Combined, the populations of India and China make up over a third of the world’s population – so what is life like for the one billion plus women in these two countries and how has it evolved over the last century?

At the beginning of the 20th century there were many parallels between the lives of women in China and in India. Both societies were strongly patrilineal meaning family membership and inheritance passed from father to son. This meant that the paternity of a child was of the utmost importance, therefore a woman’s sexuality was closely guarded by her parents and then her husband’s family, who she would move to live with after her marriage. Scandal surrounding a woman would not only damage her own reputation but also her family’s honour. Societies in both countries put a heavy significance on family honour which could be gained or lost through ‘money, power and improper behaviour of women’.

To avoid the family’s reputation being tarnished, women were kept separate from men outside their families and were rarely allowed to leave the house unaccompanied. Only the women from the poorest families were allowed to work outside the home when the financial benefits outweighed the shame it brought on the household. During the 20th century there was a significant divergence between Chinese and Indian women’s role in the workforce. According to the Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), 69% of women in China are participating members of the labour force compared with only 24% in India. Alice Evans argues that rapid industrialisation in China created a huge demand for women to work outside the home, often in cities away from family. Evans explains that the country experienced balanced growth, meaning that as agriculture became increasingly efficient and productive, fewer labourers were needed on the land; however these workers were quickly absorbed into the simultaneously rapidly expanding manufacturing and service sectors. With so many women moving at once to cities for work, it became the norm and consequently  wasn’t considered dishonourable. In cities, women were able to earn financial independence from their families – giving them greater freedom for self determination. Furthermore, some women earned enough to help support their parents, a role traditionally played by sons, which made them more respected and materially valuable.

Industrialisation in India happened more slowly and was less labour intensive meaning that the shortage of workers, in China overcome by employing women, never materialised in India. However, Evans points out that even as more work opportunities became available, many Indian families continued to prioritise honour over a woman’s earnings. She argues that the caste system has been obstructive in the liberation of women in India as caste networks and family ties can be essential in securing jobs, loans and insurance as well as providing support in hard times for those unable to access the limited state welfare. This is particularly relevant in India where 91% of rural workers and 79.2% of urban workers are in informal unemployment which means they are not guaranteed social protection or severance pay. Membership in these caste networks is dependent on social respectability – closely linked with a woman’s honour – so families are inclined to keep women at home to safeguard their positions in these networks.

Aside from earning financial independence, working can give women the opportunity to move out of traditional villages and into cities. In the early 1900s the populations of India and China were overwhelmingly rural which exacerbated the limitations on women’s freedom because as David Mandelbaum states, in the close-knit villages where everyone is known to one another rumours of scandal spread quickly. In larger towns there is greater anonymity, meaning a woman’s movements and reputation can be less closely scrutinised. Chinese women who moved to cities for work often found that away from their patriarchal rural communities they had more freedom to socialise and empower one another to stand up to oppression and inequality. Because India’s rate of industrialisation and urbanisation has been much slower, far fewer women moved to cities and experienced the benefits of urban living that many Chinese women enjoyed. According to the World Bank, in 2019, 65.35% of India’s population was still rural compared with 39.69% in China. Nevertheless, even in urban India, caste based customs and discrimination persist, which can be felt keenly by women in terms of caste-related violence, segregated living and marriage.

Just 5% of marriages in India are between people of different castes, with very little difference between urban and rural couples. Those who marry outside their caste often face strong opposition from their families and even violence. The fixation with finding a match within the right caste is thought to be a driving factor in the high levels of child marriage in India as there can be shortages of suitable partners. Evans points out that in China  there were higher instances of inter-ethnic marriage, and theorises that as there was a greater selection of grooms to choose from, there was less rush to secure a suitable match. According to UNICEF, girls who marry before they are 18 are more likely to suffer from domestic violence and become pregnant during their adolescence which has increased risks of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. At the beginning of the 20th century, the mean age for a girl’s marriage in India was shockingly low – just 13, whereas in China it was 18. Some girls in India were married as early as 8 years old. Even today, UN estimates suggest that 1.5 million underaged girls are married in India each year. Child marriage is strongly indicative of a society which closely polices female sexuality as a girl’s family is keen to pass on responsibility for her reputation before she has had the possibility to bear children for another family line. The freedoms Chinese women enjoyed after migrating to cities involved being able to choose their own partner and establish households away from their in-laws, further freeing them from traditional expectations.

Both India and China still have a long way to go before their societies value daughters as much as sons. According to the WEF’s 2020 Gender Gap Report both countries have below average sex ratios at birth, suggesting widespread sex selective abortions. In this category China is the worst in the world with only 885 girls born for every 1000 boys. In neither country is the preference for sons a recent phenomenon. Before prenatal sex determination was possible, female infanticide was widespread for centuries especially when resources were scarce. 

It goes without saying that all women’s life experiences differ dramatically for a wide range of reasons including region, religion, social standing and personal circumstances. Both countries have a long way to go before women and men have equal status, however it seems that in general, Chinese women have had greater opportunity to break free from traditional patriarchal oppression thanks to urbanisation and job opportunities. Indian women have been held back by a combination of fewer job opportunities and the far-reaching influences of the caste system. Celebrating a woman’s individuality and valuing her contributions rather than seeing her liberty as a threat to family honour, would be a huge step towards enabling Indian women to enjoy the same freedoms as their Chinese sisters.    

Credits – Francesca Meynell

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