Dr Alice Evans is a lecturer at King’s College London and a faculty associate at Harvard’s Centre for International Development. Taking inspiration from research on the great divergence – the idea that Western Europe saw tremendous socioeconomic shifts in the 19th century that led to industrial growth and the rise of global powers – Evans work attempts to answer the question of why some regions of the world have become more gender-equal than others.

Evans, who will often engage with others on Twitter while developing her ideas, has been focusing on South Asia of late, looking into questions like why North and South India are so different on gender, and what thwarts feminist activism in the region.

I spoke to Evans about Indian Twitter, what it takes to write a book about the whole world, and why her big feminist demand for India is simply more labour-intensive growth.

How did you come to start writing on gender and South Asia?

I’m writing a book called The Great Gender Divergence. And this is studying three key things:

  • All societies have become more gender equal.
  • Some societies are more gender equal than others, like Latin America, Southeast Asia – much more so than South Asia or the Middle East.
  • And three, those regional differences have persisted for a long time.

I’m trying to understand why all societies are making progress and why there are such big regional differences. It’s a global history of gender, and as a part of that, I have a chapter on South Asia.

I’ve been studying India, Pakistan, Bangladesh over the past 200 years, trying to understand what’s driving progress, what’s impeding progress, why it’s not made as much progress as places in East Asia or Latin America. Looking at it comparatively.

What brought you to this project?
I’m a social scientist. I have degrees all over the place. My first degree was in philosophy, then international development, then geography. My PhD was studying 100 years of social change in Zambia. So I’ve always been interested in these long, large-scale processes of social change.

For me, it’s not so useful to study an RCT [Randomised Controlled Trial] like “does microfinance increase women’s empowerment” because a woman doesn’t become empowered in six months or 18 months. Her life doesn’t dramatically change.

What really matters is the society that she’s in, whether they support female leadership, whether they support women going out of the house. And that takes a long, long time to change. We’re talking 20-30 years. And it’s usually not due to something as small as microfinance. It’s usually much bigger structural shifts.

The title harks back to the great divergence [the idea that Western Europe saw a socioeconomic shift relative to the rest of the world in the 19th century that made its powers globally preeminent]. So this is global comparative work. What academic bucket do you put it in?
As you say, it’s like the great divergence. There are many, many books on why the West has economic growth, or why the West has welfare states, why the West and Europe are so democratic compared to other places. But there are no books like that on gender.

And yet we see these big regional differences. But we don’t have a good explanation as to why that is. Now, what do I draw on?

I draw on everything. So I draw on economic history. I read economics, I read anthropology, I read political science, I read sociology, everything. For this particular book, I’m not going to go out and do my own primary research. I’m not doing my own surveys or interviews. what I just do is try to learn from brilliant research all over the place. So I have to read the history of every single country in the world, every single discipline. So I just read, read, read, read, read.

From a process point of view, it’s a daunting task. How do you set about actually carrying out such a project?
What I really started with is no theory at all. Just to study every single country over the past 200 years.

[For me] it’s more like, let me read every single thing on India over the past 200 years. So I’ll read things about art in Rajasthan and why men are over-represented because men are continuing the family line, so I’ll read art history. Or I’ll read research on who women are making phone calls to in West Bengal, and find that women usually call up their husbands or their in-laws whereas men call others.

I’m reading from all disciplines, and then putting together the jigsaw. I’m not an India expert. I will get things right and wrong. Actually that’s one reason why I really love Indian Twitter because people do engage and they do answer. It’s much more fun than any other geographical Twitter. I think every other region is much quieter but Indian Twitter, they talk to you and that’s much more fun.

And it goes beyond people yelling at you?
The only time that people get cross with me on Indian Twitter is when I use a map that they don’t like. Everyone is very nice as long as I have the correct Indian map.

Muslim women in Ahmedabad in 2016 protest against proposals to impose a Uniform Civil Code. Credit: AFP

So how long does it take to read everything on India?
The book will take eight years. I will be spending a year on South Asia. I’m never going to be an expert, there will always be people who’ve been studying this their whole lives, who live in India, who are very expert. I just have to try to learn from them and be as humble as I can, not too confident in what I know and be open to their feedback and learn from them. I think that’s the most important thing to sit down with these weak priors and just build as much as I can.

