Last week this column had spoken about the fact that there are about 100 million women less on this earth than there should be. Women who are “missing” since they are aborted, burnt, starved and neglected to death by families who prefer sons to daughters. This column had also identified the countries of South Asia, East Asia, West Asia and Saharan Africa as the main regions which were missing most of these women. The estimated number of women who are missing are 44 million in China, 39 million in India, 6 million in Pakistan and 3 billion in Bangladesh. This is the single largest genocide in human history. Ever. Some researchers have coined a word for this phenomenon: Femicide, or the killing of the human female because she is female.
What is significant is that globally this genocide seems to be confined largely to Asia. Even within Asia, it is largely confined to the two historically coherent zones of China and South Asia (what was historically called India). These two areas together contribute 92 % of the total missing women of the world. While Census figures are available only from the mid 19th Century for South Asia and from the 20th Century for China, it is quite apparent that the killing of women and the aborting of female foetuses is not a modern phenomenon. The invention of ultra-sonography and other pre-natal diagnostic techniques may have contributed to an increase in the number and ‘efficiency’ of femicide through abortions, but the practice of killing women has a much longer history, stretching at least into the middle ages.
It is but obvious that femicide is based on a form of extreme patriarchal social system which gives primacy to sons and devalues daughters enough to make it possible for parents to kill their own off-spring without any moral dilemma. But patriarchy is hardly the preserve of South Asian societies or of China. It is a global phenomenon which is to be found in all historical societies. In all historical societies, whether in Europe, Africa, Americas or Asia, property has been controlled by men and lineage generally passes through the male heirs. Political power too is controlled by men and so is social status. In fact, some of the specific forms of patriarchy which existed in medieval Europe was much worse than what is practiced in the cities of India, China and Pakistan of 2008.
Even a comparison of modern societies which are similar in various ways shows that there is something specific about the societies of South Asia and China which make it possible for millions of people to ‘do away’ with their daughters for economic or social reasons. While India and Pakistan show such low sex ratio. Sex ratio is defined as the ratio of men to women in society. One form of the sex ratio is to calculate the number of women for every 1000 men. The other method is to calculate the number of men for every 100 women. We shall use the latter method in here as it is now more universally used and the United Nations provides data in this format.
According to the United Nations population data, globally there were 101.7 men to 100 women (which means that the sex ratio is 101.7) in 2000. But in China, the same sex ratio was 106.8; in India it was 107.9; in Pakistan it was 106 and in Bangladesh it was 105.3.
What is surprising is that in many neighbouring countries, which share much with these countries historically, sociologically and culturally, the sex ratio is not so skewed. Japan, which was historically influenced by China (not to mention India) has always had a good sex ratio and even today (2000) its sex ratio is about 95 men to a 100 women. Korea too, which was influenced by China has a sex ratio of about 100 which means an equal number of men and women; while Vietnam, another country with long Chinese influence has a sex ratio of about 99 men to a 100 women.
If we look in the South Asian neighbourhood, while India and Bangladesh have a low sex ratio, Burma, their neighbour in the east and till 1937 a part of the same British Indian Raj, has more women than men as does Nepal. Countries like Thailand and Indonesia which have had long historical ties with peninsular India too have more women than men. Other countries with a similar developmental or religio-cultural profile do not show such a tendency of killing their females.
So what is that feature common to both China and South Asia which could explain the unique predilection of these two historical civilisations to so nonchalantly murder their women? I must admit that it is not easy to answer this question with any amount of certainity. But there is one historical commonality between the civilisations of China and India which seems to hold at least some clues towards answering this question.
This commonality could be the ideologies of feudalism which both these civilisations developed and which remain firmly entrenched in their social relations even today, many decades after the process of modernisation began.
The Chinese ideology of feudalism is known as Confucianism while in India there was no particular name given to it; though much of it derived from the legal texts which are commonly referred to as the Manusmriti. As an earlier column of mine had argued (Caste and Capitalism, dated 27 June 2007), the forms of feudal ideology which developed in India (and China) were flexible enough to enable them to continue providing ideological justification for capitalism. In all other societies, specially Europe, feudal ideologies were found incapable of providing legitimacy to capitalist social relations and therefore the transition from feudalism to capitalism was possible only with the total destruction of feudal ideas. In Europe this meant the challenge to the Catholic Church – the renaissance and reformation, the process of secularisation of social relations, the delegitimisation of social hierarchy and its replacement by ideologies of equality and personal freedom.
No such social reform has accompanied the rise of capitalism in either China or India. In fact, the contrary trend seems to be the norm. Those parts of society which seem most rapidly to be integrating with capitalism and the global economy are precisely the social groups which are displaying an increased predilection for “tradition” and “religion”. As this column had argued in last year, the caste form of social stratification has proven itself to be highly capable of providing a social scaffolding to the requirements of modern capital in India. Similarly, Confucian ideas of discipline, obedience and social rank seem to play a analogous role in present day China.
If this hypothesis is correct, then it is the continuation of the feudal mentalité in China and South Asia combined with the precipitous spread of capitalist economic and social relations which makes it possible for families to view their daughters and wives in such crude material terms of profit and loss and dispose of loss making liabilities without considering them human. It is the feudal mentalité which makes everyone (men as well as women) view males as qualitatively better than women and it is the practical, monetary push of capitalist social relations which monetises human relations and shows up women as loss making liabilities which need to be reduced.
(to be continued)
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This article was published in my weekly column in The Post on 30 April, 2008.