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India’s Missing Women

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When women are able to choose their future, Indians may find that both the family and society are strengthened.

CHENNAI, INDIA — “I’d like to be a sales manager one day,” muses the young lady with whom I’m having coffee in one of Chennai’s upscale hotels. “But my parents have arranged a marriage for me, and it will be finalized next year.” Her disappointment is palpable, yet muted by the odd formality with which she describes her upcoming nuptials, a mood matching the sober-if-stylish sari she is wearing. Like many of India’s young urban women, Sita is educated and holds a professional position, yet her skills and dreams come second to respecting her parents’ wishes. As the country continues its torrid growth and its middle class expands, the evidence is mixed at best that traditional social bonds will loosen for many, perhaps most, Indian women. That may help maintain social stability in times of rapid development, but it may also limit the ultimate degree to which this country of 1.2 billion people will change. It also means that as India modernizes, it will miss out on the energies and talents of millions of its citizens.

Sita may be resigned to her future, but she also seems to accept it readily. She has already had her life upended several times, having been born in India’s poor northeast, then moving with her family south to Chennai, up to India’s capital, New Delhi, and finally back to Chennai. Her parents prefer India’s south for their daughter’s sake, she tells me, believing it to be safer for young women.

Violence against women is supposedly more prevalent in the north, and the country has been galvanized by the horrific December gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi. Sadly, violence against women occurs far too often in India; indeed, during my visit, two young Muslim women who had eloped with Hindu men were murdered by their mothers in an honor killing in Uttar Pradesh, the northern state bordering Delhi. While such crimes are increasingly in the public eye, other types of social pressure and discrimination against women remain pervasive. As for Sita, she would like to move from Chennai, but perhaps only to Bangalore, several hundred miles to the west, which is the space industry and IT capital of India, and a magnet for young, educated Indians.

As India continues its torrid growth and its middle class expands, the evidence is mixed at best that traditional social bonds will loosen for many, perhaps most, Indian women.

Sita’s career path has been as indirect as her migration through India. In university, she majored in biology, finishing her degree through correspondence courses due to her family’s move south. But she never had an interest in working in the sciences and instead has a good service-sector job connected with Chennai’s booming tourist and business population. She was hoping to become a duty manager at the hotel where she works, but even if she is promoted, she has decided to leave within a year to try and move into a sales position. But then, she admits, that probably won’t happen either, since her parents are adamant about that marriage.  

I ask Sita about her engagement and learn that her somberness comes not just from having her life partner picked out for her, but because she is in love with someone else. She has a boyfriend, who is also a professional, but “it won’t work out,” she says. Because of her arranged engagement? No, because she doesn’t know if he loves her. He works in Bangalore, one reason she wants to move there, but he is not ready to commit. Not that it would matter, she adds, since her parents don’t like him. Our whole conversation is like this, with her starting a topic by talking about her desires and the choices she will make, and then invariably admitting that none of it will happen since the choices have been made for her.

What her parents have decided to do is to marry her off to someone from the same caste, in fact with the same surname, living in the same area where she was born. Her family is Hindu and Brahmin, and it is inconceivable to her parents that she would marry outside the caste. So will she go back to the north, to the poverty-riven state of Bihar? Yes. And what will she do there? She doesn’t know. A job? She shrugs. But, she hastens to add, arranged marriages remain extremely popular in India, and they are the best way to ensure that marriages succeed. In the West, she believes, too many people divorce and never commit to making married life work. She makes it sound like a duty, and when I tell her that, she doesn’t disagree.

I ask if she thinks she will come to love her husband. She answers that she doesn’t know, since she doesn’t know him. She only met him once, when her family traveled to a city near his hometown to meet him and his parents. The two of them never talked directly, but only in a large crowd of relatives, as is common in the negotiating stage of arranged marriages. “How can I love someone I’ve never talked to?” she asks. Perhaps he feels the same way, I add, but she just shakes her head. He is 33, she tells me, 10 years older than she, and eager to get married.