What has gone into the year of South Asia?
I have 275 pages of notes on South Asia. At the moment, what I’m specifically working on is a blog about how communal violence compounds the patriarchy.

[Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has declared that he’s ended triple talaq, and he says, that’s a great victory for Muslim women. Now there’s been research that says triple talaq has decreased. And this speaks to a broader debate about personal laws and the Uniform Civil Code.

I’ve been following the history of that debate about why there is still no UCC and how groups consistently opposed that. How politicians didn’t want to anger conservative Muslims so they never pushed for it too strongly, from before Independence when they were worried about Pakistan. One, there’s a political question about why there isn’t a UCC.

But I think that even if they did have a Uniform Civil Code, I don’t think it would be a huge advance for gender equality for Muslim women. Because part of the problem is that in India, for both Hindus and for Muslims, the rate of female employment is so very low, and it’s falling.

And that means that women are really economically dependent on their patriarchal guardians. As a result of that, we don’t see very high rates of claims making, we don’t see women reporting gender-based violence, they tend to just endure it. Even though you’ve got many progressive laws, you’ve got legislation against dowries, legislation against domestic violence, women tend not to claim those rights against the patriarchal guardians, because, well, where are they going to go? They’re always encouraged to reconcile.

Another factor that stems from women’s low rates of female employment is that the public sphere is very male dominated. So it’s men who are mixing and mingling and learning from each other in the streets, which in turn makes the streets quite dangerous for women and makes women reluctant to step out.

Another issue is that women might not be networking with others, might not be critiquing what’s going on, might not be sharing dissent by questioning their practices. They may just accept things like men eating first, that just becomes normalised. People don’t see it as a bad thing.

Another big issue is the importance of caste panchayats. These are male-governed panchayats. Or, for Muslims, this would be male-dominated councils. So even if you have legislative change at the top level, the people who are resolving family problems – and people tend to go to those local conflict resolution mechanisms – the male dominated ones tend not to be sympathetic to women.

That’s why even with a UCC, I wouldn’t see it as a massive advance that would dramatically change things for women. A much more important issue, as I see it, is communal violence. Because communal violence has caused two things, and we’ve seen this, for example, in Gujarat.

After communal violence, after mass gang rapes and violence, Muslim communities increasingly put restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, because they want to protect them. And so by restricting their movements, by increasing surveillance, that makes it even harder for women to get the labour-force participation that they need to challenge any of these ideas.

Secondly, if the Muslim community is under attack, that makes it so much harder for Muslim women to speak out to challenge their community, because those are the only people protecting them. So the communal violence has increased male surveillance and made women more reticent to challenge the one community that is supporting them.

And it’s quite interesting what Muslim feminists have been doing. They’ve had two strategies, as I understand it. One has been trying to push for their own take on what personal laws should be. So Muslim women being involved in a board deciding what those Muslim laws should be. And women are also trying to organise and congregate at mosques and organise local dispute resolution mechanisms.

But they’re really trapped as I see it. Because even if you have a female network trying to resolve local family disputes, if the woman is unemployed, and she’s dependent on a breadwinner, even when you have these women-dominated networks giving you advice, there’s not so much they can say like, “yeah, stay with him. And please try to be nice to everyone.”

And even then, the men might not want to go to a woman-dominated conflict dispute resolution. So the next blog is all about communal violence and personal laws. That’s the sort of thing I do, trying to understand these bits and how they will fit together. That’s just one example.

Another blog post you had was on the big gap in women’s conditions between North India and South India, and looking at the theories for why that was the case.
Again, that was me reading every single possible explanation of what’s going on. And not just that, but reading every study that I can find about the North and about places in the North and trying to understand what gender relations are like in the North and tracing processes of change. It’s this very exhaustive strategy of reading every single thing, and not going in with a preconceived idea of what’s important.

When I started writing the blog, I didn’t know what the answer was going to be. That’s the most important thing for me.

