During a visit to Pakistan in June 2006, I was eagerly quizzed about the latest gossip from the Hindi film industry. That I expected. But what was perhaps more interesting was the array of questions that I had to field on the soap operas being churned out by the Ekta Kapoor factory and its many clones.
A young student told me how he avoided being at home late in the evening. There were two television sets in his house and both had Indian family dramas running on them at full blast. He and his friends found peace in the street below.
Another young Pakistani told me of a showdown in her orthodox Muslim family during a wedding: The bride insisted on wearing a bindi and having a sangeet ceremony. She had been watching too much of the saas-bahu stuff.
These memories came flooding back when I came across a new paper by Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago. These two economists have tried to examine what the spread of cable television has done for the status of women in India.
As in Pakistan, television serials seem to have the most unexpected effects on social life in rural India.
Jensen and Oster have examined panel data for five states between 2001 and 2003, the years when cable television spread rapidly in rural India. What they found is truly astonishing.
Exposure to cable television significantly changed the attitudes of rural women—and for the better. Jensen and Oster say that women were less prone to accept domestic violence, were keener to go out on their own and to take part in household decisions, and were less likely to prefer giving birth to a son rather than a daughter. Actual decisions, too, changed. More girls went to school. Fertility, which is linked to the independence of women, declined.
Why does this happen? Jensen and Oster say that most of the shows on satellite television “portray life in urban settings”. There is also the added exposure to global programming and hence lifestyles. Exposure to this more modern and liberated style of life seems to rub off on rural women. Within two years of the introduction of cable television in the sample villages, 45-70% of the gap between the attitudes and behaviour of rural and urban women disappeared.
These findings have more than sociological interest. There is also good news for the economy. If what the two economists have observed were replicated across the country, it would mean the emergence of a healthier, more assertive and independent rural woman. Besides the sheer inhumanity of the situation, the fact that most women have fewer rights than men is also a drag on the economy. One result of this is that labour participation rates for Indian women are very low, especially when compared with China and the rest of East Asia.
The Indian workforce needs more feminization. There is ample evidence to show how growing female participation in the workforce has helped East Asia’s export boom.
This is true even of the rich countries. In its 12 April 2006 issue, The Economist even went so far as to say: “… over the past decade or so, the increased employment of women in developed economies has contributed much more to global growth than China has.”
We have got the debates all wrong. Usually, it is argued that faster economic growth will help empower women in the long run. Recent research by economists suggests that it is the other way round—empowered women will help push economic growth to new heights. The question is how this can be done. And that’s where the findings about the impact of cable television on the attitudes and behaviour of rural Indian women help. Can cable television serials be a catalyst for change?
Thanks to a brother-in-law who runs the most successful Marathi entertainment channel today, I knew that cable television changes the way people behave. The one example he loves to give is the colours and furniture used in middle-class Maharashtrian homes today. They are the rich modern colours and contemporary furniture depicted in his serials, a far cry from the dull décor of the traditional middle- class home. Mindsets have changed.
Like most urban men, I love to scoff at the family sagas that dominate television in the evening. A former colleague of mine used to argue that we were wrong in our assumption that these serials were regressive in their portrayal of women. She always insisted that beneath the traditionalist garb, the Ekta Kapoor serials portrayed remarkably independent women. What Jensen and Oster have found in their research shows that she was right after all.
Smriti Irani and Saakshi Tanwar as drivers of long-term economic growth. Now, that’s a thought!
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