The pressure on Sita to get married is not only due to traditional Indian mores. The past decades have seen the birth of far more males than females in India, not only in poor areas, but in richer regions as well. Traditionally, boys were more valued for their labor potential in this overwhelmingly agrarian country, leading to sex-based abortion and infanticide. India’s most recent census, which revealed an astonishing net gain of 180 million persons over the past decade, also saw a widening of that sex imbalance, despite the growth of the middle class. In most development models, as a country becomes richer, its sex ratio evens out. In India, though, that gap has not narrowed, even though the rate at which it is widening did indeed slow over the past decade. Today’s sex ratio of 914 females to every 1,000 males under age six ranks among the worst in the world. Yet at the same time, decades of such a skewed sex imbalance makes eligible young women an increasingly prized asset for males like Sita’s fiancé.

Today’s sex ratio of 914 females to every 1,000 males under age six ranks among the worst in the world. Yet at the same time, decades of such a skewed sex imbalance makes eligible young women an increasingly prized asset for males like Sita’s fiancé.

The whole situation is her fault, she says, since her parents badgered her for years, ever since she was a teenager, to begin looking at an arranged marriage. She put them off numerous times and finally agreed, if only to end their exasperation. Her husband-to-be was the first one they looked at, and he said yes immediately. She doubts she’ll bridge the age gap between them, and she’s not even interested in trying. “I’m a quiet person,” she says, “I don’t talk to my parents much, since all they do is criticize me. So I probably will talk to my husband when he talks to me.” I refrain from pointing out that she is obviously comfortable talking with me in a rather personal way.

India’s colleges and universities are full of young women with professional goals like Sita. My first day in India, I visit the University of Madras (the venerable city name for Chennai), one of India’s three oldest institutions of higher learning, established in 1857 by the British and modeled on the University of London. There I learn that over half of its 4,000 undergraduates are female. When I reach Calcutta a week later, I stop at the elite Presidency University, meeting Professor Amita Chatterjee, then the female vice chancellor of the university. Chatterjee doesn’t volunteer the information, but once I ask, she tells me that 60 percent of her 3,000 undergraduates are women, many of whom do better than the men at their studies, echoing the comments of her counterpart at Madras. In fact, of the 500,000 applicants in India’s national civil service examinations in 2010, the top two slots were taken by women, one of whom lives in Chennai.

Walking around several university campuses, I see far more young women than men studying in corridors or talking in classrooms. The female educational excellence spills down to secondary education, as well, where 87 percent of graduating high school girls this year passed their Class 12 exams, compared to just 78 percent of boys. Yet such statistics are misleading, for in the country as a whole fewer than half of India’s women are literate, leaving hundreds of millions far worse off than Sita and her college-educated friends.

If Sita is any guide, the talents of many of these educated young women may not be put to full use once they’ve graduated. Generalization is a fool’s errand in India, with its billion diverse people, but during my discussion with Sita, she gave no indication that her situation was markedly different from her friends or workmates. When I ask a professor at the University of Calcutta what his female graduate students will do after their studies, he shrugs his shoulders. Some will get research jobs, he indicates, but marriage will end the careers and aspirations of many of India’s young women. I wonder if the relative lack of young marriage-age women doesn’t give them an advantage in picking a desirable mate, perhaps someone who will let them pursue a career. But then I’m reminded of how Sita’s future is already picked out for her.

Sita’s disappointment comes not from the thought of being married, but from having no say in the marriage or what comes after. When I press her on this, she talks a bit about her mother, who has followed her father around India and now lives in an area where she doesn’t speak the language. Westerners think that Hindi is the national language, but it is spoken primarily in the north. Tamil is the language of hundreds of millions in the south, and Sita’s mother can’t understand it. Then with whom does her mother talk? Only her family and old friends back home, on the telephone, replies Sita. I see a shadow of fear on her face, maybe as she imagines being as isolated as her mother.

It will be particularly hard for Sita to move back north. Although she speaks Hindi as a native tongue, and therefore won’t be as cut off from things as her mother, social conditions in the north may make life difficult. It is poorer than the south and its cities are comparatively worse. Driving around Calcutta a week later, I see thousands of Biharis who fled their state into Calcutta’s West Bengal, and are now living in filthy, crumbling lean-tos and shanties on the city’s streets. For someone like Sita, who has dreamed of living in Bangalore, the north offers little enticement.

Fewer than half of India’s women are literate, leaving hundreds of millions far worse off than Sita and her college-educated friends.

