An Outbreak of Indian Misogyny?

The ink was hardly dry on my article, in the January-February Quadrant, against the relevance of appeals to misogyny in explaining issues to do with the status and treatment of women, than misogyny was “discovered” in plague proportions in India. “India must overturn miso­gyny”, announced an editorial in The Australian on January 2, and the following day, a full-page article, by Bruce Loudon, a leader writer for the newspaper (and so probably the author of both pieces), enlarged on India’s supposed plague of misogyny.

The event that was taken to prove the existence of this plague was the brutal gang rape and murder of a young Indian woman. This was a terrible crime, and nothing I have to say here in any way undermines that fact. However, to denounce a violent crime by men against a woman (even a crime typical of the kind of crime men commit against women), and to attribute that crime to misogyny, are two entirely different things. That this needs to be pointed out is a mark of the extent to which nearly everyone now seems to be in thrall to a shallow and indeed false feminist explanation for such crimes. After all, no one feels tempted to attribute violent crimes against men—even when committed by women—to misandry. So why suppose that violent crimes by men against women are attributable to misogyny?

The Australian’s editorial (enlarged on in Loudon’s article) points out that rape is India’s fastest-growing crime. It then attributes this to misogyny because of the selective abortion of female foetuses, and the resulting imbalance between men and women in the overall population. It says that rape is “a consequence of the bias that exists against females from the time of conception” as evidenced by the selective abortion rates. This bias is attributed to “female babies being seen by many Indian families as a liability, mainly because of the now-outlawed dowry system, but also because men are viewed as breadwinners and women denied education and jobs”. The result is a population imbalance, such that “New Delhi has a ratio of only 800 women to every 1000 men”. And the consequence of this imbalance is entrenched misogyny, since “in such an environment, women are devalued and demeaned”.

To sort out these claims, it is best to begin with the last of them. Why should it be the case that a relative shortage of women should cause them to be “devalued and demeaned”? On the face of it, it should imply the opposite: it is a surplus that decreases value, whereas scarcity increases it by heightening competition.

But perhaps the rules of the sexual marketplace differ from that of other goods. If this is so, however, one would expect that a scarcity of males would lead to men being devalued. But the evidence lies in the opposite direction. The two world wars of the last century brought about a relative scarcity of men in the Western world—but this did not bring about their being devalued. Instead, what it brought about was a divide between two kinds of woman: the lucky ones who found a man, and the unlucky ones who did not, and who were consigned to spinsterhood. So why should the case of a shortage of women not follow suit? Why should it not be the case that a shortage of women implies that women enjoy the high value that attaches to relatively scarce goods, while the men are divided into the two groups, of winners and losers? It seems unavoidable to conclude that, if women are devalued in India, it is not because they are relatively scarce.

The opposite view seems much more plausible: that they are relatively scarce because they are devalued. From this angle, the claim that relative scarcity implies devaluing is just another example of an attempted social explanation getting causes and effects mixed up; that the “scarcity implies devaluing” thesis is simply a case of explanatory muddle.

So is it the case that women are relatively scarce because they are devalued in Indian society? One thing that can be said is that the selective abortion rates show that there is, as the editorial claims, “a bias that exists against females from the time of conception”. In fact, of course, the bias does not have to wait for conception—conception merely reveals the pre-existing bias.

However, it is not true that this bias shows Indian society to be misogynist. The bias is against female babies, but not simply because they are female. The best explanation of the bias is that it is a reflection of economic exigencies. Notwithstanding recent economic growth, Indian society is, by and large, poor and has been so for centuries. This means that it has developed mores which reflect the fact of poverty.

What difference does this make? In the first place, poor societies tend to be strongly patriarchal. They are so because they lack effective public resources for securing the safety of individuals, and so the task of security, and the authority to which it gives rise, devolves onto the adult male members of the family or clan. In such societies, individual freedoms are low (because security depends on constraints on free movement) and nearly all major decisions are made by the protectors, the male heads of families or clans.