But what I’m trying to do is explain the causes of why the world is the way we see it. Then you just have to go through every single possible explanation. I’ll be honest with you, it’s not rocket science. What I do, it doesn’t require a great amount of intelligence. It just requires reading a lot of things.

A call centre worker in Delhi. Credit: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

Some parts of the world might have more robust or accessible research than others. How do you engage with that?
I’m very, very lucky with India, because you’ve got tremendous universities. World class universities. There are lots of brilliant researchers. And they’re all writing in English. So it’s perfect to me. Much easier for me than places like China, where there’s not so much English language literature, much better than places like Africa, where you don’t have so many people in universities producing their own stuff.

Most of the stuff [in Africa] is being produced by white outsiders who won’t necessarily understand it. India is my dreamland: People producing brilliant research, in English, and they’re more than happy to tell me when I’ve got it wrong. Best place in the world.

How did you go about arriving at a conclusion on the North-South question?
First of all, I thought, let me go through the big explanations. I made a list of every single possible thing that I think someone could think of. First, let’s look at poverty data, so I created a map of the states’ level of wealth per capita. And I look at that map and I see you’ve got some very wealthy states like Haryana in the North. Even though Haryana and Punjab are two of the richest states in India, they have some of the worst child sex ratios.

Then I looked at income levels. And I saw that regardless of someone’s income, a woman is less likely to have been to school if she lives in the North. And the North, actually because of economic growth, doesn’t do so badly on literacy. But the gender gap is still much bigger.

What’s interesting is that even when female education improves in the North, we don’t see a big increase in female employment. Actually, regardless of their qualifications, rural women tend to retreat from the labour force when their families are economically prosperous. In the North, we really see this strong correlation that as the household gets richer, women retreat from the labour force.

Another thing that is very contentious to talk about is colonialism. Now, obviously, colonialism had terrible impacts on governance, on caste relations, increasing caste stratification… But could colonialism explain why we see these regional divergences on gender?

So I think about all the different ways that colonialism could have impacted gender relations, like by changing inheritance rights, by having progressive reforms, were those progressive reforms implemented more strongly in some parts of the country. And then I need to think about what mediates the implementation of those progressive reforms. I see that women are already mobilising and are much more active in the South irrespective of colonialism.

I then look at the caste-based issues or whether the land tenure be the reason. So then I look at maps of land tenure, and I see this doesn’t correlate with the North-South divergence.

Another one I looked at was matriliny. Matriliny does help but it’s tiny, tiny communities, that’s not going to explain the big processes.

This famous article by [Tim] Dyson and [Mick] Moore [in 1983] said the South is more gender equal because you have cousin marriage, and women remain supported by their communities. Certainly, there’s a correlation. Places like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, they do have cousin marriage, and they have more gender equal relations.

I then tried to read everything I could about cousin marriage, everything about intra-village marriage, and I see that I’m not really so sure. I can’t see any evidence tracing the causal process from being married to your cousin to having more freedom to move about. There could just be something else going on, in those communities that have cousin marriage, and those communities that have gender equality.

There are also many communities that have cousin marriage that are not gender equal at all, like the Middle East, which has lots of cousin marriage, but very tight controls for women.

Then I looked into the Muslim conquests. The data is kind of patchy. We’ve got much more data about wealthy elite households practising female seclusion than we do the poorest. People weren’t writing about the poorest women’s lives 400 years ago. I learned that women were captured in raids, women were sent as sex slaves, and so that’s going to increase people’s concerns about protecting women. We also see during Islamic rule, Northern Indian society became more gender segregated.

And so I think there are a couple of issues. One is the attacks, the raids, making people worried about women’s safety. But also the ruling class practice that came with the Muslim rule. And we have this idea of prestige bias that if the elites are doing something – and there are parallels to sanskritisation – then the upwardly mobile people want to do that to gain respectability.

I think that’s part of it. And India’s caste-based society was already concerned by purity. So that wasn’t a totally foreign import. Then I traced that process of gender segregation. Once you have these ideals, that women should stay at home, then that can be reinforced by the joint family system, because people are surveilling women. Women being escorted when they go to the market, people having controls on them.