The north of India is also more volatile than other areas of the country. During my visit, farmers rampaged against police near Delhi over land repossession, killing several officers, and Maoist guerillas from a decades-old insurgency ambushed 11 policemen in the northeast. It is also relatively less educated. Tamil Nadu, the southern state in which Chennai is located, has hundreds of colleges and universities, from the flagship University of Madras to tiny, private schools than can hardly be better than vocational centers. Regardless, the opportunities for education beyond secondary school are nonetheless readily available in the Deccan region. And, as a glance at any of the moderately established higher education schools shows, females comprise a large proportion of those getting educated in the south.

No doubt such educational levels help explain why the Deccan is a key part of India’s economic engine, as well as its gateway to the rest of Asia’s vast trading network. Yet Sita will be part of that vibrancy for only a short while longer. If she wished, she could undoubtedly get that sales job and rise to become a manager, given the growth of business in places like Chennai and Bangalore. But that would mean turning her back on her parents. And from our conversation, it doesn’t sound like she’d find a wide support group of friends who either would understand her choice or have taken the same road themselves.

The situation is not markedly different in cosmopolitan centers like New Delhi. While in the capital, I meet Aaliyah, a young, modern Muslim, who is a reporter and anchor for one of India’s large television stations. Like Sita, Aaliyah tells me that she’s given in to her parents and agreed to an arranged marriage. She is far more negative about it than Sita, although her situation seems somewhat more palatable. Among Aaliyah’s circle of female friends, some from work and some from university, many are not only married, but are also keeping their jobs. She is the same age as her prospective husband, who works in business. However, she has no interest in marrying him, especially after the usual one-and-only meeting of the families. What angers her most is that he is currently living overseas, and so she will have to give up her job, as well, though if he were in Delhi, she almost certainly would keep it. It may be only for a few years, she adds, but if she leaves India, she wants to do it for her own reasons, like getting a graduate degree in the United States.

Yet Aaliyah ultimately feels responsibility to her parents’ wishes. Her parents are as traditional as Sita’s, and cannot conceive of her marrying a non-Muslim. I ask, probably impolitely, if he is an observant Muslim. “He’s more traditional than I am,” she remarks. “He prays twice a day, whereas I pray only once. Of course, we’re both supposed to do it five times a day.” Risking further offense, I ask if he wants her to wear the hijab. She shakes her head no. They are both modern Indian Muslims, far from the world of male dominance in places like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Yet the sting of feeling that she has no choice in the most important decision of her life makes her, like Sita, feel helpless. Can she love him, I ask? I will make myself love him, is her response.

It doesn’t seem like that should be the case for an urban, educated female, given the prominence of many women today. Today’s India is filled with images of powerful women, from politicians to movie stars. There seems to be little overt prejudice against female politicians in a country that was ruled by Indira Gandhi for nearly 20 years. India’s current ruling party, the Congress Party, has been run by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Indira’s son, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, since his assassination in 1991. Sonia, despite her checkered political success, controls nearly every aspect of party management, and will be head of the party as long as her health holds out.

Three of the country’s most important states are now or recently have been run by elected female chief ministers.

Not all of India’s female leaders were born in the purple, however. Three of the country’s most important states, including Chennai’s Tamil Nadu, are now or recently have been run by elected female chief ministers. India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (with a population of nearly 180 million), was run four times by Kumari Mayawati, who built a mini-cult of personality around herself during her terms starting in 1995 and ending most recently in 2012. A trip through Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital, during Mayawati’s last chief ministership revealed massive billboards at every intersection with her image and a listing of her accomplishments in office. The fact that she is a Dalit, from the caste once known as “untouchable,” and the first elected female Dalit chief minister, only adds to her mystique. Whether she is loved or hated, Mayawati became one of the most powerful chief ministers of the past two decades.

Perhaps even more interestingly, in West Bengal, a poor state in India’s northeast where cosmopolitan Calcutta is located, a modest folk leader named Mamata Banerjee succeeded in ousting the Communist Party in May 2011, which had held power for 34 years. Mamata, as everyone calls her, lives a frugal life with her mother, and is clearly a populist icon in West Bengal. Her recent stint as national railways minister was not particularly successful and many question whether she has a real agenda for reviving Bengal’s economy. Regardless, she is a symbol of fearlessness to many Indians, men as well as women, for having survived imprisonment and physical abuse at the hands of the former ruling Communist Party.

