Geographers claim that ‘geography matters’ in the social lives of people. However, our understanding of how it matters is always dependent on the role we assign to geography and how exactly it works. One way is to look at social institutions as shaped in response to geographical factors. Alternatively, geography may be traced to the indirect influences on the evolution of institutions. Undeniably, such interaction is not a straightforward process. Not only does institutional change take place over a long span of time, the relationship between geography and social institutions is ambivalent, making the interactive mechanisms between the two too complex to analyse simplistically.
We now agree that a location or place is not just a stage where human actions unfold; instead, a place does leave a distinct mark on people through symbolic metaphors that are shared and endorsed by those who occupy the place. This note is based on the assumption that geography can never be mute. In exploring the contributing factor of geography, I would like to highlight the differences in how women are traditionally treated in different parts of India—by and large in the Indo-Gangetic Plains on one hand and the three southern states (corresponding to the Krishna-Kaveri Delta) on the other. But prior to the analysis, let me confess that a) this analysis is essentially speculative and deals with macro processes, and b) the empirical data used are conventional indicators to assess women’s comparative advantage in the South over the North in India. Undoubtedly, the recent processes of social change are signalling the blurring of the distinctions between the north and the south.
That the South treats women in a more gender-egalitarian manner as compared to the North, reflected through social indicators, is well-documented academically (Table 1). Regional differences have been talked about in literature. However, most studies stop at that, and rarely, if ever, attempt to answer the ‘why so’ question. Here is an attempt to do so.
Joseph Schwartzberg, a historical geographer by profession, offers some clues regarding the land characteristics in northern India. In his seminal work on the Historical Atlas of South Asia, covering the full range of Indian history, from 500 BC to 1970 AD, he mapped all the regional powers which have either occupied major parts of India (which he called Pan-Indian Powers) or parts of it (Supra-Regional Powers). Accordingly, seven out of nine dynasties that attained the Pan-Indian status in terms of extending their control over major parts of India had their location in the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Control over the Plain, according to him, meant acquiring the surest regional base for attaining undisputed hegemony over the Indian subcontinent. The explanation offered for the commanding position of the North Indian Plain is its richness in natural resources, ideal soil and climate for agriculture, vast negotiable terrain for easy mobility and navigable rivers. In contrast, the limited land in the South was divided into much smaller distinctive ecological niches referred to as nadus. There are some 550 such localities which have been identified and mapped (these nadus were ‘ethnically’ or ‘tribally’ organised which also meant collective ownership of land within them).
Given the expansive lay of the land in northern India, controlling it may have been of paramount importance for which complex institutional structures were carefully crafted. These were necessitated to ensure that those who would occupy the land, would consolidate, expand and legitimise their hold on it. Apart from military, law and order and other more overt arrangements, socially sanctioned strictures and rules were meant to act as regulatory mechanisms for social transactions.
Marriage as a pervasive institution and other related transactions offer a clue. In my opinion, marriage rules and transactions act as ‘instrumental tools’ for political consolidation and appropriation of land. If so, the socially instituted codes of conduct, norms and practices would be placed in such a manner that they become central, not to the act of marriage and reproduction per se, but towards helping build strategic alliances over space and caste/class hierarchies. In other words, rules which solemnises marriages would be such that they would facilitate lateral expansion, either symbolically and/or in the form of actual occupation.
No wonder then, village exogamy (marrying outside the village) and hypergamy (giving daughters in marriage to hierarchically superior families within the caste) are the norms in traditional north Indian marriages. Village exogamy refers to the geographic ‘circle of exclusion’, an area in and immediately around the women’s village which is excluded as an area for obtaining bridegrooms. Research shows that this area of exclusion is much larger in northern India as compared to the South.
How does such exclusion translate in terms of ground reality? Marrying outside the village would mean expanding one’s contact area; marrying hypergamously would mean establishing a network with relatively more influential kith and kin. It is not very difficult to imagine that men would dominate in such transactions which are often seen as the most defining features of how patriarchy and patriarchal structures work. If exogamous marriage alliances are a way to consolidate one’s hold over space—if they were central to extending and expanding ties, contacts and networks, it can be argued that under such circumstances, women’s position would be lowered in the overall solemnisation of the ritual as they became secondary or the means to an end. Hence, in the process bridegrooms and their families would be placed at a much higher pedestal. Compared to this situation, village exogamy is not the case in much of south India where women marry closer to their natal homes. Cross cousin marriages are also in vogue in the south. Rather than lateral expansion, marriages within close kin mean the vertical spread of lineage in a clannish fashion in the South.
When one looks at marriage rituals, ethnographical and anthropological research supports such a proposition. The basic structural difference between the northern and southern rituals of marriage is that the southern rites are primarily aimed at promoting procreation—the future fertility of the women whereas the northern ceremony is to enhance the prestige of the man. The symbolism encoded in the pageantry of conquest, common to North Indian weddings in general and to Rajput-influenced marriage customs in particular also conveys the inferiority of bride-givers to bride receivers, which is virtually absent from weddings in the south.
Once the historical background is provided, subsequent events in Indian history reinforce the regional ethos to which people of different communities adhered to. The effect of place is visible on child sex ratios, which is a proxy societal valuation of girls. Although the actual child sex ratios may vary, yet they are similar for Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities. The primacy of region over religious differences has been brought out by many scholars. This is not to say that localised and communal variations are unimportant, but they do not occur in contextual isolation and are related in complex ways to the larger societal realm.
Social institutions act as the connections between material realities and ecological characteristics of the lay of the land. Together, they manifest themselves in creating a regionally embedded gendered realm in India. If ecological and material realities are behind the regional differences in the position of women in India, as I argue they are—would similar ecological and material realities either at a macro-scale or in isolated pockets elsewhere produce similar outcomes? Potentially less promising lands in North India, such as Uttarakhand suggests this to be the case where women related indicators are relatively better as compared to the plains districts of Uttar Pradesh.
Perhaps what I propose makes sense, but questions do remain: how once-established gendered social structure continues to survive through time; what are the ongoing processes that reinforce/challenge patriarchy; how are the signs of recent obliteration of regional patterns, as is the case with child sex ratios, to be understood? These are complex issues, to which I have no immediate answers. But they do suggest potential areas for research in future.