This article explores whether a region's traditional type of agricultural production - “dry” (rain-fed) vs. “wet” (irrigated rice) - has long-term effects on women's equality and on development. It examines the three world regions with the widest range of gender stratification: a “dry” region (Middle East/North Africa/much of South Asia, the most gender-unequal) and two “wet” regions (East Asia, and Southeast Asia - traditionally the most gender-equal). Men are primary cultivators in “dry” agriculture but irrigated rice is so labor-intensive that both genders are producers. Participation in production is posited as a precondition for greater gender equality (Blumberg 1984). Working toward a theory incorporating traditional production and region into gender and development, the article considers additional factors. One is the kin/property system: in the first two regions, it privileges men (patrilineal descent; patrilocal residence; male-dominated inheritance). In Southeast Asia, it is bilateral/matrifocal. And only in Southeast Asia do women traditionally earn and control income, i.e., have economic power, the key (although not only) factor affecting gender equality in Blumberg's theory of gender stratification. Cultural-normative variables remain least favorable to women in the “dry” region (especially compared to Southeast Asia). Today, the “dry” region has the least dynamic growth, with continued low female labor force participation (LFP) in oil-poor and, especially, oil-rich nations; the two “wet” regions have pursued successful export manufacturing development strategies with high female LFP, with Southeast Asia now having the fastest growth. Development prospects vs. potential problems align similarly from worst to best in the three regions.
This article looks at the mode of traditional agricultural production as “dry” (rain-fed) or “wet” (irrigated rice) and how this difference has affected women and development today in three regions that have the widest range of gender stratification on the planet. I also include other factors, such as whether the kin/property system privileges men or is neutral to somewhat favorable for women. I then look at development trajectories and the position of women in (1) the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) and much of South Asia—basically, most of what Caldwell (1982) described as the “patriarchal belt”; (2) fast-developing East Asia; and (3) now even faster-growing Southeast Asia (Siegel 2014), traditionally the world's most gender-equal region. Table 1, at the end of the Introduction, lists the countries I'm assessing in each region.
|Middle East/North Africa .||& .||South Asiaa .||East Asia .||SE Asia .|
|Middle East/North Africa .||& .||South Asiaa .||East Asia .||SE Asia .|
Bhutan is not included; it is culturally and in other ways not similar to the other countries there.
Singapore is sometimes considered with East Asia because of cultural/ethnic factors; Vietnam also shares some of the Confucian, more male-oriented heritage of China, Korea, and Taiwan.
UAE = United Arab Emirates.
I consider five structural factors and one cultural one, with no claim to including all relevant factors involved in each region's development. Rather, the article is a first step toward a theory that takes a gendered view of development in regions with different types of traditional production, building on my general theory of gender stratification and my theory of gender and development.1
Before presenting relevant propositions from my two theories (which I keep refining as I continue to do fieldwork worldwide), I'll give a preview of the six factors and the argument:
Factor 1: Whether or not women were important producers in their traditional form of agriculture, which was largely determined by:
Factor 2: Whether the traditional agrarian system involved rain-fed (“dry”) or irrigated rice (“wet”) cultivation. In most irrigated rice cultivation, women and men make crucial contributions to production, whereas rain-fed agriculture is a largely male-dominated farming system (Boserup 1970).
In my general theory of gender stratification, women's work in key production activities is a precondition (necessary but insufficient) for them to obtain economic power, my main independent variable affecting the level of gender stratification. But it's also the case that it is not considered “normal” for women to work in MENA and much of South Asia,2 whereas it is seen as “normal” in the other two regions.
In this article, I treat “gender in dry cultivation” and “gender in wet cultivation” in a manner akin to Weberian ideal types, building on the work of Ester Boserup (1970). Each region had—and has—considerable variation in the specifics of dry versus wet agriculture as well as in the extent of gender stratification and the pace of improvement in women's status. Nonetheless, I propose that the heritage of dry versus wet cultivation has had lasting effects that continue to manifest themselves in the present position of women in each region—including their levels of economic empowerment.
Factor 3: This is partially because of the traditional kinship/property system in each of the three regions. Both MENA/South Asia and East Asia have the same system: patrilineal, patrilocal, and with inheritance favoring males. In contrast, almost all of Southeast Asia has a bilateral/matrifocal system, which gives most women equal inheritance and facilitates their achieving both economic power and a relatively equal position.3 And history shows that some aspects of well-established kin/property systems tend to be difficult to change (e.g., rules of descent and inheritance; rules of residence less so).
To recap to this point, “dry” and “wet” systems of cultivation lead to two different traditional and current gender divisions of labor (Blumberg 2004b): in MENA/much of South Asia, women have not been important in production, whereas in East Asia and Southeast Asia they have been—and still are.
The male-dominated kinship/property system inhibited women from achieving economic power in two regions, MENA/much of South Asia, and East Asia. But the more favorable Southeast Asian system buttressed the traditional economic and entrepreneurial activities that gave women economic power and, as a result, greater gender equality. Thus, adding the kin/property factor sets up a three-category system where “dry” MENA/parts of South Asia is traditionally the least gender-equal of the three regions while “wet” Southeast Asia is traditionally the most—and they have maintained their relative ranks in today's globalized capitalist world economy. This leads us to consider current development and globalization—taking into account the impact of neoliberal policies and practices.
Factor 4: Here I look at the predominant development strategies in each region. Both East Asia and Southeast Asia have stressed export manufacturing. It is linked to high levels of female labor force participation (LFP)—typically at low wages—as well as often rapid national income growth. As argued below, higher female LFP itself has a positive impact on economic development and national income growth. In contrast, MENA/South Asia splits into oil-rich versus oil-poor countries. Both have among the world's lowest levels of female LFP—although it's generally higher in the oil-poor countries (Moghadam 1992; Ross 2008). And the region hasn't fared as well in development as the other two.
Factor 5: But the consequences of women's work are even more positive to them, their families, and their nation in situations where the women not only work(ed) but also currently and traditionally earn(ed) and control(led) income. In fact, in my theory of gender stratification, I posit that female economic power is the most important (although not the sole) variable affecting gender equality. Also, where women control income, they contribute to national wealth and well-being in at least two ways.
First, they are more likely to spend their income on their children's human capital—education, nutrition, and health—than counterpart men, thereby contributing significantly to their nation's prosperity and welfare. This is a central hypothesis of my theory of gender and development, and many empirical studies now support it. Second, their own income also gives them more control over their fertility, which is inversely related to national income growth (Hess 1988; Das Gupta, Bongaarts, and Cleland 2011). Although fertility has been falling worldwide (United Nations 2010), in East Asia the total fertility rate has plunged too low. It's now ~1.3 children per woman (CIA 2014b; World Bank 2014a, my calculations)4, very far below replacement level (2.1 children per woman)—as women juggle a “double day” with little help from husbands, employers, or the state. Where women control the income they earn, however, as in Southeast Asia (e.g., Wolf 1991), they tend to have more help. Regional fertility is now 2.2 children per woman (World Bank 2014a; my calculations), still a hair above replacement and in the “Goldilocks (just right) zone.” The “dry” region fertility averages 2.8 (World Bank 2014b; my calculations), above that “Goldilocks” level.
Factor 6: This cultural factor involves the extent to which women are currently disadvantaged by the normative/legal/religious systems; it corresponds to “macro-level discount factors” in my general theory of gender stratification (discussed below). Here again, the three regions line up from most to least gender-unequal: from MENA/South Asia to East Asia to Southeast Asia. Interestingly, it turns out that although most MENA/South Asian countries and significant parts of Southeast Asia (including Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Philippines, and the four southernmost provinces in Thailand) range from overwhelmingly to partially Muslim, Islam does not prove consequential in explaining the variations in gender and development in the three regions.
THEORY AND A NOTE ABOUT METHODS
Both my general theory of gender stratification and my theory of gender and development consider women's economic power as the most important as well as the most achievable form of power for women. Women's economic power is defined as control of income and other economic resources such as land and access to credit. It's hypothesized to be the most important factor affecting the relative position of women versus men in any society or group, at any given point in history, geography, or social structure. Given space limitations, I won't present full explications of either of the theories or the empirical data that support them. More complete presentations of the two theories are found in the works cited in note 1. A more detailed explication of the supporting studies is found in Blumberg (forthcoming a). Here, I summarize much of the relevant bibliography in notes 7–13.
