Updated: Mar 13, 2021
Circa 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 countryside 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.
Below I set out evidence for four claims:
East and South Asian women were once equally unfree and oppressed. Both societies were organised around tightly policing women’s sexuality.
But every patrilineal society also faced a trade-off between honour (achieved by restricting women’s freedoms) and income (earned by exploiting female labour). South Asia had a stronger preference for female seclusion, and East Asia a stronger preference for female exploitation. This implies South Asia ‘needed’ more income to be ‘compensated’ for the loss of honour than East Asia.
In patriarchal societies, industrialisation and structural transformation are necessary preconditions for the emancipation of women. By seizing economic opportunities outside the family, women can gain economic autonomy, broaden their horizons, and collectively resist discrimination.
But industrialisation is not sufficient. In societies with strong preferences for female seclusion, women may forfeit new economic opportunities so as to preserve family honour. Hence inequalities persist alongside growth.
East and South Asian women were once equally unfree and 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 (how ever 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.
The father guards her during virginity, the husband guards her in youth, the sons guard her in old age; the woman is never fit for independence.
‘Men decide, women follow’ was the traditional Chinese model. If visitors called, and only a woman was present, she might answer that ‘no one is home’. Korean women had no independent identity. They were appendages to the patrilineal clan.
‘There were young men with their lives ahead of them, the world at their feet, their hopes high.. [But] a girl belonged to a man, her only future was to marry, to be true to her husband, and give him children’ – Wong Su-ling's autobiography.
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. As Tang lamented:
"The lands in front of me are what I am not qualified to partake of.
The fir trees behind me are what I have no share in.
The high buildings and huge houses I see are what I am not supposed to inherit.
The fancy street I step on is only what I borrow for walking".
The 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, women bear sons to perpetuate their husbands' lineage. This generates a 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 organised around removing any and all doubt about the virginity of unmarried women and the fidelity of wives.
Women were tightly policed and their movements restricted. If a woman was seen as moving about too freely, the ensuing gossip would soon circulate through close-knit rural communities, ruin her marriage prospects, and disgrace her family. In South India, such worries were likened to a boil on the chest.
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.
"At that time it wasn’t as open as now, with so many people going out... People seeing a girl leaving home would think “Who knows what she’s doing. Could she be doing other things, going off with men?” Chastity is extremely important to Chinese people. Other girls growing up in the village could be observed by everyone. But if you ran so far away, no one could see what you were doing, so later you wouldn’t be able to find a husband. Better families, those with promise, wouldn’t let you marry their son".
The unwillingness of families to deviate from this norm unilaterally created a negative feedback loop in which wage labour remained exceptional for women.
Social penalties versus economic rewards
What caused families to put women to work in a society where secluding women was the ideal?
In abstraction, we might theorise 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. Elite [yangban] Korean women were veiled.
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.
But below I present evidence that South Asia and East Asia, on average, seemed to make different tradeoffs between honour and income. The size of the “market reward” from putting women to work needed to be larger in South Asia than in East Asia in order to compensate for the loss of honour.
Preference for seclusion versus preference for 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 commercialised 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 prioritised honour over earnings. Ahir men prevented women from selling milk. Urban Chamars (Dalits) put their wives in seclusion. When mills opened in Calcutta, Bengali women worked from home at a third of the factory wage.
Publishers like the Aligargh Institute Gazette urged their readers to restrict female mobility:
"We wish our women to be educated. But if education means letting them loose to mix with whom they please; if it means that as they rise in learning, they shall deteriorate in morals; if it means the loss of our honour and the invasion of the privacy of our homes; we prefer our honour to the education of our women, even though we may be called obstinate, and prejudiced, and wrong headed".
Early marriage indicates a strong preference for seclusion
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. 19th century Han often wed non-Han. These two facts may be connected. If East Asians were less discriminatory about grooms, they may have had less compunction to lock them into pre-pubescent 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 industry moved from home-production to factories, but 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.
Why did South Asian girls marry so early?
2. Muslim rulers practised purdah, and upwardly mobile families followed suit to gain prestige. Women withdrew from public life. They worked hard for their families, but seldom mixing with outsiders. Once seclusion became normative (across north India), men preserved their honour by policing female kin, for rumours of misconduct would soil the family name.
3. Hindus sought to protect ‘their’ women from outsiders. Religious diversity may help explain why purdah persisted long after the invasions. In the early 1900s in Uttar Pradesh, Hindu publicists broadcast unsubstantiated allegations of rape, aggression, abductions, conversions, and forced marriages by Muslim men.
4. Pastoralism was historically pervasive in north-west India, but uncommon in East Asia. If men cannot observe women's whereabouts (while taking animals to pasture), they may worry about paternity, and try to control female sexuality. Across the world, women whose ancestors subsisted on pastoralism tended to be closely guarded, with little freedom of movement.
5. Caste. If marrying within one’s own jati is socially and economically imperative, there is a strong rationale for child marriage. It ensures the girl cannot possibly reproduce for any other lineage.
When Indians needed help, support, access to raw materials, markets, loans, or jobs, they often turned to their trusted caste network. Insiders derived great benefit from their network and strengthened trust through wedlock within their own jati.
