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The Changing Status Of Indian Women

Info: 4015 words (16 pages) Essay
Published: 28th Apr 2017 in History

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Historiography went throughout massive changes in 20th century especially after Second World War. Political history was replaced and challenged by socio-cultural history which broadening perspective towards theoretical innovations and brought new fields into historiography, most notably gender history which brought to historiography in the form of women history. However gender studies is an independent discipline which brought fifty percent of the population into the focus of historical studies that was previously generally gender blind or simply masculine. Women history is the study of the role that women played in history which includes the growth of women rights as recorded in history and the examination of an individual woman of historical significance and the effects of historical events on women. Women history emerged as a independent disciplines in 1960s or 1970s because, the traditional historical writing have minimized and ignored the contribution of women and also the effects of historical events on women as a whole, in this respect, women history is often a from of historical revisionism seeking to challenge the traditional historical consensus. History was written mainly by men and about men’s activities in public spheres politics, war and diplomacy and aministration.Women was usally mentioned or portrayed in stereotyped role such as mother, wives, daughter and mistress. [1] 

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In Indian history we can get references about the role of women from the beginning of the Indus valley civilization, the first known civilization of India which said to have flourished in 25th century BC. As per historical evidences peoples of this valley worshiped natural forces and divine power were mostly feminine. Nature was often called by term ‘mother’. Mother goddess was the first worshiped deity in the Indus valley. Indus community was basically matriarchal so there was no existence of the gender discrimination. Men and women both were engaged in food gathering which was the main economic activity that reveals equal participation of both in daily economic life. [2] 

The essence of the Vedic period as reflected in Vedic literature like four Vedas namely Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharvam and their different branches like Brahmanas and Upanishads.The Early Vedic age which begins from 1500 B.C. and the post-Vedic age which extends from 1000 B.C. to 500 B.C. The word ‘Veda’ primarily means “knowledge”, which virtually signifies sacred knowledge or scripture. During the Rig-Vedic or Early Vedic age that most of the hymns of the Rig-Veda were composed. It was in the later Vedic period that the Brahmanas, the three other Vedas and the Upanishads were composed. [3] 

During the Vedic era the patriarchal culture superseded the matriarchal culture and gender discrimination being introduced in the society, but the Rig-Veda reflect a stage where women enjoyed equal status of man and the Vedic sacrifices were jointly performed by both men and women. [4] But patriarchy never suppressed women rights and privileges. Girls were given education from 4th century BC. There were no references about child marriage in Rig-Vedic era. [5] If any girl wants to continue her education without marriage they were allowed to do so. There are two types of educated wise women were in Vedic period Brahmavadinis and Sadyodvahas. Many educated women became teacher in Vedic period they are called ‘Upadhyayinis’. Lopamudra was a famous women preacher who composed 179 hymns of Rig-Veda jointly with Agasthya. According to Dr Roy choudhury “women not only composed hymns but were also well-versed in sacred texts. Women also learnt music and dancing” [6] The Vedic peoples were not conscious about gender power- politics and conflict at that time because Vedic society was then at a developing stage not in a complex mode.

Widow’s remarriage was permitted in the Rig-Vedic society. Rig-Veda mentioned several hymns like “the widow who lay on the pyre by the side of her dead husband was asked to come to the world of the living.” [7] Rig-Veda also gave references about the freedom of women in Vedic society; they attended all religious festivals and fairs with their loved ones. The Aryans believed that”… the wife and the husband being the equal halves of one substance were regarded equal in every respect and both took equal part in all duties, religious and social.” [8] During Vedic age inter-caste marriage took place in the society. According to D.N Jha “…in one case the father was a priest, the mother grinder of corn and the son a physician, all three lived happily together.” [9] 

