Part II: South Asia

Chapter 3: Introducing the Region

Ina Goel

South Asia is a region with unity in diversity, having at least twenty different dominant languages and over two hundred basic dialects. And yet, most of South Asia continues to remain economically poor and “developing” with gender disparity remaining a real concern at the heart of South Asian unity. The 2019 Global Hunger Index ranks all the major South Asian countries in the “serious” category with Sri Lanka coming in 66th, Nepal 73rd, Bangladesh 88th, Pakistan 94th, and India 102nd out of 117 countries. Women suffer the most, as they have to bear the direct burden of gender inequality and, as a consequence, children experience malnutrition. The 2018 Global Nutrition Report states that on average 49 percent of reproductive-age women in South Asia have anemia, and the prevalence of stunting in the population of children under-five is 32.7 percent, which is significantly greater than the global average of 21.9 percent. There is no data available for those who identify as nonbinary, and there is a long way to go before the data gap can be filled despite the official recognition of “third” gender people in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Ironically, in spite of the official recognition of a nonheteronormative gender identity, homosexuality has yet to be decriminalized in most of South Asia with the exception of Nepal and India, having decriminalized homosexuality in 2007 and 2018, respectively.

When the British arrived in India, they foisted Victorian sexual mores on Indian culture, criminalized homosexuality, and saw the “third” gender as a threat to morality and political authority (Bhatt, 2018). The precolonial practice of , which was then a self-help institution managed by women, became a colonial tool for covering up the economically devastating British agrarian policies leading to a systematic diminishing of women’s entitlements and worsening gender discrimination in India (Oldenburg, 2002). Scholars argue that in the late nineteenth century, Indians were “humiliated by their colonial status” and became “obsessed with the issues of strength and power” (Datta 2006, 2230). Therefore, to explain their defeat and acceptance of the European notion that the “status of women was integral to the strength of the civilisation,” Indian customs were concluded to be “degrading to a woman’s status” (Datta 2006, 2230). As a result, women became subjects of reformist movements that took up the challenge of modernity, and thereby, problematic notions of middle-class femininity were adopted: these were, in turn, based on oppressive cultural practices impacting the future course of gender relations in South Asia.

Although patriarchy and the caste system (explained later) have undergone continuous changes, they retain their salience through a “social silence” around the “inherited [and colonial] legacies of practicing inequality” in South Asia (Chakravarti 2018). On the one hand, data from India shows that there are approximately 10.6 million missing females, as a preference for boys and male births (son preference) leaves India with a skewed sex ratio plunging further from 903 in 2007 to 898 in 2018 (Chao et al. 2019). On the other hand, lessons from Bangladesh on how gender equity can help overcome socioeconomic constraints and significantly improve health outcomes (see Chowdhury et al. 2013) show how South Asia can be a region full of contradictions. This chapter will provide a regional introduction to South Asia, highlighting unique gender issues specific to this region. In doing so, this introduction section will also equip the readers with a sense of the diverse contexts within which ideologies toward gender stem, both locally and globally.

Independence and Partition

The Indian independence movement spanned almost 90 years from 1857 until August 15, 1947, when India got its independence from the British Raj. The following 1947 partition of British India into two countries, India and Pakistan, is the most violent and bloody founding movement defining two nations’ existence in recorded history. Millions were uprooted overnight, and it is estimated that about 75,000 women were abducted and raped during this process of redrawing borders (see Butalia 2017). Additionally, Bangladesh’s borders were redrawn first as East Bengal in 1905 when it was attached to Assam as a part of India, then as East Pakistan (after the India-Pakistan partition), and finally as the nation-state of Bangladesh in 1971 (see “Resources for Further Exploration” for link to maps showing the partition process).

A map of India and surrounding areas; India is depicted in orange, with West Pakistan and East Pakistan in green, while Hyderabad, Kalat, and Kashmir are in grey.
Figure 3.1. Map of the partition of India (1947). Superbenjamin; CC-BY-SA.

