Sita Sings the Blues

Sita rejects Ravana’s advances — not that it does her much good in the end. Image source: Nina Paley

The Ramayana, one of India’s 2 great national epics, tells the story of Rama, a virtuous king and incarnation of the god Vishnu, and his equally virtuous wife Sita. Rama is banished for 14 years to a forest, but Sita joins him out of loyalty and love. Her beauty and grace are known throughout the land, and eventually attract the attention of the demon lord Ravana. He kidnaps her and whisks her away to his island kingdom, where she rejects his advances and pines for Rama. After an epic journey, he finally comes to rescue her and slay Ravana — only to question her purity and force her to walk through fire to prove it. Even then, his subjects disrespect their queen, and Rama hears of a washerman who beats his wife for cheating on him, raging, “You think I’m like Lord Rama?” Rama addresses the issue by banishing Sita into the wilderness again, to live out her days and bear his children with a pious sage.

Sita is now worshiped across India as the ideal woman, with her chastity, devotion and beauty admired by millions of Hindus. The virtues she embodies, and the nature of her relationship with her husband, remain the model for Indian women millennia after the Ramayana.*

That’s not to say that nothing has changed. In colonial and precolonial times, women were sometimes reduced to slave-like status. They were married as little girls to men they didn’t know, thanks to marriages arranged by their parents. Their main role was to serve their husbands (and before that, their fathers) and stay secluded in the home. They were not expected to walk next to their husbands, call them by name, or look them in the eye. Should their husbands die first, they were denied his inheritance and doomed to live in terrible shame. The honorable solution was to jump into their husband’s funeral pyre. The British were especially offended by this last one, and outlawed it; most of the other traditions decayed over time or were banned by the Hindu Codes passed in the 1950s.

Yet the status of women remains low in today’s India. If not slaves, they are still often treated as household servants. A Muslim-influenced tradition keeps many of them inside the house most of their lives. When in the presence of men other than their husband, they cover their faces. Gender segregation is standard for most activities. Women have few opportunities to socialize, other than outdoor tasks like fetching water or group activities like foot-dying. They are systematically excluded from “important business” even if they manage household finances and welfare in reality.

India Women

Image source: Ashok Sinha/Getty Images

Although polygyny (one husband, multiple wives) is a thing of the past, other marriage traditions endure. Girls are still sometimes married off when they are very young (like 8). Divorce is legal, but shameful and heavily discouraged, trapping many women and girls in unhappy arranged marriages. To offset the financial burden of a wife, her parents are expected to pay a dowry to the husband’s family; these can be crushingly expensive, including fancy items like cars and TVs for the upper classes or cows for the lower classes.

Girls are discriminated against from a young age; although education is a major problem for both genders in India, since many parents prefer to have their kids working rather than “waste” their time in school, girls are kept out of school more often. Even in school, teachers focus more on boys. As a result, the literacy rate for girls is only 65.5% — 16.5 points below boys. Boys are often favored by their parents and get more food, with the result that girls are more likely to be malnourished. Girls also get medical attention less often than boys. Infant mortality is 1.47 times higher for girls than boys.

Gender discrimination even starts before birth. Partially because of that dowry looming in the future and partially because of the financial burden associated with girls in general, Indians often try to abort girls before they are born. The practice is most common in the north, which is poorer and more traditional than the rest of India in general — but it’s also most common in the northwest, which is better-off than the Ganga Valley to the east. This is most likely because richer families have easier access to ultrasound, which lets them determine the fetus’s gender. In areas without abortion clinics or ultrasound, families can always resort to infanticide.

These are all long-standing problems that have vexed Indian policymakers, feminists and human rights activists for decades. But the current issue that has most galvanized these groups and attracted the most international attention is sexual violence. It’s a big problem in India, ranging from petty issues like sexual harassment on trains and on the street to massive ones like gang rape and murder. The incident that brought the issue to the fore was a gang rape in Dilli, the national capital, on a nighttime bus ride in 2012. A medical student had gone to the movies with a male friend; the assailants knocked out the friend, then raped the student with an iron rod. She did not survive. The attack touched a raw nerve and brought thousands of aggrieved women (and a few men) out into the streets to protest the lack of safety in India and a culture of impunity around rapists.

