'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

An Argument With Amartya Sen - Some Women's Day Thoughts

This lengthy post has 3 parts.

Part 1:
Note: By argument, I do not mean opposition - I do not hold opinions opposite to those presented by 'the Argumentative Indian'. And it is not just Sen, my argument is on (not against) one of the points made by 'India: Economic Development And Social Opportunity' which Sen coauthored with Jean Dreze.

In the chapter, 'Gender Inequality and Women's Agency' in the above work, there is a section, 'Two Misconceptions'. I quote from Sen and Dreze and offer my own arguments in numbered footnotes:

"To begin with, we should deal with two misunderstandings that arise from time to time in popular discussions of the issue of low female-male ratios in India.
The second misinterpretation concerns some alleged 'Muslim influence'. The reasoning, in so far as there is any, is that female-male ratios in India tend to be particularly low in the north-west of the country, which is geographically close to Islamic countries, has been underMuslim influence for a long time and even now, has a large Muslim population.---- (1)

A glance at the figures immediately exposes the fragility of this hypothesis. The state of Kerala which has the highest female-male ratio among Indian states (1.04 in 1991) comes second in the proportion of Muslims in the population. The state with the lowest percentage of Muslims (1 percent) is Punjab which has had the lowest female-male ratio among all Indian states until overtaken by Haryana in 1981. Haryana itself has a very low Muslim population (4%). ---- (2)

We can take a closer look at this whole issue by examining the extent of gender bias in child mortality rates among Hindus and Muslims in different parts of India. .... (graph shown)
... two points. First, regional contrasts in the extent of gender bias in child survival are far more striking than the contrast relating to religious identity. Specifically, the relative survival chances of girls are low in large parts of Northern India (including Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, Bihar) and this applies whether they are Hindus or Muslims. Secondly, there is no evidence of any overall tendency for the female disadvantage to be particularly large among Muslims." ---- (3)


(1) Dreze and Sen allege there is a school of thought which blames the Muslim influence for the poor condition of women in India. But they have not given any references to substantiate this allegation. They assert "the reasoning, in so far as there is any, is that female-male ratios in India tend to be low in the north-west..." again without revealing who formulated this 'geographical' argument. Of course, then they proceed to debunk this 'sourceless' argument in some detail.

(2) The *present* low percentage of Muslims in Indian Punjab is an accident only due to the Partition and the so-called 'population exchange' that accompanied it (just as there hardly are any Hindus/Sikhs in and around Lahore now, although together they were more than 40 percent of the population in 1947; Amritsar city, which has very low number of Muslims now, then had a slight Muslim *majority*). Going back half a millennium, the very emergence of Sikhism owed a lot to the Sufi saints and Muslim influence. So, just because there are *now* very few Muslims in what has become Indian Punjab, centuries of strong Islamic influence on this society simply cannot be dismissed.

(3) The primary conclusions drawn from the graph are accurate. But, one can still argue: North, where the lot of women is a lot poorer, is also that part of India which was ruled by Muslim sultans, emperors and nawabs and where the Muslims (at least till 1857) had power and influence (on policy-making, among other things) far in excess of their share in the population. Kerala, despite its present large Muslim population, never went thru a period of Muslim rule and sustained domination as was experienced by the North and Deccan (raids by Tipu Sultan etc. were ephemeral phenomena and their real impact is a matter of dispute). So, the comparatively higher status of women in Kerala (allegedly) enjoy could well be attributed to the absence of Muslim policy-making.

Indeed, I have a more fundamental difficulty with this argument of Sen and Dreze: if the *present* lot of two communities is equally bad (or good for that matter) in any given region, I
doubt if one can appeal to just this fact and conclude that neither party influenced the other over centuries of co-existence. To give another example, the literacy rates among the Hindu and Christian communites of Kerala are largely equal at present (they are certainly comparable); but it is universally acknowledged that Kerala education has benefitted heavily from the (disproportionaly large) efforts of Christian missionaries.

Part 2:
Note:Sen et al are not directly involved any further with this post.

While a student in Hyderabad, I used to read in papers regularly about accidental burning incidents, which almost invariably affected young married women, often fatally. It was almost always implied that (at least) most were dowry-related murders or suicides. Among the many such cases documented in the papers, almost all concerned Hindu (definitly non-Muslim) women. This in Hyderabad which has a large Muslim population (around 40%?).

I wondered: "there are hardly any Muslims among these hapless young women. So, it appears they are clearly treated better by their community.". I raised this subject in a discussion at our university. One friend argued: " Let me only talk about the suicides. They indicate a revolt, a certain lack of acceptance of ill-treatment. The Muslim women may be so thoroughly subjugated and enslaved by their men that they cannot even contemplate suicide as a means to escape from their

Part 3:
A friend of mine once told me of an acquaintance of his (whose community will remain unspecified): "When his grandfather got married, he had to pay a solid sum of money *to* his in-laws. But in the very next generation, his father got a solid dowry *from* his in-laws."

Does this 180 degree flip in the direction of cash flow really imply a corresponding flip in gender equations/inequalities?


  • At 8:12 PM, Blogger Vinayak said…

    Re Hyderabad News Paper reports of Hindu women ...Dowry deaths

    This comment is mainly towards the ABOVE portion of your blog and NOTHING towards the North south or Religion wise divides

    1. There is a Section 498A in the Indian Penal code that deals with Harassment by Husband and in laws, Dowry related issues. This section is throughly misused. Innocent Husbands and their families are arrested JUST ON THE BASIS of a complaint - i.e. without a warrant and milked lakhs of Rs.

    2. So is Section 304B - PRESUMED dowry death

    3. When a woman dies, the death is almost always assumed as HARASSMENT or DOWRY related.

    4. However when men die, every other agency / cause including the Govt. inaction to uplift Indians is blamed.

    5. Men comment 3 times MORE suicides IN INDIA than women

    6. Alas there is NO law to protect them and hence NO blood sucking lawyers "helping them" and NO news agency PORTRAYING how victimised they are ......

    7. This is just BIAS nothing else

    and suicide stats on that page for more


  • At 1:36 AM, Blogger Two Minds said…

    The problems of men and women are very differnt!

    Anamika commented specifically in the context of dowry deaths; not overall deaths.

    I *guess* suicides by men are more because of their experiences in the society and not because of ill-treatment by wives and in-laws !!

    Laws are misused by women. Question is how many? In the context of marriage, how many men misused law and how many women misused? Clearly, we can never hope to get correct stats on this.

    Some insights:

    1. The "blood sucking lawyers" are MEN ! (mostly!)
    2. The courts are set up and ruled by men ! (mostly)
    3. News does cover mostly men dying only (how many dowry deaths you see as opposed to men killing each other?)


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