Culture & Society

Ideas of India: The Great Gender Divergence

Shruti Rajagopalan and Alice Evans discuss the status of women in India, the need for structural transformation and much more

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Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.

In this episode, Shruti talks with Alice Evans about issues affecting women in India, including single-gender education, son preference, social media and many others. Evans is a lecturer at King’s College London and a faculty associate at the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She has published on topics such as women’s labor force participation, urbanization and social change, pro-worker reforms, what drives support for gender equality and more. Her book “The Great Gender Divergence” is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Dr. Alice Evans, who is a Lecturer at King’s College London, a faculty associate at Harvard University, the author of the fantastic blog called “The Great Gender Divergence” and the host of the podcast Rocking Our Priors.

We spoke about Alice’s long-term book project titled “The Great Gender Divergence,” under contract at Princeton University Press. We talked about female seclusion in India, the role of urbanization and structural transformation on gender divergence, the reasons for differences in female labor participation in North and South India, pastoral versus marine communities, social media, caste, honor, gendered education and workplaces, naughty folk songs, Alice’s research process and much more. For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.

Hi, Alice. Welcome to the show.

ALICE EVANS: Shruti, it is a pleasure to be here with you.

RAJAGOPALAN: One of the big things that economists care about across centuries is the divergence: Why are some countries rich and other countries poor? This is the big question Adam Smith posed. Then there have been variations of this question based on region, based on religion.

But there’s very little discussion on the divergence within a household. The person who’s literally sleeping next door, or actually sleeping in the bed next to you, may have a vastly different set of economic opportunities, labor force participation, education, income, voice in the family and pretty much life expectancy, pretty much every metric that we care about in progress.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the great gender divergence, which is also your main area of research, and you’re working on a book on it. My first question is, why should we care about gender divergence?

EVANS: First, we as a society benefit from learning from women’s ideas, intellect, technology, discoveries, expressions. Absolutely. Secondly, women themselves, if they’re trapped, if they’re secluded, if they’re surveilled, if they’re policed, they can’t live a full life in the way that men can. If it’s men going out into the street, men debating the laws of the land, men enjoying leisure time, men gathering in the cafe, men relaxing, men unwinding, men being free to roam and go about and feel comfortable and confident . . .

Kavita Krishnan has a wonderful book on “Fearless Freedom,” and she talks about Indian women feeling trapped like a caged bird. It’s about freedom and autonomy and liberation to express yourself and enjoy new things—and freedom not just for women but for men, for men to enjoy caregiving roles without worrying they’ll be condemned and policed. There are social benefits for us all.

Gender and Urbanization

RAJAGOPALAN: In your research, and this is your research in both Zambia and Cambodia, you’ve shown how urbanization and the process of urbanization fosters greater gender equality. How should we think about rural-urban differences in India based on what you’ve learned in Zambia and Cambodia? Are these insights easily transposable, or is it very contextual and the story is quite different in India?

EVANS: It’s totally contextual. It’s very different. In Zambia and Cambodia, there are fairly weak constraints on female mobility. In Cambodia, when factories open up, women flock to the cities to make money, to support their families, to demonstrate filial piety. When they go to the city, say, earn their own income and they live in these row rooms, maybe the neighbor is telling them something. They see that their neighbor is doing the washing-up with her husband. They get an idea; they start pestering their husbands to share the washing up as well. Maybe they go on a tuk-tuk, they see new sights, they explore new horizons.

You see, there’s massive rupture and shift in gender ideologies. Through iterative experimentation, people become emboldened to challenge traditional patriarchal practices. That is the story of cities catalyzing gender equality.

Now, the important thing is that culture mediates the rate at which female labor supply increases in response to economic opportunities. Now, Indian cities are quite different for three main reasons. One is, you have a strong traditional preference for female seclusion, and that means that female labor supply weakly responds to economic demand.

The second factor is that, unlike Cambodia, manufacturing is less labor intensive and occupies a smaller sector of India’s total economy. There is less labor demand in Indian cities. That means that poor Dalit women in the villages, they don’t have so many exit options because there aren’t so many big factories where they could escape to.

Another unique factor of India’s structural transformation is there is a very high share of informal employment outside agriculture. Many, many people rely on working in their own enterprise. They’re working in a small family firm, and they don’t have unemployment insurance. They don’t have protections; they don’t have Social Security. They remain heavily dependent on their caste and kin networks for everything, for mutual assurance, for bank loans, for helping them out in any kind of trouble.

That’s why in Indian cities, particularly the smaller cities, people tend to live close to their caste and rely on their caste networks. As long as people rely on their caste networks for economic support in times of crisis, then they need to conform to traditional ideas of propriety, and that includes female seclusion.

For those reasons—female seclusion, less labor demand and urban informality—the city doesn’t have that rupturous effect. Ambedkar once said that the village is the den of ignorance and localism and communalism. Many of those traditional patriarchal institutions have been transported to Indian cities because of the unique nature of its structural transformation.

Female Seclusion in India

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to start with the first point. You started with female seclusion. What comes first? Does the female seclusion come first, and then that leads to this kind of gender inequality? Or do other practices that foster gender inequality lead to female seclusion, which persists over a period of time?

EVANS: Right. I think there are possibly four main causes of female seclusion in India. I think it’s important to highlight at this point that there is significant subnational heterogeneity. There’s much more female seclusion in places like UP, Rajasthan and Bihar rather than the Northeast or the South. As I understand it, I would highlight four key factors.

One is that India was invaded for over 800 years, and foreign invaders would rape women, take them as sex slaves to Damascus. That’s going to generate huge amounts of fear and uncertainty.

The second factor is that many of those Muslim rulers would themselves practice purdah, and as the rulers practiced female seclusion, it gained prestige. People would try to gain status by following suit.

A third important factor is religious diversity. If we look at the archives from the 1900s, we can see that in contexts of religious diversity such as Uttar Pradesh, men might try to keep their wives close in order to safeguard their modesty from outsiders, and there were huge worries.

Even at that time—we talk about love jihad now. There were similar concerns a hundred years ago, where people were raising allegations about the Muslim “other” and so wanting to keep their wives or their female kin together. Part of the context here is, it’s a patrilineal society where the role of a woman is to produce the sons for the male lineage. In that context, there’s tight policing of female sexuality, not wanting for them to produce for the other. So, the third reason is religious diversity.

Then the fourth factor is something I’ve already touched on, and that’s caste. For thousands of years, people have relied on their Jati network for everything, from insurance, for economic aid, for jobs, for livelihoods. And to secure and cement trust within those Jati networks, women have tended to marry within.

The caste panchayats played an important role in policing trust within the Jati networks by alienating and outcasting those who try inter-caste marriage. If a woman married an outsider, her entire family, her lineage might be exiled from the village, forfeiting all kinds of economic support. That penalty, that strict social penalty means that people continue to marry in, and you can continue to trust people in your Jati network because you know there’s a penalty.

Wait, there’s a fifth factor, pastoralism. Now, Anke Becker has a nice paper on this showing that societies where their ancestors were pastoral tend to have strong restrictions on female mobility. Pastoral nomads tend to have tight kinships. There are these clans that move around taking cattle, sheep, goats. And while the men go away, there are concerns about what women are doing. They tend to be particularly concerned to police their women, to police women’s sexuality, reproduction and movements. In those societies, we see a female seclusion and son preference.

To summarize, there are reasons relating to religion, relating to religious diversity, caste and geography.

The Honor-Income Tradeoff

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, if I had to think about female seclusion as an economist, given the context of industrialization and urbanization that you mentioned earlier, industrialization has this demand or pull factor. There’s an opportunity to earn wages, and there are economic opportunities by which women can gain personally and also gain for their family. On the other hand, there is a supply-side constraint, which is female seclusion.

Now, the way I think about it is that probably just the compensating differential needs to be higher for South Asian women, say, relative to women in Cambodia or Zambia, or actually a lot of East Asia relative to South Asia. It seems like if wages were just a little bit higher to compensate for this, the problem would go away. Is that a good way of thinking about it, or is that just too simple?

EVANS: Absolutely perfect. I like to think of it as the honor-income tradeoff. Every society faces a tradeoff between honor and income, and the poorest families attempted to allow their wives to go off into the factories, the wage, because they desperately need that income. They know that they will forfeit honor, but they can’t afford the honor. The honor is too expensive, whereby richer families can afford to keep their wives at home.