If we look at “dry” and “wet” agriculture in the three regions as Weberian ideal types, there is an anomaly. Rain-fed cultivation is the only major “techno-economic base” (Blumberg 1978, 2009b) or “mode of subsistence” (Lenski 1966; Nolan and Lenski 2011) where women are not important in production. Most of us don't know such low female productivity is rare because in the West we shared the same “dry” agrarian system, and our notions of history focus on the Eurasian landmass and start with Greece and Rome (with a few words about ancient Egypt). So we think that men must always have been the primary breadwinners and women must always have been dependent and less than equal. This, however, is a narrow view of human history. Our modern species, Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa around 200,000 years ago. We lived solely as foragers/hunter-gatherers until around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, when cultivation arose. Studies of foragers still living their traditional life indicate that, except at polar latitudes, gathering—done mostly by women—usually provided most of the calories (Lee 1968, 1969; Blumberg 2009b). Cultivation arose in many locations within the space of just a few thousand years. And most authorities credit “woman the gatherer” with its development, since it required adding only one stage—planting—to what women already did. After all, gathering is harvesting. Early cultivation was horticultural, using a hoe (or initially a digging stick). To this day, women are usually primary or equal farmers in horticulture (Boserup 1970): most contemporary horticultural societies are in sub-Saharan Africa, where women raise up to 70 percent or more of food crops (Saito and Weidemann 1990). Now, the average level of female labor force participation worldwide is 53 percent (World Bank 2014b; my calculations)—most women are counted as working. This is more in sync with the full sweep of human history than a look at just “the dry side” would suggest.
The following are the parts of my work on gender stratification and gender and development that are most germane for this article.
Economic Power as the Most Achievable Type for Women
Empirically, I argue, economic power is the only one of the five major types of power—economic, political, force/violence, ideology, information—where the position of both men and women runs the full gamut from near zero to near 100 percent. Examples of near-total male economic control include Afghanistan, where I carried out research in July-August 2011 (Blumberg 2011, forthcoming b). Near-total female economic control has been described for the horticultural Iroquois of colonial North America (Brown 1975). In the dry agrarian Afghan case, men dominated every other major sphere of power as well. But in the Iroquois case, economic power was women's main source of clout: they raised, stored, and controlled the primary food supply. Men controlled the political and military spheres, although the Council of Matrons had some influence. They could nominate a man to be chief, depose him, and nominate another if they felt his leadership to be lacking; the Matrons also could effectively veto a particular military expedition by refusing to give the men food from their storehouse. Women had some religious power too. Brown (1975) is clear, though, that it was female economic power that gave them such a strong position.5Blumberg (2009b) traces women's economic power across all of human history; there is little archaeological evidence of female inequality (e.g., comparing male and female burials and quantities/qualities of grave goods) before about 7,000 years ago.6
Comparing Economic and the Other Four Major Types of Power
Elsewhere (Blumberg forthcoming a), I compare women's economic versus political power. As noted, the present world average for female participation in the measured labor force is 53 percent. But in the world's parliaments, women are just below 22 percent overall (IPU 2014). Ideologically, although the constitutions of 136 nations now proclaim male-female equality/nondiscrimination (World Bank 2012b:2), a number of societies still assert men's superiority; none to date claims that women are superior. Concerning the power of force/violence, women are more likely to be at the receiving than the dishing-out end. This point deserves further space: in the first research I did on my emerging gender stratification theory, I posited and found, in a 61-society random sample of preindustrial societies, that where women had long-established economic power they were less likely to be beaten (Blumberg 1978); conversely, Levinson (1989), in a 90-society sample, found female economic dependence the strongest predictor of violence against them. In general, I propose that where women have more—and well-consolidated—economic power, the negative manifestations of the other forms of power will tend to be milder. To the extent, however, that men feel threatened by a recent rise in women's economic power—or view it as a zero-sum game—especially where females had little before, I've posited a possible short-term spike in violence (as Roldan  found in Mexico City when some husbands felt threatened by their wives' new income from doing piecework at home for garment factories). Concerning information/education, the rise in information power has been more recent, and although education gaps are shrinking, vanishing, and sometimes reversing (UNESCO 2013–14;,World Bank 2012b), women still lag in studying the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, which lead to well-paid employment in most countries.
Furthermore, women's economic position has an impact on the wealth of nations. For example, a UN Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific (United Nations 2007:103) compared losses due to inequality in female employment versus those due to inequality in female education. The study estimated that the region lost $42 to $47 billion annually from women's limited access to employment, compared to only $16 to $30 billion lost per year from inequality in education. More relevant for the present article, Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, stated that “women's low economic participation created income losses of 27% in the Middle East and North Africa” (Kim 2014). The research he drew from (Cuberes and Teignier 2012) also estimated that raising women's employment and entrepreneurship to the level of men's could improve average income by 23 percent in South Asia. And here's a personal point: I've encountered a half-dozen instances of local-level gender equality/near-equality in the 45 countries where I've worked since the Peace Corps in Venezuela. And in all those cases, women controlled 50 percent or more of the economic resources (Blumberg 2001a). Overall, then, economic power seems to be the most achievable—and important—type of power for women cross-historically and cross-societally.
Positive Consequences of Economic Power
I consider both micro- and macro-level outcomes.
Since I first proposed hypotheses regarding micro-level consequences of economic power in 1984 and 1991, I've found a number of studies besides my own that provide empirical support. Blumberg (forthcoming a) presents some of these studies. Here are a few hypotheses from my theories that are backed by strong empirical data. Space limitations preclude giving this evidence in the text, but many references are provided in the Notes to the discussion that follows.
Micro-level hypotheses from the general theory:
Greater female economic power →
Greater self-confidence,7 which is often accompanied by greater respect from family
More “voice and vote” in different types of household decisions,8 including Domestic well-being decisions involving children's health, nutrition, and education (e.g., when a malnourished boy baby—versus a girl baby—should be taken to the clinic; which children, by gender and age, should be sent to school and for how long);
Economic decisions concerning the acquisition or selling of assets, seasonal migration for cash income, etc.;9
More control of their “life options.” These are the main dependent variables in my general theory (Blumberg 1984). They involve aspects of one's destiny found in all human groups: marriage, divorce, sexuality, fertility patterns, freedom of movement, and so on. Women's relative control of life options (vs. men's) depends not only on their relative economic power but also on the macro-level legal system and prevailing gender norms (the sixth factor). These tend to respond more slowly to rising female economic power, but even in conservative, male-dominated societies, a woman with more economic power usually has a bit more “wiggle room” and say than a woman with less, whether it's about agreeing—or not—to a marriage or leaving the house without formal permission to shop or take a child to health care. Blumberg (1987), for example, discusses Muslim Hausa women in northern Nigeria who ran enterprises from seclusion and controlled the proceeds; most managed to get out and about at twilight.
A key micro-level hypothesis from the gender and development theory:
Women and men with provider responsibilities tend to spend income they control differently:
Such women tend to hold back less for themselves than counterpart men.12
Women spend disproportionately more on children's human capital—nutrition, health, and education—than counterpart men. This has generated a large body of empirical support.13
Now, how do these micro-level actions affect their countries?
Macro consequences of greater women's economic power → More wealth and well-being of nations14
Fertility has been found to be inversely related to national income growth in developing nations (Hess 1988; Das Gupta et al. 2011). Nolan and Lenski (2011:304) show that industrializing horticultural (IH) nations (almost all in sub-Saharan Africa) averaged 2.6 percent annual fertility from 1961 to 2006 versus 2.1 percent for industrializing agrarian (IA) countries (the rest of the global South). That higher fertility in IH countries, they calculate, absorbed a whopping 90 percent of productivity gains, versus 47 percent in IA countries. Women tend to use their control of income to achieve their fertility preferences, generally opting to have fewer children; this increases national income growth in poorer countries. But fertility that's too low is also a problem (as discussed below). According to the United Nations (2010), 59 nations, including a number of developing countries, already were below replacement fertility of approximately 2.1 children per woman. Where this happens, it's a looming menace for everyone's future, since such low fertility means fewer young workers to support longer-living older cohorts. Most very poor nations, however, still have growth-sapping high fertility, so increasing the numbers of women earning and controlling income will help their development.