And these gender ideologies persist over generations, because women aren’t mixing and mingling in the public sphere. They’re not criticising these things. They’re staying close to the family. And the rates of female labour force participation are very low, so that women are still reliant on their families to provide for them.

And then I looked at another kind of explanation, which was about the farm system. This is kind of weird. You’d say, well, why would traditional farming have a big impact on gender relations?

Before the modern era, farming was really how everyone provided for themselves for thousands of years. The kind of soil you have and the kinds of crops you grow had a massive impact on people’s daily lives, and on gender relations, because that’s what people were doing every day.

And this isn’t just for India, this is all over the world. In places where agriculture is very labour intensive – like foraging in the North East, where you have shifting cultivation with women going out and foraging for things in the forest. Or if you have labour-intensive agriculture. If you don’t have the plow, if you don’t have deep tillage – which favours men – or if you have rice, which is more labour intensive.

And in those sorts of labour-intensive agriculture, women tend to be out into the fields. And that makes women being out in the fields more normal. Now, just because women are out in the fields, that’s no panacea for gender equality, but it normalises women being out of the home.

Then, with economic growth, people see female employment as normal. Yes, women can respond to this demand for jobs in the call centres, etc. Then women can be mixing and mingling in cafes, right?

A protest in Secunderabad in 2014 against the murder of a software engineer. Credit: AFP

It’s not that once you have rice, then you have gender equality. But you have more acceptance of female employment, then if you have some call centres, increasing demand, women go to call centres, get jobs, mix and mingle, and share ideas. Then in Mumbai, for example, you can have feminist activism, and women pushing back against sexual harassment, they’re making the state of the streets safer, they’re pushing for the right to pee. There are public toilets for them.

So it is about understanding how these deep roots of agriculture can shape a set of expectations. Whereas in the North, if you valorise and idealise female seclusion, then you need a lot more economic growth, a lot more labour demand for women to decide that it is worth getting out of the house. In fact, if the families become more economically prosperous, women will just stay home.

That’s because they have this tradition of wheat which was not so labour intensive, men were going out into the fields, and also they had these traditions of the plow, where men dominated.

Another thing I looked at was semi-arid soils. That areas which historically would have been more arid, where crop yields would have been lower, tend to have worse sex ratios. I don’t know exactly why that might be. And I’m always reluctant to speculate about these things.

But one possibility is that in these very arid places, you didn’t have so much agriculture, what you had is pastoralism, where men go out into the field, men go traveling long distances, searching for water, for grazing pasture, and women tend to stay home. And so again, that’s going to normalise this idea of women staying in the homestead and men going out. And we see this all over the world that places with histories of pastoralism tend to be more gender inequal.

How do you grapple with causes of this gender divergence that are maybe thousands of years old – the kind of soil, the type of agriculture – while also dealing with much more recent questions of activism, women organising, individuals who may have made a difference?

To what extent is geography destiny? This is why the comparative aspect is useful. India has not had labour-intensive growth. Most people are in tiny farms less than a hectare, or in tiny firms employing a couple of family members. So India’s growth is not labour intensive.

As a consequence of this, there isn’t strong labour demand. For that reason women often don’t have an economic incentive to go out and get a job. That means that they tend to stay home. Whereas contrast that to places like Taiwan. Now, Taiwan does not have India’s history of female seclusion but it had very, very labour-intensive growth. By the 1970s-1980s, Taiwanese employers were really struggling with a shortage of labour. These were small and medium enterprises struggling with a shortage of labour. So what did they do?

They increasingly hired married women. You know, people often say that women’s care work is a burden in India. And that’s true. But Taiwanese employers were so desperate for female labour, they were like, “okay, fine, bring your kids if they’re sick, or go home early. If you need to pick them up, whatever, because we need you.”

And as Taiwanese employers became more desperate for female labour, they paid women higher salaries, they became more flexible. So that actually changed the gender wage gap. So the kind of economic development that you have is really important over the past 100 years.

Another thing hugely important is family businesses. In India, we have a lot of small family businesses, and that reinforces tight family bonds. It reinforces the joint family system. And again, that’s going to have an impact. And that’s another North-South difference.