During the political partitions, when about twelve million people moved between India and Pakistan in 1947, there was widespread sexual violence. In many instances, women ended up marrying the men who had abducted them, and “because they were now in relationships with men of the ‘other’ religion, they became ‘absences’ in their families, absences that also led, in many ways, to an absence of memory” (Butalia 2018, 267). Moreover,

the idea of women as property—of families, communities, men—underlay the ways in which women’s rights were so routinely violated during Partition, under the guise of protection, honour, purity. The violence on women by their own communities…was disguised as martyrdom or honour killings and its memories today are almost singularly guarded and recounted by men. (Butalia 2018, 267)

Additionally, practices reinforcing gender inequality in marriage inherited from prepartition times continued for many in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. These practices include Hindu men converting to Islam to take a second wife (without the conversion of the first wife to Islam), nonconsensual polygamy, and divorce customs like (instant divorce) and . Other contested practices include mandatory head coverings and seclusion such as and .

Caste System

The caste system is an obligatory system of graded social stratification based on a person’s birth or ancestry morally codified in Manusmriti, “The Laws of Manu,” a controversial Hindu scripture. (See “Resources for Further Exploration” for a link to the Laws of Manu). It was one of the first Sanskrit texts to be translated in 1794 by the British and since then has been used by the colonial government to formulate Hindu law in India. Dividing Hindu society into five groups, called castes, this system laid down the “normative” framework governing and grading all “cultural, economic, religious, spiritual, and political” aspects of social interaction within and between these groups (Simon and Thorat 2020, ii). Furthermore,

many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation. At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma’s head. Then came the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet and did all the menial jobs. . . . Outside of this Hindu caste system were the achhoots—the Dalits or the untouchables. (BBC News, 2019)

Since the second century BCE, through the caste system, hierarchies of “quasi-biological groupings” get naturalized by “inherited privilege or stigma,” using religion (including Islam and Sikhism) as justification and continue to this day (Simon and Thorat, 2020). Caste discrimination is a chronic human rights violation of Dalits (formerly untouchables) and other persons affected by discrimination, based on their work and descent, found in varying degrees in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and also in diasporic South Asian communities all over the world. According to a compilation report published by the International Dalit Solidarity Network (2019, 6–7):

The caste system is a strict hierarchical social system based on underlying notions of purity and pollution. Those at the bottom of the system suffer discrimination influencing all spheres of life and violating a cross-section of basic human rights including civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. Caste discrimination entails social and economic exclusion, segregation in housing, denial and restrictions of access to public and private services, and lack of equal access to education and employment, to mention some effects.

Since its very formation, each caste category aimed to be isolated and socially separated from each other through practicing endogamy (i.e., marrying only within one’s caste) (Chakravarti 2018). Despite reformist movements, there is still a stigma associated with intercaste marriages, and love relationships between them are strongly discouraged by families. Even today, many cases of honor killings associated with breaching these social rules continue to arise, particularly targeting women (ANI 2018).

In India, Dalit women often experience violence when attempting to assert their rights to access housing, drinking water, the public distribution system (PDS), education, and basic sanitation services (Irudayam et al. 2015). In Nepal, Dalit rural women are among the most disadvantaged people, scoring at the very bottom for most social indicators, such as literacy (12%), longevity (forty-two years), health, and political participation (Navsarjan Trust et al. 2013). Moreover, there is a rampant problem of caste-based discrimination estimated to affect more than 260 million people, particularly in Asia and Africa (Yokota and Chung 2009).

According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data, Dalit women in India die younger than those in the upper-caste category, with the average life expectancy for Dalit women being 14.6 years less than for higher-caste women (Masoodi 2018). Furthermore, disadvantaged groups of women and girls in Bangladesh, including Dalit women, women with disabilities, elderly women, Rohingya refugee women, and women of ethnic minorities face multiple intersecting forms of discrimination due to their gender, health, Indigenous identity, caste, and socioeconomic status (CEDAW 2015).