Assemblies of older men built trust in caste networks by overseeing women's sexuality and reproduction. If a woman rejected her arranged marriage, the caste panchayat might severely fine her family or even outcast them: prohibiting future marriages, cutting off their social networks, and sources of mutual insurance. An entire lineage could be alienated and expelled from the village because of one daughter's misdeeds.
Upper castes derived the greatest benefit from the caste system and were the strongest proponents of pre-pubescent marriage, prohibiting polluting sexual access.
How did East Asia overcome the patrilineal trap?
East Asia overcame the patrilineal trap because it industrialised 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. Industrialisation was necessary but not sufficient: female emancipation required the prior willingness of families to treat women as an economic resource.
Industrialisation was a crucial prerequisite to female emancipation because it entails urbanisation and structural transformation: the rapid shrinking of the agricultural sector. The end of agriculture as a major employer disrupts and ultimately ends the rural way of life for most people, but especially women. Yet the demand for labour by manufacturing and services must be great enough to absorb the rural labour, and make it attractive enough for families to ship off their daughters as well as their sons to work.
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 synchronised 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 realised 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 capitalise 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.
“Today factories are everywhere and there are so many factory women that working in a factory has become very commonplace and quite acceptable for a woman" remarked one Taiwanese woman in the 1970s.
By the 1990s in China, not long after liberalisation started, it soon became expected for women to work in factories. Young women went because their friends had done so, and neighbours also started asking why remaining girls had not migrated for work.
But industrialisation did not magically emancipate women; rather, it created the social context in which women could pursue their own emancipation. Daughters gained ‘face’ (respect and social standing) by remitting earnings, supporting their families, and showing filial piety just like sons.
By migrating to cities, women made friends, bemoaned unfair practices, and discovered more egalitarian alternatives. Emboldened by peer support, women came to expect and demand better - in dating, domesticity, and industrial relations alike.
Democratisation emboldened Korean and Taiwanese feminists. They became increasingly organised, outspoken, and assertive. Women rallied against sexual harassment and secured accountability. Powerful men were imprisoned for abuse (as discussed in my earlier blog).
Huge inequalities persist - in terms of pay, property, and political representation. But East Asia is becoming more gender equal. The same cannot be said for South Asia.
Why is South Asia still in the patrilineal trap?
There has been much less industrialisation 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, industrialisation in South Asia has been less labour-intensive (i.e., 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 materialised in South Asia. Men are first in line for jobs, and employers need not hire women.
Structural transformation in South Asia has been perverse. Approximately 80% of urban workers in India are engaged in informal self-employment or in micro enterprises. To mitigate precarity, urban workers rely on their caste-networks, thereby perpetuating rural patriarchy in the cities.
Female seclusion is still idealised
Today in South Asia, female seclusion continues to be idealised. This is because South Asians are still 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-jati marriages.Out-marriage is only 5% in rural India: an eloquent indicator of the persistence of traditional networks.
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. So even if pucca roads and buses improve access to jobs, women tend to forgo earnings if their communities practise purdah. Pakistan’s garment factories are always seeking docile female workers but cannot entice women from their homes.
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 male backlash. In north (but not south) India, women with outside earnings are more likely to experience domestic violence (Mahambare and Dharanji, forthcoming). 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 incentivised to stay home when the modest earnings from outside work may be seized by men and instigate intimate partner violence.
Cities: informality, residential segregation, and the 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 largest among lower castes. The poorest, least educated women have been the major victims of falling female employment.
Even more important than the size of 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. Small-scale self-employment is without job security or regular pay cheque, let alone insurance against unemployment and workplace injury. Those seeking jobs in micro-enterprises must get lucky at the labour chowk just to be hired for the day. Or they may be rounded up by harsh, exploitative middlemen. The fortunate ones might work for a prosperous uncle.
The precarity of informal employment creates powerful incentives for city-dwellers to rely heavily on their jati-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 ten 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. The cost of this regulation is compounded by labour inspectors’ extortionary corruption. Establishments that employ more than 9 workers pay an additional 35% of the wage with every additional worker.
Moreover, employers frequently subcontract work to home-based workers in order to artificially reduce the size of their firm and circumvent labour regulations. This kind of informal ‘gig’ work keeps many women trapped by family surveillance and control.
The 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, mobilise 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. Half the seats of Bihar’s village councils were reserved for women in 2006 and 2011, but husbands tended to contest the elections, a process referred to as ‘proxy mukhiya’. Given proscriptions on female mobility, Indian women struggle to be electorally competitive. They have little opportunity to congregate with peers, amass knowledge of the wider world, forge alliances with unknown men, and accrue campaign funds.
South Asia’s few women leaders tend to be especially privileged – i.e. wealthy, upper caste, or members of family dynasties with guaranteed name recognition. For ordinary women, politics is out of reach.
But South Asia’s 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 suggest 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 amongst 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 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 capitalising on rising demand for skilled labour in Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Many female graduates want to work.
In cities, upper caste women are actually more likely to participate in the labour force - since they can find respectable work (alongside upper caste men). They are exercising far greater autonomy than their grandmothers, gathering as friends, and collectively castigating sexism.
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.
The 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 industrialised 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 jati-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 realise their ambitions.