But the degradation of women status was started in the later Vedic period. We can get references about post Vedic society from the Brahmanas, Upanisads and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Smriti writers Manu, Yajnavalkya began to favour seclusion of women. Social customs and tradition were reinforced by the law-givers which degraded the position of women and the gender discrimination has begun. Indian society was based on caste system where Brahmins are preoccupied the top most position. Where Jain and Buddhist religion tried their best to bring equality in the society there Brahminical religion began to enforce strict moral code for their followers. Patriarchal families became powerful during this period and restrict women’s activities. They were “looked down upon as a temptation and hindrance in their march towards higher development.” [10] 

The child widow were forcedly live a life with full of restriction which marred them physically and mentally, and from the 1st century AD the law givers prohibited widow remarriage. The writer of ‘Arthasastra’ kautilya considered women as a child bearing machine and encouraged pre-pubescent marriages which damaged child bride mentally and physically because she was not physically fit to conceive a child and the adolescent pregnancy carries higher risk due to toxaemia (Organic Blood Poisoning), Cephalo-pelvic disproportion* and uterine inertia (uterine inertia that occurs when the uterus fails to contract with sufficient force to effect continuous dilation or effacement of the cervix or descent or rotation of the fetal head, and when the uterus is easily indentable at the acme of contraction). Other disorders which affect children born to young mothers are CNS malformation (Central Nervous System) and CVS malformation which involves the cardiovascular system. The effects of physical health also effects women self-confidence level. Now they were only capable of producing child and managing household affairs and their other socially useful activities prevailed.

According to Romila Thapar Manu was felt that the inter-caste marriage would pollute the Aryan society. So “…to avoid pollution, you must control birth… but you lose control over birth, if you lose control over women” [11] Manu also makes some provision for punishment of a woman by her husband if she makes any faults. She should be beaten by rope or by bamboo. Manu never sanctioned widow remarriage because she should remain faithful to her husband’s memory but the widower could marry again.

In Rig-Vedic time’s women was denied the right of inheritance. But ‘Putrika’ could inherit her father’s wealth. The ‘Niyoga’ system was encouraged where women was forced to marry her brother-in-law to safeguard property rights. In Vedic and post Vedic age’s women married and unmarried daughter had some rights of inheritance but a widow, as well as wife, had no claim over her husband’s property. Marriage became compulsory for Hindus. And the patriarchal system tended to keep the status of women at a low level, and the emergence of the joint family with special property rights for the male members reinforced male dominance. [12] The Rig-Vedic concept of ‘Sahadharmini’ was replaced by ‘Pativrata Dharma’. This began a master- slave relationship between husband and wife. The right of choice of life partner was also taken away from woman. Manu in 2th century B.C insisted that women should always controlled by his male superior, in child age she must be controlled by her father, then after by his husband in her youth and in old age she must be controlled by his sons. [13] 

The Buddhist age witnessed a serious change in the status of Indian women. Gautama Buddha made the adoption of daughters valid which squashed the general belief that the birth of son was indispensible to attain salvation. Apart from this women were accepted as nun in the Buddhist monasteries. Admission of women into the monastic order secured for them a religious status and they played a vital role in propagating Buddhism. Buddha was allowed women to marry man of her choice and also gave the wife the right to inherit the husband’s property. Buddhism also permitted divorce in some special cases. Buddhism also legalizing the right of unmarried daughter to the inherit father’s property in the absence of a son which provided women economic independence.

Buddha also encouraged widow remarriage and finally in 12th century A.D the widows right of inheritance was recognize. Buddhism also gave prostitutes legal status by admitted them in Sanghas life, now they could live a life of alms-women. There were separate rules obviously discriminatory for men women who wanted to join the Buddhist Sanghas. In the annual ‘Upostha Ceremony’ Buddhism also reveals the prejudice against women. Another discriminatory rule is mentioned in Sulla Vogga according to which “the official admonition by an alms-woman is forbidden, whereas the official admonition of an alms woman by a monk is not forbidden.” [14] Buddhism improved the status of at least a section of women who embraced that religion. The majority of women at that time lived in abject subordination, under the restraints imposed by Brahmanical religion. But the overall development in women’s life and work soon eclipsed by the reassertion of Brahmanical religion.

