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XX-treme societies offer little hope

Wednesday 16 January 2013

By Chan Akya

Asia’s war on women shows no sign of abatement as countries ranging across the Middle East to the Far East vie with one another in heaping abuse on their female populations. Much of the war is economic in nature, and ironically it is the very same economic forces that are likely to usher in the next wave of female emancipation in the region.

Ah, one can only wonder how hard it is to be a female in Asia today.

Nature’s random positioning of two chromosomes as X+X rather than X+Y - by all accounts the two events in nature that are most likely ever to have equal probability outcomes - creates and writes its own history for the individuals thus affected. Ranging from genital mutilation and outright denial of basic human rights in

some Islamic societies to female infanticide in countries ranging from India to China, the crimes are far and many against human beings wielding the XX chromosome pair. For all the advancement of women in the US and Europe, plain reading of social development facts makes it fairly obvious that the road in Asia has barely begun to snake its way towards more egalitarian societies.

They are by law made invisible in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia all the way to Afghanistan. They are plainly not visible in the corridors of power of Far Eastern countries (with South Korea being a notable exception), even as their very visibility and power in India makes them targets of vicious attacks in the excessively male societies of India.

Sobering numbers Below is a table showing the excess of males over females in the general population, as per a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on gender equality, for select Asian countries that makes for some scary reading:

Source: HDR.UNDP

There are two ways of looking at the table: on the one hand, it says that there are 40 million more males than females in India, therefore the instances of gang rape and so on are only ever likely to increase in the years ahead. The other way of thinking about it is to consider the imbalance of 20 million (half the males "should" have been females if the overall population is to remain unchanged) as females deliberately killed.

That’s 20 million dead female babies in one country alone. Add another 25 million plus in China followed by about 3 million each in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Thankfully for the region, there is Japan holding up the other end of the scale with an excess of females over males, some 2.5% of the population. Anecdotally, the excess females in Japan are almost much older than the general population on average.

Then we look at another table, this time a human development index adjusted for inequality, primarily with respect to gender issues. The numbers are downright dirty now - while China shows relatively low inequality that is more or less on par with data for developed countries in Europe, the numbers for the other three countries are poor and pretty much at the bottom of the global scale. What makes this comparison interesting is the "scatter" of data across different levels of per capita GDP - while Saudi GDP per capita is fairly high above the US$8,000 level, that for China is around the $3,500 mark while India is around $2,000 and Pakistan, a few hundred dollars below that.

Source: HDR.UNDP

The lack of correlation is focused on China as an outlier, essentially implying that once a female child is born, its chances for development are generally on par with those of men. That is certainly not the case in the other three countries where female children first have to be born, and then face a lifetime of discrimination and hardship.

Camels walk funny

In contrast to the experience with excess females in Japan, the excess male populations of China, India and Saudi Arabia are overwhelmingly younger than the population and therein lies the core source of national volatility or crime. When young men have no normal pursuits, they inevitably turn to less desirable routes. Young Chinese men become hackers or property speculators; young Indians apparently roam their streets as feral youth preying upon young women or worse.

When I looked at the numbers for Saudi Arabia, they appeared mistaken - after all here was a country with no (known) means for abortions and yet the male-female imbalance is a stark 10%.

The apparent premature deaths of some 5% of the population and 10% of all females that the statistics imply are barbaric, even by the standards of Arab society. But when we step aside and consider options for men in Saudi society, it quickly becomes obvious that the following factors play dominant roles amongst the male population:

a. Paucity of eligible women to marry;

b. Increase in dowry payments for eligible women that is unaffordable for many men;

c. Low education that prevents emigration or meaningful employment opportunities;

d. State sponsored low level employment for those who stay behind;

e. Hard core religious indoctrination Put all that together, and you get a giant recruitment poster for terrorism. This is one of the most obvious underpinning forces for terrorists to successfully recruit youth who have lost hope for a normal life and fail to find any other avenues to express their frustrations.

