Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and author. Her most recent book is the anthology “A Thousand Cranes for India: Reclaiming Plurality Amid Hatred.”
MADRID — Historically, the experiences of many women in Asia’s two major civilizations, India and China, have been nasty. In China, young girls had their feet broken and bound to give them a shape presumed to be attractive to men. In parts of India, they were burned on the funeral pyres of their husbands in a practice called sati. In both countries, proverbs comparing women unfavorably to various animals, mocking their intelligence and even mourning their existence, remain common.
“The most poisonous thing in the world is a woman’s heart,” goes one Chinese saying. In Sanskrit, the root of many modern Indian languages, an idiom warns against trusting “rivers, animals with paws, animals with horns and women.” A married daughter is described in Chinese as “spilled water” — useless. In Malayalam, the language of the southern Indian state of Kerala, ostensibly one of India’s most progressive regions, a disappointing state of affairs is compared to “a home where a baby girl has just been born.”
The bulk of the over 100 million “missing girls” in the world, identified by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in a widely cited 1990 essay for the New York Review of Books, were in India (37 million) and China (44 million). At birth, boys naturally outnumber girls so that, all things being equal, about 105 male children are born for every 100 females. But all things are not equal, and gender-selective abortions in countries where males are preferred mean that millions of girls are never born, while a disproportionate number of those who are die young of malnutrition or poor medical care compared to boys.
I lived in China for seven years, between 2002 and 2009, reporting on the country’s “rise” for an Indian broadsheet. During that time, among the most common of the questions posed to me on both sides of the border was the crude yet clarifying, “Which is better?” Which did I prefer? Was one better off as an Indian or Chinese?
The question was almost impossible to answer in the abstract without taking the lived realities of different individuals into account. It was just as wrongheaded to conflate a Muslim dissident in Xinjiang with a business tycoon in Guangzhou as it was a Dalit (“untouchable”) night soil worker in the Indo-Gangetic plain with a software engineer in Bangalore. But even as I resisted being forced into a definitive answer given the multiplicity of unavoidable caveats, I increasingly, and unexpectedly, found myself plumping for China over India when it came to gender. Women in China certainly did not have it easy, but “easy” is relative.
Growing up, my literary imagination had been fattened on a steady diet of narratives of oppressed Chinese women, from O-Lan, the long-suffering protagonist of Pearl S. Buck’s classic “The Good Earth,” to the grandmother of writer Jung Chang whose feet were bound at the age of two, as detailed in her bestselling family history, “Wild Swans.”
As a result, I was unprepared, imaginatively, for the sheer physicality of women in China that I immediately noticed upon arriving in Beijing in the summer of 2002. Chinese women inhabited public spaces in a way that was impossible in most parts of India. They didn’t walk as though folding themselves inward to be invisible to passing men. They didn’t avoid eye contact. They rang their bicycle bells loudly. Sometimes they loitered. They were often brash, elbowing their way to the front of queues.
It was more likely for me to spot a woman taxi or bus driver in Beijing than it had been in London or Los Angeles, for example. The residential committee of the neighborhood I lived in was staffed by daunting dames with Chairman Mao coiffures who could bring errant residents in line with a glance. At the airport, men were often frisked, with businesslike indifference, by female security guards.
The female airport security guards leaped out at me as a particularly compelling comparison with India, where airports featured women-only queues that led to curtained off boxes where they were patted down by female officers. What irked me was that this whole procedure was compulsory for women, yet there was only one “ladies line” for several open to men. I had a showdown at the New Delhi airport once when the women’s line snaked long with ladies bearing multiple unhappy children, while the men’s queues were relatively empty. I asked to be patted down by a male security officer to hasten the process, since I was running late. It was as though I’d asked to strip down and dance naked for the waiting passengers. “This is not Indian culture madam,” a security official admonished me. I was eventually silenced and pushed to the back of the ladies’ queue. How I longed for China on days like that.
The numbers backed up my impressions of the relative empowerment of women in China. According to data from the International Labor Organization the labor force participation of adult females (between 15-64 years of age) was nearly 60% in China in 2020, higher than the United States (56%) and triple the abysmal figure of 20% in India.
Female literacy in India at the time I lived in Beijing was just above 50%, compared to around 90% in China. According to the latest World Bank data, by 2018 the figure for India had improved to 66%, although it still lagged 16 percentage points behind the literacy rate of men. India still has around 186 million women who are unable to read and write a simple sentence in any language. The contrast with China, where more than 95% of women are literate, is sharp and revealing.
On the maternal mortality ratio, another parameter of female welfare, India lags China by a large margin. About 113 women in 100,000 died due to childbirth-related complications in India for the period 2016-18, compared to 18 per 100,000 in China.