A country's human capital—nutrition, health, and education—also is linked to more national income growth and well-being, so women's child-focused spending patterns promote their children's and nation's development. Women with income they control tend to be more even-handed in sending both daughters and sons to school. Girls' education has a high rate of return, spurring lower fertility and development, thus multiplying the impact of women's income on national wealth and welfare.15
Finally, I propose a hypothesis that has both micro- and macro-level consequences:
There is a “synergy bonus” for development projects resulting from women's control of income. I posit that development initiatives that channel income to women as well as men benefit from what I term a “synergy bonus” of (1) increased economic impact plus (2) enhanced human capital (Blumberg 1988, 1989a, 1989b, 2009a).16 The field of microfinance provides many examples of increased economic impact: women prove to be as good at business and handling their loans as men and are almost always better at paying them back—and on time (Blumberg 2001b). And they're better at spending some of the increased business income from the loan on their children's nutrition, health, and education (Blumberg 1988, 1989a, 1989b, 2009a).
Indeed, the studies in note 13 empirically document women's greater likelihood to spend income under their control on their children's well-being. And that's the reason that development projects can get a “double bang for the buck” from incorporating both women and men into economic initiatives: on the one hand, the women are likely to do as well as or better than men on the economic component of a development scheme, even when economic incentives are small;17 on the other hand, compared to counterpart men, women also typically devote more income they control that they don't need for their economic endeavors to their children's human capital, keeping less for themselves.
Another hypothesis from my gender stratification theory is that one gets more power from surplus income (because one has more choice allocating it) than from subsistence income that's barely enough for survival. So, if women's income is raised above subsistence-level poverty, the synergy bonus should rise even further. For example, they could reinvest in their business and improve their children's diet.
Here is a note about my background and research methods. In my research in 45 countries since my Peace Corps service, I've worked in virtually every sector of development except for large-scale hydroelectric projects. In the three regions, I have the most on-the-ground experience in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Laos; I've also worked in Vietnam and have more limited experience in Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia. In East Asia, I've worked in China, South Korea, and Japan. In South Asia, I've done the most fieldwork in Nepal; I've also worked in Afghanistan and more briefly in Sri Lanka and India. In MENA, I have field experience only in Egypt and Tunisia. In most places, I use my version of Rapid Appraisal (RA) for my development research (Beebe 2001; Blumberg 2002). RA's basic validity principle is “triangulation.” This requires a tightly honed list of variables and issues and, for each, collecting at least two sources of data—preferably using different techniques (e.g., key informant interviews, focus groups, observation, secondary analysis of existing data). Given my geographic and methods history, I'm able to make comparisons grounded in my research and work in development. I also use relevant scholarly literature and international databases.18 All in all, I keep refining and expanding my theories. Now I'm starting to add traditional livelihoods and region as theoretical foci.
DIVERGENCE IN GENDER EQUALITY AMONG SOCIETIES BASED ON PLOW AGRICULTURE
The three regions share a common subsistence technology or way of making a living from the planet: all use plow agriculture as their main type of cultivation. The plow was invented in the Middle East around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago (Nolan and Lenski 2011) and diffused along the wide west-east axis of the Eurasian landmass (Diamond 1997) as well as to North Africa and Southeast Asia.19
Yet differences in the extent of gender stratification in the three regions are breathtaking. Consider the extremes: At the high end of inequality, sati (widow-burning) in India goes far back into the mists of time, though only scattered instances remain (mostly in Rajasthan). Now a fiery new custom has arisen, especially in northern Indian cities: bride burning (or dowry deaths), where a woman's sari somehow “accidentally” ignites while she's cooking—in households where the husband and his family are unsatisfied with the amount of her dowry. China practiced foot-binding from around 900 to the 1900s, mostly in the north. And purdah, or female seclusion, was fairly widespread in South Asia and some parts of the Middle East (Moghadam 2013); the ideal (though less often practiced today) was to keep the woman behind four walls 24 hours a day.20 Also, honor killings still occur in the region—and their diasporas (Cooney forthcoming).
At the other end of the gender equality continuum, consider how Ma Huan, a Chinese visitor to Thailand in the early fifteenth century (he was an interpreter on three of the seven ocean expeditions of Admiral Zheng He), described the people: “It is their custom that all affairs are managed by their wives, both the king of the country and the common people. If they have matters which require thought and deliberation—punishments light and heavy, all trading transactions great and small—they all follow the decisions of their wives, for the mental capacity of the women certainly exceeds that of the men” (Ma Huan 1433 cited in National Commission on Women's Affairs 1995:4).
Much of Southeast Asia has a history of quite egalitarian, peaceful villages dating back thousands of years, as shown archaeologically for sites such as Ban Chiang in Northeast Thailand; nor does the archaeological record in Ban Chiang indicate gender inequality (White 1982, 1988, 1990, 1992). Today, the region differs markedly from the other two on several of the structural factors considered below.
It should be noted that although there is widespread agreement that greater gender equality promotes development, most extant models of how this occurs (e.g., World Bank 2012b:9) don't deal explicitly with regional differences. Moreover, the most popular indexes of gender and development—such as the Gender and Development Index (GDI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Gender Gap Index (GGI)—don't weight any of their indicator variables as more important than others (UNDP 2013; World Economic Forum 2013). In contrast, this article compares gender, development, and traditional production systems in three specific regions that contain the majority of global population. It also puts more emphasis on women's economic position in its examination of both gender equality and development patterns.
To provide a bit more context, it should be noted that the average position of women has been rising for the past 100 years or so, especially since the 1970s, when the second wave of the women's movement burst onto the global scene and, concomitantly, women's labor force participation rates began to surge. But in the majority of the countries where the position of women was lowest at the beginning of the period—disproportionately in MENA/South Asia—there has been less change in women's employment and relative economic equality. In MENA, for example, female LFP has risen only 0.17 percent annually for the last 30 years (World Bank 2012a:43). While most MENA oil-rich countries fall into the high-income category, neither they nor the oil-poor nations in the region have done as well in achieving their development potential as countries in East and Southeast Asia that have brought more women into their growing spheres of private sector economic development. As documented above, the MENA/South Asia countries with low women's involvement in the economic sector are forgoing significant income. Moreover, the policies of both oil-rich and oil-poor MENA countries have been to run fiscal deficits and subsidize large increases in public employment (World Bank 2012a:21–23; a majority of those jobs have been for men). These policies are not likely to be sustainable in the long run; nor do they promote as much growth as the export-oriented path taken by East and Southeast Asia in today's capitalist world economy.
To reiterate, the latest data show that the average female LFP rate (which measures mostly paid work) among the world's nations is 53 percent (World Bank 2014b, my calculations). East Asia is above this at 59 percent, and Southeast Asia is even higher at 63 percent. MENA, however, is only at 27 percent and South Asia is at 40 percent; this is mostly due to Nepal's 80 percent female LFP and Bangladesh's 57 percent, without which it's at 26 percent.21 Indeed, the bottom seven nations in the MENA/South Asia region with respect to female LFP have only between 13 percent and 18 percent of their women in the labor force (World Bank 2014b, my calculations).22
In the three remaining sections of this article, the six factors are further explicated; this is followed by a discussion and then conclusions.
A TALE OF SIX FACTORS
Here, I'll elaborate a bit more about all the factors except for the fifth, women's economic power, which has been covered in the theory section above.
The first factor is whether women were important producers in their traditional agriculture. More generally, this translates to whether women work(ed) in production. My general theory of gender stratification posits such labor as a precondition for female economic power and greater equality (Blumberg 1984:51). Many others already had noted or argued that work is the first step toward high status for women.23 There does not seem to be any evidence of a society where women who were not economically active in the group's main livelihood activities had high levels of gender equality. Consider such work equivalent to paying the toll to get on a metaphorical Yellow Brick Road that leads to the Emerald City of women's economic power and relative gender equality. But there are clear-cut differences in the extent to which women work in production in the three regions.