Now, how do you get people to start embracing female employment? There are two ways. Either the economic returns increase, exactly as you say, which means more labor demand, more job creation, more structural transformation, economic growth favoring job creation.

Absolutely, but also, Shruti, reducing concerns about the potential loss of honor. That’s why we see there’s a wonderful new paper showing that women will work for a lower wage if it’s in a female-owned enterprise, because her family knows there’s much lower risk of her honor being sullied. Similarly, we see that women are more likely to work in neighborhoods where they feel safe. Concerns about rape and public safety are incredibly important. Also, in cities, upper-caste women are more likely to work because, one, cities have slightly different gender norms to the village.

Two, upper-caste women can find skilled, respectable employment offered alongside upper-caste men. It’s about, exactly as you say, increasing the economic returns but lowering risks about the potential loss of honor.

RAJAGOPALAN: This also really flies in the face of so much of the Western experience with industrialization, where women actually gain autonomy by providing their services for cheaper, and that’s their ticket out of the feudal system or the village system. Here, the barrier is just much higher for South Asian women because of this preference for female seclusion and so on and so forth. It doesn’t feel impossible, but it just feels like a much harder task to accomplish this in India through policy means.

EVANS: That’s absolutely right. Economic growth, labor demand will draw women out of their homes because of that economic incentive. In societies with a weak cultural preference for female seclusion, you don’t need that much income for women to leave their homes. For example, in Massachusetts, Claudia Golden writes about how that labor surplus quickly shifts into the factories because of the labor pool.

Likewise, in Southeast Asia, where there are no constraints or weak constraints on female mobility, women flock to factory work. But in India, because that preference and the loss of honor is so large if women leave their home, you need massive, massive economic growth and economic returns.

India has two big obstacles. One, the economic growth has not been labor intensive. Two, you need massively strong economic returns for women to leave the home. It’s a tough challenge. It’s not insurmountable. I want to emphasize, these traditional institutions are not insurmountable. Let me give a couple of examples, if I may.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, please.

EVANS: One, I think Bangladesh is fascinating here. When factories opened up, women flocked to factories even for a low wage. Bangladesh’s female employment has been steadily rising, outpacing India. I think this is partly because, one, labor-intensive manufacturing, but also Bangladesh has lower levels of endogamy, which mean lower levels of social policing. If India manages to get lower levels of policing, it would be likely to go down that same avenue.

There are many examples from India’s historical experience that show that women can overcome these traditional institutions. For example, in Bengaluru and places where there is strong demand for skilled work in pharmaceuticals, women are gaining employment. Women do respond to these economic incentives. We just need strong structural transformation.

It’s important to note that in many cities of the South, in Tamil Nadu, for example, there is declining caste-based residential segregation. These caste obstacles are real, but they’re not insurmountable. My reading of Tamil Nadu is that with strong, sustained growth, these thriving cities, people can gain jobs. People can access retail banking without relying on their caste and kin networks.

Once you have that structural transformation, once caste becomes less critical to economic security, then you will see weaker constraints on female mobility, and women can seize economic opportunities.

Gendered Education and Spaces

RAJAGOPALAN: In the process of transformation, there are some low-hanging-fruit policies that might also help. I’m thinking about some very basic things like gender-based schooling, which is very common in India, gendered colleges. Parents in North India—I grew up in New Delhi, which is famously one of the most unsafe places for women in the world. If it’s an all-girls college, parents are much more likely and much more comfortable to send their daughters there.

EVANS: I’ll just stop you there. I think gender-segregated schooling is a really interesting example. Now, the question is, gender-segregated schooling will definitely reduce parents’ concerns about daughters going away, no questions asked. But there is a potential risk of that reinforcing ideas of difference.

I did a little bit of research on coeducational and single-sex schooling when I was in Zambia. I don’t want to generalize, but my experience is—this was ethnographic work. My experience of interviewing boys at coeducational schools versus single-sex schools is that the coeducational boys, because they were sitting next to girls, borrowing their pencil, talking, they tended to see their female classmates as sisters. It wasn’t this big sexualized, exciting interaction, but it was very normal, very mundane. They felt familiar, very comfortable. They called each other as sisters.

The boys who—I spent a lot of time, I spent all day in Zambian classrooms, for me, three months. The boys in these single-sex schools had no personal experience of interacting with girls as friends. They saw them on the way to school, but as girlfriends, as meat, and they referred to them in those quite sexist terms.

While I think there is compelling evidence that parents are much more confident about their daughters’ safety in gender-segregated schools, there’s also some evidence that girls can outperform if they go to gender-segregated schools because boys aren’t bellowing, boys aren’t dominating classroom discussions. Girls can certainly thrive in gender-segregated schools.

I don’t know whether that segregation can reinforce ideas of difference. I think that’s a potential risk. That’s just my concern from Zambia; I can’t speak more generally or more broadly.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I think that’s a valid concern, and it intuitively makes sense that it might transfer to other regions. On the other hand, I went to an all-girls, Catholic-run school. One interesting thing I noticed is, the other gender differences that schoolteachers and society impose—boys are better at STEM and math, and girls are better at these other, softer things like English literature and the humanities—none of that was really very strong in the school because the math genius is also a female, right? The class clown is also female, and the person who writes the most beautiful poetry is also female.

Then, somehow—I mean, of course, I also came from a lot of privilege, as did my schoolmates. A lot of the classic gender differences that you might observe at the household level where the computer is placed in the boy’s room and not in the sister’s room—those things were quite invisible.

Now, of course, I completely agree with you that there’s a question of reintegrating into society, right? You have this little nice, secluded oasis where women can have some voice and agency and their parents feel comfortable sending them to the school. On the other hand, they eventually need to finish school and integrate in the real world and work in real life. And there, if the men are having this huge problem viewing women in a particular way because they’ve never interacted with them, then I do think you’re going to have some bizarre social consequences.

EVANS: I need to make two points on this. You’re totally right on STEM. There was a recent research report showing that, generally, men tend to outperform in STEM, except in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and those places where you have majority gender-segregated schooling. Absolutely. It’s not seen as a male-dominated subject. Men aren’t dominating the classroom, so absolutely, women thrive. In those places—Egypt, Saudi Arabia—women have those qualifications, perform extremely well on the tests, but then don’t capitalize on them.

RAJAGOPALAN: They don’t take up the job, or they can’t get the job, or if they get the job, they can’t drive to the job.

EVANS: Yes, and so then, in my research in Zambia, I interviewed women, for example, who were at university, who had been at single-sex schools compared to those who had coeducation. The ones from single-sex schools tended to have more problems adjusting, but they did adjust over the course of a year, so it wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a problem, and I don’t know how it plays out in different places. I think you’re certainly right that we need to make places safer for women and to reduce parental concerns. There are a range of ways in which that could happen.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, next time you’re in Delhi, I really encourage you travel by the Delhi Metro. I hate Delhi traffic. I end up taking the Metro a lot when I visit. It’s a great experience because I feel like this special sorority with women I would normally not come across at all. The first two compartments of the Metro are pink compartments; they are only for women. Then, the rest that follow, it’s mixed gender.

Now, the really interesting thing is, right at the edge where the female compartment ends and the mixed-gender compartments begin, there’s typically like six guys just standing there ogling at the women in there. I mean, most of the times, it’s very uncomfortable. Sometimes it can get a little bit out of hand; they’ll keep inching their way into the women’s compartment.

Sometimes they’re catcalling and they’re saying things, and the group dynamics that I see in the all-women’s group, it’s amazing, because these women are complete strangers to me. Typically, like a middle-aged auntie who looks extremely conservative, she would literally take her sandal off and point it at the men and make the motion of, “I’m going to literally throw my shoe at you if you don’t back off and get behind in your own space and leave the female spaces to us.”

The moment she does it, all of us would make eye contact and have a giggle. Then she’d just look at us and be like, “You’re never going to get anywhere if you’re just shy and coy and let these boys dictate to you. You need to get slightly thicker skin and be a little bit more assertive.” All this happens in a matter of, say, 90 seconds to 2 minutes, and then the train stops, people get off, someone else comes on and you just go about life.

