The brutal rape and murder of a woman in India has led to widespread protests in that country and to a country-wide discussion of many gender-related issues, including whether women in India are valued as highly as men. Not surprisingly, more women than men believe that this is the case; and they argue that if Indian society valued women more highly it would take stronger measures to prevent and punish violence against them. In addition, since the demonstrations seem to have taken the Indian government by surprise, one might ask the question, “Why now? Why haven’t comparable atrocities in the past provoked an equally strong reaction?”
One the reasons discussed for the prevalence of rape in India is the shortage of women of marriageable age, as a result of the extensive use of prenatal ultrasound and the elective abortion of female fetuses. It seems evident to a non-Indian observer that, if women were valued as highly as men, the number of abortions would be relatively equal for fetuses of both sexes.
However, concluding that women are not as highly valued as men raises the further question, “Why not?” After all, studies of small hunter-gatherer tribes—the general condition of humans for 95% of our existence—show a much smaller degree of inequality between the sexes. (A lessened inequality of power among hunter-gatherers is also accompanied by a sharp division of labor and clearly differentiated gender roles.)
One difference is that India, with a population of over 1.2 billion people, has a long history of great masses of people living on the edge of starvation. And a similar point could be made about China, with over 1.3 billion people. Despite Chinese culture being very different from that of India, China has a long history of female infanticide, and a current shortage of women of marriageable age. Other customs differ between the two countries—for example, dowry killings in India and foot binding in China—but in both cultures women have not done well for a very long time.
Relating gender inequality in countries like India and China to issues of overpopulation and food scarcity produces a disturbing insight.
All societies know that women produce babies. When food is scarce, having fewer mouths to feed means a greater chance of survival for those who remain. And the effects of selective abortion and/or infanticide on population growth are not the same for males and females. If a male baby is killed, that reduces the population by one. But if a female baby is killed, the population is reduced by her plus all of her future children, plus all of her daughters’ future children, plus all of her granddaughters’ future children, and so on down through the generations.
Societies try out a variety of customs, ideologies, and religious beliefs; and some societies die out and others continue. It is a reasonable hypothesis that--among societies coming to grips with overpopulation and food shortages—those that come up with a way of limiting the supply of women will have a better chance of survival. (This is a common strategy, but not the only one, that societies use in coping with population pressure on critical resources.)
Parents love their children, and under ordinary circumstances do not want to kill them. Only some strong ingrained set of beliefs, inculcated since early childhood and passed on through the generations, will do the trick. Beliefs in the inferiority of women make preventing the birth of girls, or female infanticide, less unacceptable. So, brutal as the gender inequality may be, it may well have served in the past as a “successful” survival strategy for the society as a whole.
Given the current excess of men over women in India (and China, and some other societies), here are a few of the social effects that might occur, alone or in combination, in different places and times:
1. Raising the value of women (e.g., increasing bride price; decreasing dowry; making the education of women a better investment).
2. Keeping the sexes unequal but importing women from poorer countries. This has the effect of spreading the problem, and affecting gender relations from woman-exporting countries
3. Increasing prostitution, so that a small number of women can provide sex for a large number of men.
4. Increasing rape, where men take sex without paying for it, while simultaneously expressing rage at women for being unavailable to them.
On the positive side, economic conditions in both India and China are improving; and the rate of population growth around the planet is slowing down. As countries get richer, better fed, and better at limiting their populations, pressure can be expected to develop to do away with customs that no longer serve a social function. The protests in India may be a sign of just such change.
Silent Protest at India Gate by Ramesh Lalwani
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