Why are North and South India so different on gender?

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Everyone knows that Southern and Northern India are very different in culture, language, and socio-economic development. But the most dramatic regional disparity may be in gender relations.

Southern and North-eastern women are more likely to

In North/North-west India, women are much more constrained, and sex ratios are far higher.

Education, paid work, and age are all associated with greater economic and physical autonomy. But even if a woman completes secondary school, she is less likely to choose her husband if she lives in the North.

Region is a strong predictor of female survival, literacy, autonomy, employment, and independent mobility. A woman with the exact same household wealth/ caste/ religion will likely have more autonomy if she lives in the South.

These regional trends do not hold for all aspects of gender, however. Female political representation and independent property ownership are low nationwide.

These regional differences have deep roots

In 1900, girls were more likely to survive infancy, go to school and marry later if they lived in South/North-east. Going further back to 1800, 90% of recorded sati occurred in Bengal, with far fewer in Madras and Bombay.

When Madras was ravaged by famine in 1876-78, sex ratios remained even. But in Punjab's famine of 1896-97, little girls died disproportionately.

In 1880, girls in Kerala & Karnataka married at 15/16. Rajasthan took another century to catch up.

Educated women in 19th century Maharashtra ran their own journals, to discuss women's lives and social reforms. Rather than passively accept employment discrimination, they organised. When Marathi women travelled to Calcutta they were struck by marked differences in gender relations. "A woman can scarcely stand in the presence of her relatives, much less before her husband. Her face is always veiled. She is not allowed to speak to any man, much less laugh with him" - remarked Anandibai Joshi, staying in Calcutta. Whenever she went to the bazaar alone, Anandibai was pelted with stones. Many Bengalis bitterly opposed the Age of Consent Bill (1891), proposing to raise girls' age of consent to 12.

What explains India's gender divergence?

This blog reviews the existing literature on:

  • Poverty

  • Colonialism

  • Matriliny

  • Cousin marriage

  • Conquests and purdah

  • Labour-intensive cultivation

  • Ancestral crop yields

I coloured the maps on wealth, marriage, and old-age support. The map templates omit disputed regions and won't let me rename Odisha and Uttarakhand. The other maps are not mine. Critique and comments on all other matters are very welcome.

If you would rather listen than read, the podcast is available on Spotify, iTunes, and many other platforms. Just search for 'Rocking Our Priors'.

I am very grateful to thoughtful comments, critique, and suggested readings from: Ajay Verghese, Arpit Gupta, Ananya Chakravarti, Bina Agarwal, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Gautam Hazarika, Keera Allendorf, Nathan Nunn, Vijayendra Rao, and Pseudoerasmus.

Is the North more patriarchal because it's poorer?

Poverty can thwart progress towards gender equality. Poor girls usually quit school early, bear many children, become burdened with care-giving, then struggle to accumulate the capital, knowledge, and networks to challenge dominant men.

So, does poverty explain India's gender divergence?

Well, some Northern states - like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar - are very poor.

But expenditure is also low among North-eastern hill tribes, and yet women maintain a relatively high status, move freely in their communities, and have long been integral to shifting cultivation.

Haryana and Punjab meanwhile are two of the richest states in India with the worst child sex ratios: 830 and 846 girls per 1,000 boys. Sex ratios are worsening in the North-west, alongside economic growth.

Regardless of household income, a woman is less likely to have been to school if she lives in the North (i.e. Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh). Nowadays the North does not perform badly on literacy. But the gender gap in education is 26% in the North, 9% percent in the South.

Female education is improving in the North. We might expect more skilled women to gain economic autonomy, expand their networks, broaden their horizons, demonstrate their equal competence in socially valued domains, support elderly parents, and become valued as providers. That's certainly what happened in patrilineal China and Taiwan, but not in India. Regardless of their qualifications, rural women tend to retreat from the labour force when their families are economically secure, especially in the North. Rural women gain status by not having to work. So, counter-intuitively, women in wealthier families have LESS physical and economic autonomy.

India's gender divergence (in sex ratios, employment, and autonomy) is clearly not a function of wealth. Rather, local gender norms mediate responses to economic growth.

Did colonialism's impact on gender vary geographically?