But it’s a very special thing to see women really assert themselves in a public space in a way that they would never assert themselves if it weren’t for the protection that this is largely a female group. Everything you said about predominantly factories where there are more women, factories which are female run, and they can be assured of childcare services or bathroom facilities and things like that, parents are more comfortable. I imagine that the women themselves are also quite different in those circumstances, not just in gendered schools.

EVANS: Absolutely. Yes.

Urban Segregation

RAJAGOPALAN: The next thing I wanted to go on to is, in terms of urbanization, what is precisely the mechanism at work? One part of the mechanism is, of course, the economic. There is this big demand pull that happens. On the other side, there might be other forces which push more for seclusion.

One thing I’m thinking about, which is quite obvious, is the caste segregation that you see in Indian cities. Different caste groups and kin groups kind of live in certain areas. The second I’m thinking of is this huge ghettoization of Muslim populations, especially in states where there’s been a lot of recent communal violence.

The men and the communities feel very unsafe. Typically, the first thing that happens in communal riots is violence against women and raping women of the other community and so on. Women are more and more secluded, even in an urban area, because it’s an urban area, because there’s this kind of rioting that can go on.

The third is, in terms of transportation between these different—I can imagine very easily that there’s some kind of ghettoization based on kinship or caste or religious differences, but there’s also a lot of intermingling. But the public safety element prevents the intermingling.

To what extent do you think the industrialization and the wage pull force dominates? How much do these other factors, which are very peculiar to urban areas, take away from that and in some sense further seclude or oppress women?

EVANS: Yes, absolutely. We see strong examples of that immediately after communal violence. For example, in Gujarat, where there was strong sexual violence, families increasingly policed women. Women stopped going out of the ghetto for education, or women stopped going out of the ghetto for employment, or they might be more likely to work as a teacher in a local school rather than travel further. Also, communities became much more carefully policing women traveling in the evening. That limits the kinds of jobs you can get. Yet women need their communities’ protection.

This goes back to what we were saying about caste. When your community has been attacked, you need that community protection. Women might even be more likely to veil heavily so as to identify themselves as someone from that community and abide by local strictures so as to gain social support.

Yes, absolutely, communal violence has increased female seclusion, restricted women’s mobility because of those fears. I don’t think we can generalize or quantify to say which is more important, labor demand or the seclusion. It’s always going to be an interaction between the two, which varies according to local places.

RAJAGOPALAN: You’ve seen places like Bangladesh come out of it, right? Bangladesh is also South Asian. It’s a Muslim-majority country. It’s been ravaged by war. Bangladesh’s 1971 war saw more rape than we have seen in modern times. Yet something seemed to have happened in Bangladesh to overcome that problem. Is there a policy difference? Is it just, as you mentioned, not as much endogamous marriage? Is there something really peculiar and specific about Bangladesh that we can learn from in the rest of South Asia?

EVANS: Naomi Hossain has this book called “The Aid Lab” where she suggests that after the horror of the war and the famine, the cyclone, the elites in a much more flattened society who identified with the rural poor really stepped up social protection, particularly for women. There were increasing food-for-work schemes, and women came out of purdah. They associated with NGOs. They did more work outside their home. That’s one theory.

I personally think that may be part of the story, but I would emphasize the lower levels of endogamy. If there are lower levels of endogamy, it means that chastity, virginity is still incredibly important, but families aren’t so obsessively policing, ensuring that the woman marries a man from a particular Jati, from a particular group. That slightly weakens the need for social surveillance. They’re more likely to allow their daughters, their wives to go off to work for the factory. That means that female employment is so much more responsive to economic growth.

Now, the downside for people who want policy lessons is that it’s a bit hard to engineer lower levels of endogamy. I think what my research really points to is, it’s not about a policy that you can change so much. Maybe I’m the most depressing person in the world because my research consistently points to really big things like structural transformation. That’s what leads to a declining caste segregation and enables female mobility. My research really points to big drivers of change. For people who think, “Oh, we just need this new policy,” I think my research will be too depressing. [chuckles]

Structural Transformation

RAJAGOPALAN: It is depressing. The important thing is, we understand that there’s no quick fix for this. I think that the recognition of that is increasingly important. Then we also need to take a lot of the social science work done for gender in South Asia, which is all these RCTs that, if we gave them an extra 100 rupees and we put them in a microfinance group . . .

It’s not that I think those things don’t matter, but they are dwarfed when we think about the persistence of the sort of institutions that you are talking about, and how persistent and sticky these institutions are, and how difficult they are to change with any top-down mandate, let alone a small nudge here and there, right? I think they are just really hard . . .

EVANS: I think you phrased it perfectly. Okay, don’t read my research as depressing; read it to say, I think that gender studies massively, massively underestimates the importance of structural transformation, the absorption of labor from agriculture into manufacturing and services increasing the economic returns.

An important concept to talk about is job queues. Employers the world over tend to prefer men. They’re more reliable, they’re more productive because they’re not encumbered by care work. Now, when you have strong economic growth and strong labor demand, employers eventually run out of skilled men. They run out of qualified men, and a great example of this is Taiwan.

Taiwan had labor-intensive manufacturing, and in the 1950s Taiwan had similar gender wage gaps as Japan and Korea. But by the 1980s employers were complaining about labor shortages. So they had to recruit and retain married women, and that meant being accommodating of women’s care burden, allowing a kid to stay if the kid was poorly, allowing women to leave office early to do the school run.

And as women were valued and needed in the economy, they increased their labor force participation, they gained seniority, and now Taiwan has a twice-elected leader and 44% of its parliament is female. It’s that story of labor-intensive growth, of that structural transformation, which is hugely important. Do all the RCTs you like, but that is relative, those tiny levers, this is small.

I theorize India is not unique, really. The drivers of gender equality are common across the world, and that is economic development and democratization and feminist activism. Those are the big drivers.

Feminist Activism

Now, I mentioned feminist activism, and maybe it’s worth it because maybe we’ve talked a lot about economic demand, and this is absolutely worth emphasizing. There’s so many—women’s movements have always been active in India. There have always been women mobilizing, protesting, demanding their rights, whether it’s to inheritance, whether it’s against gang rape, et cetera. Women have always been mobilizing.

They were key to the national liberation, of course. But the problem in South Asia is that, as long as women remain secluded, with very few friends—and there are some very nice papers on Odisha, on Uttar Pradesh, how rural women tend to have very few friends. Friendship is the foundation of feminist activism because it’s sharing ideas. It’s you and me, Shruti, bitching, complaining about the patriarchy, about abusive, bad men who take us for granted. It’s through sharing those ideas women become emboldened. They feel supported, and they gain that solidarity which you felt on the bus, right?

They support each other, they back each other up. “No, you’re not going to treat my friend like that. No, you were right to do this.” Women constantly underestimate ourselves or question ourselves. But having a friend like you, Shruti, someone who’s there for you, someone who supports you, someone who nurtures your self-esteem, telling you what you’re doing is you’re right, you’re legitimate, encourages people to push back.

You asked me what was important about cities. Cities are one of those things because you see so many other women doing things. You’re inspired by them, you too want to push back to try something new, and your friends support you to do it, to take those leaps. Friendships are enormously important, and through friendships, you hear about new opportunities. The two of you might join an organization, go to a march together, start protesting.

Feminist activism has always been important, but in India, there are two problems. One, the female seclusion inhibits the friendships and the feminist activism. Secondly, even though women have secured a number of laws protecting their rights—such as over domestic violence, inheritance, dowry—women’s economic dependence on patriarchal guardians means that it’s often economically risky for them to claim their rights.

Women, even if they experience domestic violence, even if they’re subject to what we call dowry terrorism, whereby they’ve married but their husband is abusing them, as research shows, they might not report to the police, because what can happen? The police and other people, even if they report to a female-run police station—there’s a nice paper on this too—even if they go to a female police station, the women police officers might tell them, “Go back to your home. Make nice. Promise to obey your husband.”

The same is true in Bangladesh. Seventy-three percent of survivors in Bangladesh do not tell anyone, because what can you do? You’re economically dependent on your patriarchal guardian.

I just wanted to flag feminist activism because women’s movements have always been important. But they’re impeded in two ways: one, by female seclusion, which inhibits the activism, and even if you do get the legislative changes, women seldom claim their rights.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. In that sense, the autonomy has to come from the bottom up.