Rape Protest

Image source: Youth Connect

Many of these problems stem from a common root: a general lack of law enforcement in India. As I pointed out before, plenty of sexist practices have been outlawed, and many of the ones I listed are illegal too: sex-selective abortion, dowry, rape, domestic violence. But they survive just the same, thanks to a combination of quiescence on the part of women and apathy and chauvinism on the part of mostly male police and courts. Indian cops rarely care if women come to them with rape stories; sometimes they laugh them off. Rapists go unpunished, which only emboldens them to strike again and again. As a result, women give up and resort to taking measures for their safety… and ultimately, spending more time in the house. Sometimes they take matters into their own hands, as when an enraged mob of women lynched a serial rapist after the court failed to punish him, but generally men get away with it. Sometimes cops even join in the rape.

There’s another tension in Indian society at work here: the massive gulf between its educated, Westernized, urban elite and its religious, minimally educated, rural masses. India may have been founded by the former and had its legal code written by them, but the latter makes up the bulk of the country. Most Indians only have a hazy idea of “Western” values and modern lifestyles, and they certainly haven’t been internalized. When these people migrate to the cities, clashes and tension result, including sexual violence. One reason the 2012 gang rape incident sparked so much outrage was because the victims were middle-class and the assailants were petty thugs, appropriate symbols for the fear and distrust separating the classes in India (as in China and elsewhere).

That being said, it’s not as if sexism is unheard of among the Indian elite as well. Remember that comparatively well-off northwest India has the most sex-selective abortion. Members of India’s far-flung diaspora, which is mostly well-educated and well-off, also look for doctors willing to tell them the sex of their fetuses and willing to abort them. Boys are more pampered and valued by their parents. It’s also not like men are the only bad guys here; Indian women can be fierce defenders of sexist attitudes as well. They have a dreadful reputation as being bitchy mothers-in-law: treating their daughters-in-law as personal servants, doting on their sons at the expense of the daughters-in-law, setting unreasonable expectations for them. There’s an entire genre of TV dramas about nasty mothers-in-law.

Finally, it must be emphasized that I am focusing on the negative aspects of gender in India. The statements I have made here are strictly generalizations. India has made huge strides in treating women fairly since independence. In most parts of the country it is now unusual not to send girls to school, and they usually do well. Plenty of families all over the country value and treasure their girls and don’t seem them as a financial burden. In cities especially, women are entering the workforce in great numbers. Call centers were a crucial factor here: they favor hiring women because they consider them better team players and less trouble in the workplace. The software industry is now 30% female. Women are breaking down more and more barriers and entering different professions; there are female CEOs and bankers. Women are prominent in Indian politics, both at the national level (Indira Gandhi ruled the country for a total of 15 years; her daughter-in-law Sonia governed from behind the scenes for a decade) and the state level (Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu all have or had female chief ministers). Local government bodies reserve a third of their seats for women. There are prominent examples of powerful women in Hindu mythology (the goddesses Durga and Kali) and Indian history (the queen of Jhansi, who rebelled against the British East India Company).

India is a vibrant and noisy (if sometimes chaotic) democracy with a very active media and public discourse. Indians have a right to protest and often exercise it. Women are becoming more outspoken about their problems and put more and more pressure on politicians and men in general to get their act together. The reaction to the Dilli gang rape was proof of that. Female celebrities, like their male counterparts, are using their fame as a platform to speak out about issues that matter to them — sexual harassment, education for girls, child marriage. In the villages, women stand up for themselves more and more, pressing for more say in how families and villages are run, more safety when going to the bathroom (“bathroom” here often meaning a field), more affordable sanitary napkins. NGOs, foreign and domestic, encourage more feminine agency under the assumption that women will be more responsible stewards of their communities. (Of course, women have always exerted leverage behind the scenes.)

But the hurdles for women in India remain daunting. Politics is still male-dominated; the prominent women in the political arena mostly relied on dynastic ties or celebrity to get where they are. Indian politicians can be bluntly sexist, blaming the victims in rape cases or dismissing the issue. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has spoken with outrage about rape and sexual assault, but he also abandoned his wife at a young age and gave Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, the backhanded compliment “despite being a woman… she has zero tolerance for terrorism.” Sexuality is a taboo topic in India (although it’s gradually loosening up); it’s debatable whether this has anything to do with sexism, but there are theories that sexual repression is linked with rape and sexism in general. Informal and technically illegal village councils enforce patriarchal codes and use rape as a punishment for women who break them.

