic development in South Asia.

Caste and kin networks are crucial for everything from jobs to loans to mutual insurance where jobs are scarce, retail banking is underdeveloped, and there is little welfare provision by the state. Yet membership in those networks requires social respectability, primarily about women’s honour. Therefore, caste panchayats strictly enforce the surveillance of women and within-caste marriages.

Therefore, in rural Bangladesh, Pakistan, and North India, female employment responds weakly to urban demand for labour. Women stay close to their homes, only interacting with kin, and often withdraw from the labour market altogether.

A family whose womenfolk work outside the home lose status and harm the marital prospects of their daughters. 

Men go out into the world, while women are closely guarded. Surveillance is so strong in rural Bihar that young women relish open defecation as their only opportunity to get some fresh air, escape in-laws, and speak to their friends in privacy. In rural Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, women (and especially wealthy women) have very few friends. This limits their opportunities to share ideas, critique unfairness, and build alliances outside the family.

The poorest, lower-caste families have little to lose and regularly sacrifice social respect for the sake of barebones survival. In rural Uttar Pradesh, women only turn to waged work under the most desperate conditions. Yet once family finances improve, women withdraw from the workforce and “buy” some respectability again. Prosperity actually seems to reinforce the patrilineal trap in the villages.

Women’s reluctance to enter the labour market is enforced by a male backlash. In North (but not South) India, women with outside earnings are more likely to experience domestic violence. Likewise, Bangladeshi women who join savings groups or work in garment factories are at heightened risk of domestic violence. To preserve their dominance, Bangladeshi men usually try to control women’s earnings.

Many women are incentivized to stay home when the modest earnings from outside work may be seized by men and instigate intimate partner violence.

New patriarchy

India’s industrial sector has always been smaller in the aggregate and less labour-intensive than East Asia’s. This has suppressed demand for low-skilled labour, with numerous consequences for female employment amongst the poor.

Dalit women have had fewer opportunities to escape the oppression of the villages and find work in the city. Gender wage gaps are the largest among the lower castes. The poorest, least educated women have been the major victims of falling female employment.

Even more important than the size of the industry is the unique pattern of South Asia’s industrial transformation -- the great majority of jobs are in the informal sector, with adverse consequences for women.

Most non-agricultural workers do not have stable, salaried employment. Instead, they are employed in micro-enterprises, ranging from one-man entrepreneurial operations to petty family firms with a handful of workers. Such work is precarious.

The precarity of informal employment creates powerful incentives for city-dwellers to rely heavily on their caste-networks and live close to their kin. India’s cities (especially the smaller ones) are thus rife with caste-based residential segregation. Segregation by caste is actually more widespread than segregation by socio-economic status.

Ambedkar famously decried the village as “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and communalism.” Yet, thanks to South Asia’s pattern of economic development, those same institutions have been transported to the cities.

Protective labour legislation may partly explain why Indian enterprises remain small and most jobs are still informal. If firms do not employ more than 10 workers, they can circumvent labour laws.

They need not offer paid leave, pensions, or health insurance. They can terminate workers with no notice or severance pay. If firms employ less than seven workers they can also escape India’s Trade Union Act (1926) and workers cannot form a union. 

Patrilineal trap persists

Traditional rural patriarchy in South Asia, instead of being undermined as happened in East Asia, has actually been reinforced by economic development. Thus men go out into the world, run family businesses, migrate to new economic opportunities, inherit assets, resolve community problems, mobilize political networks, and make the laws of the land.

Elsewhere in the world, female politicians inspire other women to become politically active and stand for public office. By seeing women demonstrating their equal competence in socially valued domains, societies become more supportive of gender equality.

But in India, a woman’s electoral victory has no demonstration effect. Other parties are no more likely to field women candidates and women in nearby constituencies are no more likely to stand for office.

Patrilineal trap is not insurmountable

Despite the persistence of cultural traditions in South Asia, the patrilineal trap is not insurmountable. The diversity of historical experience within South Asia suggests there are many ways to tip the income-honour tradeoff in positive directions.

When factories opened up in Bangladesh, families increasingly invested in their daughters’ education, delayed marriage, and supported their employment. Female employment continues to rise in Bangladesh, especially among graduates. Through formal employment, women accrue self-esteem and social respect. Bangladeshi women’s relatively strong response to economic opportunities may stem from lower levels of endogamy and thus slightly weaker policing (compared to Bihar and West Bengal).

Indian women seize economic opportunities when they feel safe. If a woman can work for a female-owned enterprise, she will readily accept a lower wage. Free from lecherous outsiders, her family no longer need to worry about a loss of honour. For similar reasons, women are much more likely to work in neighbourhoods where they do not fear rape.

Female graduates are pursuing careers in IT, engineering, telecoms, finance, and hospitality. Emboldened by peers, they are capitalizing on the rising demand for skilled labour in Chennai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad. Many female graduates want to work.

Traditional institutions are clearly not insurmountable, and they are likely to weaken with structural transformation. In large, thriving, southern cities there is less untouchability, more social mobility, and declining caste segregation. This bodes well for gender equality.

Asian divergence

In 1900, East and South Asian women were under the control of patrilineal, patrilocal clans. Each family restricted female mobility, as they did not want their daughters to be seen as disreputable.

East Asia overcame the patrilineal trap because it industrialized rapidly and families were willing to exploit female labour in response to new economic opportunities. By migrating to cities and working outside the family, women accrued “face,” freedom, and friendships.

South Asia’s slower and weaker structural transformation has not changed the income-honour tradeoff as much. The economic returns to female employment remain low, while the costs to honour are high. Given the dearth of good jobs, people remain economically dependent on kin.

This perpetuates caste-endogamy, social surveillance, and purdah. Hence female employment only weakly responds to economic growth. Women remain secluded and separated, seldom challenging their patriarchal providers.

Many young, educated, urban, and especially South Indian women want to break out of the patrilineal trap. Safety and structural transformation would help them realize their ambitions.

Alice Evans is a Lecturer at King’s College London, a Faculty Associate at Harvard CID, with previous appointments at Cambridge and the LSE. The original article first appeared on her website. A version of  this article was also published on Scroll.in and has been reprinted by special arrangement.

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