This proves strongly related to the second structural variable, whether agriculture is rain-fed or irrigated rice. The difference is very important with respect to gender. Cultivators of rain-fed crops, from land preparation through harvest, overwhelmingly are men. Part of the reason men prevail is that the typical nonirrigated crops tend not to be very labor elastic and the labor requirements per square yard—or acre—tend to be low: if it takes two men and a mule two days to plow the “north 40” (acres), and you try to add 50 more, they're not going to be able to increase yields that much and everyone will go hungry or starve. So if work is scarce and the society already is male-dominated, most women will be shunted aside except, perhaps, for helping at peak periods.24 Also, the plow requires much more upper-body strength than the hoe, the primary tool for horticultural cultivation—still the dominant form in much of sub-Saharan Africa, which Boserup classed as a female farming area. Biologically, men have one-third to one-half more upper-body strength than women (though well-conditioned men and women are about equal in lower-body strength). In sum, unless there is a desperate shortage of male labor, men will dominate rain-fed agriculture: during World War II some 20 million died in the USSR, and with most able-bodied men fighting, middle-aged women became the primary agriculturalists, even in plowing.
Irrigated (“wet”) agriculture almost always means irrigated rice. It's an “everybody works” system in most wet-rice areas. Irrigated rice is amazing. It's arguably the world's most labor-elastic crop: if you add labor gradually and intensify the production system, the added person's hands will produce more than the person's mouth eats, up to a very high level of production (C. Geertz 1963).25 This also permits really high population densities. These two points help explain why China plus India add up to nearly 2.7 billion people, close to 40 percent of our 7.2 billion current global inhabitants—both have large irrigated rice-growing areas in the south. It also means that if people work harder and harder, using ever more labor-intensive methods, an entire family can make a living on well under a hectare (2.47 acres).
Even if the women are unpaid family labor, they will not be viewed as economic parasites. Women traditionally do some of the hardest and key jobs in wet-rice production, including transplanting the rice from beds near the house (where they germinated) to the rice paddy. There the women work stooped over in thigh-deep muddy water, transplanting the brilliant emerald green young shoots.26
Nevertheless, there are some places in South Asia where purdah meant that only the poorest women worked in irrigated rice, usually as day laborers (and they remain very important in production, e.g., in Bangladesh and wet-rice areas of Pakistan). Thereby, use of nonpoor women's labor could be minimized, maintaining their purdah and the “patriarchal bargain” of male support in return for those women's continuing economic dependence (Kandiyoti 1988). Presumably, poor women's families were too close to the survival line to be deterred by neighbors' gossip about the woman breaking purdah.
“Mere work,” however, even in crucial production activities, is not enough to assure power to the producers, female or male. Slaves, peasants, and workers have yet to inherit the earth. Even though women in wet-rice systems meet my first precondition for economic power (work in major production activities), and even though their work may be recognized, it doesn't automatically translate into control of the means and/or fruits of production and then into more gender equality. A principal reason is the kinship/property system—though the extent to which the women's work is “strategically indispensable” and the extent of inequality in the society's stratification system also affect whether and to what extent women can transform “mere work” into economic power.27 The kin/property system favors men in the entire wet-rice zone (except Southeast Asia), so women generally remain a subordinated labor force.
Third, then, let's compare the levels of male privilege in the two kinship/property systems in the three regions. A patriarchal kin system is the defining characteristic in previous work on regions where men reign. Caldwell (1982) identified the “patriarchal belt” as composed of the Muslim Middle East (including Turkey and Iran); North Africa; Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northern India in South Asia, and rural China; Kandiyoti (1988) calls the area “the belt of classic patriarchy.” It is less uniformly so today (Moghadam 2013), but it is still the world's least gender-egalitarian area.
Yet the rest of East Asia shares the same male-dominated basic kinship/property system as the “patriarchal belt”: not only rain-fed agrarian northern China but also wet-rice southern China and the irrigated rice growers of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all have the same kin arrangement as in the MENA/South Asia region. In a patri-oriented kin/property system, inheritance goes largely or exclusively to males, the bridal couple preferentially lives with or near the groom's close male kin (usually his father), and descent is reckoned through the male line. But although MENA/South Asia and East Asia share the same male-dominant kin/property system, they differ in women's economic importance: females were and are marginal to the male-dominated traditional rain-fed agrarian production system in MENA/South Asia but remain quite important in irrigated rice cultivation in East Asia.
In Southeast Asia, the main agricultural system also is irrigated rice, and women are important producers too. But its kin/property system is far more egalitarian than in the other two regions: mostly it is bilateral/matrifocal. This means that in reckoning descent, both mother's side and father's side kin “count”—but relations tend to be closer with maternal relatives. There also are some fully matrilineal societies in Southeast Asia, such as the Minangkabau of Sumatra, Indonesia (Sanday 2004; Gonsoulin 2005), the world's largest matrilineal group. Muslim and totaling around 8 million, some also live in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia (Encyclopedia Britannica 2015).28 Over the centuries, despite numerous threats, their kin/property system remains matrilineal.29 Actually, there are only a tiny number of patrilineal groups in the region. And Islam—which is dominant in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the southern Philippines, and the four southernmost provinces of Thailand—has put pressure on women to adopt the hijab headscarf in the last 30 or so years. But it has yet to change the pre-Islamic kin/property system to a major degree, although it began to arrive in the region in the late 1200s to early 1300s (it reached the Minangkabau in the sixteenth century). It was brought by traders, not conquerors. Significantly, they brought the Quran but not sharia—which decrees half-share inheritance for women.30 Instead, most Muslim areas of Southeast Asia have retained much of adat, customary law, to this day. So, as noted above, women still generally inherit equally (or better).31
Postmarital residence traditionally tilted matrilocal. Having your own relatives nearby also has its advantages. Ireson's (1996) study of gender in the Lao People's Democratic Republic found that living near her female kin (the prevailing pattern) is likely to enhance a Lao woman's economic power. This is “both because of possible shared economic activities and because of support for exercise of her actual economic power in relation to her husband and his kin. Women who live matrilocally may also be more likely to inherit land or other wealth that directly contributes to their economic power. Nearby kinfolk may also assist with child care and other domestic tasks” (Ireson 1996:15).
Finally, over and above inheritance, most Southeast Asian women (even from most horticultural hill tribes) long have had access to income under their own control, that is, economic power. For centuries, women have traded in the market on their own account and had income-generating activities. This is still the case even in areas with large Muslim majorities, such as Indonesia and southern Thailand. In sum, a kin/property system that does not disadvantage women, who also earn and control income (Wolf 1991), is a combination that translates into far greater gender equality than in the other two regions.32
The fourth factor is the predominant type(s) of development strategy currently being followed in a region. East Asia and Southeast Asia have moved successfully into the capitalist global economy via export-oriented industrialization, especially export manufacturing, much of it using female labor (usually young and reasonably well educated for the particular country). The firms often make garments and textiles, electronics, and so on. Do, Levchenko, and Raddatz (2011) find that nations that make products relying on women's labor increase their level of gender equality. But MENA/South Asia has much less export manufacturing involving a heavily female labor force than East and Southeast Asia, and far fewer of its women work.
Yet many of the jobs have a downside. Regardless of nation and level of patriarchy, bad working conditions and health and safety hazards are common in the global South (Blumberg and Salazar-Paredes 2011). Jobs may be precarious and—as in Bangladesh in 2013, where a horrible factory fire killed 112 and the collapse of an eight-story factory building left over 1,134 dead and 2,515 injured (Motlagh 2014)—even deadly. Women may also be “cycled out” at a young age in certain types of export processing, such as electronics.
There is also an upside. Studies dating back to the early 1980s found that women working in export manufacturing or processing generally expressed satisfaction with their jobs and lives (e.g., Kusterer et al. 1981). Without question, export industries that rely heavily on women workers played a big part in the rise of the “four tigers”—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Today, it's clear that women are active contributors to the currently rapid growth of the Southeast Asian nations.
Turning briefly to the global North, the data on the impact of women's paid work are compelling. Claudia Goldin, who pioneered measuring the impact of US women's labor on national income, writes: “The labor force participation rate of prime-aged females (15–64 years old) rose from 19.6% in 1890 to 59.9% in 1980 and the female component of the labor force increased from 17% to 43%…. The expansion of the female labor force … and the rise in the female/male earnings ratio were associated with a growth of national income per capita that exceeded the growth in male earnings by 28%” (1986:557).
