Published On:13 May 2012
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Why Do India’s Muslims Have a Better Sex Ratio Than Hindus?

By Rupa Subramanya

Bollywood actor Aamir Khan managed to do what the Indian census, countless academic papers and seminars and commentators like me have failed to do: put the issue of son preference, sex selection and female feticide on the nation’s radar screen. In the much anticipated and talked about debut episode of his talk show “Satyameva Jayate,” on Star Plus, one of India’s most popular cable channels, Mr. Khan, who’s now being called India’s Oprah Winfrey, kicked off his show with exactly these issues. From what I saw it was riveting viewing, on a Sunday morning, too.

The evidence is certainly alarming. As the most recent census 2011 data show, the sex ratio for children under the age of six was 914 girls against 1,000 boys, which represents a worsening from the 2001 census in which the sex ratio was 927 girls per 1,000 boys. In a natural world with no sex selection, the sex ratio should be approximately 1,020 males per 1,000 females. This is evolution’s way of correcting for the fact that boys suffer higher infant mortality than girls, so the sex ratio is balanced by the onset of early adulthood.

An interesting twist to the sex selection saga is that India’s Muslims have close to normal sex ratios, not nearly as skewed as the population at large or upper caste Hindus in particular. According to the most recent data that’s been analyzed from the 2001 census, the sex ratio among Hindus, who account for almost four-fifths of the population, was 931. The comparable ratio for Muslims, who make up less than 15% of the population, was 936. This difference appears small but is it statistically or economically important? As a side note, Christians, accounting for a little more than 2% of the population had an even better sex ratio, skewed towards normality at 1,009. When the numbers from the 2011 census are crunched, we’ll know if these trends have changed.

You might think that a difference of five extra girls per 1,000 boys doesn’t make much of a difference, but that would be wrong. A 2009 study by economists Sonia Balhotra, Christine Valente and Arthur van Soest investigates what they call the “puzzle of Muslim advantage in child survival in India.” The puzzle relates to the fact that Muslims in India on average have lower socio-economic status than Hindus. Economists generally assume that all good things go together, so that higher economic status is correlated with better performance across the board. To put it more sharply, a conventional view is also that Islam oppresses women. But this evidence belies that cherished belief.

There’s persuasive statistical evidence that the difference of five girls in 1,000 boys isn’t a fluke or an anomaly. This is interpreted as evidence as Muslim culture or values work to lessen the impact of son preference compared to the majority Hindu community. This certainly sounds plausible but could something else be at work?

One important factor could be fertility. Different measurements — whether of birth rate or total fertility — show markedly higher fertility among Muslims than Hindus. Why is this important?
It’s because we know that higher fertility in turn is correlated with lessened son preference and is intuitively obviously why. A family that has decided to have only one child but has a culturally inherited preference for a boy is highly likely to engage in female feticide, or worse still, infanticide, to ensure that their one and only child is a boy. This is exactly the story of the perverse effects on the sex ratio of China’s one child policy, as documented graphically by journalist and writer Mara Hvistendahl. Her important recent book “Unnatural Selection” has fast become a classic reference on the topic. By comparison, a family that wants to have four or five kids or more isn’t so particular about what comes first, a boy or a girl, in terms of “birth order.” If you’re fertile enough, you’ll eventually produce that highly desirable boy.

This possibility leads to what economists call “reverse causality” or “omitted variables.” In simpler terms, it might be that Muslim families have more normal sex ratios than Hindus because they have bigger families. The channel through which religion and culture affect son preference is probably subtler, which is that Islam discourages Muslims from using contraception and that’s why they may have larger families as a result.

At the heart of this are deeply engrained cultural norms, values and beliefs that filter the way people respond to economic incentives, whether you’re Hindu, Muslim or anything else. How do you get people to change deeply held beliefs and prejudices?

Recently economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth have argued that anti-Semitism in Germany has such deep roots that its effects are still found in attitude surveys today, but there are big regional differences. They point to one policy intervention that seemed to have helped lessen anti-Semitism: a more nuanced and soft grained “denazification” regime after the Second World War. The more pragmatic approach in the British sector of occupied Germany went after the “big fish” (major Nazi war criminals), which contrasts with the aggressive American approach (of trying to denazify just about everyone who had belonged to the party) that fueled a backlash. The map of today’s Germany still bears the imprints of these different policies: areas that were part of the British sector show much less anti-Semitism in surveys today than those that were part of the American sector. At least at the margin this helped soften anti-Semitism.

Perhaps Mr. Khan’s television debut might just be such a nuanced and pragmatic beginning to changing centuries of beliefs in son preference.

(Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on May 13, 2012. Filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on May 13, 2012. Filed under , , , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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