RAJAGOPALAN: It either has to come because there is some genuine breakdown in social structures because of better education, reformist movements, culture, social media, whatever it might be, and because of the economic transformation that you pointed out, which is this big labor force participation, industrialization, urbanization. But it must come from the bottom up because no matter how much you change this top down, it’s not that different.

We see this in the difference between women in Muslim and Hindu communities. You’ve written about this in the context of the Uniform Civil Code. Now, India famously has very asymmetric secularism. It hugely interfered in customary and personal law and made the Hindu code. It codified all the practices. In the process of the codification, it also modernized, “Western modernized” a lot of these practices. They didn’t interfere with the Muslim practices because it was the minority community. This was post Partition. There’s a lot of respect given to minority practices and make them feel secure in such a way that they’re not overwhelmed by this majority, uniformity and things like that.

Now, all these years later, now we’re seven decades from the original Hindu code and not codifying the Muslim code and making it equal, you actually see very little difference in the voice and autonomy and divorce rates and all of those markers between Hindu women and Muslim women. To me, that is, I think the biggest evidence of the point you just made, which is this top-down law reform, it can take you a little bit down the road, but it can’t take you very far if all the accompanying mechanisms of the bottom-up structural transformation just don’t exist.

EVANS: Absolutely. I think that’s a nice way of saying it.

Son Preference

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to talk about, since I mentioned religion, there’s a big difference in son preference between the different religions, but there is something very uniform about son preference in Asia and the Middle East. Where does this convergence come from? This convergence on son preference in the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia in a way that it didn’t exist in the West—some history on that?

EVANS: Europe is bilateral. Descent and lineage is traced through both men and women, whereas in Asia—that’s South Asia and the Middle East and East Asia—descent is traced through the male line. It is sons who continue the family lineage, who provide for their parents, who perform the ancestral rites. When times are tough, parents tend to favor sons.

Now, if fertility is high and times are plentiful, then that may not show up as sex ratios. But in Chinese families, historically, when there was famine or cholera, they tended to sacrifice daughters because they lacked the funds to provide for the whole family, and so they wanted to prioritize sons.

In India, there is some national variation. Sex ratios tend to be stronger in the Punjab and Haryana where historically they were pastoral communities. Sex ratios were historically more even in places like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where women were critical to agriculture, but those sex ratios are now worsening. That may be associated with women’s low rates of labor force participation, along with rising dowries and a tightening fertility squeeze. If you can only have one or two children, you want to make sure it’s a son who can provide for you and perform the ancestral rites.

North-South Divergence in India

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to come back now to one of the big historical divergences that you talked about, which is the North and South divergence. The folklore is, the North is more patriarchal and patrilineal, the South is more matriarchal or income levels or something like that.

You bit by bit demolish all these well-known truths or well-established arguments. You take us to something that goes back many, many centuries, which is cultivation and what agricultural cultivation took place, what were the crop yields, and what was the labor-intensive cultivation that was required in particular places.

I’m going to ask you two questions. One is, I’m going to ask you to just explain this to us, why you think that the difference between the North and the South comes from agricultural labor-intensive cultivation, and the difference between paddy and tea and cotton versus other things that were grown in the North like, say, wheat. The second, if this could point towards son preference in any way.

EVANS: For thousands or for maybe 5,000 years, our ancestors farmed, and the way that people provided for their livelihoods, the way that people farmed had huge implications for their gender roles. Now, rice and wheat are quite different in that rice is hugely labor intensive. You have to plant the seeds, then the transplanting, then the harvesting. It necessitates a lot of work in the field.

Everyone’s labor was needed in the field, and this is very similar to what I was saying earlier about structural transformation and demand for labor. When demand for labor is large, whether that’s part of structural transformation or ancestral agriculture, then women are needed. In the South and Northeast, that whole sort of Eastern side, there is a strong production of rice; women were needed in the fields.

There are a number of papers showing that where women were needed in the field, they tend to have high labor force participation today, not just in agriculture but also in urban areas. Whereas wheat is less labor intensive, where there’s a strong need for women to be processing those cereals, so they stay home. They do that.

The other aspect of agriculture is also deep tillage. There’s a paper showing that in soils where you can plow the land, men tend to predominate in the fields and women stay at home, because what the plow does—well, there are two papers on this, really—the plow does is, men are brawnier. Men plow the fields with all their might and manly strength. That reduces the need for female labor because it reduces the need for weeding, et cetera. So, men are important in the fields; women tend to stay home. That’s a further aspect.

A third aspect—and there’s a very interesting paper on this—this goes back to the pastoralism—shows that in parts of India where they were more likely to have lower crop yields historically, where they were more likely to experience excessive droughts, there are higher sex ratios today, but women are no less likely to work.

Again, this may stem from those semi-arid places like Rajasthan had high rates of pastoralism, which necessarily men going out to pasture, women staying at home, concerns about female mobility. So, women are still economically active in all these different communities, but what they’re doing is within the family courtyard.

Pastoral Versus Marine Communities

RAJAGOPALAN: On the pastoralism, I had a question, and I wanted to contrast it with fishing communities. Both pastoral communities and fishing communities, the men go out and the women are home. If you look at the fishing communities along the coastline, they typically have lesser female seclusion, and they typically have greater female participation. I don’t know if this is because there’s something unique about fishing, where once the men come back, women are very much engaged in the rest of the production process, just like rice fields or something like that. Or if marine culture is just different from pastoral culture for some other reason.

EVANS: In pastoral communities, male kin might venture or go on long marches for several months in the semi-arid regions looking for pasture, maybe even attacking agricultural settlements so the sheep or cattle can graze on their land. They would be away from home for a longer period of time. That’s going to motivate concerns about female sexuality because, remember, these pastoral communities are patrilineal, and they’re worried about female sexuality and reproduction, and so they tighten constraints on women.

Now, relatively poor societies, boats are small—talking about fishing now—and you can’t go out to sea on a small boat for three months. Even though you have fishing in Karnataka, Kerala—matrilineal, female-friendly institutions associated with coastline communities—men are seldom away for long periods of time on those small boats. That lessens concerns about female sexuality.

I think that the pastoral communities will be away for longer periods of time, greater concerns about what women are up to, hence more need to monitor their movements and restrict them.

RAJAGOPALAN: The other thing, I think, which may have some impact, is that originally, a lot of the trade routes were marine. A lot of the fishing areas are also ports, where there are a lot of outside influences of people coming in and bringing in their ideas. It might do the work that urbanization is maybe doing today. Kerala became diverse not just because of marine culture, but also because of trading routes.

EVANS: Arab traders. Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. Arab traders, people from what’s today the Middle East and Turkey. Christianity and Islam both first came to that region as part of trade. It’s the traders who also needed to practice their own religion. Preachers also settled in these places, and they integrated and assimilated really well in those communities. I wonder if that’s something slightly different, whereas pastoral communities typically tend to be a little more secluded geographically than the fishing communities, simply because of trade routes. Just a hunch. I haven’t done any research on this.

EVANS: Yes, that seems plausible, but so difficult to test. But yes, I think it’s plausible.

RAJAGOPALAN: The other thing I wanted to ask you, when it comes to places like Kerala and the trading routes and the influence of trade, is also the way the region practices a particular culture or caste or something like that. What I have in mind is Muslim women in purdah. One explanation you gave was that the North had a lot of the invader-ruler combination for about 700, 800 years, which means that it leads to greater seclusion of women.

Now, to contrast that with the South, it’s not only that the South didn’t have as many invader-ruler combinations, but also that most of the Muslims who settled in the South came in through the trading route. Traders, because they want to exchange and their livelihood depends on it, have much greater likelihood of assimilating better, one, with the local practices, which can be Hindu or some other religion, and second, of not adhering to very, very strict practices related to their religion. Both of these things might actually make a Muslim in southern India less likely to be secluded than Muslims in northern India. Does that sound reasonable?

EVANS: Yes, I see. I think that sounds very plausible. Sure.

RAJAGOPALAN: Okay. But there’s no way of testing this, and you don’t know much research that has been done on it?

EVANS: Not that I would. Look at Sri Lanka. Again, Sri Lanka always had much higher rates of female age of marriage. In 1900, the mean age of marriage in India was 13. In Sri Lanka, I think it was more like 17, 18, as was Kerala, even though Sri Lanka still has a small Muslim population. What is it, 10% or something? Again, most of those came as traders. It’s a slightly—I think you’re right that the mode of interaction matters.