There are several ways in which colonialism might have compounded India's gender divergence: via inheritance rights, progressive reforms, caste, land tenure, or in/direct rule.

Inheritance rights

Some argue that colonialism compounded patriarchy by enabling Brahmin elites to codify Hindu law, which was then upheld by upper caste judges, and had the net effect of curtailing female inheritance.

Before colonialism, disputes had been settled by local village or caste councils. Shastric prescriptions - concerning marriage, divorce, and inheritance - were not necessarily practised by tribal communities or lower castes. Medieval temple inscriptions in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka suggest that women occasionally gifted land. This implies female ownership. But, as Bina Agarwal notes, wealthy women's pious acts could have just been a special category, exempt from patrilineal strictures. As she concludes, there is very little evidence to suggest Hindu women typically owned and controlled immovable property, before colonialism.

Brahmin interpretations of scripture varied geographically. In the Bengal Presidency, they cemented Dayabhaga law (permitting widows' inheritance); in Madras and Bombay, it was Mitakshara (proscribing widows' inheritance). These regional differences long predate the Raj.

The colonial codification of Mitakshara could have worsened women's inheritance rights in the South. But, that cannot explain why women now have more autonomy in the South.

Progressive reforms

Women's bodies became a battleground during colonialism. British imperialists cast themselves as saviours, Indian liberals (like Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sarojini Naidu) sought social reform but under their control, while conservatives wanted to protect traditions from external attacks.

Female education was increasingly championed by educated, middle-class Indian nationalists. It symbolised respectability and refinement, without jeopardising women's place in the home. Learned men published numerous critiques of polygamy, child marriage, and purdah.

The All India Women's Conference, Pune, 1917

In the late nineteenth century, Indian liberals and women's organisations campaigned for social reform. The Central Legislative Assembly passed emancipatory laws: prohibiting sati, child marriage, female infanticide; raising the age of consent; and allowing widow remarriage.

These issues were all debated - irrespective of imperialism.

Feminist critique and mobilisation were strongest in places that were already more gender-equal.

The Women's Indian Association was founded in Madras; the All India Women's Conference was established in Maharashtra. Ten years in, 10,000+ members were organising for change. In Tamil Nadu, women joined the Dravidian movement, and debated important social reforms. Participants at the first Self-Respect conference (held near Madras in 1929) demanded equal property rights for men and women. Their second conference pushed for female employment in the army and police. Women first won the right to be elected in Madras (1921). Bengali women agitated for the right to vote that year, but were defeated on the grounds this would extend suffrage to prostitutes. Women also joined the revolutionary struggle for sovereignty. Turnout was far higher in Bombay than Bengal. Again, feminist mobilisation were strongest in places that were already more gender-equal.


The caste system influences gender relations in three important ways:

Genetic data indicates that caste endogamy is truly ancient. This suggest that women's sexuality and reproduction have been strictly policed by tightly-knite caste groups for millennia. The Vysya in Andhra Pradesh for example have been marrying within their caste, allowing no genetic mixing into their group, for over two thousand years. The Vysya have lived in close proximity to other castes, yet nonetheless maintained strict social isolation. This reflects a wider trend.

Indian women's sexuality and reproduction has been policed by caste-based kin groups for millennia

That said, colonialism may have affected gender relations by enriching upper castes and compounding inequalities.

Land tenure and in/direct rule

Colonial rule varied across India. Could this be the source of India's gender divergence?

Banerjee and Iyer have attempted to categorise distinct judicial and administrative systems. In some parts of India, the British delegated authority to zamindars (landlords). Ever since the Mughals, the zamindars served as intermediaries: collecting revenue; controlling watchmen, police, and courts. In other parts of India, the British sought to increase colonial coffers by taxing individuals directly or by vesting land rights in a group of villagers. Banerjee and Iyer find that in formerly zamindari areas, there is less spending on public goods in independent India.

But their schema is contested. In practice, there seems to have been significant intra-regional variation. And with a more fine-grained, village-level analysis, these effects can disappear.

Colonialism does appear to have impaired governance in other ways though:

Weaker state capacity under colonialism is associated with fewer public goods today.

Direct colonial rule seems to have worsened outcomes. Areas formerly under native control have more schools, health centres, and roads in the postcolonial period.