It’s only in the South that women tend to be employed as wage labourers for non kin. In the North, it is much more likely to be an unpaid family worker working for kin who trust you.

If I give another contrast, South Korea, like Japan had large family firms. And that’s important, because it means that people come from all over the country to work in them. And they’re mixing and mingling, they’re sharing ideas. So in the 1970s, South Korean workers came from different places, they didn’t even see themselves as workers. But through working on the factory floor, through protesting against low wages, they came to develop a sense of class consciousness, they came to identify with other workers as having these shared problems.

I think activism can make a huge amount of difference. So for example, feminist activism against sexual harassment, an even better one is working in Mumbai, trying to make Mumbai safer.

Let me answer your question about agency and long term patterns with two things. Mumbai is much safer than Delhi, right? I think most indicators, and everyone would agree with that. Why is that? It’s partly because in Mumbai, you’ve had more feminist activism, women have been organising and collaborating with local government to try to make the buses safer, make transport safer, improve street-lighting.

So activism is enormously important, no doubt about it. But why is there more female activism? We have to go back to partly understanding the deep roots that made it possible that you had high levels of female employment. But high levels of female employment are not enough, because you also have to have the democratic context. And that’s where India has a great advantage. It does have a democracy, there is scope for activism.

Because if we try and contrast this with places like China – China has wet-rice agriculture and communism, both those things raise female employment very, very high. But the Chinese Communist Party is predominantly male. I was reading today, 97% of provincial leaders, certainly above 90% Chinese leaders are male.

And that’s even though you have high rates of female employment. So it’s not like the same situation as India where you have female seclusion. But they have the problem of authoritarianism. And that makes it very difficult for women to speak out.

I think there are three key things to think about

  • The deep roots: The agrarian systems, the patrilineal system, that descent is traced through the male line, sons continue the lineage. women go to live with the husband’s family, the caste system... all those things. That predisposes a society’s gender relations, but it can be disrupted by these two things:
  • labour-intensive growth, and
  • democratisation, which enables feminist activism.

Let’s not just talk about feminist activism, but also social democracy. So, for example, in Tamil Nadu, where you had a big push to expand female education, expand education for everyone, including Dalits, that’s going to raise education. Where you have a big investment in water and sanitation to reduce women’s care burden, that’s going to make a difference. So things that increased social goods, all those organisations and activism make a difference.

I could carry on, but let me say this: I do not think the biggest problem for gender equality in India is the caste system. I do not think the biggest problem is the lack of a UCC. I think the biggest problem is the lack of labour-intensive growth, because without this, without that women tend to stay home.

And the interesting thing is that actually in cities, women do respond to demand for jobs. When there are job opportunities. In cities, women tend to respond. But in more rural areas, women withdraw from the labour force when they’re economically secure. And as long as you have low female employment, then you can’t have women coming together, sharing ideas, bitching about the patriarchy, moaning how unfair it is to be a woman.

Given India’s deep roots and lack of labour-intensive growth then, is there an analog for where the country is currently? Would you say, given your broad comparative view of this, it’s 20 years behind this other place that tackled the labour problem?
I think it would be dangerous to say India is 20 years behind another country, because that implies that there’s just a single path that everyone passes along. Let me give you an example. A good contrast with labour-intensive growth is Bangladesh. Bangladesh has had slightly more labour-intensive growth because of textile manufacturing.

Now, it’s not ginormous, but you’ve got 4.5 million jobs in the garment industry. So again, there’s a big economic incentive, a country with a similar tradition of purdah, and that labour-intensive growth drives women out of the home. Also, it sets up other industries: The service industry is responding to that demand for labour.

We can look at other countries which are economically prosperous, but have this same tradition of female seclusion. And those are some Middle Eastern countries and North African countries. So I think that’s an example of how you can have continued economic development, but not so much change in gender relations. But I wouldn’t want to say India is going to be like Iran. There are many, many differences between India and Iran.