Buddhism never tried to abolish existing social order. The two main joint forces which degrade women position are joint family and caste system remained unalterable. That’s why some scholar has argued that the Buddhism was failed to understand the situation of woman from the angle of social justice. “If justice were to be really done mere laws are not sufficient. It takes a total re-orientation in judicial thinking and attitude, if gender justice is to be done…” [15] 

During the early medieval period the status women were gone lower and she was regarded equal status of Sudras. The smriti writers prohibited intercaste marriages. After Muslim invasion “…Indian religion and social customs were faced with a system which was equally formulated and definite.” [16] Which resulted caste system was became more rigid. Occupation now began to determine by birth. Now the lower society of Hindu castes was got an opportunity to assert their dignity by convert to the religion of equality i.e. Islam. That’s way Islam was spread very fast in some parts in India. Women dependence to her husband and was a prominent features of this period. Indian women now have lost their access to Streedhana or dowry and engaged themselves in farming and weaving. Now women can’t freely participate in any religious festivals and functions with her male partner. Another social evil like child marriage adversely affected the health of the girls. Besides Muslims rulers in India had large harems which encouraged polygamy, even among the Hindus there was no limit set to the number of wives a man can take.

Another social evil that existed in medieval India was female infanticide which was prevalent among the Rajputs and other higher castes and even among the Muslims. Purdah system gained popularity with the advent of the Muslims, Purdah is actually a Persian word According to Patricia Jeffrey “Purdah is a part and parcel of stratification in India It becomes the mental foot binding, the frogs in a well syndrome, the submissiveness of the young bride and the inability of adult women to cope with the world outside.” [17] 

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Female infanticide was a negative effect of dowry system but this system became an integral part of the marriage ceremony in medieval India. It became a heavy burden to the poor peoples. The condition of Hindu widow became more miserable during Muslim period. She was forced to lead a life which was full of sorrows and was far from all worldly pleasure.

The feudal society of Muslim India encouraged the practice of Sati. By the burning herself with her own husband she proves her loyalty. According to Soroj Gulati “because of the continuous wars, there were chances of too many widows young and old, and a big question was how to accommodate them without bringing stigma to the family or creating problems for society.” [18] Prostitution became a recognized institution in medieval India besides the Debdasi system in south India degraded the status of women, under this worst system women were brides of Gods but they are supposed to entertain kings, priests and even number of upper classes. According to Alberuni “the kings make them an attraction for their cities, a bait of pleasure for their subjects, for no other but financial reasons.” [19] 

The contribution of European to rediscovery of India’s ancient past was widely accepted by several scholars and writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century but their perception was influenced by British by two separate contradictory ways. One strand was represented by the Orientalists, whose reconstruction of the glory of Indian civilization was taken over lock, stock, and barrel by 19th century Indian writers. Another strand was the Utilitarian and Evangelical attack on contemporary Indian society on the visibly low status of women. The early Indian nationalist writers successfully constructed an image of womanhood in the lost past as a counter to the real existence of woman in the humiliating present.

The woman question was not a theme that was foregrounded in the earliest work of the Asiatic society. William Jones did not pay any attention to Sati. It was Henry Thomas Colebrooke who focuses attention directly upon the women question on his first research ‘On the Duties of the Faithful Hindu Widow’ [20] where he presented the textual position of sati. In the first quarter of the 19th century Raja Rammohun Roy declared crusade against sati, and argued that the ultimate goal of all Hindu was selfless absorption in a divine essence, a union that could not flow from an action like sati. In the 19th century Indian intelligentsia group involve in a dual encounter with colonial ideology. Awareness of the past through Orientalist scholarship was encounters by a strong negative perception of the present those missionaries, administrators; travelers were engaged in writing about this issue.