Caste and Women’s Honor

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. Now, on the mode of interaction, I want to switch gears and talk a little bit about caste. This is pretty well known on every kind of social and economic indicator that we can measure: Dalit women are typically right at the bottom. We don’t even need these indicators. Dalit women have the hardest lives in India, that it’s quite visible to most people. They do worse than both non-Dalit women of the same economic or income levels, and they do worse than Dalit men within their households.

Dalit women are also more vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape and assault from Dalit men as well as non-Dalit men because Dalit women are property, or treated as property in some sense. On the other hand, because Dalit women are sort of at the bottom of the socioeconomic situation, they are also more likely to take up the tradeoff between honor and income. You typically see Dalit women moving to urban areas, working at construction sites and so on.

Do you think there is some long-run silver lining in what is happening with Dalit women today, relative to their counterparts in other castes? Or do you think the circumstances are just not quite right, even though they’re participating in urban areas and industrialization?

EVANS: My reading of the qualitative and quantitative data is that what we tend to see is Sanskritization. Even if I look at the 1900s, in Uttar Pradesh, Chamars, Dalit women, for a period, would sell milk, but then as they gained a little bit of income, their caste would be socially ostracized because women were going into the workforce and mixing with other people. In order to gain social mobility, in order to gain that little bit of respect, which is incredibly important to everyone, as soon as Dalit families gain income in the rural areas, women tend to retreat from the labor force.

They follow that same pattern that we see across India. In rural areas, when families become richer, they can afford for women to withdraw from the labor force. We see that for all castes across India. We’ve seen that now, and we see it historically, that people buy the honor because people want respect, and you can understand that, right?

But let’s talk about one difference. I can think of that Luke and Munshi paper on the tea states, for example, where women don’t gain so much through their ancestral communities, so are much more responsive to economic opportunities. That’s a nice example of exactly what you were saying.

RAJAGOPALAN: You’re absolutely right that everyone wants respect in the community, not just within their own caste, but more broadly. One way that Dalit caste can get that respect is by mimicking the Brahmanical version of what is respect and honor and so on and so forth. I’m absolutely with you on that.

Now, on the other hand, it seems like, then, the way out of this problem is to break down caste endogamy, right? Caste endogamy has been probably the most persistent institution in India. One, across centuries, but also in the last 70 years, India has grown economically, but the number of exogamous marriages have not increased. In the last 50 years or so, this is a remarkably stable trend. Only 5% of the marriages are exogamous; 95% people in India still marry within caste.

What is a way to think about breaking down marriage endogamy, which is so persistent even to urbanization, industrialization and increase in economic growth?

EVANS: Structural transformation, Shruti. For example, the Luke and Munshi paper, they show that there has been a slight reduction in endogamy in Mumbai. In big, thriving cities with labor market opportunities, where you’re less reliant on your Jati for economic survival, that endogamy becomes important.

Economic growth, economic growth, economic growth, structural transformation, that is the way to overcome these traditional institutions. That’s how I read the evidence.

RAJAGOPALAN: I know what you mean, but I think there is—we’ve got to draw a little bit of distinction here, in the sense that the moment you start making money, you might be quite quickly—within a few weeks, months, even—be able to get a bank account for yourself, be able to access a checkbook and a credit card and some basic things like that.

But on the endogamy question, it’s not a question of weeks and months. It’s a question of decades, maybe. To really break down endogamy in Mumbai, though we start seeing glimmers of that right now, it’s going to take a really long time. So, when you say structural transformation, what you mean is, we need a few centuries of urbanization, economic growth and industrialization to eventually rid ourselves of endogamy. Is that a good way to think about it?

EVANS: Am I saying a few centuries? Yes, I think we’re talking long-term, Shruti. Long-term. I would always be wary of making any kind of prediction. I don’t want to make any predictions, but this is a very slow process of change. Let me say this is a slow—falling—decline in endogamy is contingent upon structural transformation. I think we can agree on that. The rate at which that happens really depends on the rate of structural transformation.

Women and Care Work

RAJAGOPALAN: Just to contrast that with economic autonomy, some things come quite quickly, and some things take a very, very long time, as we see. There are some really telling things, when it comes to the way women are secluded, and I just wanted to—these are just anecdotal, but even simple things like household gadgets, they are much less likely to be labor-saving for women than they are for men.

The first set of gadgets that show up in the consumer market are not always better dishwashing detergent for women, or a better scrubber, or nonstick appliances so that women don’t spend their entire time slaving away and cleaning up after they cook, and things like that. For me, the biggest difference when I came to the United States, or basically left India, was the extent of labor-saving devices in the kitchen, which are predominantly areas for women in India, and I was just shocked.

Even now, most of my presents for my mother are like some really cool, nifty gadget. It could be something as simple as a pineapple peeler, which takes a really long time if you don’t have the right tools, and takes like just a few minutes if you have a really nice set of knives, a really nice set of peelers, to peel a pineapple.

Those sorts of things also make me think a lot about, these things take a long time to happen. The technology exists; it’s available in the U.S.; a lot of the stuff that’s available in the U.S. is quite easily available in India. But India is more likely to get the cellphones and the televisions and the cars and things that go into that, before they are able to get these kinds of things, where women are the ones who are doing the buying.

EVANS: I think that feminists across the world always decry women’s huge burden of care work, and that’s especially true in poor rural economies where women are walking many miles in order to get water, women are setting up fires, collecting firewood, doing washing by hand. All that is extremely burdensome work and limits their opportunities for other things, but I want to make two caveats.

I think it’s important not to overstate the extent to which women are held back by care work, because in societies with a strong preference for female seclusion, even when women do have the time, the leisure, they don’t go to the cafe, they don’t go to the bar, they don’t just loiter. There’s a wonderful book on India called Why Loiter? Even when women have that time, it’s not socially respectable for them to hang out in the village, for example.

I absolutely agree with you that women have huge care burdens, and that technology could be transformed and improved to reduce all that domestic drudgery, but let’s not be tech optimist that more white goods will release women. Actually, there’s a new economic history paper suggesting that it wasn’t the white goods revolution that freed women to go into the labor market in the USA. Women increasingly bought white goods because they became more economically active. So, there’s a cause and there’s a consequence. There’s a dynamic relationship there, just to add that caveat.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I think it’s a really important caveat because there is no silver bullet here. We’re talking in a big way about getting piped water delivery across India because that is a care work which takes hours, and it’s back-breaking, right? Same with electrification.

EVANS: Yes. No, I totally, totally agree. Shruti, I used to live in a village for a long time with no running water, no electricity. I would walk three miles to charge up my phone and then hope for a signal. I’m not saying that I have any understanding of what it’s like to live in a village, but I have some understanding of, yes, the extreme drudgery.

RAJAGOPALAN: You’re right in that, just because we can get piped water, doesn’t mean that the entire social structure that these women currently fit into is suddenly going to disappear. It probably means that someone is going to demand that because they’re not carrying water for a few hours a day, they take on some other chores that will help the family, or will help the kids or something, in addition to that.

EVANS: Care work is incredibly important. We tend to see, for example—and it certainly holds back the poorest women. Richer women, for example, can afford to hire in domestic work. Richer women in India can reduce some of their domestic burden, and that enables them to prioritize their careers. That’s absolutely true in Latin America, for example. Women hire domestic maids. In Spain, women hire immigrant labor, and that reduces their burden of care. Reducing women’s burden of care is incredibly important. Without it, the poorest women really struggle to commit to the labor market.

That, in part, goes back to what I was saying earlier about why employers prefer men. Many employers prefer men because they know that men can work up until 9:00 p.m. at night, no problem, no questions, whereas women are constrained by the school run. Those uneven expectations are hugely important. I don’t want to diminish care, but let’s not think that we can get a tech solution, boom. [laughs] Female liberation.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. There’s no simple tech solution for this problem. The tech solution is actually the consequence of women’s autonomy. As women have greater voice and agency within the household, the household is more likely to spend a share of their savings on a washing machine. That is more likely how the causation runs.

Cellphones and Social Media

EVANS: Let me add another example. There was a nice chapter I was reading on West Bengal, and they looked at who people make phone calls to. This is a big phenomenon across India, and the developing world more broadly, the rise of smartphones, very exciting. Lots of research on this. They tracked people’s phone calls. Now, the men, who are they calling? Their friends, their business partners, a wide range of acquaintances. Some guy who might do you a deal, give you a job, get you a loan. Or just for a chat, to hear what’s going on. “Did you hear what Modi was doing?”

