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South India Is Better For Women Than North India

Hi everybody, If you were to ask an Indian woman, to prefer between living in North India or South India, imagine what would her answer be? Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question? Most women would prefer to live in South India. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. In South India, women marry late, live longer, and are more educated. 

The gender gap in education is 26% for the north and while for the south it’s only 9%. Other than economic and social benefits, safety is another factor that could explain the woman's preference. Compared to North India there could be less crime against women in the south. If you notice, I used the word ‘could’. It’s because data suggest that states like Kerala have high crime rates against women. But it’s not clear why the crime rate is higher in Kerala. 


Due to which a woman and her family will feel safer to lodge a police complaint against a crime. compared to the north Indian states? We're aware that the family of a sexual assault victim doesn’t lodge a complaint in India. Around 99% of the sexual assault cases go unreported. Like the data we studied before, due to many socioeconomic indicators, women of South India live better lives than that of North India. But what’s the reason?

 It’s very interesting to find an answer to such a question. Because this difference didn’t arise in the past 70 years. It dates back to the 19th century. According to research, due to a famine in the 19th century, the women in Punjab got affected more severely than the women in Madras. Around that time the sex ratio of South India was better compared to the north. 

So Maharastra has been included in South India and West Bengal in North India. Professor Alice Evans wrote a detailed article on this subject. In her article, she wrote that when during the 19th century a group of Marathi women traveled to Calcutta, they got surprised by what they saw. According to the group of Marathi women, a woman in Calcutta could scarcely stand in presence of her relatives. Her face was always veiled. 

She wasn’t allowed to speak to any man, muss less laugh with him. Before discussing the factors that could explain this difference, let’s first understand the factors that can’t explain it. One such factor is Poverty. Many might think South India has more female empowerment given how rich the state is. But it’s not necessarily the truth. According to the GDP, Punjab and Haryana are one of the richest states in India. But these states have the worst sex ratio too.

 Doctor Evans uses these charts to prove that it’s not necessary that a woman belonging to a rich state will find better job opportunities. The second factor that can’t explain the difference, is the marriage custom or traditions. In North India, women are generally married into other villages. When they go away from their families, the chances of them ever getting their share of inheritance of property becomes nil. 

In South India, women are most probably married into the same village. And according to research when a woman marries into the same village, she’s more likely to move freely, and earn more cash. And the logic behind this is that in an intra-village marriage, you get more freedom as you live within the security of your parents and a community with whom you’ve grown accustomed. But can this norm of intra-village marriage explain the gender difference? Alice believes that it can't. As we can see the examples of cousin marriages in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Even though after marriage the women live among their relatives, the cases of women empowerment weren’t reported in these regions. The third reason is that of colonialism. This map shows the years Britishers governed a certain region of India. They governed some regions for more than 200 years and on the other hand, they scarcely governed some regions at all. Given this, we never saw much difference in the terms of women empowerment. 

As you can notice, Britishers governed the regions of Tamil Nadu and UP for the same time period. But there’s a huge difference in the female literacy rate of UP and Tamil in the data of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now let’s discuss the factors that can better explain the difference. And one of the factors relied largely on the British administration. Looking at a broader level we won’t sense the difference that the Britishers created in the women empowerment between North and South India. 

But we dig deeper, it becomes clearer. According to Hindu law, there are two types of property inheritance rights. One is called Mitakshara and another is called Dayabhaga. Dayabhaga originated in the Bengal region. According to Dayabhaga, women could inherit property. Mitakshara operated in Madras and Bombay presidency. According to this law, women had no inheritance rights.

 Looking at the surface level, you might think that the Bengal region should have more women empowerment given it had Dayabhaga law, which ensured property to women. But we saw in research how surprised the women of Madras were on seeing restrictions on the women of Calcutta. So what’s going on here? If Bengali women held more rights, why didn’t they have a better position? According to research, the district governed by Dayabhaga saw an increase in the practice of Sati Pratha (widow immolations) too. 

Instead of improving a women’s position in society, inheritance rights led to an average increase of between 115 and 437 widow immolations in Dayabhaga districts. This law was enacted at the time of extreme elite patriarchy. This suggests that women were subjected to torments. This positive law backfired. Many joint families argued that by implementing Dayabhaga law they would tarnish their traditions. Due to this, the districts where women were given the rights of inheritance, saw an increase in the practice of sati too.

 The second factor that can explain this difference is the tradition of Ghunghat (veil). This system originated in the Arabic region and was introduced to India during the Islamic invasions. This was a mode of ensuring status. The families that belonged to higher status wanted their women to practice Purdah (veil) to maintain their status of superiority. The cast system of India was already had several restrictions for women. If a woman from an upper-caste married a man belonging to a lower caste, the family of the woman lost its honor. And the Purdah system got added to that.

 This was common among the Rajput families belonging to North India. This practice severely affected the way the women lived their lives. In rural Haryana, if a woman failed to cover her face with a veil, she was subjected to afflictions and her character was questioned too. This affected the women’s ability to earn a living. As researches have shown that due to Purdah or Ghunghat, women become more dependent on men for financial support. 

Many of you might wonder who would be practicing an age-long tradition of the Purdah system nowadays. But that’s not true. In rural Rajasthan, 98% of women in the age group of 18-25 cover their faces with a veil. The third reason is the difference in the agricultural practices between North and South India. In India, crop cultivation has two patterns. One is the cultivation of wheat by plowing of fields as seen in North India. 

Another one is the wet and intensive cultivation of rice in South India. If we take wheat for an instance, the intensive plowing isn’t carried out by women. And cultivation of wheat isn’t labor-intensive. This lowers the demand for female labor in the field. Whereas cultivation of rice is labor-intensive. Here women are required to contribute to the workforce. Dr. Evans states in her research that, women are required to step out and contribute to the workforce for the cultivation of rice. And that's the reason why women in South India are better empowered as compared to their North Indian compatriots.

 These three factors can explain the difference in the condition of women in North and South India. Inheritance rights, Purdah/Ghunghat system (veil system), and the agricultural practices. But we need to let go of the delusion that women living in south India are leading a perfect life. They too have to face problems of their own. 

Our government shouldn’t have an objective that they should somehow provide North Indian women the quality of life as that of South Indian women. They should have a broader objective. If you consult the rankings, India is further low in gender issues. In the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, India ranks 131st, even lower than Iraq. According to World Bank, nations not well off as India, like Bangladesh and Nepal, have better literacy rates among girls. 

Our politicians dream about making India a superpower. But it would never become a reality until Indian women are given opportunities to contribute too. Through this video, we learned the differences in the situation of women in North and South India. But North Indian women shouldn’t take the lives of South Indian women as their ideal. They should aim for something better than that. This is the way India will become a superpower.

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