The women question became a crucial tool in the colonial ideology. Colonial writers focused on the barbaric practices pertaining to women of the Hindu civilization. One of finest example and best known work in this perspective is James mill’s ‘History of British India’ where Mill suggested that the Hindus were a high cultured people now in a state of decline. He judged the civilization was the position it accorded to its women. His conclusion was that the practice of segregating women did not come with the ‘Mohammedans’; rather, it was a consequence of the whole sprit of the Hindu society by which women must be constantly guarded at all times for fear of their intimate tendency towards infidelity. He states that Hindus compared women with ‘a heifer on the plain that longeth for fresh grasses’, referring to their uncontrollable sexuality. [21] 

The degradation of women position in Hindu civilization requiring the protection and intervention of colonial state, that the Hindus were unfit to rule themselves. On this ground British rule in India could be justified by a humanitarian and moral level. Indian intellect classes react violently to this grim picture of Hindu civilization and marshaled argument against each major criticism.

The condition of women in past was a key aspect of historical writing in 1840s.One such example in this account provided by M.C Deb a converted Christian member of Young Bengal group according to him “men in India look upon women as household slaves and treat them with a superciliousness that even the Sultan of Turkestan does not show towards his meanest serf”. [22] In 1842 Peary Chand Mitra provided a well versed response to the mill approach on the position of women in Hindu civilization. He shows references from Sanskrit text Mahanirban Tantra which states that daughter should be nursed and educated with care and married to learned man. [23] His view about Indian women crystallized a national feminine identity which was based on high culture and nationalist writers are arguing about the high status of women in ancient India which is noticeable in Clarisse Bader’s monograph on ancient Indian women was published in 1867 which was directly inspired by Max Muellerian view of romanticization of ancient past. According to Bader’s view the Sati was an expression of woman’s ability to go beyond the bounds of requirement. [24] This view was inspired by western Orientalist womanhood identity that a women should be learned, free and highly cultured.

In 1888 R.C Dutta provides a comprehensive rebuttal of Mill’s denigration of lower status of Hindu women. Women of the past valorized in two separate ways one of them their spiritual potential and their role as sahadharminis and a heroic resister to alien rulers who choose their death rather than dishonour. [25] According to Jashodhara Bagchi, the inherent tension between past and present womanhood was resolved by Bankimchandra in his last novels. In Anandamath he portrayed a women character shanti who fights shoulder to shoulder with her husband in liberating the motherland from shackles. Here shanti provided a role model of womanhood closest to a national identity during late 19th and 20th centuries, till up to Indian independence. [26] 

Another social reformer Dayaananda Saraswati believed the Vedic women lived an idyllic existence and fully participates in all areas of public life, but Muslim influence had taught Hindus to imprison their women within the house. [27] Dayananda was a sole rationale of a woman’s existence. According to him a child body is made up of elements derived from the body of mother, so mother getting weaker after each confinement. For continued needs of propagating strong and healthy children, the wife and husband should be content with each other. [28] Throughout the 19th century the most problematic category of women were widows for consequence of early marriage and reformers were attempting to resolve the problem, Dayananda found his solution that remarriage for both men and women was equally valid if there were no children from earlier marriage. But the best practice for both man and woman is Brahmacharya (self-control), followed by adoption but who can’t control their passions the best recourse is niyoga. [29] 

The woman question had dominated throughout most of the 19th century was something of a casualty during this period, has faced a tremendous reaction against the Age of Consent Bill because of implicit fear of conservatives of the lost control over women’s sexuality. In the closing decade of the 19th century we have got a unique identity of Indian womanhood from Swami Vivekananda who characterized Hindu womanhood by her devotional and spiritual character instead of western materialist setting womanhood. [30] In the changed political and social environment of the late 19th century the women image which was portrayed by the nationalists was more important than the reality throughout of the 20th century, the image also came to examined by the reality through the work of Altekar, as the historical reality.


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