The fundamental task for India is probably to address the underlying sexism and double standards in its culture. Its founding father, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, recognized this, but changing a culture with millennia of tradition behind it is tough. Modern attitudes toward sexuality and feminine behavior are often considered Western and therefore alien to Hindu values. India might have many female role models, but for girls in isolated villages deep in the interior, those role models might as well live in a different country. Old-fashioned virtues of purity, honor, devotion, submission, and servility predominate.

In many ways Indian attitudes towards women and gender have parallels in the Muslim world (and India has a large Muslim minority). But Hinduism, all in all, has proved more flexible toward foreign influences and changing attitudes. India’s democratic society and culture of free speech encourages its people to speak their minds and question conventions. Teeming cities like Dilli, Mumbai and Bengaluru are more open to the outside world than their counterparts in the Muslim world. South India has a decent record on female education, health, and workforce participation. All these things point to a more optimistic outlook on gender for India than, for example, its neighbor and rival Pakistan. In the meantime, the steady stream of outrageous rape headlines in India’s press continues to tarnish the country’s overseas image.


For a modern (and very innovative) take on the sexist messages of the Ramayana, I recommend the weird animated movie Sita Sings the Blues. Also, I should mention that Rama’s friend Lakshmana is also revered for his loyalty, and that submission and loyalty are traditionally celebrated in India regardless of gender.


Jat Protest

Members of north India’s Jat caste protest for guaranteed government jobs and university slots. Image source: NDTV

One of India’s most distinctive features is its caste system. While there are parallels in other countries and even other caste systems, there is really no comparison with India’s in its rigidity, breadth, and pervasive influence. It’s shaped and dominated Indian life for millennia. It’s also been one of the most persistent axes of social conflict in the subcontinent for the last few generations. This means it’s an important subject to understand for anyone hoping to understand India – and therefore the world.

The caste system dates back to around 1000 BCE, when the Aryan invaders that conquered India classified society in a hierarchy meant to enshrine their dominance and prop up their rule. It can best be thought of as something between class and race: it determines how rich and poor you’re supposed to be, but it also says something about your ethnic background. (There’s a theory that the lower castes originated from the darker-skinned Dravidian peoples the Aryan conquered.) But it’s much more complicated than that.

Caste technically describes 2 different concepts. First, there’s the varna — the social classes defined in the Vedas (Hindu scriptures). These are the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (laborers). While the varnas had an important influence on Indian society, their use has faded over the years and they’re not as relevant now. Still, castes are frequently referred to as falling into 1 of these categories.

Caste usually refers to jati, which are almost like ethnic groups. There are thousands of them and they’re scattered all over the subcontinent. Kurmis, Nairs, Baidyas, Vokkaligas, Kalwars, Kammas, Patidars, Khatris, Gurjars, Reddys — there’s even a jati called “Jat.” Some are pervasive while others are very localized. Some are very broad and numerous (these are usually the ones that farm), while others are very narrow and only refer to a specific job. For example, Kayasths are scribes, Marathas are soldiers, Dhobis do laundry, Yadavs herd cows, Pundits are scholars, and Halwais make sweets.

Indians historically did the job their parents did. This is pretty normal, considering that this is how skills are passed on everywhere. But in India, the caste system practically locked families into performing their assigned jobs. There might be some wiggle room — you could switch between construction, farming, or herding, for example — but good luck trying to do a job in a higher caste bracket. The caste system was given religious sanction and helped make Indian society predictable, orderly and well-organized.

Caste also bred vicious discrimination and prejudice. Lower castes were generally treated as mindless minions that did dirty work. Mistreating them was punished lightly, while mistreating a Brahmin was sacrilegious. It was similar to other repressive feudal systems, but… then there are the Untouchables. Untouchables are ranked so low, they’re technically not part of the caste system at all (they’re “out-castes”). Untouchables do really degrading work, like cleaning out poop, sweeping the streets, or tanning cow hides. As a result of their dirty work, they couldn’t be touched — hence the name. Depending on the region, they also weren’t allowed to drink from cups, wear shirts, look upper-castes in the eye, sit in chairs, or go into temples. In the most extreme cases, they had to yell in public so upper castes could get away before they were seen, or sleep with upper castes on their own wedding nights. (Wedding to other Untouchables, of course.) All of this was justified by religion; Untouchables and lower castes were considered spiritually polluting, and their status was earned through bad karma in previous lives. Want a higher status? Be pious and virtuous and you’ll be reincarnated as someone better-off.