Current Nationalist Struggles

The relationship between culture and politics often centers on the idea of democracy based on identity and conflict. For instance, ethnic tensions based on the construction of the separate racial identity of ethnic Mongols in Nepal, emerging from differences in cultural practices instead of biological inheritance, shows uses of “race” invoked by those groups who are economically and politically disadvantaged in South Asia (Hangen, 2005). Another example is the denationalization of the people of Nepali origin who claimed to be wrongfully evicted citizens of Bhutan who have been refused the right to return to Bhutan (see Hutt, 2003).

In the politics of belonging in South Asia, there is an overlap between the national, cultural, and ethnic identities of people. For instance, ethno-national conflicts remain, particularly with the history of redrawing Bangladeshi borders. Women are also severely affected in conflict areas, especially in northeast India, with reported cases of mass rapes and sexual violence filed in court by 21 Hmar tribal women in Manipur in 2006; 14 tribal women in the neighboring state of Tripura in 1988; and 37 women of Assam in 1991 with no action taken so far against the perpetrators of violence (WILF 2014).

Efforts for peace and cooperative development are still obstructed by the struggle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, situating modern South Asia at a decisive crisis in its history (see Bose and Jalal, 2017). On August 5, 2019, the “special status” of the state of Jammu and Kashmir was controversially taken away by the Indian government by dividing it into two union territories and imposing an unprecedented five-month Internet blackout—the longest ever to be imposed in a democracy (Cooper 2020). Scholars predict a possible nuclear war between India and Pakistan fueling further anxieties between the two countries (Toon et al. 2019). Women’s voices in the peace processes have largely been absent from the male-dominated Kashmiri nationalist and conflict narratives despite being governed by a female state head for two years (Parashar 2011). Kashmir’s marginalized transgender community, mostly working as matchmakers for couples, also struggle with survival for existence and identity under the shadow of curfews and internet blackouts (Bhat 2019).

In August 2019, the Indian government introduced another controversial citizenship policy that required people to prove that they came to the northeast state of Assam by March 24, 1971, the day before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan, to obtain citizenship. As a result, 1.9 million people have become “stateless” and stripped of their Indian citizenship because they failed to furnish adequate substantiating documents (BBC 2019). A fact-finding team’s research trip to Assam by Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression found that women are the “worst victims” of this process as they are unable to produce “legacy documents” because holding entitlements to land and lineage have historically been guided by patriarchal norms that exclude women from property ownership (Singh 2019). Furthermore, rural women from lower castes and ethnic minority groups face multiple barriers like legal illiteracy and limited knowledge of birth registration procedures, which prevent them from registering births and obtaining birth certificates for their children (CEDAW 2014).

Despite India being created as a secular state during the 1947 partition, the Indian government introduced yet another controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019. This amendment aimed to redefine the category of “illegal immigrant” to include Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist, and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who have been living in India for decades without the necessary documentation required to prove their citizenship. Protestors challenging the 2019 Citizenship Amendment in court say that it violates the Indian constitution by discriminating against Muslims, treating them as “second-class citizens” and giving “preferential treatment” to other religious groups (Economic Times, 2019). India’s increasingly right-wing political climate, which often promotes Hindu nationalism at the expense of other cultures and religions, is also exacerbating fault lines between Hindu and Muslim hijras, a third gender community (Goel, 2019).

A figure holds up a sign that says "CAA" but crossed-out.
Figure 3.2. Indians in New Delhi protest against the controversial anti-muslim citizenship Amendment (CAA) (2020). Sunil prajapati/Shutterstock.

