Gender norms aren’t a monolith in India
A new survey hints at shades of grey in ideas on gender roles. While darker shades, like the preference for sons, exist, we must take cues from the lighter shades to push for equality
What do contemporary Indians feel about gender roles? When jobs are scarce, should men get priority? Should women always obey their husbands? Can women make good political leaders? Is violence against women a problem? Should India improve safety by teaching boys to respect women, or should girls be taught to behave properly?
The answers to many such questions are now available from the insightful second part of the Pew Research Centre’s attitude survey on India. While the majority of Indians recognise pervasive gender inequality, they don’t necessarily view it as a problem. For instance, 87% of older women (35+) believe that a wife must obey her husband, and this proportion is not that different (84%) among younger women (18-34 years). This suggests that inegalitarian norms are widespread and customary.
However, some other inequitable norms find much lower support. For instance, only 19% of older women agree that men in the family should be primarily responsible for making decisions about expenses, just 23% think men make better political leaders than women and about 34% say sons should have a greater right to inheritance, with slightly lower percentages among younger women.
This suggests that Indian gender norms are not a monolith painted in a single shade. There are 50 or more shades of grey — and while we should worry about the darker shades, we should take cues from the lighter shades to shift the needle towards gender equality. We know that India has had a very low representation of women in decision-making roles. This survey shows 55% of Indians believe that women and men make equally good political leaders. All political parties should respond to this signal to significantly increase the number of female candidates at all levels, and support the women’s reservation bill.
53% of women favour improving women’s safety by teaching boys and men to respect women; 48% of men also agree. Teaching girls to behave appropriately finds much lower support (24% among women, 27% among men). Why not build on this to alter public policies which currently focus on policing and locking women indoors, ostensibly to protect them? Such policies are inimical to women’s independence, and make them more susceptible to violence at home.
One of the darker shades is that the North-South dichotomy breaks down when it comes to gender attitudes. Southern states, especially Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, are not necessarily more egalitarian than the Hindi belt in terms of gender attitudes. The sticky floor of gender inequality, especially in the domestic sphere, has been vividly documented in films such as The Great Indian Kitchen. The blurring of the North-South boundaries alerts us to the rocky path to achieving substantive gender equality: Equalising educational outcomes does not necessarily get reflected in beliefs about equality between men and women; 80% of college-educated Indians support the view that wives must obey husbands. That this is lower than the 88% among the less educated population is cold comfort.
The darkest shade of grey is the persistence of a preference for sons. Nearly two-thirds of Indians believe that sons should handle the parents’ last rites; 40% find it acceptable to balance the gender make-up of family via modern methods, which is a euphemism for the illegal but pervasive practise of sex-selective abortions. The desire for a son results in attitudes such as “when jobs are scarce, men should have more rights to a job than women”. In India, this proportion at 55% is among the highest in the world (global median is 17%).
The report juxtaposes key gender attitudes with actual behaviour by comparing outcome indicators from National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) data over two decades. NFHS outcomes reveal a substantial decline in traditional roles between 1998-99 and 2005-6, which has continued subsequently, albeit more moderately. For instance, over time, the sex ratio at birth (SRB) has been moving towards greater equality. In 1998-99, 43% of married women aged 18-49 said their husband mainly decided about visits to the wife’s family or relatives. This proportion was down to 21% in 2015-16. The proportion of men who believed husbands should have a greater say in this decision declined from 26% in 2005-6 to 21% in 2015-16. In 1998-99, 31% of married women said their husbands mainly decided how to use the money the wife earns. This was down to 15% in 2005-6 to rise slightly to 17% in 2015-16.
The Pew Report on gender attitudes in India underscores the need for a concerted policy effort to weaken the material basis of son preference. As long as parents believe that daughters are paraya dhan (treasure that belongs to someone else), and that investing in them is like “watering a neighbour’s garden”, gender discrimination will be pervasive in the household sphere, with analogous discriminatory norms shaping employer attitudes at the workplace.
How can we alter this status quo? This report reveals that support for patriarchal attitudes and women’s seclusion is mixed — strong in some dimensions, and weak in some others. The latter can and should be utilised to inform policy. Increasing women’s ability to participate in the economy, either as workers or entrepreneurs, will create the material foundation for their economic independence and greater say. This must be complemented by a substantially greater presence of women in decision-making roles in both the government and private sectors.
The report presents many data points which reveal that while the path is difficult, we will not be chasing a mirage.
Ashwini Deshpande is professor of economics and founding director, CEDA, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal