The setting is sometime in the early 1990s in rural Punjab. Manu Randhawa (played by Tapasee Pannu in the Hindi blockbuster Dunki) is watching an English movie on video, showing a white couple standing next to the Thames in London, with Big Ben in the background.

He goes down on his knees and proposes to her, and of course, she accepts. Manu sighs wistfully, turns to Hardy (played by Shah Rukh Khan), and says “this is the way I want to be asked for my hand in marriage!”

Manu is completely smitten by the dreamy setting, but mostly she can’t stop marveling at how wonderfully and refreshingly different this way of formalising a marriage is compared to the traditional Indian arranged marriages.

In her mind, it is a black-and-white contrast between the presumed heaven of idealised “love” marriages versus the grim reality of hidebound, conventional “arranged” marriages that she inhabits.

In her imagination, love marriages appear to be the pathway to gender equality. Nobody other than the two potential spouses is involved in the decision. The woman is presumed to be adult and independent enough to decide for herself if she would like to accept this man in marriage.

The bride-to-be has agency, autonomy and freedom of choice. She has the right to refuse. She will never be evaluated by the parents of the groom for her suitability. She will never be asked if she can cook, clean, or keep her husband happy. She will never be asked to display her skills while dressed up like a Christmas tree. Having been through this ritual a few times only to be rejected, Manu cannot get over how liberating the world of love marriages would be.

The fact that “love” marriages are the norm in contemporary UK contrasted to the norm of “arranged” marriages in India could be viewed as one example of how strikingly different gender norms are in India/South Asia compared to, say, the current Anglo-Saxon norms.

In which case, isn’t it obvious that differences in women’s participation in economic activities (another expression of autonomy, agency, freedom of mobility) in the two contexts ought to be due to differences in norms?

Prima facie, this seems eminently plausible, but digging deeper, the story is more complicated than appears at first glance. For one thing, monogamous (heterosexual) marriages based on individual love are a relatively recent phenomenon in social history; these were not the historical “norm” in currently developed countries.

In fact, sociologist Stephanie Coontz’s fascinating analysis of the history of marriage indicates that the transition towards marriages decided by the bride and groom might have coincided with the establishment of the male breadwinner/female homemaker model of the family.

Marriages to cement political or business or status alliances, ie, for reasons other than individual love between the spouses, have been the norm for most of human history. In fact, monogamy itself is of recent vintage; both polygamy and polygyny have existed in different parts of the world at different times.

Back to Manu. If we could, we would have to give her a reality check. A romantic proposal culminating in a love marriage does not necessarily translate into either an egalitarian marriage or a long lasting one, or indeed a happy one. (She could also be shown graph number nine below on international comparison of domestic violence numbers).

Incidentally, research based on India Human Development Survey data indicates that while arranged marriages remain the norm, women’s veto power has increased. This means that while parents still play a big role in matchmaking, women are increasingly rejecting prospective grooms they don’t like, rather than simply waiting to be selected and/or passively willing to marry whoever chooses them.

Unchanging gender norms?

The argument that conservative social norms in India are the chief barriers to gender equality has many takers – academics, policy makers, donors and multilateral agencies. A stronger expression of this view is that in the last 25 years, there has been no progress in gender norms in all of South Asia.

The first, most obvious, response to the latter assertion is Bangladesh’s remarkable development story, widely noted and commented upon, including by the World Bank. There are many ingredients in this success story including a dramatic increase in women’s labour force participation rates, increasing education level, higher adoption of contraception and so forth.

While Bangladesh has been rightly commended for its substantial increase in women’s empowerment, other countries in the subcontinent have also seen improvements along various indicators.

In India, some norms have been sticky, for example, persistently high gap between men and women in time spent on domestic chores, where women spend as much as 10X more time on domestic chores, among the highest ratios globally. Labour force participation rates remain a matter of concern.

But how true is it that overall gender norms in India have not changed over the last 25 years?

There are big picture positive changes that are pretty remarkable: an increase in female education, decline in gender gaps in education, a decline in total fertility rate to replacement level and an impressive decline in maternal mortality rates.

12 graphs

A picture is worth a thousand words: why don’t we let the pictures do the talking? There are 12 graphs created from individual-level data from five rounds of the National Family Health Survey between 1992-’93 and 2019-’21. The respondents are women between 15 and 49 years of age.