The British also increased caste-inequalities in areas under their control: by granting property rights to landlords; reifying and ranking castes; as well as installing bureaucracies dominated by upper castes. Brahmins monopolised the highest offices in the Madras Presidency (just as they had served in the upper echelons of the Mughal regimes).

But these corrosive colonial governance regimes do not correlate with India's gender divergence. Female literacy was highest across the South, notwithstanding differing degrees of imperialism.

In sum, there is very little evidence that colonialism contributed to India's gender divergence:

  • Even if elites entrenched patriarchal interpretations of scripture in Bombay and Madras, Southern women are still more autonomous than compatriots in Bengal;

  • Mobilisation and implementation of progressive reforms was strongest in areas that were already more gender equal;

  • Direct colonial rule may have worsened caste-based inequalities, but this is not correlated with contemporary gender relations;

  • Even if Native rule improved public goods provision, such as schools and clinics, access is mediated by pre-existing gender hierarchies (circumscribing women's independent mobility). And where daughters are disposable, sonograms are just used to select male progeny.

Clearly we need to go further back.

Matriliny helps, but can't explain regional divergence

A few Indian communities are matrilineal: Khasis and Garos in the North-easterly hills; Nairs and Bunts on the South-westerly coast.

Men govern, but women remain relatively autonomous. They may move freely in their communities, enjoy pre-marital sexual freedoms, marry later, more easily divorce, and often live in their natal village. With fewer strictures on their movements, Nair girls rushed to school and married later. Kerala led the way in female literacy.

But matrilineal communities are a minority and cannot explain India's regional divergence. In Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh women report even greater freedom of movement and labour force participation despite being patrilineal.

Has cousin marriage advanced gender equality in the South?

Many South Indians idealise cross-cousin marriage. Southern women are more likely to be surrounded and supported by natal family. By contrast, Northern women marry outsiders, to become vulnerable strangers in their husband's village - argued Dyson and Moore, in a famous paper with over two thousand citations.

Are you persuaded?

I'm not.

Well, gender gaps in education are larger in communities where brides move out - as is common in the North. Perhaps parents invest less in daughters if they do not anticipate strong, enduring ties.

But neither East nor West India have much cousin marriage, yet their gender gaps in education are almost as small as the South's.

Cousin marriage might - conceivably - foster support for female inheritance, as assets remain within the male lineage. Indeed, Southern states were forerunners in permitting daughters' inheritance rights and making women coparceners of joint family property. But these new laws actually exacerbated cousin marriage.

There is evidence that women from communities that allow intra-village marriage are more likely to move freely, travel alone, earn cash income, and participate in self-help groups. But this is merely a correlation. As far as I am aware, no one has traced the causal process by which endogamy enhances autonomy. Something else in those communities may be advancing gender equality. And in practice, there is no correlation between a bride's contact with her natal family and her proclivity to contribute to decisions, enjoy freedom of movement, or access savings.

In 1901, fewer girls were missing from villages that extolled cross-cousin marriage. Perhaps parents did not resent dowry costs if they anticipated reciprocity and cost-sharing within the lineage. But there could be another explanation... Dowries were always common in Rajasthan, Bihar, and Punjab but rare in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and West Bengal. Lower-caste Jatis in Tamil Nadu actually used to favour bride price. This reflects Southern women's importance in wet-rice agriculture, and mitigated the costs of daughters.

Indeed, there are many other features of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka that could have enhanced gender equality. In their absence of those conditions, cousin marriage does not seem to advance gender equality.

Consider the Middle East and North Africa. Cousin marriage is arranged by a third of MENA families. It ensures that female inheritance under Islam does not fragment patrilineal assets. Bound by cousin marriage, kinship groups share honour collectively; a woman’s impropriety shames the entire lineage. MENA women are thus veiled, monitored, and secluded. Cousin marriage reinforces kinship, limits her autonomy and is associated with low rates of female employment.

Cousin marriage is also practised by Muslims in North India and Pakistan, where women's autonomy is strictly curtailed.

Southern women may have gained autonomy despite cousin marriage, not because of it.

A woman can be surrounded by kin but not necessarily more autonomous or better protected. Honour killings are a case in point - committed by brothers, uncles, and fathers.

