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Did Irrigation Entrench the Patriarchy?

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

The most gender equal regions in the world are Northern Europe and South East Asia. Why is this? How did they become more gender equal than the Middle East? This divergence is not recent, it precedes twentieth century development and democratisation.

What are the deep roots of the great gender divergence?

Before the modern era, almost everyone produced their own food, and these systems for producing food profoundly affected gender relations. Where women’s contribution to farming was relatively significant, they have higher labour force participation today. Where men were integral to production women stayed at home. Over the centuries, gender divisions of labour became normalised.

So what farming systems are associated with higher female employment? We know female employment is higher in places with traditions of labour-intensive production, shifting-cultivation, and wet paddy fields; much lower under plow-cultivation.

Now here is another influence: IRRIGATION!

In a fascinating new paper, Per Fredriksson and Satyendra Gupta find that areas with low irrigation potential have higher female labour force participation and female property rights. Elsewhere, men cooperated between close kin, battled against outsiders for control over valuable irrigation, captured the gains of greater productivity, developed tight bonds of kinship, while women stayed at home. These irrigation societies also tended to become authoritarian, which constrains feminist activism. If you'd rather listen, I've recorded an audio version. Search for Rocking Our Priors (Spotify).

The potential impact of irrigation varies worldwide

In the Middle East and North Africa, irrigation can more than double yields. In Europe and South East Asia, additional water beyond natural water barely makes a difference. This is shown by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)'s global Agro-Ecological Zones (GAEZ) 2002 database:

Geography is not destiny, of course. Even if irrigation could potentially increase yields that does not entail adoption. Indeed, irrigation potential is not perfectly correlated with actual irrigation - as Fredriksson and Gupta find when they explore this correlation using Murock's (1967) sample of pre-industrial societies. The correlation between irrigation potential and pre-industrial usage is is 0.31.

So to understand the impact of irrigation on gender relations, we need to trace the history of technological innovations and how they spread!

Advanced societies developed engineering marvels, like the Qanat

Qanat - Iran’s 3000 year old irrigation system - is an engineering marvel. Underground aqueducts enabled ancient Persians to thrive and build cities in the desert.

Through conquest, they spread their irrigation technology widely - as far as Sicily and Andalusia.

In pre-industrial societies with higher irrigation potential, women were less likely to work in the fields

Fredriksson and Gupta analyse the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) and Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas of 1,267 pre-industrial societies around the world. Importantly, F&G distinguish between different kinds of work. Irrigation potential does not lower women's participation in milking. So women still work, but they remain close to the homestead.

Why would irrigation lower female labour force participation?

F&G suggest that irrigation would have increased agricultural productivity, and men likely retained control over those new technologies. This mechanism echoes Alesina, Giuliano, and Nunn's famous paper on the plough.

Irrigation likely raised land values, incentivising raids and warfare

By doubling yields, irrigation likely increased land values. This could have incentivised violent conflicts. To protect their resources, families needed strong fighters. This could have encouraged son preference. Given external threats, kin may have restricted women’s mobility. To show the plausibility of this warfare mechanism, F&G look at historical conflicts in India. Female agricultural labour force participation is lower in districts that had more land battles in the years 610 - 1962.


Pre-industrial societies with irrigation agriculture were often authoritarian (check out my podcast on with David Stasavage).

Irrigation potential only worsens female property rights in authoritarian regimes.

Daron Acemoglu would like this point: institutions matter! Most likely because women could mobilise for equal rights.

Irrigation required constant collaboration, encouraging collectivism

People in places with high irrigation potential tend to be more collectivist. Maintaining water channels between fields may have fostered close cooperation and impeded the development of individualistic, self-seeking mentalities.

This idea that farming systems help explain large-scale psychological differences echoes Talhelm and others' brilliant comparison of rice-growing and wheat-growing regions of China.

As you can see, more potential for irrigation often means less individualist societies. This is fascinating. It may even explain why Europe has weaker bonds of kinship than the Middle East. Jo Henrich emphasises the Medieval Church: banning cousin marriage, fostering cultural evolution (see our podcast). But maybe Europe's weak kinship was reinforced by technologies of production. Since irrigation was less important to yields, was there less cooperation among close kin?

Conquest, new technologies of production, and cultural change

Now this makes me think... Female labour force participation is lower in southern than northern Europe. Andalusian and Sicilian gender divisions of labour may be truly ancient, or perhaps they were exacerbated by Muslim conquests? (I don't know, I'm not an expert on Southern Europe and welcome advice on this point).

We do know that North Indian society became more gender segregated during Islamic rule. This may have been motivated by prestige bias (emulating the wealthy elite), and/or protecting women from external attacks.

Muslim rule was shorter in Sicily, lasting several hundred years. Maybe there was another mechanism of change?

Back when Palermo was the capital of the Muslim Emirate of Sicily, the Arabs built their phenomenal engineering system: the Qanat! They introduced new technologies of production, which remained long after the Muslim conquests.

So, maybe female seclusion spread via new technologies of production!?!

Ancient Persians created an engineering marvel (the Qanat), which spread far and wide through conquests. This certainly increased agricultural productivity, enabling men to provide for their families. It *may* have also reinforced cooperation between close kin, while exacerbating conflicts with outsiders over valuable land. If irrigation reduced the relative importance of women's agricultural labour, tight kinship groups may have preferred women to remain at home (milking), where they could be better protected. These irrigation societies were also more likely to become authoritarian, thwarting feminist activism. Reflecting on this paper, I wonder if scholars have over over-estimated the negative relationship between Islam and women's rights? New technologies of production, this ancient Persian engineering marvel, spread via conquests, may be another important mechanism of social change? Possibly? (I don't know). Discriminatory family laws were then entrenched by powerful religious authorities.

That said, Alon Levy raises an excellent counter-example: the Dutch polder system. The Dutch created the Netherlands by digging canals, reclaiming land from the sea, and maintaining irrigation channels. This may have reinforced cooperation and raised land value. But the Netherlands is still one of the most gender equal countries in the world.

Edit: perhaps Dutch irrigation involved more bottom-up collaboration with less restricted access, as compared to elite-controlled Qanat (vulnerable to external raids)? Historian Nicholas Mudder adds that these power dynamics changed over time: lords in the Middle Ages, farmers in the 17th century, state-planned collaboration with affected communities in the 20th century. But if access to irrigation was relatively unrestricted (compared to the Qanat), there may have been less incentive to attack others, and forgo women's agricultural labour by keeping them back at the homestead?

I am not saying irrigation is everything, but it could be pretty important?

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