More recently, the story is similar—and even more dramatic—among the advanced industrial nations. The Economist analyzed the strongest factors promoting global GDP growth from around 1985 to 2005, titling their findings: “Forget China, India and the Internet: Economic Growth Is Driven by Women” (2006:16). They concluded: “The increase in female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth for the last couple of decades. Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than has either new technology or the new giants, China and India” (16).
The fifth factor, women's economic power, already has been explicated in the theory section.
Finally, the sixth factor is largely cultural, not structural. It involves the normative system, the legal system, the religious sphere, and the overarching ideological system, although women's political and economic disparities often affect the culture, and vice versa. All tend to be mutually reinforcing with respect to the position of women. In my gender stratification theory, I consider these under the rubric of macro-level discount factors. They can drain pennies—or quarters or more—from the power that a woman can obtain from a hypothetical dollar she brings into the household (Blumberg 1984, 1991).
The most important aspect of the macro-level discount factors is that they are still universally negative. They vary considerably by nation and over time, however.
By nation, there is a large variance between, say, Sweden and Saudi Arabia. Sweden's legal and ideological gaps have basically closed. In Saudi Arabia, they remain very large and strong—women still are not allowed to drive, for example. If the remaining macro discount factors cause Swedish women to lose pennies (or even a dime or so) in power from each metaphorical dollar they bring to the household, Saudi women may lose all but that amount. But some benefits still remain when a woman earns income, even if it's much less than her husband's and even if she has, at best, partial control over her earnings.
Over time, we can compare US TV sitcoms from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s with today. It's striking to see how much less equal women were—though some things have changed less. For example, even though American men's time spent in child care has tripled since around 1960 and that spent in housework has doubled (Sullivan and Coltrane 2008), women still do well over half the domestic labor.
Although micro-level discount factors, overall, are less important than the macro ones, their most interesting aspect is that they can be negative or positive. The gender ideology of each partner in a couple—whether it's similar or divergent, and, if divergent, who is the more versus the less egalitarian—can affect power relationships. Two discount factors give more power to the person who has less: relative dependence on the other partner's income and relative commitment to the relationship. Three other micro discount factors give more power to the person who has more: relative assertiveness, relative attractiveness, and relative ability to leave the relationship (poor women in patriarchal societies tend to have limited exit options because jobs are scarce; relatives may not support them over the long term; remarriage, for nonvirgins, may be difficult; and living alone may be both unacceptable and dangerous). But while a raving young beauty whose husband is madly in love with her may have some short-term advantages and while some women dominate a relationship by sheer assertiveness and personality, for the most part women in more gender-unequal places also fall short of equality in micro discount factors.
DISCUSSION: PROSPECTS FOR THE THREE REGIONS
Progress is undeniable in many aspects of the lives of women and girls in these areas, including the closing or, at minimum, narrowing of the education gap (UNESCO 2013–14, tables 5 and 7; Moghadam 2013, tables 4.2 and 4.3). Nonetheless, there are potential or present-day “intensifiers” that could increase rather than decrease the level of women's disadvantage in general and dampen their level of labor force participation in particular. These factors are over and above the slow-changing Weberian ideal type view in the traditionally rain-fed agrarian nations that ideally women should not work (although today, exceptions are made by all but the most conservative for occupations where women teach or tend to the health of other females). Here are three such “intensifiers.”
An oil-based economy: Ross (2008), in a quantitative study of nation-states, has found that when the price of petroleum rises, female labor force participation is lower the following year. Islam is not a factor. Distortion of the economy, however, is: with greater oil income, male activities such as construction skyrocket, along with imports, but there are fewer jobs in female-tilted sectors such as export light manufacturing, including textiles/garments.33
Islamist/jihadist movements: As women become more dependent on men, they have few alternatives to marriage, so they mold themselves to the marriage market. Blaydes and Linzer (2008) studied 18 Muslim nations and found that women lacking job opportunities and financial independence were more likely to support fundamentalist movements. Vedantam (2008) quotes Blaydes: “Women who don't have good job opportunities create economic security for themselves by becoming better marriage-market candidates…. They try to show how pious they are because there is value for piety on the marriage market. When there is a large gap between men's and women's wages, you see higher support for fundamentalism cross-nationally.” A new angle involves extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) that are willing to use force to enforce a completely domestic, dependent role for women.
The region is experiencing a drastic fertility decline. Every country is far, far below replacement level, a total fertility rate (TFR) of around 2.1 children per woman (United Nations 2010). Recent data show fertility rates from a low of 0.93 in Macao (CIA 2014b) to a high of 1.7 in China (World Bank 2014a; the CIA estimate is 1.55). I calculated regional averages of 1.24 (CIA 2014b) or 1.36 (World Bank 2014a). Split the difference and it's 1.3. That's too low. It raises the threat of a huge and growing dependency burden: an aging population supported by too few young workers. This also points toward a shrinking labor force and population (as already seen in Japan). Distorted sex ratios in China and Hong Kong (and in South Korea until recently) exacerbate the situation. It's difficult for men to find wives (Weitzman forthcoming). The distorted sex ratios are harbingers of a possible further fertility crunch because it's the number of fertile females, not males, that's critical to fertility. All these low fertility-related problems could contribute to a possible stagnant economy. And capitalism doesn't do very well if it's standing still.34
It's not that East Asian women don't work—they have done so for millennia in irrigated rice and now work in their nations' increasingly developed capitalist economies. It's that their nations' remaining policies and customs supporting “hegemonic masculinity” (Connell 1995) can make it hard for them to work (see note 34 on Japan). Carrying most of the burden of the “second shift” (Hochschild 1989) without help from husband, government, or employer can prevent many women from having uninterrupted labor force participation and/or a second child. But such low fertility doesn't bode well for maintaining the once-rapid pace of development characterizing the last few decades.
Still, low fertility has had a surprising positive consequence for many young Chinese females despite the negative consequences cited above. Salvatore Babones (pers. comm., May 2014) suggested a fascinating difference between China and India: Chinese parents now invest more in girls than their Indian counterparts. Both have long traditions of male dominance. But China adopted the one-child policy in 1979, causing a very steep drop in fertility—although it was softened a little in November 2013: couples can have a second child if one of them is an only child (Qian and Mai 2014). The one-child policy has been criticized and hailed on various grounds (e.g., Weitzman forthcoming). But as Zhang (2007) has found, Chinese parents with one or two children, including one or two daughters, increasingly are investing in those daughters' education. The reason is that if the daughters subsequently get good jobs, the parents will have a better likelihood of old-age support in a country where the government safety net for the elderly is flimsy and with more than a few holes. So the gender gap in education is gone and female LFP is high—much higher than in India (64 percent vs. 29 percent; World Bank 2014b). (I've had Chinese women grad students tell me that if their families had six children, as in their grandparents' youth, their parents would have invested in their brothers' education—and it would have been the brothers, not them, studying at major US universities.) In contrast, fertility is still considerably higher in India: 2.5 in India vs. 1.7 (or less) in China. Both India and China have distorted sex ratios: 1.12 boys and 1.11 boys, respectively, born per 1.0 girls (CIA 2014c; these are among the world's most distorted, where around 1.05 is considered about the biological average). But Indian parents, with more children than their Chinese counterparts, disproportionately choose to direct most of their investment to sons' education and occupational prospects.
This region is forging ahead with respect to economic growth: The combined GDP of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries rose from $560 billion in 2001 to $2.4 trillion in 2013, and the region's middle class is predicted to balloon from 24 percent in 2010 to 65 percent in 2030 (Siegel 2014:2). And it's more populous than the European Union: the 10 ASEAN nations have 620 million people (US Trade Representative 2014), as compared to 507.4 million for the European Union (Eurostat 2014).