This system gave Indian society great stability and predictability, and it obviously suited the upper castes just fine. Everyone knew who to turn to when they needed something done, and all that accumulated knowledge over generations created almost irresistible pressure to go along with the flow. It also guaranteed a steady supply of people to do gross stuff like cremating corpses. But it was also deeply cruel and unfair and couldn’t survive intact into modern times.

When the British colonized India, like previous conquerors, they maintained the caste system and used it to their own ends — they knew who would be most likely to make a good soldier and who would be more likely to rob travelers. They employed upper castes, who already knew how to read, in their civil service. But they were also shocked at its more shameful inequalities and prejudice. Indians began to realize how strange their system was in a global context, and the ones who lost in the caste lottery were attracted to principles of equality, fair opportunity, and universal education.


Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Image source:

This meant that alongside the national movement for Indian independence, a movement to eradicate caste prejudice also developed. It was led by Bhimrao Ambedkar, an Untouchable who managed to distinguish himself as a formidable lawyer despite his background. (Studying in foreign universities helped.) Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Founding Father, was also committed to fighting the caste system and creating a more equal society, so he tasked Ambedkar with writing India’s constitution — a stunning achievement for a country with caste prejudice that deeply embedded into it. Unsurprisingly, Ambedkar guaranteed government jobs for Untouchables in the document.

Ambedkar’s movement — which was taken up by Jagjivan Ram after Ambedkar’s death in 1956 — helped do away with the more egregious anti-Untouchable practices and made it more acceptable and normal for Untouchables to hold high positions in Indian society. The very fact that an Untouchable framed the constitution signaled to the world (and India itself) that the new nation would be committed to equality and progress. But old habits died hard, and Ambedkar’s movement opened up new rifts in Indian politics. Upper castes fought back hard against what they saw as outcastes infringing on their turf. It just made Untouchables more militant and well-organized in retaliation. Outbreaks of violence and caste riots became commonplace in rural areas (and sometimes urban areas too). At the end of his life, Ambedkar became so disgusted with Hinduism that he gave up on it altogether, converting to Buddhism and convincing thousands of his community to do the same. In deeply Hindu India, this just made Untouchables the target of religious persecution on top of caste persecution.

The next big milestone in caste history came in 1990. As guaranteed government positions increased the visibility and self-confidence of Untouchables, lower castes also became more prominent in Indian society as they came to dominate the countryside, taking advantage of a shift towards cities of the old upper-caste elite. A government report in the 1970s called the Mandal Commission recommended setting aside positions for lower castes as well. Although it was shelved in the ’80s by a new government from an opposing party, the report was implemented in 1990. Its effect on Indian society was to churn it up even more.

Although the new rules only affected less than 50% of government jobs (and university positions), lower castes (officially called “Other Backward Classes”) make up a much bigger part of Indian society than Untouchables. This policy of increased “reservation” stimulated the growth of caste consciousness and political parties organized along caste lines. It also prompted a backlash from upper castes increasingly dismayed at how hard it was for them to get jobs. They did better in school; that meant there was now fierce competition for fewer positions. They resented poorer people getting jobs and places in top schools without having to work as hard for them (at least theoretically).

Although caste conflict has sometimes been overshadowed or subsumed by India’s religious conflict, it’s been a persistent feature of Indian politics since the Mandal Commission. As I noted earlier, it’s especially acute in northern Indian states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where ongoing caste discrimination has kept the area poor and underdeveloped. With the prominence of lower-caste leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav (in Uttar Pradesh) and Lalu Prasad Yadav (in Bihar), the lower castes have gained a sense of common identity across jati lines. Despite violent reprisals from the upper castes, it’s become commonplace for lower castes to appear in elite settings, whether on the farm, in companies, or in government ministries. Narendra Modi, India’s current prime minister, is lower-caste (his father sold tea).

Untouchables have continued to make gains too. Now officially called Dalits (“the oppressed”), they remain organized and visible in Indian society. A Dalit woman, Mayawati Prabhu Das, has been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — the head of the state, in other words — 4 times since 1995. Ambedkar is revered as a national hero, with statues and place names all over the country. Discrimination against them has decreased and is punished more rigorously.