Beyond female politicians, India’s Bollywood leading ladies are everywhere, and many seem more popular than their male costars. Indian TV annually reports from Cannes, for example, where superstar Aishwarya Rai, among others, regularly takes the red carpet. As in any country, the life of an international celebrity like Rai is a poor yardstick by which to measure the lives of ordinary women (or men, for that matter). Yet even Aishwarya Rai has taken her husband’s surname and peppers her interviews with references to her role as a wife (an admittedly equal partner in her dual superstar marriage). Perhaps the weight of tradition and social mores sits on the shoulders of all women to different degrees. And perhaps only those like Mayawati or Rai are confident or ambitious enough to try and challenge convention.

Back in the real world, though, women are seen mostly with children or doing domestic chores. Most offices, shops, restaurants, and bookstores that I visit in different cities in India are staffed by men, who also act as drivers, waiters, hotel cleaners, street stall operators, and the like. Many women find jobs as teachers in public schools, or are librarians and research scholars like the ones I met while in Calcutta, but figures from the last decade show that women represented just 19 percent of the total workforce and made far less than their male counterparts; indeed, rural Indian women make less than $2 per day.

Yet clearly there is greater opportunity for women who are fortunate enough to get an education, come from an established family, or who find supportive partners. At a major hotel in Delhi, I talk with Gunvanti, a 26-year-old professional. Gunvanti was married only a few months ago, to a man she met and fell in love with while working at the same office. They are both Hindu, but from different castes. Her widowed mother, from an elite Brahmin subcaste who served as priests to the Maharaja of Jaipur, was opposed to her marrying her beau, even though he was from an aristocratic rajput caste. Gunvanti enlisted her uncle and other male family members to win over her mother, who herself encouraged her daughter to keep working.

Rural Indian women make less than $2 per day.

Would she have gone ahead with the marriage had her mother continued to oppose it? No, she would have dropped it, Gunvanti tells me. She is as unwilling as the other women I’ve met to ignore her family’s wishes. Yet Gunvanti is far more optimistic than Sita or Aaliyah. She, too, has moved around India, but in her case because she followed jobs that she wanted after graduating from university with a degree in classical singing. In fact, she turned down a more lucrative offer in order to come to Delhi to work at the same place as her then-fiancé.

She and her husband continue to work together, and he will leave it entirely up to her to decide whether or not to hold a job. She clearly is very much in love, and her eyes sparkle when I suggest she is luckier than many of the other women that I’ve met. Many of her friends were also married in love matches, she tells me, though she recognizes they are still a minority. Like Aaliyah, she focuses on personal relations, and doesn’t raise the issue of violence against women or broader discrimination.

So given her fortunate situation, I ask, what does she think would do the most to help women in India? Education, she replies immediately, and having a job. “If you bring your own status to a marriage, then the man will respect you more,” she asserts, even though she knows that many, if not most, women continue to face restrictions placed on them by family or husbands. “But [the prevalence of such restrictions are] starting to change.”

India is indeed changing, though unevenly. Nearly everyone I talk with, male or female, stresses that India must build up its national strength, meaning its economy. All the young women I meet are part of that strength, yet many will undoubtedly drop out of the work force. Society itself doesn’t seem to be the hindrance as much as entrenched social mindsets and the powerful pull of the family unit. Qualified women appear more likely to be restrained at home than openly discriminated against at the employment office. For hundreds of millions of poorer women, moreover, change in India is coming all too slowly, if at all. As it looks ahead to becoming a great power, how to assure all women have more of a say in shaping their lives will be one of India’s greatest challenges. Perhaps education will be the key, or the voices of prominent female leaders like Sonia Gandhi. When women such as Sita are able to choose their future, Indians may find that both the family and society are strengthened.

Note: The names of some of the women interviewed for this article have been changed.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Auslin also writes “Asia's Challenge in 2013: Nationalism,” “'Unlearning': A Hail Mary Government Cannot Stand,” “Passing through India,” and “Salvaging the American Dream.” Nicholas Eberstadt discusses “India's Demographic Outlook: Implications and Trends.” Sadanand Dhume asks “What Is the Natural Political Home of Indian-Americans?

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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