Women have always been economically important in the region and should become more so if export manufacturing continues to thrive. Their entrepreneurial expertise accounts for high proportions of locally owned businesses as well. The proportion of women CEOs in sizable Thai firms was said to be 30 percent, with women constituting 45 percent of middle/upper management—both percentages among the globe's highest (Nation 2011:1). And women's business spirit isn't confined to Thailand. Farther down the economic pyramid, a male village leader in one of the roadside villages beside a newly built road in Laos discussed female entrepreneurs who were using the opportunities the road created to their advantage: “Women travel more than men. They are selling and buying. They keep the money. They are responsible for the economy. They give money to their husbands when husbands ask for it” (Hakangard 1992:30 cited in Ireson 1996:201).
But to sustain economic growth in the future, ASEAN countries must climb the international commodity value chain. Many of the higher-value activities require math and science. Guiso et al. (2008) found that a nation's gender gap in math among 15-year-olds on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests narrowed as its level of gender equality rose: it was widest in Turkey and Korea, the two countries with the lowest Gender Gap Index (GGI) scores, and shrank with increasing GGI scores. There was virtually no gap in Norway and Sweden, and it slightly favored girls in Iceland; these were the three countries with the highest GGI scores.
The 2012 PISA results (OECD 2012) show that girls in Thailand outscore boys by 14 points in math—the highest margin in Asia and the third-highest gap in favor of girls among the 63 nations with PISA scores. Regionally, six East Asian nations had an 11-point math gap in favor of boys. But the five Southeast Asian countries had an average gap of 2.2 points in favor of girls. Girls scored better in three of the five nations: Malaysia, +8 points, Singapore +3, and Thailand +14. In contrast, the three nations with the top girls' scores in Guiso et al. (2008)—Sweden, Norway, and Iceland—had 2012 results as follows: girls ahead by 3 points in Sweden, boys ahead by 2 points in Norway, and girls ahead by 6 points in Iceland (in Finland, girls were ahead by 3 points).
Part of the reason for Thai girls' advantage may be Ministry of Education policy to place students in the high school science/math track on the basis of academic performance; that of girls tends to be higher (Vichit-Vadakan 2014). Recent statistics show that 53 percent of science and math students in Thai higher education are female (United Nations 2013).
Moreover, in Southeast Asia, unlike MENA, females who graduate from college overwhelmingly do join the labor force. Combine female math performance in the region with women's high economic and business involvement, and one result might be a new node for STEM-related endeavors in Southeast Asian countries where girls outperform boys in math and presumably will be paid somewhat less. This is speculative. But there is no question about Southeast Asian women's economic performance.
Ironically, both nations where girls scored over 14 points more than boys are in MENA (no South Asian countries were in the data file): in Jordan, girls did 21 points better than boys, the biggest female advantage among all the 34 OECD countries and 29 non-OECD countries reporting PISA results in 2012. In Qatar, girls outscored boys by 16 points.35 Even more ironically, Jordan has one of the world's lowest female labor force participation rates, a mere 15 percent as compared to the 53 percent world average (see note 22).
The Jordan example shows the enduring power of the dry agrarian Weberian ideal type even today. Jordan is not an oil-rich country, yet only 15 percent of its women are in the labor force—a statistic that dramatically illustrates the additional problems those countries face by excluding most of the female half of their populations as direct contributors to economic growth. “Dry” region fertility is still above replacement. South Asian fertility for the countries in table 1, for example, averages 2.95 (CIA 2014b) or 2.97 (World Bank 2014a)—and Afghanistan, with a TFR of 5.43 (CIA 2014b) or perhaps as low as 5.1 (World Bank 2014a), remains in the world's “fertility top 10.” These nations need to provide jobs for the young men coming of age. The fertility average for MENA is a little lower: 2.7 (calculated from World Bank 2014a). But these figures are still fairly high. And the “dry” region economies often don't generate enough employment to accommodate male youth, even in countries classified as high income by the World Bank. One alternative can be seen in newspaper headlines and on TV screens. As I write this, the Islamic State is fighting to gain more territory in Syria and Iraq, for example.
Although Caprioli makes no claim of causation, there is a very strong inverse correlation between low female LFP and armed conflict: every 5 percent drop in female LFP is linked to an almost 500 percent increase in armed conflict, both internationally (2000) and within countries (2005). This means that a nation with only about 15 percent of its women in the labor force—such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Syria—will have an almost 3,500 percent greater likelihood of armed conflict than a country with around 50 percent of its women in the labor force. Indeed, all recently have been or currently are involved in conflict. If, using the regional averages discussed above, we compare MENA's 27 percent average female LFP rate to the world average of 53 percent (World Bank 2014b; calculations by author), MENA would have more than a fivefold greater likelihood of conflict, i.e., over 2,500 percent higher. South Asia (excluding Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh) averages 26 percent female LFP (see Table 1). It would have a similar fivefold greater risk.
In East Asia, the heritage of a patriarchal past and kin/property system differs in one crucial way from MENA/most of South Asia: it includes irrigated rice. Its women always have been considered “natural” and needed economic actors. In this the region differs from the predominantly “dry” lands of MENA/parts of South Asia. East Asian developing nations jumped into globalization on what Stiglitz (2002) describes as their own terms, using export manufacturing with high levels of women workers as their launching pad. High female LFP and erasure of the gender gap in education have helped propel China, for example, up the global value chain. No longer does it rely on the textile/garment industry as its engine of growth: now it competes with the West in heavier industry and more advanced technology fields. It's not an OECD country. But its flagship Shanghai educational system has the world's highest PISA 2012 math scores, 610 for girls and 616 for boys. Meanwhile, the OECD average scores are 489 for girls and 499 for boys. Simply put, the world's rich countries have both lower performance and a bigger gender gap in scores.
Southeast Asia has followed the same trajectory as East Asia but is currently experiencing much higher rates of growth; Siegel (2014:2) describes ASEAN economies as “blazing.” As it urbanizes and its middle class grows, Southeast Asia, too, will move up the global commodity value chain. It will be helped by its economically empowered, as opposed to merely economically active, women—as well as its long traditions as the region with the globe's highest levels of gender equality. And regional economic growth might be further helped if other ASEAN countries adopt policies similar to those in Thailand that place students in the STEM track in high school by their overall academic performance. Since girls tend to do as well as or better than boys, this has led to more female STEM enrollment in Thai secondary schools and universities. A growing pool of STEM-qualified women (who still would be cheaper to employ than men, given current realities) could staff Southeast Asian firms higher up the global commodity chain than today's textile/apparel factories.
On the leading edge of globalization, we appear to be entering an era in which economic growth increasingly is based on an information-powered economy (Toffler 1990). This may soon also include the spin-offs of our having cracked the DNA code more than a decade ago. In such a world, it seems more than an even bet that the highest rewards will go to countries that gain comparative advantage in these areas. Having both halves of a nation's population well positioned with respect to STEM knowledge as well as entrepreneurship would seem to be a winning formula.36
Europe, as well as England's most successful settler colonies—the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—once had a dry agrarian past. But they didn't have the full Weberian ideal type: the kin/property system never had the male lineages that multiplied men's advantages in the economic, political, religious, and military systems. Then the rise of capitalism and the ensuing industrial revolution created a new techno-economic base (Lenski terms it a new “mode of subsistence”): industrial societies. And those countries led the pack. Every time in history a new base has emerged it has reshuffled the deck, changing the social relations of, and gender division of labor in, production, among many other shifts (Lenski 1966; Nolan and Lenski 2011, Blumberg 1978). East Asia shows that such a kin/property system is not a fatal disadvantage, however, if you also have traditions that productively use both halves of the population—and it's even better if both halves are empowered, not just productive. Whether Southeast Asia will be able to fully capitalize on its structural advantages is unknown; institutions and political actions matter. And bad policies and poor governance can cancel out the potential benefits they bring from their past: both wet-rice and continuing traditions of economically empowered women.
Space limits preclude presenting the data, but studies show that women with more economic power gain more say in conservation decisions in rural areas and tend to opt for more eco-friendly practices (Blumberg 2008, forthcoming a). After all, they're the main haulers of water and, often, firewood in much of the global South and have personal experience of how much harder deforestation, for example, makes their labors.37 Our planet could use stronger voices in favor of a conservation agenda. Also, humanity will benefit from the investments of economically empowered women in their children's human capital, over and above their economic contributions to their nation's GDP.
