Gender discrimination in India is county’s most shameful social realities

January 27, 2015 08:03 AM
'Beti Bacho' issue as part of India's national campaign

By Megan N. Reed & Devesh Kapur*

Although urban Indians are slowly showing more openness in their attitudes towards women’s attire, this is not the case when it comes to the issue of son preference

As one of the world’s most socially heterogeneous societies, building solidarity across social groups has been a singular challenge in India. Social bias in India is pervasive across a range of key cleavages — whether caste or class, region or religion.

In this piece we discuss a different social bias, not between different castes and religions but within all castes and religions, namely gender. Last week, while launching the “beti bachao, beti padhao” initiative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called female foeticide a “mental illness” ailing the whole country. “We cannot call ourselves citizens of 21st century by practising such a crime,” he said. His comments describe the distressing persistence of female foeticide in contemporary India and underscore the broader scourge of gender bias in Indian society.

Without frontally addressing some norms and structures, and fundamentally delegitimising gender bias in wider social discourse, there is little reason to believe that India will see a reversal in male child preferences in the foreseeable future.

One might have expected that the major societal changes that have occurred over the past three decades — improvements in literacy and levels of education, rapid economic growth, and urbanisation — would have led to a decline in gender bias. While there is undoubtedly some improvement in the gender gap, the growing sex ratio problem and continued gender-based violence reveal just how far India still has to travel to bring dignity to half its population.

We focus on two different issues related to gender bias — son preference and norms on appropriate attire for women, which can be a form of social control. Between 2001 and 2011, the infant (0-6 years) sex ratio in India dropped from 927 females per 1,000 males to 914. In an attempt to understand the underlying attitudes, which are behind India’s falling sex ratio, we asked Lok Survey respondents about their preference for the gender of their child. Respondents were asked the following question: For your family, is having more boys than girls preferred?

Overall, 34 per cent of respondents readily admitted that their family preferred having more boys. Given the sensitive nature of this question, this number is a lower bound since some people will undoubtedly give socially desirable responses. In order to estimate the true levels of son preference, we ran a “list experiment” which protects the anonymity of the survey responses. The respondents were randomly divided into two groups, given a list of statements, and then asked the number of statements with which they agreed. Only half of respondents were given a statement about son preference, and therefore, we were able to estimate the share of respondents who agreed to the sensitive statement by comparing the means of the two respondent groups. Using this technique, we found that once granted the cloak of anonymity, 48 per cent of respondents have a preference for sons in their family.

Son preference is widespread across Indian society with little variance across income classes, education levels, and rural/ urban areas.

Inter-State variation

Rather, what matters most is region. Inter-State variation on this issue exceeds variation on any other social cleavage in Indian society. The North-Western States do poorly, as expected, with Haryana (78 per cent) and Delhi (65 per cent) topping the list. Haryana and Delhi also had the largest gap between how people responded directly and how they responded in the experimental question, demonstrating that despite the high levels of son preference in those places, there is a social taboo in openly admitting it. Madhya Pradesh (59 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (58 per cent), and Punjab (55 per cent) also reported high levels of son preference in the experimental question and Kerala (15 per cent) reported the lowest. There was a strong correlation between the State-wise son preference as revealed in the experiment and the actual sex ratios of the States, suggesting that these attitudes are manifesting in sex-selective behaviours.

While son preference is manifest evidence of gender bias in the early years of childhood, there are many additional forms of bias and social control that women face throughout their lives, such as ‘suitable’ occupations or ‘suitable’ marriage partners. These are life-altering choices. But one dimension that is pervasive in the daily lives of young women is social control on what women wear. The survey explored this aspect by asking: Would you consider (the following clothing choices) inappropriate for young women in your neighbourhood when they go out with friends?

The part of the question in brackets was replaced by a type of clothing like “pants and shirt” or “shorts.” Although we first considered asking about young women “in your household” instead of “in your neighbourhood” in the pilot, we found that the question provoked conflicts in respondent households, which led us to rephrase the question. Clearly the question was fraught — because young women are trying to make their own choices instead of pliantly accepting what they are told is “appropriate.”

Seventy seven per cent of respondents felt that pants and shirt were inappropriate for young women and 92 per cent felt that shorts were inappropriate. However, there was a large difference between rural and urban respondents on this question, with 85 per cent of rural respondents disapproving of pants and shirt compared to 60 per cent of urban respondents. We attempted to understand which household attributes might drive respondents to report less restrictive attitudes on women’s clothing using multivariate regression analysis. Contrary to our finding on son preference, attitudes on women’s dress were driven by income, urbanisation and education. Ascriptive identities like caste and religion played a less significant role in how people evaluated the appropriateness of women’s clothing. In urban areas the income level of the household was the single most important factor impacting how respondents evaluated the appropriateness of clothing. For city dwellers, 65 per cent of the poorest families did not think that pants were appropriate for young women compared to 50 per cent of those with the highest incomes in our sample.

Conservative views on female attire are less prevalent amongst the more urban, wealthy, and educated members of Indian society, which may come as no surprise. The acceptance of different types of women’s attire is not just about patriarchy, it is also related to social status. Clothing is a marker of consumption, and adopting Western modes of attire is often used to signal status in urban areas.

As with son preference, there is significant regional variation in how families perceive the appropriateness of pants and shirt for young women. Goa (23 per cent disapproved) and Odisha (61 per cent) were the most open to women wearing pants. Although the smaller sample size for Goa data may have affected the results, the numbers for Goa are not too different than those for Mumbai. Haryana (88 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (88 per cent) and Bihar (86 per cent) were the least open. There were large differences in how respondents in major metro areas responded to the question. In Mumbai only 28 per cent of people thought that pants and shirt were inappropriate for young women compared to the 61 per cent in Delhi and 54 per cent in Kolkata.

Shameful reality

Gender discrimination in India is undoubtedly one of the county’s most shameful social realities. It is not just that it is inequitable and unfair; quite simply, any society where half the population suffers from social bias has already hobbled itself and its future. Although urban Indians are gradually showing more openness in their attitudes on women’s attire, this is not the case on the critical issue of son preference, an attitude that remains deeply rooted in India’s family ideals and social structure across a wide cross-section of society.

Clearly economic growth does not appear to be sufficient to remove the social incentives for having fewer daughters. Without frontally addressing some norms and structures, and fundamentally delegitimising gender bias in wider social discourse, there is little reason to believe that India will see a reversal in male child preferences in the foreseeable future.

(*Megan Reed is the Research Coordinator at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. Devesh Kapur is Director of CASI.)

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