There are multiple ways of assessing change over time. Given the heterogeneity and diversity at the subnational level, a very useful approach is to examine changes over time for all states (all age groups considered together), and at the national level (latter indicated in the graphs below as “total”).

We can see a great deal of inter-state variation, but also an improvement across all states.

This is not the only way to assess change, of course. We can look at age groups or year of birth cohorts within each cross section, ie, within each National Family Health Survey round. This will tell us whether younger women have different norms compared to older women, all surveyed at the same time.

However, beliefs also change gradually over time. We can compare women born in the same years (say 1965-1975) across survey rounds. The National Family Health Survey is not longitudinal, so it doesn’t cover the same set of women over time, but differences in responses of women born at a given time, but surveyed at different times can give a sense of social change.

Graphs for both these approaches are available from the author upon request which show the same picture of change that we will see below.

See the graphs below and judge for yourself. Have norms changed in India? For better or for worse?

1. Women and work

The female labour force participation rate has declined between 1992-’93 to 2015-’16, only to start picking up again by 2019-’21. The National Family Health Survey is not meant to be a labour force survey and it does not survey women above 49 years of age.

2. Education

Women’s years of education sees a steady increase across all states.

3. Marriage

There is a clear increase in all states in women’s age at first marriage. States with ages higher than the national average appear below “total” in increasing order.

4. Age at first birth: steady increase across time

5. Education gap

There has been a steady decline over time in the education between spouses, with nine states at either zero or negative gap.

(husband’s years of education – wife’s years of education)

6. Age gap between spouses: steady decline

(husband’s age – wife’s age)

7. Stated son preference

There has been a steady decline in son preference, mirrored in improvements in sex ratio at birth recorded in government data on actual births.

8. Domestic violence

Self-reported domestic violence and intimate partner violence is typically underreported. Despite that, 30% nationally and close to 40% in Karnataka, Bihar, Telangana report domestic violence and intimate partner violence.

9. Violence in global context

Where do Indian the numbers stand vis-a-vis the international experience of intimate partner violence or domestic violence?

At close to 30%, India is at the higher end of the spectrum, but lower than that in the United Kingdom, United States, Brazil and others. Of course, we might wonder what these numbers represent: actual incidence or reporting. That needs a deeper dive across international contexts. The graph below should be interpreted as reported figures, with an understanding that incidence might be higher.

Source: Gender, Institutions and Development (Edition 2019).

Prevalence of violence in the lifetime is defined as the percentage of women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner at some time in their life.

10. Justification of violence

The justification of intimate partner violence is shockingly high in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (close to 80%), but in the majority of states, justification has declined over time.

11. Women’s agency: healthcare

There has been a clear improvement in all states.

12. Women’s agency: visiting relatives and friends

There has been an improvement in most states, with Nagaland at 100%.

Concluding thoughts

Everywhere in the world, gender norms both inside the home and at the workplace work to disadvantage women in varying degrees, unfortunately. Patriarchy sets the norms everywhere. It works its way through what appear to be very diverse practices.

Back to India. This piece is not about marriage, but since we started with a marriage example, suffice it to note that marriage norms in India are very strongly dictated by caste endogamy. Inter-caste marriages are at most 5% of all marriages and this proportion has not changed since the 1960s.

Families from both the groom and bride side are involved to make sure caste endogamy is followed. Except when strong adherence to son preference (an insidious norm that disadvantages women) results in sex-selective abortions and an unnaturally male sex ratio at birth, leading to a noticeable shortage of women of marriageable age.

Then, for instance, in Haryana, brides are bought from far away states like Bengal, Assam, in obvious violation of caste endogamy norms. Intersectionality between caste and gender deserves a separate piece of its own.

This is one glimpse into the changes in a whole range of gender norms in India. Is this fast enough? Can we do better? On a range of issues, but most importantly, on the heavy burden of reproductive labour on women (domestic chores and care work), norms need to change.

As a society, we need to recognise, reduce and redistribute domestic responsibilities and care work – it is not only a woman’s job. But history tells us that norms change in response to changes in material conditions. When women enter the labour force, work arrangements inside the home start to change.

We need to recognise that norms have been changing for the better and also continue to think about ways in which women enter the paid workforce in bigger numbers.

Thanks to Lavanya Goswami, Ashoka University UG24 student, for generating all the graphs in this piece.

Ashwini Deshpande is Head and Professor, Department of Economics and Founding Director, Centre of Economic Data and Analysis at Ashoka University.