The good news is that in many countries, including a number in MENA/South Asia, the proportion of women working, earning income, and controlling at least part of it is growing. Even better, that list of nations is increasing faster than the list of nations where women remain economically constrained and least equal and where, at this moment, armed violence is the fiercest.
First, thanks to Valentine Moghadam, whose publications, expertise in MENA, and valuable comments have been a wonderful help in writing this article! Also, while there is no appreciable irrigated rice cultivation in MENA, there are some areas of South Asia where it is important. One example is in parts of East Nepal, in ethnically mixed Indo-Aryan Hindu and Tibeto-Burman areas. And the women farmers in the poor villages we visited (by trekking, after the end of the road) told me that they worked in the fields. It also predominates in Bangladesh, but cultivation has involved male farmers aided by poor male and female hired laborers. As discussed below in the main text, the wives of the farmers and those above them in social class did not traditionally work in the fields. They mostly maintained purdah. Wet-rice also is an important crop in Pakistan, with social class differences in women's participation that are fairly similar to those in Bangladesh. Recently, though, especially in much of the Middle East, strict adherence to purdah has diminished: Moghadam (2013) has written of “patriarchy in crisis” in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of the expansion of “modernizing women,” with indicators such as greater educational attainment, rising age at first marriage, declining fertility, and the growth of feminist organizations.
Regarding equal inheritance, H. Geertz (1961) found some cases (in Java) where males may get more, and Palmer, Subhadhira, and Grisanaputi (1983) describe groups in Northeast Thailand (Isan) with mother-to-daughter transmission of rice land, the most important traditional production resource. More recently, equal inheritance to all children is increasing in Isan; note 31 explains why.
I've calculated regional averages for fertility and female labor force participation, using World Bank and CIA data.
To the quite patriarchal American, British, and French, however, it seemed to be a matriarchy—where women ruled and subjugated men; there is no evidence of any empirical case of women ruling and subordinating men.
Kusterer, Estrada de Batres, and Xuya Cuxil (1981) researched Guatemalan mestiza women workers in the processing plant of the wholly owned subsidiary of a US multinational agribusiness that exported frozen broccoli, cauliflower, and snow peas. They found that the workers controlled their own income and enhanced their independence, self-reliance, and self-esteem, while winning greater respect from their families. In a 1985 follow-up study with Kusterer's research team, I found the same. Since then, I've researched microcredit projects in 16 countries around the world and have documented the same finding among women microentrepreneurs in, e.g., the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Swaziland, and Guinea-Bissau (Blumberg 2001b). In Mexico City, Roldan (1988) found the same in all 53 women she studied who did piecework for garment firms from their homes.
That women who work have more say in household decisions was first found in the United States in 1960 by Blood and Wolfe, although they asked only about full-time versus part-time versus no work, with no question about income. Since then, many sociology of the family studies have provided more empirical support: e.g., Blumstein and Schwartz (1983, 1991) found quantitatively that every dollar of increased income earned by the wife versus the husband gave exactly the same boost in her or his say in household decision making. Moreover, a large literature in the global South also finds an increasing voice in decision making with an increase in a person's income. In most of these countries, however, the wife would get less say from each extra dollar she brought to the household than her husband because of “discount factors” that leach value from her dollar; see discussion of the sixth factor below.
Acharya and Bennett's research on four Indo-Aryan Hindu and four Tibeto-Burman villages in Nepal (1981, 1982, 1983) remains the gold standard. Their economic study of 279 households found that women provided at least half the productive labor in subsistence cultivation but that only women who earned own-account income (mostly Tibeto-Burman long-distance traders) had greater say in economic decision making.
Since Weller's 1968 study in Puerto Rico, a voluminous literature has emerged linking women earning income with their buying/adopting modern contraception (e.g., United Nations 1987; Blumberg 1993; Engelman 2008; United Nations 2010). Engelman asserts that most women prefer fewer children, with wider spacing. But he doesn't discuss how they might achieve this if they don't have income to buy contraceptives where they aren't free, or even the freedom to leave the house to get them if the women are economically dependent and subordinated.
Mencher (1988) found this in a 20-village study in Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southern India. So did Roldan (1988) in her study of Mexico City outworkers: men generally were seen to have a right to money for personal consumption even where the family was quite poor. But Carloni (1984) found that women with no provider responsibilities sometimes spent income on personal jewelry; Maher (1981) found this in Morocco, as did Dey (1981) in the Gambia, where women bought not only jewelry but clothes for themselves and their children. It should be noted, though, that jewelry also can serve a “rainy day” purpose: it can be pawned or sold when times are hard.
I first put this hypothesis in print in 1988 (it was preceded by an unpublished 1986 report for the World Bank). Initially there were only a handful of empirical studies in support. Now there are dozens and dozens, many done by economists. I've been compiling a partial bibliography. It includes both some early studies focusing on nutrition and many newer ones comparing men's and women's spending on children's health, education, and nutrition, singly or in combinations of two or three. Here is my list: Among the early studies were Kumar (1978) on southern India and Tripp (1981) on northern Ghana. Then came Guyer (1988) on Cameroon), Thomas (1990) on Brazil, and Engle (1995) on Guatemala and Nicaragua. Engle's results are the most dramatic: increasing a child's height for age by half a standard deviation took an extra $11.40 a month earned by a mother versus an extra $166 a month earned by the father. Subsequent studies on male versus female spending on nutrition, health, and/or education include Blumberg et al. (1992) on Santiago, Chile; Thomas (1997) on Brazil; Pitt and Khandker (1998) on Bangladesh; Quisumbing and Maluccio (1999, 2000) on Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and South Africa; Panjaitin and Cloud (1999) on Indonesia; Blumberg (2001b) on Ecuador; Davis et al. (2002) on Mexico; Ahmed et al. (2009) on Bangladesh; Helen Keller International (2010) on Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, and the Philippines; Alam (2012) on Bangladesh; and Shroff et al. (2011) on India. Another recent list compiled by the World Bank (2012:39–44) includes (in their order): Haddad, Hoddinott, and Alderman (1997) (a few of the 17 articles discuss countries such as India, Pakistan and the Gambia, but a good share of contributors are economists constructing or critiquing different models); Katz and Chamorro (2003) on Nicaragua and Honduras; Duflo (2003) on South Africa; Hoddinott and Haddad (1995) on Cote d'Ivoire; Lundberg, Pollak, and Wales (1997) on the United Kingdom; Attanasio and Lechene (2002) on Mexico; Rubalcava, Teruel, and Thomas (2009) on Mexico; Doss (2006) on Ghana; and Schady and Rosero (2008) on Mexico.
This section draws on the discussion in Blumberg (forthcoming a).
Consider what has happened in still relatively patriarchal Bangladesh, a wet-rice country. It has the world's highest saturation of microfinance, with overwhelmingly female clients. And Bangladesh now has eliminated the gender gap in primary and secondary education (UNESCO 2013–14). These better-educated females have helped it develop a $20 billion export textile/garment industry, the second largest after China, even though it still has problems with dangerous conditions in its factories (Motlagh 2014). The fertility rate, in a country where the government has long promoted family planning, now is down to 2.2 (World Bank 2014a).
The World Bank provides an example of increased economic impact (2012:35): a palm oil industry has been promoted in Papua New Guinea. Traditional gender roles mean that men climb the trees and harvest the fruits, while women collect those that fall to the ground. But a problem arose: the industry realized that fully 60 to 70 percent of fruit on the ground was not being collected by the women. “They tried multiple initiatives designed to deal with constraints women faced, including giving the women special nets to use, and timing the collection … with women's care duties. None of these worked. Finally, the Mama Lus Frut scheme was introduced whereby women received their own harvest record cards and were paid directly into their personal bank accounts. Yields increased significantly, as did female participation in oil palm harvesting” (35, my emphasis).
A classic example is Henn's (1988) study in Cameroon of a village that got a road versus one that didn't: in the former, women increased their time producing newly marketable perishable foods far more than men, even though the women already worked more hours/week and even though the men's plantains and bananas were much more profitable. But those women made an average net income of $570 from sale of food crops, versus only $225 earned by the women in the village that didn't get a road (Henn 1988:323). A more widespread example involves microcredit projects; as noted, women almost always do better at on-time repayment, resulting in microfinance projects' tendency to feminize.
