India’s Missing Women

A review essay for the July 7-14, 2014 issue of The Nation: The way women navigated the boundary between the home and the world was a question with great resonance and imaginative significance for India’s anti-colonial struggle during the first half of the twentieth century. (The title that Rabindranath Tagore gave his 1916 novel about a progressive landowner who nudges his reluctant wife out of purdah, only to be cuckolded, was The Home and the WorldGhare Baire in Bengali.) As India wrestles with what is frequently cast by parties across the political spectrum as a new foreign onslaught, through the influence of global capital and Western culture, the free movement of women between the private and public spheres continues to be central to the nation’s reckoning with itself. Does the growing visibility of women in public explain the increased sexual violence against them? Or, to the contrary, does their relative ongoing invisibility continue to make them vulnerable? Two and a half decades ago, just as India was opening itself up to free-market capitalism, Sen coined the phrase “missing women” to describe the acute gender imbalance rooted in bias against females that existed across much of Asia. But the term can be applied as much to the women missing from India’s streets as to those missing from its population.

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