Second, for a poor family, a child is another mouth to feed—and hence an immediate or short-run cost. That cost will be compensated for if there is a longer-run economic benefit, but it will be all the greater if the longer run also threatens to be costly. These facts are sufficient to explain why female babies are considerably less attractive than male ones. For a poor farming family, for instance, the male can be expected to provide labour, and so end up paying for his keep. The female, on the other hand, represents a short-run cost without any such predictable longer-run compensation. She can be expected to become pregnant at some point, and so she is potentially not merely one mouth to feed, but several. The solution is to arrange for her to be married. But, given that she represents precisely the same costs to the family into which she marries, dowries have to be paid to defray those costs. This makes the female child all the more expensive to her parents. In situations of serious poverty, then, it is almost inevitable that female babies will be regarded with mixed feelings, at best. In other words, there will be “a bias against females”; but a bias that has nothing to do with misogyny.

Moreover, appeal to any such bias completely fails to explain the incidence of rape. To state the obvious, girls have parents. It is nothing less than racist to suppose that children in a foreign culture, once born, are not loved by their parents. And, in the case of the kind of poor society sketched in above, even the most utterly heartless father would not want his daughter raped, since that would damage her marriageability. Instead, he would do all he could to protect her virginity, in order to protect her market value. (The ultimate form of such protection is, of course, child marriage.) In short, the low average status of women in Indian society does not explain the incidence of rape.

Above all, it does not explain why the rate of rapes is on the increase, nor why New Delhi has become, as it is alleged, the rape capital of India. To put these statistics down to bias, especially to misogynist bias, is to suppose that misogyny is itself on the increase. It amounts to saying something like this: Why do bad things happen? Because people are bad. Why are things getting worse? Because people are getting worse. It should be obvious that, as social explanations, such statements are hopeless. They are, in fact, no more than disguised ways of admitting ignorance of the real causes. And this remains true when the victims are women, and the perpetrators men.

So what does explain why rape is on the increase, and why New Delhi has become the rape capital? If we link the two cases, a plausible answer is as follows: an increase in rapes suggests a breakdown in social order, and such social order most obviously breaks down where the poor desert the countryside and, in large numbers, head for the capital city. The slums and shanty towns of the developing world’s mega-cities illustrate the problems.

That this is the case in India is indicated by Jason Burke, a journalist with a more analytical eye than most. Writing in the Guardian Weekly on January 4, he observes that the gang rape has “laid bare the dark side of India’s growth story”. It brings out, he says, “the unhappy coexistence of mutually incompatible social norms: those of a conservative patriarchal rural society and those of a modern urban city where centuries-old hierarchies are fast breaking down”. The situation is, in other words, best described as a loss of order, brought about by the collision between disparate worlds, and the spaces thereby created for opportunistic exploitation—including, of course, for crimes against women.

This kind of explanation actually tells us something about what is going on in India. It can explain why rape is on the increase, especially in the capital and other mega-cities. It can also suggest an explanation for why conviction for rape should be so rare: outside of the enclaves of established order, there is no effective policing. In such circumstances, many crimes, rape included, come to be regarded as just another hazard of modern urban life (like getting mugged).

But this kind of explanation also shows that the incidence of rape in India is not evidence of that country suffering from a “crisis of misogyny”. Such claims fall into the trap of accepting the simplistic feminist mindset that any aspect of the situation of women in a society is to be explained by reference to alleged hostile male attitudes: that bad things happen to women because men are bad, and that even more bad things are happening to women because men are getting worse.

Putting it in this bald way shows, I hope, just how inept such purported explanations really are. If we really want to understand why bad things happen, it is necessary to do some hard work, and hunt out the specific causes—not just appeal to empty slogans that obscure more than they reveal.

To state the obvious: India is a huge country with a long and complicated history. It is made up of many different ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups, some of which have long histories of dominance over the others. It has undergone dramatic changes in recent times, including changes that have created the mega-cities, with all their potential for cultural mixing and cultural abrasion, and for local anarchy. It is subject to the conflicting pressures of religion, caste, capitalism and secularism. It is simply beyond belief that these complexities do not play a role in explaining the stresses and strains of contemporary Indian life.

Unfortunately, it is the existence of these complexities that makes the invocation of misogyny so appealing: it just makes things so simple. But, even if truth is simple, it does not follow that what is simple is true: sometimes it is just simple-mindedness. In this case, it is feminism’s simple-minded equation of traditional attitudes with hostility to women—of sexism with misogyny—that is the heart of the problem.

Dr Stephen Buckle is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.

Leave a Reply