So personally I am not convinced that cousin marriage begets gender equality.

Conquests and purdah in North India

Purdah and honour cultures emerged in the harsh geographical terrain of North Arabia. Mountains, deserts and semi-arid steppes made settled agriculture impossible, except in the oases. Nomadic pastoralists moved in search of water, often fighting for new pastures, or allowing their animals to graze in a farmer's field, and thieving their silver. Razzia (raids) were a constant threat. Arabia also hosted long-distance traders, connecting the Mediterranean, Africa, Mesopotamia, and India.

Men were integral to pastoralism and trading: venturing on dangerous marches, handling camels and large oxen, often facing hand-to-hand combat.

In the absent of a strong state to police law and order, tight-knit kin vigilantly protected their assets. To preserve their honour, tribes often restricted women's mobility. Veiling and seclusion symbolised wealth and status among the urban upper classes in Byzantium and Sasanian Iran. Muslim rulers decreed wider adoption, veiling became integral to honour in large oasis settlements, where women likely encountered strangers.

Muslim armies repeatedly invaded India for over 800 years. The North was more affected than the South. Mughal rule was concentrated in North India, on the upper Gangetic Plain. Rivers facilitated Akbar's easterly conquests to Bengal's fertile soils, while the Deccan constrained progress to the south.

Women were captured in raids. When Rajar Dahir was killed in the 8th century, his wife and daughters were sent to Damascus as sex slaves. Affluent households, merchants, and cultivators kept a few female slaves. Female slaves - as Ira Mukhoty details - were used as mules: farming, fetching water, smearing cow dung on the floor, disposing of human waste, and for sex. If beautiful and/or talented, these women were sold as concubines for nobles. In the 10th century, the Rajputs of Rajasthan (who were subject to early attacks) started pracisting 'Jauhar' (women's self-immolation to prevent military capture and preserve honour).

During Islamic rule, North Indian society became more gender segregated. Since the ruling class practised purdah, it came to signify status. Upwardly mobile families followed suit, to symbolise respectability in an age of insecurity. New Hindu-Muslim converts were especially zealous in their performance of purdah. With Islamisation and the adoption of the plow, East Bengali women (once integral to wet-rice cultivation) slowly retreated to winnowing, soaking, parboiling, and husking - within the confines of the family courtyard.

India's caste-based society was already concerned by purity. If women were degraded by outsiders, male kin lost honour. Women concealed their bodies, lowered their gaze, averted their eyes, were chaperoned, and (if they could afford to) refrained from mixing with strangers. Segregation amplified gender inequalities. Female education dwindled. Men dominated the public sphere.

To preserve their purity and symbolise a ruler's prestige, elite Rajput women were physically secluded. They are also absent from cultural representations. There are hundreds of portraits of Rajput noblemen - gifted to strengthen alliances, displayed to show the male lineage, and affirm men's role in history. But there are no portraits of real, named Rajput women. Even when elite Rajput women commissioned portraits they did not do so of themselves. They upheld patriarchal norms. As art historian Molly Aitken reveals, elite Rajput women were made invisible.

Gender segregation persists through widely-shared expectations of social sanction. In the 1970s, fathers in rural Delhi feared that education could jeopardise their daughters' marriage prospects. Other families might think she was no longer obedient. Girls themselves often envied peers who had the freedom to explore and learn about the wider world, but could hardly go against their father's will. On the Hindi belt, a bride expresses her resentment via song,

"O father you brought my brother up to be happy,

O father, you have brought your son up to give him your house,

And you have left a cage for me".

In Benares in the 1980s, neighbours reported women's improper conduct, telling relatives what they saw, scrambling her sisters' marriage prospects. In rural Haryana, women who did not veil were often scolded, for it threatened family honour.

'Honour killings' occur when a woman's impropriety disgraces her entire lineage. "Her action had soiled our honour" - explained Poonam's father in north Delhi, after his brother had shot her in broad daylight.

Growing up, observing their families and communities, children learn that defiance is heavily punished. These patriarchal norms persist over generations, as parents teach their daughters to speak softly, show restraint, and respect elders. Even if Northern women complete secondary school, they are still less likely to choose their husbands.

Northern women's