But of course, discrimination still exists. In rural areas and the north especially, caste distinction is deeply ingrained in society; caste-based violence is common, and police routinely ignore discrimination (or even enforce it). Far from blurring rigid caste lines, reservations have only sharpened them. The politicization of caste means that politicians often work for the benefit of their own caste only; as my Bihar post made clear, caste-based politics didn’t push Bihar very far ahead in development or the national economy.

In the cities, caste is often lost in the melting pot of migrants from different parts of the region or even country; communities are often much younger and therefore lack the long traditions of discrimination in rural areas. But discrimination persists there too; marriage rarely occurs between castes, and most people only mingle with members of their own caste. In the private sector and upper echelons of government, upper castes continue to dominate. Petty prejudice is still common.

Caste can have deep psychological effects. In a society where you are regularly told that you can never amount to anything, that all you’re good for is cleaning the sewers, it can be hard to be motivated to stay in school, because what’s the point? Alternatively, if you’re expected to get a good job and earn lots of money, there is intense social pressure to do well and study hard. The idea that a particular job or status is your lot in life is hard to shake. The American political scientist Myron Weiner even suggested that India’s chronic education deficiencies stem from its caste system: why bother educating the masses, if they’re supposed to do menial labor only?

Lest you might think that caste is rigid and strictly defined, there is a lot of disagreement in India of which jati fits into which varna, and therefore who counts as low-caste or upper-caste. Government classification tends to rely on British surveys from a hundred years ago, but caste status has shifted since then. The rise of the lower castes several decades ago has shuffled the hierarchy a bit. Caste definitions are in flux. This has led some to argue that their caste is actually OBC (low) and therefore eligible for reservation; economic security is more important now than social status. Last year the Patidar caste in Gujarat protested for OBC status; this year Jats rioted in Dilli, the national capital, and Hariyana, its surrounding state, over the same issue.

In some ways the caste issue is similar to race in other countries. Both systems are deeply entrenched in society and hard to shake off. Discrimination in both cases is banned, although government efforts to allocate jobs for the oppressed category perpetuates divides. Both issues are highly emotional and distract people from more pressing problems; both also perpetuate economic inequality. Some Dalit leaders have even taken inspiration from black civil rights movements. The main difference is that you can’t always tell what someone’s caste is just by looking at them; caste’s religious foundations are also unique. Caste is also almost irrelevant beyond India; you’re supposed to “lose your caste” when you travel overseas, and the Indian diaspora rarely cares about caste or discriminates based on it.

Caste is an enduring part of life in India. Love it or hate it, it won’t go away just because the government and urban elite want it to. In some ways its regulation and order offer comfort in a turbulent world. But for the most part it’s considered a stifling, outdated and deeply unfair system. Continued embarrassment on the world stage and continued pressure from Dalits and lower castes will mean the government will keep fighting against caste discrimination; at the same time, the politicization of caste and its deep roots in Hindu society will mean it will persist. Again much like race, how India is doing on the caste issue depends a lot on whom you ask; upper castes tend to be optimistic, lower castes and Untouchables less so. But the advances since independence offer hope. Take the southern coastal state of Kerala, for instance: in the 1930s it was considered one of the most deeply unequal and barbaric parts of the colony. Now its egalitarianism and social harmony is looked at as a model for the rest of India.



Our world might be startlingly diverse and eclectic, but there a few standard features of society that are reliably repeated over and over again everywhere, from urban jungles to tropical jungles, from icy backwaters to humid, thickly populated lowlands. Here’s one of them: in most societies, women are relegated to a subordinate position. And by “most,” I mean “almost all” – the ones with egalitarian relations between the sexes are few and far between, and even then, it’s debatable whether women are truly treated equally. Anthropologists have yet to find any society where women are dominant.

For most of human history, this was just The Way Things Were. Men made the decisions, ran the households, ran businesses, ran the government, ran the army, ran the schools, ran the temples, ran most institutions, wrote the books, got the best (or only) education, got the highest status, made the important discoveries, and got legal preferences. Languages everywhere reflect this (heck, in English we say you “man” a ship or an airplane to control it). Women were omitted from history (except for a few important queens or concubines here and there), partially because they didn’t write it, but mostly because they were relegated to the background. Both genders accepted this as the natural way of the world – men were stronger and more assertive, so they had the right to do so.