The women, they were calling their husbands’ family, and they were receiving calls from their husbands’ family. Not calling friends, not making business contacts. You see that even when the technology changes, the social relations remain the same. Women are much more rooted in the family. That is a consequence of the low rate of structural transformation.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. The expectations haven’t changed, or they haven’t yet at least caught up with the technology.

I wanted to talk a little bit about technology and social media in particular. I had a few questions around it. One is, you talked about how, when women are in an urban environment, based on your research in Zambia, they’re in these row houses, or these row rooms, and they see the women next door interacting a little bit differently with their husband, more equal housework, and they think that’s something they should mimic.

Now, social media does that in quite a different way. You can now get a peek into all sorts of other people’s lives. You can do it relatively anonymously. Women don’t have to announce to their families who they are interacting with anonymously on social media, and there’s a lot of idea diffusion that can take place in a matter of seconds.

How do you see the impact of social media going forward? This is the first generation of South Asian women, and not all of them have access to it. We do want to say that. Smartphone and cellphone penetration in India is pretty good, and women are slowly getting access, if not to their own mobile phone, to a shared mobile phone. How do you think about social media transforming in terms of idea diffusion?

EVANS: When we talk about ideas, I think it’s important to distinguish between two kinds of gender beliefs. Shruti, I’m going to get a little bit gender theoretical.

RAJAGOPALAN: Let’s do it.

EVANS: What I do in my research is, I distinguish between internalized ideologies and norm perceptions. Internalized ideologies are what I personally believe—for example, if I have a stereotype that because someone is a woman, she’s likely to be a good carer or a good nurturer.

A norm perception—this is my term—a norm perception is my beliefs about what other people in my community think or do, what I think they abhor, accept or condemn. Those norm perceptions are specific to my town or my village. By going out to the high street, by observing that community, I see what’s accepted, I see what’s condemned, I see what’s socially respected. In order to gain prestige and respect, I conform.

Now, it’s also possible that I may be privately critical, but I comply in order to gain respect. Also, by observing people’s practices, I make inferences about what they support, even though they too may be privately critical. This fosters what we call pluralistic ignorance, and especially in authoritarian communities where you underestimate the extent of resistance. This is one way in which urbanization does not necessarily transform gender roles.

For example, even though there may be some men who help out at home, who do the care work, who do the dishes, who look after the children, they remain relatively hidden behind closed doors. This is one of the reasons why across the world, we see faster progress in one aspect of gender equality rather than the other. In Europe, Latin America and East Asia, women are out in the public sphere. They’re in offices, they’re in markets, you can see them, and that’s publicly visible. This shifts both people’s internalized ideologies and their norm perceptions.

They see that other people support female employment. They see that other people support women as leaders. I, myself, put myself forward because I think I will be respected and like I won’t be condemned. But the few men who do help out remain hidden. So, that doesn’t catalyze so much of a positive feedback loop even though you’ve got urbanization. That was my point about social media.

Now, social media can change both internalized ideologies and the norm perceptions, to some extent, because you can see people—for example, let’s take the jeans story, the torn jeans. Recently, we saw a bunch of women who said, “Yeah, I wear torn jeans.” That’s really important because it’s showing there are other women who support you and defy these patriarchal strictures about what’s appropriate. Absolutely. If you’re in a village—and you could be seeing that on Twitter. Yes, the torn jeans hashtag, but you know that in your specific community, your norm perceptions of that community might not change.

I think you’re absolutely right that social media can connect you to a wider world. Maybe if you’re a woman in a city, you might be emboldened by that sisterhood, because again, that’s your bus story on your phone.

RAJAGOPALAN: On the phone, exactly.

EVANS: That’s exactly like your bus story. You’re seeing that resistance. I would never underestimate the importance of the resistance, but let’s translate that to the local place in which you’re living. Can we go to another region quickly?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, please.

EVANS: Kuwait. Kuwait has recently had a #MeToo movement. It was just this year, this Kuwaiti Instagrammer, fashion influencer. She made this viral video about how a man was ramming into her car, and her car somersaulted.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I saw that.

EVANS: Male violence. This inspired other women. It was on Clubhouse, the audio social media app. Kuwaiti women have been sharing their stories, speaking out. And this is enormously important because in South Asia and the Middle East and East Asia, and Europe and the USA, for hundreds of years, sexual harassment has been stigmatized. And so women remain silent. We blame ourselves; we remain quiet. As a result, as long as women remain quiet, then the perpetrators know they can get away with it, and so that abuse continues with impunity.

It is absolutely fundamental that women start speaking out, challenging these practices, and demand for accountability. That’s what they’re starting to do. They’re having these conversations on Clubhouse. That is important because women are becoming emboldened, becoming more confident. I think that’s really important, but I would just add the caveat that whether people act on this will also depend about their norm perceptions of their specific locale.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I want to add two things to this. One, you’re absolutely right. When I asked you the question, I had India’s #MeToo movement in mind, because that all was also born on social media, and women started—first, there was solidarity for someone’s terrible experience and story. The moment, I believe, other survivors saw that there was solidarity and not being shamed, they came forward, and the more people that come forward, the more people feel emboldened.

EVANS: Absolutely. The question gets into one equilibrium to the other. You’ve got the negative feedback where everyone is silent, and everyone anticipates social condemnation, so they don’t speak out. What you need is one woman to come forward and to be supported. It’s not enough for a woman to come out; what matters is how other people respond to her. You are absolutely right.

RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. This is also like Timur Kuran’s research on preference falsification and cascading. This is very similar to that in the sense—especially when it comes to a single individual, like Harvey Weinstein or like M. J. Akbar or something, all the survivors never spoke with each other. The second they hear the story, they’re like, “Oh my God, this happened to another person. I thought this only happened to me, and that’s why I kept quiet.” Then you see the cascade happen.

I definitely had that in mind, but I had one other aspect in mind. TikTok got banned in India after the border conflict with China, but I don’t know if you’ve seen TikTok videos from India before they got banned. There were a number of incredible videos where the husband and the wife are engaging in—I don’t even know how to describe them. There’s song and dance, there’s lots of Bollywood dialogues and things like that. There is just comedy, there is housework being done, and then like—

EVANS: They’re hilarious. I’ve seen them. They’re brilliant. Amazing ingenuity and creativity.

RAJAGOPALAN: You know what I’m talking about, right? They’re incredible. It’s too bad it got banned.

I found that so surprising, because like you talked about, women’s seclusion is so deeply ingrained in Indian culture and Indian families, I was genuinely surprised that men would “allow” or families would allow women to expose themselves on social media by doing a song-and-dance routine or something like that. But they were hugely popular, and they became a different kind of currency and social recognition where it was like, “Oh, you have this great talent, and we never knew about it.”

Obviously, support from their husband because they wouldn’t have put it out there if their husband either didn’t help record it or was featured in the video or something like that. That, I found really interesting.

Now, it’s still not the same thing that you talked about, which is getting out of the home, actually engaging in the physical world, in other spaces, whether it’s education, industry, jobs, so on, so forth, but it is something. I don’t know how to think about it yet, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how to think about coming out of seclusion only on social media.

EVANS: I think you can see—and it’s evident from those TikTok videos—the pride and delight and the will to express oneself to the world and to demonstrate one’s talent. Absolutely, people can gain esteem and recognition in those ways. Absolutely. No questions.

Maybe let me break down some of the causal mechanisms, why paid work in the public sphere is so important. A lot of research shows that it’s not just about a woman earning an income, but it’s paid work in the public sphere. Even if she’s a home-based worker—like now, for example, women doing home-based embroidery—a man is more likely to control that income.

What happens if a woman goes to paid work in the public sphere? If she gets on the bus, she experiences those kinds of encounters. She sees other things going on. She sees female construction workers, she sees women smartly dressed go into offices. She mixes and mingles, she expands her horizons. She develops friendships. She talks about her experiences. She gains those social networks outside the home, which can give her support, solidarity, new ideas, a place in which she can reflect and challenge and bitch and moan and complain. It’s expanding women’s horizons.

