The perceptions of many women in the two main civilizations of Asia, India and China, have traditionally been nasty. Young girls in China had their feet broken and bound to give them a form that was thought to be appealing to men. They were burnt on their husbands’ funeral pyres in parts of India, in a ritual called sati. Proverbs that equate women unfavourably to different animals, ridicule their intellect and even lament their life, remain popular in both countries.
One Chinese goes on saying that, a woman’s heart is the most venomous thing in the world. In Sanskrit, the root of many modern Indian languages, an idiom warns against “trusting rivers, animals with paws, animals with horns and women.”In Chinese, a married daughter is identified as “spilled water” – useless. A disappointing state of affairs in Malayalam, the language of the southern Indian state of Kerala, allegedly one of the most progressive regions of India, is compared to a home where a baby girl has just been born.
In India (37 million) and China (44 million), the majority 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. At birth, boys naturally outnumber females, so for every 100 women, about 105 male children are born, all things being equal. Yet this is not fair, and gender-selective abortions mean that millions of girls are never born in countries where males are favoured, whereas a disproportionate amount of young people die from malnutrition or inadequate medical treatment compared to boys.
A woman who lived in China for seven years, between 2002 and 2009, reporting for an Indian broadsheet on the country’s “rise.” Among the most common questions raised to her on both sides of the border during that time were crude but clarifying, “Which is better?” “What one did she prefer? As an Indian or Chinese, which was the one better off?
In the abstract, the question was almost difficult to answer without taking into consideration the living realities of various individuals. The conflagration of a Muslim dissident in Xinjiang with a business magnate in Guangzhou was just as wrong 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 coerced into a definitive response, given the multiplicity of inevitable caveats, when it came to gender, she found herself gradually, and unexpectedly, plumping for China over India. Women definitely haven’t had it easy in China, but “easy” is subjective.
From O-Lan, the long-suffering heroine of Pearl S. Buck’s classic “The Good Earth,” to the grandmother of author Jung Chang, whose feet were tied at the age of two, as detailed in her best-selling family history, “Wild Swans,” anyone’s literary imagination could be fattened on a steady diet of narratives of marginalised Chinese women.
Chinese women occupied public spaces in a way that in most parts of India was impossible. They didn’t walk as if they were folding inward to make themselves invisible to passing men. They have not avoided eye contact. They were loudly ringing their bicycle bells. They moaned occasionally. Sometimes they were brash and elbowed their way to the front of the queues.
For example, it was more likely for a person to spot a female taxi or bus driver in Beijing than it was in London or Los Angeles. The community residential committees were manned by daunting ladies with Chairman Mao Coiffures who were able to put errant people in line with a look. At the airport, men were frequently frisked by female security officers, with businesslike indifference. What irked me was that this whole process was obligatory for women, but for many men, there was only one “ladies’ line” not available to men.
At the New Delhi airport, even when the women’s line snaked long with ladies carrying several unhappy children, you would have a showdown even if the men’s queues were relatively empty. You may ask to be patted down by a male security officer to hasten the process. But it would most of the time seem like you had asked the waiting passengers to strip down and dance nude. “This is not Indian culture madam,” shall most probably be the reply of an admonished by a security official. Eventually, you will be silenced and forced to the back of the line of ladies. And, on such days one may wish to go back to China.
The figures confirmed my perceptions of China’s relative empowerment of women. The labour force participation of adult women (between 15-64 years of age) was almost 60% in China in 2020, higher than in the United States (56%) and triple the abysmal figure of 20% in India, according to data from the International Labor Organization. According to the recent data as well, the female literacy in India has been just above 50 per cent, compared with about 90 per cent in China. The figure for India had improved to 66 percent by 2018, according to the latest World Bank statistics, although it still lagged 16 percentage points behind men’s literacy rates. India still has about 186 million women who, in any language, are unable to read and write a basic sentence. The comparison with China is sharp and revealing, where more than 95 per cent of women are literate.
India lags China by a wide margin in the maternal mortality ratio, another metric of female welfare. For the period 2016-18, about 113 women out of 100,000 died due to childbirth-related complications in India, compared to 18 per 100,000 in China.
The cumulative effect of deep-seated gender inequalities results in the denial of women’s education and self-realization opportunities, and robs them of their self-worth as human beings over time. And this has an immense economic cost that compounds the emotional one. A United Nations Global Compact report concluded that it would raise the country’s GDP by 27 percent if Indian women engaged in the labour force at an equal ratio to men.
They have higher chances of being born in the first place, rather than aborted if women are valued. Then they are more likely to be happier and better trained.
In exchange, this will improve the welfare of their communities and, ultimately, the well-being of the economy. Therefore, investing in and enhancing women’s results is potentially more critical for the future of a nation than constructing bright infrastructure or reducing tariff barriers. That is why the country lags and will continue to lag behind China, despite India’s tremendous achievements both politically and economically.Until the lot of Indian women can be improved, a reform that needs considerable social engineering, for which there is an underwhelming appetite, high-speed trains, giant statues and other showy guns in the current government arsenal that are intended to signal the arrival of India on the world stage, will remain damp squibs, doomed to sputter and die before the abysmal reality of the systemic denial of agency to women.

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