To curb the quickly escalating mass protests against the citizenship law all over India, another internet ban was imposed in Assam. It was only when India’s first transgender judge, Swati Bidhan Baruah, along with others, filed a petition in court challenging the law that the ban was lifted after nine days of internet blackout in Assam (Agarwala 2019). In other places in India, women led the protests, particularly Muslim women, with a weeks-long sit-in against the citizenship law where some participants have become icons, like eighty-two-year-old toothless Bilkis, endearingly called “Gangster Granny” (Masih 2020). Thousands of people from the LGBT community who were adversely affected by the citizenship law also marched in protest as many of them were “thrown out of their homes in childhood,” and there is an unnecessary burden put on those with name changes and “spelling mistakes” in identity documents (Kuchay 2020). Moreover, gender and sexual minority groups from all across India have been raising their voices in protest, including the All India Network of Sex Workers, Telangana Hijra Intersex Trans Samiti, the Queer Muslim Project, Pink List, TransNow Collective, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA), National Federation of Indian Women, and many others (Chandra, 2020). Such acts of resistance join forces with global trends in women’s movements, like the Aurat March in Pakistan, thereby becoming an intrinsic part of (Kurian 2020).

A crowd of people hold up signs; one says "Hetero Homo patients, same doctors."
Figure 3.3. Pride parade in Mumbai, India 2019. Anna LoFi/Shutterstock.

Although isolated, the above examples challenge normative gendered duties toward the process of nation building despite the pressure on women to do the reproductive work of nations—biologically, culturally, and symbolically (see Yuval-Davis 1993). LGBT populations and other gender minority groups who are often forgotten in the process of nation building are also stepping forward to make their voices heard through protests and marches in resistance to a patriarchal and heteronormative process of nation building in South Asia (Saigol 2019). Therefore, the relationship between nationalism, gender, and sexuality is culturally and historically contingent upon each other and is continually evolving and redefining itself in South Asia.

Gender-based Violence

Gender inequality is not “one homogeneous phenomenon, but a collection of disparate and inter-linked problems” (Sen 2001, 35). Consequently, gender-based violence is one of the most challenging problems in South Asia. Statistics show that between 2007 and 2016, there were four cases of rape reported every hour in India, making India the most dangerous country for women in the world (Goldsmith and Beresford 2018). After the rape of a twenty-three-year-old student in New Delhi triggered a national uproar, the issue of women’s safety in India attracted international media headlines, and social media buzz also declared that India is no place for women (Lakshmi 2012). Since then, many international governments have issued warnings and advised women against solo travel in most countries in South Asia. Feminist observers point out, however, that it is always the women who are issued warnings and who ironically have to be controlled for their own safety and protection instead of the perpetrators of violence.

In the South Asian context, gender-based violence starts at birth or even before. Prenatal sex determination leads to an increasing number of sex-selective abortions and infanticide of girls because of male preference. Therefore, unlike the growing trend in the United States of celebrating parenthood through “gender reveal” parties (King-Miller 2018), after finding out the sex of a child, in India prenatal sex determination has been banned since 1994. Stories of disappointment on the birth of a female child and distribution of sweets on the birth of a male child are so common they have become folklore. There is also a practice of among girls who are between six to eight years old in the Bohra communities of India (Lawyers Collective 2017) and Pakistan (Baig 2015), and it is estimated that up to 80 percent of Bohra women have been through this procedure.

In Nepal, intersex children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds suffer from intersex genital mutilation (IGM) practices that are irreversible and harmful (CEDAW 2018). Furthermore, there are known cases of gender-reassignment surgeries being performed on children born with intersex variations in India (Goel 2014; also see Fausto-Sterling 1993). The medical interventions and genetic deselection are based on the presupposition that intersex traits are treated as disorders in South Asia (see Srishti Madurai 2019). Such operations by medical doctors in hospitals are done to prefix a gender that can then be assigned to an intersex child based on their cosmetically “fixed” perceived sex characteristic because there is shame in being a parent to an intersex child in India (Goel 2018a). Parents get away with insisting that the intersex child be surgically rendered a boy even though it is easier to create functional female organs in cases of sex-selective surgeries in India (Sharma, 2014). However, as an exception, in April 2019, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu became the first in Asia and second globally to ban sex-selective surgeries for intersex children (Daksnamurthy 2019).