I've worked with ethnographic data sources since graduate school, including the Human Relations Area Files and individual ethnographies, and I've done considerable quantitative work with Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas database (Murdock 1967). I've also studied and taught “deep history” from foraging/hunting and gathering through preindustrial horticultural and agrarian societies. Beyond that, I work with the relevant literature and statistical compilations.
The plow took about 3,000 years to reach China (conquistadores and colonists later brought it to the Western Hemisphere, Australia, and New Zealand).
These customs, especially sati, tend to be most prevalent and constraining among the elites and the affluent (who can afford to keep women as “birds in gilded cages”; they don't need their productivity, for one thing).
Different countries “count” different activities in female LFP. In Nepal, unpaid family labor in subsistence cultivation is included in LFP in this mainly rural nation in which women do at least half of cultivation (Acharya and Bennett [1981, 1982, 1983] did the classic econometric and ethnographic research, studying four Indo-Aryan Hindu villages—this group constitutes about 80 percent of the population—and four Tibeto-Burman villages). As noted, Bangladesh grows irrigated rice, although traditionally, because of purdah, only poor women worked in the paddy. It also has the world's highest saturation of microcredit, thanks to the Grameen Bank and BRAC, with an almost all-female clientele, and it recently has become the world's second-largest textile/garment exporter after China.
Alphabetically, they are Afghanistan in South Asia (16 percent female LFP) and the following from MENA: Algeria (15 percent female LFP), Iran (16 percent female LFP), Iraq (15 percent female LFP), Jordan (15 percent female LFP), Saudi Arabia (18 percent female LFP), and Syria (14 percent female LFP), according to World Bank (2014b).
Women also are important in postharvest activities, including processing and storage, but these tend to be invisible—in part because they're not done out in the fields where the men would see the women working. Anything done in/around the house is easily interpreted by all concerned as part of a woman's domestic tasks.
C. Geertz, in Agricultural Involution (1963), mentions some methods of increasing rice yields by having more people do more and more work. A larger list includes double- or triple-cropping; harvesting with a sharp knife that can harvest down to single small, pearl-like grains of rice (e.g., the Indonesian bamboo ani-ani knife); draining and refilling the paddy more than once a cropping season; adding fish for fertilizer (and for human consumption), etc.
One reason that peasant women's feet were never bound in southern China's irrigated rice zone is that one effect of foot-binding can be a low-grade, long-term infection. This could have killed those women working in the muddy water of the paddies, especially since peasants often added fish to the paddy: they provided protein for people's diet, and the feces provided fertilizer for the rice but could have done in women with infected bound feet.
See Blumberg (1984:57–61). The “strategic indispensability” factors include (1) the importance of the women producers' activities; (2) the importance of the women producers themselves; (3) the extent to which they control technical expertise; (4) the extent to which they work autonomously from close male supervision; (5) the size, nature, and cohesiveness of the women's work groups, which affect (6) the extent to which women producers are able to organize on their own behalf; and (7) the extent of competition for the women producers or their output.
Schwede (1991) lists nine threats to its matrilineal system successfully overcome to date: (1) integration into the world economy, (2) monetarization, (3) colonialism, (4) capitalism, (5) individualization, (6) changes in inheritance of earned property, (7) Islamist reform movements, (8) modernization, and (9) population pressure. Eisler (1987) writes that some matrilineal descent systems may be resistant to involuntary change: e.g., the people in what became Greece had a matri-oriented system and goddess worship in their early horticultural days. They were invaded by three waves of patrifocal Kurgan herders beginning ~6,300 years ago (Gimbutas 1980, 1982). The patrifocal Achaeans invaded between 3,900 and 3,600 years ago. Yet when Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia trilogy over 2,400 years ago in the fifth century BCE “to influence, and alter, people's view of reality” (Eisler 1987:81), he was still justifying the invaders' imposed patri-system. He has Athena (born full-grown from the forehead of her father, Zeus) cast the tie-breaking vote when 12 male Athenian jurors split 6-6 on whether Orestes is guilty of murdering his mother, Queen Clytemnestra. Athena says, “I am always for the male with all my heart, and strongly on my father's side” (Aeschylus 1953:161 cited in Eisler 1987:78) and describes the mother as irrelevant, “only nurse of the new planted seed that grows” (Aeschylus 1953:158 cited in Eisler 1987:78). Then she votes to absolve Orestes of guilt for killing his mother, because she is no blood relative. And seven of the ten largest American Indian tribes (still) remain matrilineal: Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Apache, Iroquois, Pueblo, and Creek (Axtell 1981; Coltrane and Collins 2001; Sioux, Blackfeet, and Chippewa are patrilineal). Patri-oriented groups also resist attempts to change the kin/property system. Some 75 percent of sub-Saharan African groups are patrilineal/patrilocal, with land passing through the male line (Elondou-Enyegye and Calves 2006). A number of countries have passed inheritance laws giving women rights to inherit land but haven't eliminated “customary law” from their statutes or constitutions. And male-favoring “customary law” means that in rural areas new laws giving women inheritance rights to land are rarely enforced (Blumberg 2004c).
It should be stressed that Mohammed was a reformer. In the early 600s in his native Arabian peninsula, women did not inherit at all (Griffith 2001). Mohammed decreed half-share inheritance for women and proclaimed that a woman could work in any occupation compatible with sharia; he also said that she had the right to her earnings.
In Thailand's Northeast (Isan), where I've done research several times, inheritance of rice land long passed from mothers to daughters, with the youngest daughters receiving a double portion in return for caring for their parents until they died, at which point they also would inherit the house, which came with the highly auspicious household spirits. This made youngest daughters very desirable catches for ambitious young men. Only recently, with children preferring education and urban life to the hardship and toil of irrigated rice cultivation, has the inheritance system shifted/been shifting to equal inheritance for all children (Palmer et al. 1983; Blumberg 2001a).
Japan (where deflation hit in the 1990s) has had a relatively flat economy and, more recently, a shrinking population. It is struggling to maintain the size of its labor force (hence, for example, Prime Minister Abe's recent push to get more women into the workforce and his target to raise the proportion of women managers to 30 percent). But Japan is not dealing with some underlying problems that make it tough for women to remain in the labor force over the long haul. Most men work long hours and offer little help at home. Women who need child care for babies, toddlers, and preschool children in order to remain in the labor force are faced with a great shortage that the government has not addressed squarely. Nor has the government seriously dealt with the growing need for elder care. Women also are expected to tutor their school-age children for the highly competitive—and important—exams, even if they feel they must leave the labor force to do so. They're likely to return to second-tier types of low-paid, sometimes precarious employment. Given Japan's reluctance about immigration, abundant visas for child and elder caregivers are unlikely in the short run. And so is a surge in fertility.
Of the two remaining MENA countries in the 2012 PISA, girls outscored boys in the UAE by 4 points and boys outperformed girls by 12 points in Turkey. Why do girls in the most conservative MENA countries with the lowest female LFP rates score so well against boys (e.g., Jordan, Qatar, UAE)? The PISA scores presented here are of 15-year-olds. It's possible that in those more patriarchal countries, girls who are 15 and still in secondary school constitute a highly select group: smart, hardworking, and with parents willing to permit them to continue.
Cutting down the trees also can dramatically reduce rainfall and lower the water table. I saw this when I worked on the first actual development project in northern Uganda (that wasn't humanitarian aid) after the ceasefire that ended 23 years of war and horrendous atrocities by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The government was quickly clearing the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps of all except those unable to care for themselves. People went back to their villages, glad to be free of the IDPs, only to find that troops on both sides had logged the trees for income. In the villages we visited, the bore-wells were useless: due to the deforestation, the water table had dropped below the bottoms of the wells. Women had to spend hours each day bringing insufficient water from often distant, polluted streams. But the overgrown roads had to be rehabilitated before machinery could be brought in to dig the wells deeper. So it could be a long time before the women's burdens could be eased: we found that they averaged two trips a day, often several kilometers a trip, carrying 25 liters (55 pounds) each time, i.e., hauling 50 liters (110 pounds) long distances every day (Blumberg 2010).