Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and author. Her most recent book is the anthology “A Thousand Cranes for India: Reclaiming Plurality Amid Hatred.”
I Would Rather Be Born A Woman In China Than India
The vanity projects and military gadgets that are meant to signal India’s arrival on the global stage are doomed to sputter and die unless the country can improve the abysmal reality of the systematic denial of agency to women.
By Pallavi Aiyar January 19, 2021
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.
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?
…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.
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 boosts 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.
…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.
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.