For the purpose of this essay, we will ascribe to a conception of “progress” that promotes equality in the realms of education, occupational opportunity, independence, geographic and marital freedom, property rights, and reproductive rights. This is not the place to attempt to prove this ideological conception as objectively correct—these standards are the author’s personal metric, and will serve as one of many lenses through which one might examine the subtle nature of gender roles across different cultures.
Throughout the 20th century, gender equality increased significantly in China and remained relatively stagnant in India. This discrepancy, however, is not due to a greater opportunity for demand politics from women in China. Rather, women’s empowerment in China was a mere vehicle for economic production, a progressive transformation for the sake Maoist goals. India, on the other hand, was more concerned with “peaceful change” than revolution, and its parliamentary system did not, in actuality, promote or allow demand politics. Hence, women’s social roles stagnated. In both countries, modernization occurred with little regard for women, and their rights were further ignored in the reform periods and throughout liberalization. In both countries, the progress that occurred for women was either exclusively economic or exclusively motivated by economic goals, which left them with no basis for unity or demand politics in any realm but labor.
In Nehru’s India, women were victims of a “passive revolution” that subtly advanced bourgeoisie men of higher castes under a guise of parliamentary democracy. Though women have presided over the Indian National Congress, served as a prime minister, and represent a large part of India’s labor force, they remain disadvantaged in a number of significant ways. As in China, they are subject to patrilocal exogamy, an alienating practice that devalues women to their families and communities because of their impending relocation. India also has an extremely low female to male ratio that has consistently declined on the national level throughout the 20th century. This decline is more apparent in the disadvantaged castes, which began the century with a relatively high female-to-male ratio. We can explain the decline by examining the influence of the norms of India’s different castes in light of modernization.
Many of the high ranking castes in India have a firmly established, longstanding patriarchy. Dreze and Sen note that “martial castes in north India have played a leading role in the history of female infanticide, child marriage, seclusion, dowry, sati, johar, levirate, polygamy, and related patriarchal practices.” (Dreze, Sen, 157) In the martial castes, the female to male ratio has remained low throughout the 20th century. Dreze and Sen posit that lower castes with increasing economic mobility have emulated the martial castes’ patriarchal norms, which explains the decline of the female to male ratio in...