On December 5, 2019, a controversial Transgender Person’s Bill became Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in India (see links in “Resources for Further Exploration”). Under this act, intersex births are inaccurately assigned as transgender births. Such confusion exists because often gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics are conflated terms. Furthermore, the vague language of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act implies that surgery—plus approval from a medical authority and district magistrate—is required for a person to legally change their gender identity. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act also defines family as only those related by blood or law despite the National Human Rights Commission survey conveying that only 2 percent of transgender persons in India live with their biological families, failing to accommodate the alternative kinship structures of the remaining 98 percent trans population (Goel, 2018b).

As India is a strongly and society, there is a significant preference for having sons over daughters. In a majority of cases, after marriage, the daughter moves into a joint household with the husband’s family with a dowry. Though illegal since 1961, dowries in India are widespread and are given by the bride’s family to the groom’s: this practice forces women to be seen as a liability by their families. Such a mindset is so ingrained in the cultural fabric that girls as young as seven years old from poverty-stricken families are forced to marry illegally, resulting in underage brides (Strochlic and Khandelwal, 2019). At present, India has the highest number of child brides in the world (Wangchuk, 2018). To tackle this problem, the Indian government came out with innovative “Dear Daughter Schemes” aiming to encourage the birth of female children by gifting one hundred thousand Indian rupees (approx. 1400 USD) to the first and second daughters of a family for their wedding after their eighteenth birthday (Times of India, 2019). Similar sentiments have also been echoed by full-page newspaper advertisements on ways a father can save ten million Indian rupees (approx. US$140,000), which can then be invested in his daughter’s wedding—in which dowry has been camouflaged as a “gift” for the daughter (Roy 2016).

Subverting the gaze on the daughter as being a “costly” property, other attempts in the form of public information films from India with antidowry themes have centered themselves around the idea that dowry is the amount of money paid by the bride to “buy” the groom and thereby insinuate that it is, in fact, the boy who should be treated as property by turning them into “objects” (Dhillon 2016). Reengineering new ideas with such role reversals is equally problematic as this becomes a harbinger of the same patriarchal notions of ownership and control that lead to gender inequality. But desperate attempts like these satirical public service advertisements by the Indian government aim to attack the notions of family prestige—the weight of which is placed on women—by turning the tables on men.

According to the 2019 Global Report published by OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), the lifetime prevalence of domestic violence against women is 25 percent in Nepal, 29 percent in India, 53 percent in Bangladesh, and 85 percent in Pakistan (see link to SIGI in “Resources for Further Exploration”). Within the same report, it has also been found that the proportion of the female population justifying domestic violence is 43 percent in Nepal, 22 percent in India, 28 percent in Bangladesh, and 42 percent in Pakistan. Examples highlighting the rural-urban divide bring to light the ongoing practices of violence against women through “feudal laws” of disinheritance and forced marriages that lead to “blade-cutting,” “acid-throwing, stove-burning homicide and nose-cutting” to take revenge from women (Times News Network, 2010; Niaz, 2004, 60). In a majority of South Asian countries, marital rape is not recognized (e.g., Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) or the penalties are not severe (e.g., Nepal). Given the rampant practices of gender-based violence in South Asia, it is an underrecognized cause of injury and deaths among women, LGBT communities, and gender-diverse populations.

Conclusion

According to the 2019 Global Report published by OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) that measures discrimination against women in social institutions including 180 country notes and ranking 120 countries, there is “very high” gender inequality in Pakistan and Bangladesh and “medium” levels of the same in Nepal and India. Such disparity in terms of gender equality appears paradoxical, when on the one hand there are several countries with examples of female heads of government: Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. This is a feat yet to be achieved even by the United States. And yet, despite allocating for political participation of women, women’s agency in the political process is debatable and often seen as a kind of tokenism that does not lead to gender equality (Ban and Rao 2008).

The gender disparity in South Asia demands more local explanations compared to other parts of the world to understand the dichotomous contradiction in attitudes and practices toward gender and sexuality. Inclusion of gender-diverse people, particularly intersex births and the “third” gender population in indices measuring sex ratios and other aspects of gender inequality in South Asia needs to be developed globally. Insufficient data further marginalize the most vulnerable population and widen the gender disparity data gap between different gender and sexual minorities in South Asia.

