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Asian Woman Essay, Research Paper

Female infanticide was a major social problem faced by Chinese and Indian women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but how did British colonialism help to bring about important changes for women in these two great nations?

The arrival of British colonialism in China and India provided a major catalyst of change for women and their roles in society which helped to change the viewpoint of many parents during the time. Before the time of colonialism in the nineteenth century social issues for women were dealt with very poorly, and in some cases lethally. Being born a female in China or India was a very hazardous affair due to the common practice of female infanticide where both cultures regarded having a son much more beneficial to the family than having a daughter.

Being born a girl in China was a very unhealthy thing since female infanticide was very common, especially among the lower classes. Not only was a female child an expense to raise, but later she needed a dowry to marry, and her most productive years were devoted to her husband’s family and not her own. Therefore, some parent’s attitude to children is such that when they bear a son they congratulate each other, but when they bear a daughter they kill her. Both children come from the parent’s love, but they congratulate each other when it is a boy and kill it if it is a girl because they are considering their later convenience and calculating their long-term interests. It is impossible to draw a full and accurate picture of what happened to baby girls in China at any given time; all that is certain is that this form of discrimination against women, carried out at childbirth or in very early childhood, persisted in varying degrees over hundreds of years, using techniques that were equally unchanging, whether by drowning in “baby-ponds,” immersion in cold or boiling water, suffocation, strangulation, burying alive, or more commonly, abandonment or exposure.

The preference for sons and the disfavor for daughters was also a phenomenon that impacted India as well, and is best exemplified in North India. Sons, especially in rural North Indian context were economic, political and ritual assets; daughters in most respects were considered liabilities. Sons were needed for farming the land, or, if they emigrated, were valuable sources of remitted income. Sons played important roles in power struggles over land boundaries and rights to irrigation water. Sons often stayed with the family after marriage and thus provided security for the parents in their old age; North Indian daughters married out of their natal villages and could provide no support for their families of birth. Sons brought in dowries, which often contained large amounts of cash and could be used by the parents of the groom; daughters drained family wealth by requiring dowries upon marriage and constant flow of gifts to their family of marriage for years thereafter. Therefore, due to the widely embraced viewpoint that girls were seen as a financial liability for most Indian households it is very evident in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that female infanticide was practiced by a large proportion of the North Indian population. According to some estimates one-fourth of the population in the northwestern plains region allowed no daughter to survive while the remaining three-fourths of the population did nothing to alter the sex ration of their offspring.

British colonialism both directly and indirectly had an affect on this deadly social problem. As for China there were many factors that helped to shift the practice of female infanticide from commonplace to unlawful and unpractical. Through the avenues of government, religion, and the workplace the lives of Chinese women became much safer. One of the first mentions of government involvement in this issue was on February 19, 1838, when the lieutenant-governor of Guangdong issued a proclamation which stated that he had found the frowning of female children common, and that even the wealthy practiced it. For the poor, he claimed, poverty was reason enough. Girls were simply a source of increasing expenditure, which they could not afford, whereas the rich simply argued that they were of no worth because they could never be raised to any important post in the household. He sent admonitions and instructions to all the departments and districts of the province to inquire into the practice and prohibit it. Protestant missionaries were the first foreigners to register a serious and prolonged concern at female infanticide, and strong criticism of the practice appeared consistently in their numerous accounts of China. Many missionaries related the practice to paganism as well as to poverty. Adele Fielde, a missionary who wrote such perceptive and vivid accounts of the lives of a number of Chinese women during the 1880’s, made some attempt to ascertain “the extent of a great crime” and concluded that:

The causes of this crime are two, poverty and superstition. The acceptance of Christianity brings about a cessation from child-murder, because it destroys the superstition, which is its cause, leading the parents to depend on God, not on male descendants, for comfort in the life to come. It does not alleviate poverty, but it presents life in a new aspect.

The slow shift to a more industrialized China created a demand for women’s labor in the new factories and more girls were being used in domestic industry, and the fact that some families now began to see girls as an economic asset undoubtedly increased their chances of survival. Aside from these three important points other contributing factors would have included a growing awareness of the rights of the individual and the rights of women, increasing emphasis on the young, a decline in the strict observance of the age-old ideal of filial piety, and the passing of new laws granting equal status to men and women in China.

There are equally sharp differences of opinion about the changes that were brought about by the arrival of colonialism in India in regards to the position of women. Some regard these changes as profound and pervasive; they point to the increasing participation of women in the workplace and to the changes introduced in their legal status. Others maintain that the position of women has changed very little and that Indian society continues to be a male-dominated society. The arrival of industrialism to India created a new kind of economy where women played a more important role due to European cultural influence in a shift from household to specialized workshops and industries. In India, where spinning and weaving for own use were suitable jobs for men, textile industries have mainly male workers, but in Europe where home spinning and weaving were female occupations, men regard spinning and weaving as proper for women only, and all textile industries are “female industries” with few, if any, male workers, except for supervisory work, repair of machines, etc. Some Indian textile industries started with recruitment of large numbers of women, because their first owners were Europeans or under European cultural influence. Economic development does not only move certain activities away from the household to specialized workshops and industries, it affects also the amount of work done in the home. Some activities, which used to be subsistence production, become a source of money income as larger quantities are produced for sale. For instance, some crops become cash crops and some home crafts and services may be performed for other households in the local community. If the cash cropping or the craft which is now performed for sale was hitherto produced by men (or women as the case may be), the work load will now tend to get heavier and they may need help from the other sex in some operations. It was the passage of new laws protecting baby girls from infanticide brought about by the arrival of colonialism and a very rapid increase for the demand of women’s labor in the workplace, giving parents some hope that having a girl would not be such an economical drain on the family, that helped abate the frequencies of infanticide in India during this time. However, even though India was under pressure of colonial rule from the late nineteenth century to the present time, the practice of direct female infanticide abated, only to be supplanted by the practice of indirect female infanticide through the fatal neglect of female children. In rural North India there is today still a marked imbalance in the number of boys to girls.

As we can see both China and India both had a serious problem with female infanticide in their societies and that the arrival of British colonialism brought about some profound changes in this horrific social practice by means of government intervention and by changing the idea that raising girls would be a financial burden to the family. Although these European influences help to change things for Chinese and Indian women it was still practiced in both nations due to firm beliefs and tradition. Overall the arrival of British colonialism to these two great nations may have brought with it corruption and exploitation on one hand, but on the other it brought about some very important social and ethical changes that helped the women in these nations by condemning the brutal practice of female infanticide during the time.

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