Well, it’s either that or the camels walk funny.

So what happens in India: overwhelmingly the data points not so much a generic gender imbalance but one that is driven by economic factors. There is less gender imbalance in the more-developed south of the country for example; similarly, urban areas have less gender imbalance than rural areas. This is what makes the country’s general freedoms - to travel and settle down anywhere - more dangerous, as men move to urban areas like Delhi searching for jobs even as the high cost of living precludes any ability to settle down.

With disposable income only useful for daily expenses, these youth likely move to consumable pleasures like alcohol and drugs, before moving on to bigger "thrills" including the use of prostitution and then, almost inevitably, rapes. Some of them may even become politicians - Indian media pointed out somberly on the back of the Delhi gang rape events that a good one-fifth of the country’s members of parliament were or had been charged with criminal offences.

Denial and glass ceilings

The first few reactions to the Delhi gang rape were genuine enough, expressing outrage and angst, but very soon there were waves of denial pouring through India’s media. A few right-wing leaders blamed women for such sordid affairs, alleging it was their lack of culture that drove such crimes. There is some irony in that - after all, India’s right wing calls itself anti-fascist and anti-Islamic - and yet, the arguments trotted out to explain the heinous rape were deliciously Salafist in origin.

To their credit, Indian women have rallied their forces and pushed for deep reforms particularly in the enforcement of antiquated laws, greater security and above all, stronger social respect for women in general.

The government in Delhi, already beleaguered by a weakening economy and the apparent strength of a right-wing strongman from Gujarat, which bodes ill for next year’s general elections, is widely considered to be quaking in its boots and rather hoping that the whole thing just dies away in the usual tower of Babel that is the Indian media. So far, that has not been the case though, as the media have steadfastly kept government ineptitude steadily in its sights.

In other Asian countries, attempts at resolving the gender problems haven’t got very far. When China appointed its supreme leadership late in 2012, there wasn’t a woman to be seen in the high ranks of the Communist party. Perhaps the ghost of Madame Mao still walks along the corridors of the Forbidden Palace, but at least China’s problem is that of a glass ceiling which isn’t all that different from what we have in other great powers - the Soviet Union and the United States, for example. And, of course, France.

Japan has steadfastly kept its female labor force outside the heights of power in both commercial and government realms. It is still rare to see women in Japanese boardrooms; and even more so in the corridors of power. Many authors from Michael Porter (Can Japan Compete) have commented on this problem, but all along the Japanese have stayed their course citing cultural norms.

South Korea, a country that is the mirror image of Japan in most respects (except when anyone mentions that little comparison) did manage to break tradition and elect itself a female president recently. Whether this means an improvement in the prospects for women - boardrooms remain dreadfully threadbare of female presence - will be seen in coming years.

The issues in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic societies though appears incomprehensible to even the people living there. The imposition of Sharia law in trading communities (seeEconomics and Bamiyan, Asia Times Online, Dec 9, 2006 ) was always bound to cause great hardship and so it has in Pakistan. The falling oil wealth of Saudi Arabia as production starts declining means that greater impetus must be provided to releasing the economic potential of Saudi women. Instead, even halting reforms appear to have been pushed back due to rising unemployment amongst Saudi men (well officially, that should be termed under-employment) and resistance to reforms in many parts of Saudi society.

Health warning 1: This is an article about the generally poor state of women in Asia, and to that end arguments have included a range of crimes from female infanticide and rape going all the way to the social status of women in Japanese companies. Nothing herein should be construed as any kind of rank ordering of such crimes, and certainly no imputation can be made that this author tolerates any.

Health warning 2: This has been a tough article to write, not only because the subject matter of examination is so distressing and depressing but also because when one starts enumerating crimes against the female population across the region the sheer volume of statistics and accompanying social commentary makes for heavy reading. There are glimmers of hope for sure, but by and large today’s conditions for women across the region could hardly be described as hopeful.

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