Then in Europe, beginning in the 1700s, things began to change. In what should really be counted as one of the fundamental social upheavals of all time, educated women gradually came to realize how unfair it was. I think the education part of it was most crucial: girls were taught the same subjects and went through similar schooling as their brothers, and the flowering of a scholarly, bookish culture in salons and cafes in the 1700s drew women’s interest – and made more men interested in smart women as companions. But even if they understood politics, steam engines, Immanuel Kant’s central theses, the core precepts of the Catholic Church, whatever, women were kept out of the arena that actually decided these things. The new political ideas coming out of the Enlightenment also fueled their aspirations: if all men were created equal and allowed a voice in society, then why not women too? Why did they just have to rely on their fathers and husbands to make the best choices?

What happened next should be a familiar story: Women took to arguing their case in public, both in lectures and in print. As men ignored and belittled them, they grew more and more forceful and kept pressing the issue for decades. Over time more and more men were attracted to their cause by realizing how hollow old notions of women as intellectual inferiors were given the rise of women as smart and capable as any man. The women’s rights movement spread around the West, and ever since, old barriers to employment, power, prestige, and status fell. Attitudes also changed, slowly but surely: women were infantilized and marginalized less and treated more and more as equals.

Of course, the story isn’t done. It’s doubtful if it ever will be. Men are still stronger and more assertive, and are unafraid to impose their will on women. Women have had to fight for their rights and made themselves heard, pointing out to clueless men how sexist or hypocritical their thoughts and actions are and exposing continued injustices in society. The pay gap between the sexes is one glaring issue right now in the West, but there are many: barriers to women in the army; an ongoing culture of rape and victim-blaming; male domination in politics, business, and science; an entertainment culture oriented around men and male interests; domestic abuse scandals; prostitution; rampant objectification and/or trivialization of women; a lack of guaranteed maternal leave from work; a continuing expectation for women to somehow take care of the kids and household chores while working full-time; a pronounced bias for men’s sports. Some of the issues raised by feminists count as petty micro-aggressions (a current effort to stop segregating toys comes to mind), but they have a point too: By uncovering lurking, sometimes unacknowledged gender biases, they force society to confront the attitudes that continue to perpetuate sexism and that eternal bogeyman, The Patriarchy.

The West is clearly the vanguard of women’s rights as the birthplace of the feminist movement, but women’s status varies from place to place. Scandinavia is usually considered the least sexist part of the world, with its high proportion of women in politics, college, and the skilled workforce, long maternal leaves, lots of househusbands, and strict laws on buying prostitution. There is still work to be done – it’s hard for women to advance to the highest ranks of the corporate ladder, and rape and domestic abuse still flourish in the shadows – but overall, Scandinavia’s feminist-friendly reputation is hard to argue with. On the other side of the coin, Italy keeps on struggling with a culture that fetishizes and humiliates women, that values them more as fashion models and sex objects than as actual people, and that condones groping and harassment in public. To an extent, this is the fault of Italy’s former prime minister, the lecherous Silvio Berlusconi, who enforced his preferences for sexy TV stars nationwide, but sexism in Italy has deep roots, and women in southern Europe have historically been a few steps behind in status compared to their northern sisters.

Sexism in the West is an ongoing and fascinating topic, but it’s hard to argue with where the new frontier in feminism lies – the 83% of the world that lives somewhere else. The rest of the world is a mixed bag, and although it’s easy to generalize it as a chauvinistic swamp, women’s status there has more subtleties and caveats than might be expected. Still, it’s obvious that the notion of women’s equality is still revolutionary and controversial in much of the world, and it’s given feminists a rich opportunity to spread their gospel.

Latin America – as befits a region so influenced by the West – is the second-best region to be a woman. Despite a deep-rooted culture of machismo (extreme masculinity) and a Catholic heritage, Latinas have made great strides in recent decades, with more and more women showing up at the heads of companies and female presidents taking the helm in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Laws against abortion and birth control are coming down; laws against sexual harassment and domestic violence are popping up. Latinas are increasingly well-educated, and the region has seen a greater rise in women in the workforce than any other in the world. That being said, machismo still rules; sexist attitudes are still commonplace, women are expected to stay at home and take care of the kids, and the brutal gang violence that afflicts many parts of Latin America take their toll on gender relations.