The cumulative impact of deep-seated gender biases results in the denial of education and opportunities for self-realization to women, and over time robs them of their self-worth as human beings. And there is a huge economic cost to this that compounds the emotional one. A United Nations Global Compact study concluded that if Indian women participated in the labor force at an equal ratio to men, it would boost the country’s GDP by 27%.
If women are valued, they have better odds of being born in the first place, rather than aborted. Then they are more likely to be better educated and healthier. This in turn would boost the health of their families and eventually the wellbeing of the economy. Investing in and improving outcomes for women is therefore arguably more important for a country’s prospects than building shiny infrastructure or reducing tariff barriers.
Which is why, despite India’s considerable achievements both politically and economically, the country lags and will continue to lag behind China. Until it can improve the lot of Indian women, a change that requires considerable social engineering, for which there is underwhelming appetite, high-speed trains, giant statues and the other showy weapons in the current government’s arsenal that are meant to signal India’s arrival on the global stage will remain damp squibs, doomed to sputter and die before the abysmal reality of the systematic denial of agency to women.
In the Western world, where communism has long been a dirty word, the achievements of China’s Communist Revolution are usually buried under the horrifying excesses of Mao Zedong’s mass mobilization campaigns like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But Mao also challenged gender norms by radically breaking with the past. That “women hold up half the sky,” is a well-known adage of his. Legislation in 1950 gave women the right to divorce for the first time. Mao encouraged women to work outside the home, and age-old practices like foot-binding and concubinage were eradicated. Most significantly, people were educated into a formal belief regarding gender equality for the first time.
Mao was hardly a feminist by modern standards. At the root of the efforts to increase female labor force participation was the utilitarian agenda of boosting national productivity rather than a desire to expand women’s choices. The individual interests of women were made subordinate to collective goals. They were often prevented from caring for their children, who were taken away and placed in state-sponsored nurseries. Moreover, the expansion of the role of women in the public sphere was, not matched by an equivalent expansion of the male role in the private sphere, with the result that women became doubly burdened.
But despite these qualifications, communism did accelerate the collapse of feudal hierarchies and sharply circumscribed the power of scripturally and religiously sanctioned misogyny. Mao’s revolution was accompanied by large-scale misery and social dislocation, but it wrenched China into the kind of modernity that escapes India, even today.
Arguing the benefits to women of China’s Communist Revolution is certainly open to debate, but what’s even more controversial is this: In the post-Mao era, for more than three decades (1979-2015), China experimented with the world’s largest demographic engineering effort, the one-child policy, under which a large percentage of the country’s population was restricted to having a single child. The impact on China’s sex ratio was devastating. Many families secretly aborted female fetuses; at the time I lived there, around 117 boys were born for every 100 girls — one of the most skewed gender ratios in the world.
But in India, without any equivalent demographic restrictions, that gender ratio was almost as bad: 110 boys for every 100 girls. And there were districts in states like Punjab and Haryana where it spiked to a horrifying 130 boys for every 100 girls.
There was, moreover, another side to the one-child policy coin that benefited female children in China. Preeti Choudhary, a village council representative from Faridabad, in the Indian state of Haryana, was visiting Beijing as part of a youth delegation when she asked me: “If in Haryana we also made it compulsory to have only one child, what couldn’t the women achieve?” She argued that being freed from the burden of raising several children was empowering. Moreover, if a family could only have one child, all resources would be made available toward feeding and educating that child, regardless of gender.
In the final analysis and notwithstanding the Communist Revolution, male preference remains strong in China. Moreover, some of the misogynistic practices stamped out, or at least sublimated, during the revolutionary years have re-emerged under the country’s new brand of red capitalism.
Concubines, in the traditional sense, may have ceased to exist, but the practice of keeping mistresses is back. Female employment rates have been steadily decreasing over the last two decades. This is partly a result of a concerted effort to encourage women to focus on marriage and family instead of careers through the state-assisted dissemination of the idea of “leftover women” who are unable to find husbands because of their high levels of education and “unrealistic” demands. In her book on leftover women, Leta Hong Fincher further demonstrates the myriad ways in which the continuing patriarchal norms underlying inheritance have effectively kept women from benefitting from the trillions of dollars generated by China’s real estate boom.
And yet, were I somehow given a choice in the matter, I would choose to be born a woman in China rather than in India. My chances of being healthy and educated would be higher and the likelihood of my having active agency over my life choices would be greater.
Despite what fashion magazines might have us believe, a woman’s greatest dream is not to walk down the aisle in designer bridal wear, but merely to be able to go out for a walk without fear. Even if it is late at night. Even if it is unaccompanied. And this is a dream more likely realized in China.