On the one hand, menstruating Goddess Kamakhya is worshipped in the Indian state of Assam (Das 2008), on the other, in Maharashtra, poor women sugarcane harvesters, some of whom are still in their twenties, are forced to have hysterectomies to stop menstruating (Pandey 2019). Similarly, transphobia and rampant acts of violence against people from the “third” gender contradict the revered attitude toward those who are simultaneously worshipped as cultural demigoddesses in India (Goel 2019). Such ironic regional inequity stretching over the same geographic region becomes a barrier to finding a universal solution to the problem of gender disparity in South Asia. As a consequence, there is a need to strengthen local innovations that aim to bridge the gaps between the rural-urban, class-caste demographic divide of women, nonbinary, and LGBT populations in South Asia.

The chapters in Part II: South Asia present anthropological research that showcases some of the ethnic and gender diversity and struggles presented in this introduction to the region. Chapter 4 explores how patriarchy and ethnic and caste hierarchies combine to limit women’s access to legal citizenship in Nepal, depriving them of the attendant benefits of such a status. This chapter presents an example of how the ethnic diversity of the region and legacies of the caste system complicate the politics of belonging and disadvantage women’s and third-gendered people’s access to the rights and privileges of being a legal citizen. Chapter 6 focuses on the Sherpas, an ethnic group in Nepal, and the push to incorporate Sherpa women into wage labor as a way to advance this impoverished country’s economic development. However, incorporation into wage labor may not actually benefit the women tasked with implementing this national development strategy. Chapter 5 explores gender diversity, presenting an analysis of the kinship and family structures that operate among the third-gender Hijras in India. Finally, the two profiles at the end of this introduction to the region introduce us to two nonprofit groups addressing the issue of violence against women: one in India and one in the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam.

Key Terms

dowry: payments made to the groom’s family by the bride’s family before marriage.

female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C): surgeries to alter the external female genitalia. It may include cliterotectomy, removing and/or suturing the labia.

fourthwave feminism: began around 2012 to address sexual harassment, body shaming, and rape culture, among other issues. It is characterized by a focus on the global empowerment of women, the greater inclusion of diverse perspectives and voices, and the use of social media in activism.

ghoonghat: a headcovering or headscarf worn by some married Hindu, Jain and Sikh women to cover their heads, and often their faces.

nikah halala: a patriarchal practice whereby women divorced through triple talaq must consummate a second marriage and get divorced again in order to remarry their first husbands.

patriarchal (patriarchy): a dynamic system of power and inequality that privileges men and boys over women and girls in social interactions and institutions.

patrilocal: married individuals live with or near the husband’s father’s family.

purdah: a practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of physical segregation of men and women and the requirement that women cover their bodies in enveloping clothing to conceal their form from men and strangers.

subaltern: a person from a colonized population who is of low socioeconomic status, displaced to the margins of a society and with little social agency.

triple talaq: a form of Islamist divorce used by some Muslims in India that permits a man to legally divorce his wife by simply uttering the word talaq (the Arabic word for “divorce”) three times orally, in written form or, more recently, in electronic form.

Resources for Further Exploration

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About the Author

Ina Goel is the founder of award-winning digital platform, The Hijra Project. She has a BA in journalism and an MA in social work from the University of Delhi in India. She completed her MPhil in social medicine and community health from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Ina has worked with All India Radio and Al Jazeera English. She was a recipient of a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship at the department of epidemiology and international public health at Bielefeld University and the INLAKS scholarship at the department of gender and sexuality studies at University College London. Ina has also worked with FHI 360, UNICEF, the National AIDS Control Organization in India, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, and the humanitarian organization Plan International. She is currently an HKPFS doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology, Chinese University of Hong Kong and a visiting fellow at Anthropos India Foundation.

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Gendered Lives by Ina Goel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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