East Asia is another nuanced region. The area has also seen great strides recently, with more women in politics and business, more respect for women, more space for women in the public and cultural spheres, and a rise in female literacy and legal status. Bangladesh and South Korea have female leaders, and India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand have had them before. Southeast Asian societies generally accord women a higher status than their Northeast Asian counterparts. Frequent exposure to Western pop culture helps fuel a growing clamor for more rights and respect. But a Confucian and Hindu emphasis on male privilege and power keeps women sidelined; it is much more common for women to be housewives, farmers, or merchants than powerful figures. Legal recognition of women’s rights doesn’t always translate to respect for them on the ground level. Population control measures in China and India take a heavy toll on female fetuses, since couples almost always would rather have a boy than a girl. A thriving sex industry in Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia is a strong pull for young women, who can usually earn more money that way than in a more fulfilling line of work.

The most sexist regions are the Muslim world and Africa (which intersect – the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, where Islam meets the black African culture that dominates the continent, are considered the worst places to be a woman). Although making sweeping generalizations here can be unfair (as it is for a region as diverse as East Asia), it’s hard to argue that women are second-class citizens. Islamic dress codes keep women covered up in varying degrees – from a bare head but conservative dress to a full-on body covering (the burqa). Women are treated more or less as their fathers’ or husbands’ property and are relegated to the house for most of the day. Many Muslim countries segregate the genders, either formally or informally; it is rare for someone to mingle with the opposite gender unless they’re related. Girls are less well-educated than boys. They are often expected to help with the housework from a young age and are sometimes married before they even go through puberty. Old practices like female genital mutilation (cutting off the clitoris) and honor killings to wipe out the shame of rape linger despite the best efforts of activists to wipe them out. In public life, women are ignored and are barely even present. Saudi Arabia and Iran are particularly notorious for their laws enforcing the most traditional, sexist interpretations of Islamic law.

It’s a varied scene, but one thing’s for certain – work remains to be done. The non-Western world has a long list of things to do to bring women into the mainstream of society and make sure that it’s reaching its full potential. This means an array of activists, NGOs, journalists, and a few politicians have dedicated themselves to publicizing abuses against women around the world and campaigning against them. Feminists have journeyed far and wide to contact their peers in foreign lands and urge them to take a stand against the many injustices and outrages they have to deal with every day. The UN has 3 different bodies tasked with advising countries on how to promote women’s rights.

Yet here we get into an issue I wrote about recently – where do we draw the line between altruistic intervention in broken, unjust societies, and Western imperialism? Feminism can have a missionary impulse to it, with assertive, powerful women inspired by their own high status and the achievement of their foremothers to venture out into foreign lands to inspire other women to follow their lead. Men obviously feel threatened by a movement that undermines their privileges. Cultures everywhere are reluctant to adopt practices strongly associated with foreign cultures – and women’s liberation is still mostly a Western concept.

It’s a tough question to grapple with, and one I won’t get into now, but even less zealous and less activist feminists can take heart with a few facts. As mentioned above, globalization is exposing more and more women to the Western example of women active in public life and unafraid to speak their mind. The same process that eroded the patriarchy in the West could (and in some places already has) take place elsewhere. Over the generations, men start to expect intelligent, well-educated wives; women grow bolder and more assertive. (Many of them already are active in their households and communities and dominate them from the background.) And countries that give more power and economic opportunity to women thrive – which should be obvious, since more women in the workforce means more people working and therefore more income. Banks that lend money to women tend to see more productive investment than when they lend to men. Women, with their (usual!) emphasis on consensus, harmony, and compromise, are more effective peacemakers than men, who often try to maneuver for the best possible position to resume their war or plunder. The experience of countries like Rwanda or Turkey, which have granted women greater latitude in public life than their neighbors, will undoubtedly have a ripple effect (if a gradual one).

Most of all, though, women make up half of the world. For too long, it has shunted them into the corners, consigning them to bit parts in stories, fond childhood memories, and sexual fantasies. Imagine how much more the whole world would gain if women were truly liberated, and allowed to pursue their dreams and fulfill their latent potential without the threat of marginalization or harassment.