Women learn about their entitlements. For example, in much of North India, there are high rates of men eating first, before women. There are also high rates of maternal malnutrition. Sometimes, and in some places, women don’t even question those ideas: The best food should be reserved for men. That goes back to your original question about the consequences of gender inequalities. We talk about female malnutrition, stunting, et cetera.

There are so many patriarchal practices, whether it’s in terms of sexual pleasure, right? The idea, venerating some kind—women not putting themselves first, not recognizing or demanding their own sexual pleasure, all those sorts of things. Oh, Shruti, you’re blushing now, but these sorts of things are important. If women don’t have friendships and don’t talk about them, they may go unquestioned. A world without pleasure is not so great for women.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I wasn’t blushing.


EVANS: Okay.

RAJAGOPALAN: I was thinking about something. I was thinking about a conversation that I have heard my grandmother and her sisters have with each other. They must have been 85 at the time. I must have been in my early 20s or a teenager, and the conversation was just hilarious. This is another instrument of solidarity among women.

It’s this bizarre thing: Because women are less likely to leave and go out, they’re more likely to have these conversations with their sisters and their mothers, their mothers-in-law, things like that. There is actually a lot of candor and frankness when women talk to each other in India, though you don’t think of it because women are so silent.

EVANS: And you also see that in songs, for example—some of the Holi songs, for example.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Exactly. The Holi songs, the wedding songs, when it’s an all-women—

EVANS: Yes, they’re naughty. Some of those songs are naughty.

RAJAGOPALAN: They’re very, very naughty. The ones that happen during the Mehndi or the henna ceremony, which is like literally a day or two before the wedding, this is women exchanging tips and giving advice to a bride-to-be on what’s going to happen or what’s in store for her. They’re very naughty songs. They’re quite descriptive. [laughs]

EVANS: Yes, yes, yes. I would certainly blush.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, maybe I’ll link to a couple of those. That’s what I was thinking of when I was smiling and laughing.

EVANS: I was certainly thinking of you. [laughs]

RAJAGOPALAN: The moment you create the single-gendered space, all of this starts popping out, but it’s never spoken in public, and it’s never shared in family. These things are just sacrilege to mention in front of a male family member or something like that.

The Great Divergence

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to move a little bit on to what you’re working on, the big project. It’s most fascinating. All the different themes we talked about—the reason you are able to take us from Kuwait to Cambodia to Zambia to Latin America to India to Sri Lanka is because you’re working on this huge project on the great gender divergence. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

EVANS: Right. As you said right at the outset, this is inspired by debates about the great divergence. Why are some countries rich and democratic, and others are much poorer? I’m asking exactly the same question about gender. Why is it that over the past hundred years, all societies have made great strides towards gender equality, but some regions like Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas, Latin America, are more gender equal than other places like the Middle East?

My methodology, Shruti—what I do is I read literally everything about every single country in the world. I study its history, not just its gendered history but its politics, its economic history. I study the economic history of Taiwan versus Korea, and I try to trace the drivers of change over time within each country and then compare it to other countries.

Recently, the last week, my project has been on looking at Spain versus Italy. Spain is the 14th most gender-equal country in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. It pioneered the world’s first female-majority cabinet, high rates of female representation, rocketing rates of female employment. This is a modern feature. It’s happened in the last 40 years. Women’s employment has gone from 20% to over 50%, whereas Italy trails behind at 63rd.

I look to try to understand what explains this Southern European divergence. What explains that? Both these countries have these histories of latifundia, of these feudal land tenure arrangements with peasants working. Well, no, they both have that same thing. I looked at cousin marriage and kinship, but no, the data suggests they’re identical on that respect.

I looked at census data from the 19th century to look at female employment, female labor force participation. Actually, Italy had higher levels of female labor force participation. Then I study the economic growth, because as we said before, structural transformation drives up female employment, but that’s identical in the two countries.

RAJAGOPALAN: Is it Catholicism?

EVANS: Both countries have histories of Catholicism. That Catholicism has really held women in both countries back because even in Spain, Catholics tend to believe that women are the weaker sex and they need benevolent protection. In both countries, you’ve had histories of banning divorce, banning abortion. And in both countries you’ve had periods of religious authoritarianism, but that period was much longer in Spain and Portugal.

Spain and Portugal, under Franco, divorce was banned, abortion was banned. Women needed their husbands’ permission in order to get a job, to travel outside the home, to get a loan, to do anything. People lived under extreme repression under Franco. And under that period, people stopped going to church so much. The congregation rates plummeted. The church and religious parties lost popular legitimacy. People came to start distrusting them, start questioning their claims to knowledge.

Moreover, moreover, after Franco’s death, you had this euphoric eruption of cultural expression in Spain, with this huge, this wild party scene of sexual liberation, of people going out. And this was represented in film, in cinema, in music, in art. Young people were outwardly contesting and challenging traditional conservative morals.

That open expression wasn’t just a wild party. It really destabilized and undermined some of these patriarchal ideas. Then, with that new, open, expressive culture, women were much more responsive to economic demand. When growth picked up, women seized the economic opportunities. With continued economic growth, women go into the labor force, they gain positions in senior management, they join politics, they’re emboldened by the broader sphere of socially democratic cultures of resistance.

It’s just this year, 2021, that the government has legislated 16 weeks’ paid paternal leave, giving men 16 weeks’ leave. Now, this goes back to your earlier question about the importance of care work. It’s fundamental that men start pulling their weight in the home. Look at Spain, and you see that’s a consequence of female liberation. Once women come into the labor force, once they make their own government and have sufficient numbers to legislate to create a fairer society, then you get changes around care work.

Similarly, it’s partly because female labor force participation has risen so much that women start hiring in immigrant labor because they need that care work. Men sharing care work will definitely enable a more egalitarian society, but the way that it usually comes about is a consequence of women’s rising employment. So, sorry, that was a tangent about Spain. But that’s what I am doing for the whole world.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, it’s not a tangent at all. It’s exactly related to what you’re saying, which is two things. There is a common problem everywhere in the world. The point of commonality is that there are gender differences. There has been greater gender equality over a period of time, but it’s a vastly different pace in different regions. We are starting from a common point. It’s not like long ago, everything was great and everything was equal. It started in similar places long, long time ago.

Now, you see why some countries are just moving faster. It’s both great that there is this commonality, but in your project, you study really minute differences in context, in culture, in speech. I have seen you look through Rajput paintings and Mughal paintings.

EVANS: Yes, art history. Yes. [laughs]

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s fascinating, in that sense, that the kind of detail and minutiae that you need to go into to genuinely understand the problem in a particular region, which may be there very rampant across the world, but you still need the local context to understand it in a particular region. The norm perception and things that you’re talking about, they might sound like very basic concepts, but the application of those concepts, the understanding in each area or each group, subgroup, sometimes a zip code, is so different from another zip code.

EVANS: You’re absolutely right. There are three main strands to my research. One is using the quantitative data, learning from economics, learning from economic history to understand the big trends in female employment. The second aspect is to pay attention to the qualitative research about the kinds of films that were being produced in Spain in the 1980s, about what women say during Holi, because I know those Holi songs. That’s how I can understand these cultures.

It’s incorporating the qualitative and also the quantitative, and then most importantly, what’s so useful to my research is this longitudinal and comparative data because that’s how I can understand East Asia’s trajectory over the past 100 years. Then when I compare Japan—which has got 90% of men in the Diet; the Diet is 90% male—compared to Taiwan, it’s that comparative research which enables me to understand why Taiwan is so different from Japan. The comparative historical sociology is what I love. I’ve learned so much from this research.

RAJAGOPALAN: I have learned so much from following you. I should mention, at this point, that Alice is just fascinating to follow on Twitter because depending on what she’s working on at that time, I get a huge peek into what she’s reading, what she’s looking at. Is she looking at paintings? Is she looking at ethnographic research? Is she looking at quantitative data? It’s really great fun to speak with you because it’s like talking to a different scholar every week. You do a deep dive every week into a completely new thing. That’s a lot of fun.

For those who are young scholars today who want to think about gender, even in a specific country, or maybe like this big, long-arc history and comparative analysis that you’re doing, how should they go about it? What is the path to doing what you do?

EVANS: I think what I do—and I’ll be really honest with you, Shruti, what I do is not very difficult. I genuinely believe that anyone can do it. Let me first suggest a couple of questions that people might find interesting. For example, within Africa, there is huge heterogeneity when someone might study, why is West Africa more patriarchal than the South? Why do the women occupy more positions of power in Ethiopia compared to Nigeria? In Latin America, Argentina is at the top of the charts for gender equality, as is Nicaragua, whereas Guatemala and Brazil are right at the bottom. Why are some countries within Latin America so much more gender equal than others?

