Understanding Prejudice: The Skewed Way Indians Still Think About Gender and Caste

Fifty percent of adults in India disapprove of women working and 40% of those in Delhi think Dalits marrying non-Dalits should be illegal, a new study has found.

In Rajasthan, more than 98% of Hindu woman said they practice ghunghat. Credit: Reuters

In Rajasthan, more than 98% of Hindu woman said they practice ghunghat. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: How much has Indian society really changed after independence? What are the prejudices that still exist, and who are they directed against?

New research, published last week in the Economic and Political Weekly, has a scary but not completely surprising answer to this question. In an article titled ‘Explicit Prejudice: Evidence from a New Survey‘, Diane Coffey, Payal Hathi, Nidhi Khurana and Amit Thorat show just how much people hold on to certain prejudicial attitudes, particularly against Dalits and women.

The authors have based their analysis on data from the Social Attitudes Research, India, (SARI) a new phone survey conducted in Delhi, Mumbai, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The survey looked at explicit prejudice – “beliefs and behaviours to which people openly and readily admit that reinforce the lower social status of people in oppressed groups”.

What women ‘should’ do

That India’s female labour force participation rate is extremely low and declining has been widely discussed (even if nothing was done about it after the discussion). But why is this happening? The authors – and many others – are of the opinion the social stigma around working women, especially when the family does not desperately need the money, has a lot to do with it. The data seems to be on their side to. Close to half of the adults interviewed across regions said that they disapproved of a woman working outside the home if she had a husband who is able to support her. In fact, there was not much variation between men and women when it came to this answer, the article says, “but differences between men’s disapproval and women’s disapproval are somewhat more pronounced in urban areas than in rural areas”.

The authors use another survey to compare results with, the US General Social Survey. According to the article, “With the exception of female respondents living in Delhi, SARI respondents’ disapproval for women’s work in each region of India is higher than what it was in the US 45 years ago.”

Another area where discrimination and prejudice against women is evident is during meals. “When your family eats lunch or dinner, do the women usually eat with the men? Or do the women usually eat first? Or do the men usually eat first?” respondents were asked. The same questions was also asked to a sample of people in 2011, in the India Human Development Survey (IHDS). Again, the differential treatment was evident – the number of people saying that men eat first ranged from 60% in rural Uttar Pradesh to about one-third in Delhi. Even though the IHDS survey was done five years ago, the authors say, the numbers haven’t changed much, and the number of women whose nutritional intake is threatened by this practice remains the same. This is also perhaps one of the reasons why 23% of women in India are underweight (according to the National Family Health Survey data), the article says.

The third kind of prejudicial attitude with respect to women that the survey studies was the practice of ghunghat, or a Hindu woman covering her head and face when in public or in the presence of men – a practice that was found to be extremely prevalent in the places studied. This is an important indicator also because, according to the IHDS, women who do not practise ghunghat are 12 percentage points more likely to have a say in important intra-household decisions.

In Rajasthan, more than 98% of Hindu women said they practice ghunghat. “Although urban areas show some age gradient in the practice, rural areas show little, and overall the age gradient is less steep than what we expected,” the authors write.

Holding on to caste

Perhaps the most striking result from the research is the number of people who not only disapprove of Dalits marrying people from other castes, but go so far as to say there should be a law that says such marriages cannot happen. Inter-caste marriage was explicitly legalised in India with Special Marriage Act of 1954, but it seems from these results that perceptions haven’t changed even decades after.

The proportion of non-Dalits adults who said that a law of that kind is a good idea ranged from 60% in rural Rajasthan to about 40% in Delhi – a range that isn’t that large given the popular belief that higher educational standards diminish prejudices. “This range is small considering that the average Delhi respondent had five more years of education than the average respondent in rural Rajasthan, and that education is typically considered a liberalising force,” according to the authors.

Non-Dalit Hindu respondents were also asked whether they themselves or anyone else in their family practices untouchability. More than half of the respondents in Rajasthan and rural UP said someone in the household is still keeping the practice alive – even though it has now been illegal for decades. The number was relatively lower in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, but still high. That untouchability is still so widely practiced says a lot and should be given “greater recognition and public response”, the authors write.

Understanding prejudice

Why is this important to know and tackle? “Prejudice and discrimination importantly diminish the well-being and life chances of the people who experience them. Through-out the presentation of our results, we have also discussed the ways in which prejudice and discrimination hurt everyone. Social disapproval for women’s work means a slower-growing economy for everyone; when pregnant women eat last, the next generation of Indians grows up shorter and with fewer cognitive resources; where people practise untouchability, they are less likely to adopt latrines that keep everyone’s children safe from disease. There are certainly many more such examples,” the authors write. But knowing that there’s a social problem and thinking of ways to get rid of it are vastly different – and we’re not yet closer to the second.