If you were sitting down with an Indian policymaker tackling the question of gender then, what would you tell them?
I’m not an economist. So I don’t know what the magic thing that would create more labour-intensive growth is. But yes, I would say listen to our economists and do whatever you can to fuel labour-intensive growth. If they say what’s your big feminist demand, I’d say, labour-intensive growth.

Don’t worry so much about UCC or other legislation. Because those things aren’t claimed or enforced? The domestic violence legislation – that exists. Dowry legislation – that exists.

So, labour-intensive growth. The second thing, which I think is absolutely crucial, is to make public spaces safer for women. And this is where we need to support feminist activism, in conjunction with city municipalities, to learn from what they’ve done in places like Mumbai.

There’s a lot of research in India that women pick their colleges carefully, because they’re worried about safety. They might even go to a worse college, for their education, because they’re worried about violence. And women choose their jobs carefully, because they’re worried about violence. They may not even get a job at all, because they’re worried about safety.

And the safety issue comes in two ways. One is that parents or guardians may be worried about them, not just for their physical safety, but reputations. “Where is that woman going? Where is she traveling? Why is she traveling a this time?”

So I think you need labour-intensive growth, but in order for women to capture that growth, to harness the benefits of economic development, it needs to be safe for them to get jobs.

Since we’re running out of time, just a few more questions. Would you like to see more work that looks at gender in this large-scale comparative way?
I would love it if more Indians wanted to challenge the kinds of ideas that I’m putting out there. I would love for more people to do what I do. To ask these big comparative questions. Because as I say, I’m not an expert on India. I’m trying to understand the literature. And so if the other people were to do similar kinds of big comparative studies, like, why is India different from China in terms of gender relation, I’d be curious if they get the same answer that I do.

The more people that criticise me, the better. Because this is a totally new field, we don’t see these big comparative studies. So I don’t want to be the only person researching this, because I’m sure I’ll get it wrong. So the more that people challenge me and question me, the better.

Are there any misconceptions about studying gender, whether specific to India or South Asia or generally, that you find yourself having to correct a lot?
I see that maybe there might be too much emphasis on the caste system as impeding progress in gender relations, and not enough on the lack of labour-intensive growth, for example. So the caste system is certainly deeply related to gender relations in two ways.

One is that this idea of sanskritisation, of Brahmins, of traditionally practising female seclusion, and as families become more economically prosperous, women withdraw for the labour market in order to maintain those ideals of purity. So that is one constraint.

Another constraint is that, you know, for 2000 or 3000 years, you’ve had close social surveillance of women’s bodies, women’s sexuality, women’s reproduction. And we’ve seen that recently with the love jihad laws, right? That there’s a strong concern about controlling women and it is deeply entrenched in the system.

This is a deep root of gender relations, the caste system. And many people think it’s the caste system that is impeding progress towards gender equality in India. And I think it is a constraint for those two reasons, this history of surveillance and these ideas of female purity that people enact once they can afford it. But it’s not the biggest constraint.

I don’t think that because we know that when there is strong labour demand, women go out to get those jobs. This goes back to what you were asking me earlier, is everything set in stone or can it be changed?

If India had more labour-intensive growth, then the caste system will become much less important, not just for gender, but more broadly, because we know that when jobs are scarce, when opportunities are scarce, people tend to use their existing networks to access land, to access finance, to access resources. So the lack of labour-intensive growth encourages people to use their caste networks and caste remains important as a way problem solving.

As long as you have this growth [that is not labour intensive], people may fall back on their caste community to provide for and support them. As long as caste is powerful as a way of supporting people’s livelihoods, then caste remains powerful as a means of surveilling women’s bodies.

One thing is that caste may be overemphasised. But I would welcome more people to challenge me to question that, because I’m interested not in putting out my own theory, but in working out what’s right. And other people might have a better handle on that.

What three reading recommendations do you have for someone interested in gender in South Asia?

  • Agarwal, Bina (2010) A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia (Cambridge).
  • Klasen, Stephan and Pieters, Janneke (2015) What Explains the Stagnation of Female Labor Force Participation in Urban India?, World Bank Economic Review.
  • Chowdhry, Prem (2011) Political Economy of Production and Reproduction (OUP).