You can ask the same question as I did within South Asia: Why is the North more patriarchal than the South? Those are the kinds of big comparative questions that I find fascinating.

Then how one does it, what I do when I start studying a new region is I tend to read a general introductory history book so I understand the place. For example, one of my favorite books about India is Roy’s book, Roy’s “Economic History.

RAJAGOPALAN: Tirthankar Roy.

EVANS: Yes. I love that book. It’s one of my absolute favorite books of all time. That helps me understand the broader context in which things happen. I start with an economic history book. Then I study their politics, et cetera. Then maybe I’ll read some quantitative stuff to understand the broad trajectories of female employment. There are so many brilliant female economists in India. That’s a famous topic of labor force participation there. I can tell you 100 papers on that topic. Then as well, I will read the qualitative research and pay attention to different places.

It’s basically just like making a 3D jigsaw. You just put it all together. Then doing the comparative stuff. That’s where you really—there’s this nice quote from Fukuyama, “He who only understands one country understands no countries.” Because it’s comparing. When we ask, “Why is this place not like another place?” we can understand that original place so much better, like with Spain and Italy, for example.

RAJAGOPALAN: Basically, what you’re telling me is just be very intellectually curious, read very broadly and be willing to put in a lot of hours trying to understand each area in a deep dive, either through ethnographic work, qualitative work, survey work or whatever it is that that particular scholar wants to do.

EVANS: Yes, all of it. I think one thing that I would emphasize is to have weak priors. And I think the biggest threat, the biggest blinder in social science is that we all have these hunches, and we have those ideas, and we tend to look for—we tend to pay attention to information that confirms our priors. That influences the kind of research and what we pay attention to. Even if we read a paper, if the conclusion isn’t quite what we expect, we can disregard it. If we see an abstract or something that doesn’t quite fit with what we already believe, we can disregard it.

What is so important for my research is that I admit ignorance, and I really try to embrace—you mentioned my North South blog, and that’s really what I try to do: to consider all the possible explanations, and then look at the evidence in favor of each one and systematically assess that. The most important thing is to have weak priors.

RAJAGOPALAN: Not get attached to a single explanation or hypothesis and then go all the way.

EVANS: Yes. It’s hard to do that. It’s psychologically hard to have weak priors because once we’ve got an idea, we tend to favor it. It’s really important to read as diversely as one possibly can. That goes for across disciplines, across methodologies.

I try not to—and to engage with people. You mentioned Twitter, and that’s one of the reasons why I actually share my ideas on Twitter, because I want to be challenged. I’m never going to be as good as every country expert, but by sharing some of these ideas, people highlight alternatives. That enables me to think.

I think that’s one really important point, is that with any intellectual quest, what really helps—no man is an island. What helps me the most in my research is sharing the ideas and soliciting feedback and people challenging me. That goes back to what we were talking about friendships, that by having these communities, people supporting us, but also pushing us to challenge and critique our ideas. As you know my partner, Pseudoerasmus, and he’s been the most important person—

RAJAGOPALAN: I know him on Twitter.

EVANS: Yes. He’s been the most important person to me because I share these ideas, and he’ll raise questions, and then I’ll have to go back to the drawing board, and I’ll have to rethink everything.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’ve also seen you on Twitter. You do something that I haven’t seen too many people do, which is actually seriously engage with every single criticism and feedback, whether it is the shape of your map—which was the correct or the wrong one—or whether it is, “Did you consider this?” or “Did you consider that?” You’re so patient, engaging with virtually—so you don’t believe in the peer review model, right? You’re the crowdsourcer of critique and comment. Peer review is too basic for you, in the journal format. That’s another thing I love about following you.

EVANS: But they will—just constant peer review. Constant peer review. To be constantly challenged. I love to be challenged because that’s how I start questioning what I did. I don’t know if you’ve seen it; sometimes what I do is I’ll say, “Right. Ask me any question in the world,” because then I’ll realize what I don’t know.

I think this is absolutely fundamental to pushing us, to challenging, to pushing us to rethink our ideas and to explore different possibilities, because someone will say something, and before I reply, I’ll go and read some papers. I’ll be like, “Okay, maybe that’s right. I’ve got to go and investigate that now.” It’s so, so important to really crowdsource knowledge.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. No, absolutely. Here’s the other thing. You write a lot. I can barely keep up with it. Every time, for the listeners, Alice and I communicate on text or email or something, the first thing she’ll say is, “Have you seen this new thing I have written?” Or this new thing someone else has written. I literally cannot keep up with the pace at which you write or read. What is your writing process like?

EVANS: I think one thing to emphasize that’s key to my productivity is just that I love it. I get wildly excited by it. The particular habits—and I think that goes for everyone. When you love something, you commit to it.

Okay, I admit I’m a slightly intense and obsessive person. Maybe that’s come across. It was Monday, I think, that I noticed that Spain and Italy were different, and I just obsessively read on everything, and I wanted to understand it. I was consumed by it. It was Monday—I don’t think I ate breakfast until 5:00 PM. I was just too excited. I was too excited.

I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t do anything. I just had to know. It was this all-consuming intellectual cure. It’s just that desire to understand it. So, really, I think, for me, what’s important is finding something. I found what I like doing, I want to do it, I’m fascinated by it, and I just devote my life to it.

RAJAGOPALAN: I imagine that writing a book over a period of eight years also has like a bureaucratic and a drudgery aspect to it. It’s a little bit different from being all-consumed and writing a blog post. You do need to go back and do edits and fact checks and see if you got everything. I’m sure there are certain questions that some peer reviewers may raise, which are not that interesting, but you still have to delve and answer them. Or is that simply not the case in your experience?

EVANS: In every region of the world—now, maybe this is boring. On every region of the world, I just have a Word document where I write notes, and it’s all thematically organized under heading. I read books. I read a lot of books. Maybe in the past—over a year, maybe, in my Zotero, for example, I have 2,300 citations in my Zotero. That’s over 15 months.

I read a lot, and then I just make notes on them in a Word document. I think my notes on the Middle East now could be 600 pages. I just make notes, just rough notes, and then when I get to the end of studying a region, I’ll try to write that up in a 10,000-word chapter.

What I really enjoy, Shruti, what I really enjoy is blogging. This was Tyler Cowen’s idea. I responded that I never would have done it without Tyler Cowen’s suggestion. I really love it because it’s a small, bite-size project for me to get excited about a little idea and blog about it and engage with people.

RAJAGOPALAN: What was his suggestion? Just so everyone else knows.

EVANS: Tyler Cowen advertised he was going to do a blog prize.


EVANS: Me, as a lowly academic, I thought, “Well, that sounds nice. Let me try and do it.” I just started the blog because I saw the advert for the prize. Now I love blogging. Now I’m a blogger. [chuckles]

RAJAGOPALAN: You are a blogger, and your blog comes perfectly referenced. It has more references than most people’s journal articles. It’s pretty special. Now, I know you don’t watch television.


RAJAGOPALAN: Normally, I ask people what I consider as my most important question, which is, what are you binge-watching during the pandemic? You are not binge-watching, so I’m going to ask you, what are you binge-reading, or what have you done during the pandemic to keep sane and keep occupied? Is it gardening, because I know you love nature and gardening?

EVANS: Oh, yes, I have a nice garden. Honestly, I spend most of my time just reading books. I don’t do much other than reading books.

RAJAGOPALAN: What have been some of the highlights of what you read in the last year?

EVANS: It’s just this project, this entire project I find fascinating. I do a little bit of exercise. One of my favorite things is running. I love the escapism and freedom, running in the countryside. I do enjoy the garden. Shruti, I’m a bit of an uncool nerd.


RAJAGOPALAN: You’re a very cool nerd.


RAJAGOPALAN: I think it’s just a question of being—you’re very singular in the pursuit.

EVANS: I accept that I am obsessive, intense and obsessive. I accept that.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s going to give us a fantastic book, so I’m excited. Thank you so much for doing this. This was a pleasure.

EVANS: Shruti, thank you so much for having me. This was a treat.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Chinmay Tumbe about pandemics.

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