The Status Of Women In India, Then And Now. Part 2
DURING THE MIDDLE AGES
In course of time, the changes that had occurred in politics affected society. The path laid by ancient scholars was deteriorating gradually. The paths laid by India, which earned its reputation as a global peace-maker, were filled with darkness. The meaning of traditions, in the name of religion, was gone. The traditionalists did not have the patience to explain and prove, with convincing arguments, about our traditions to the youth. It created a huge fissure between traditionalists and modernists. These conditions brought about a huge change in the beliefs of ordinary people.
DURING THE MUSLIM PERIOD
Chastity for women was extremely for Hindus. Hindus suffered immense hardships to protect their women. Under these conditions, and changes that were taking place in the society, women lost the advantage of getting married later in life, unlike the women in the past. Fathers, out of necessity, arranged marriages for girls as young as eight or nine, in the name of saving them from degradation. Widowed women were forced to be self-immolated, whether it was because of religion-related commandments, or, because there was no other way to protect them. Sati became a tradition in itself. It would appear that women were never allowed to step out the front door during Muslim rule. Apparently, it was quite a challenge for the Hindu families to live under those circumstances. Nobody could think of women’s welfare then.
After the ascent of British Rule, the changes in the country were different. During British rule, the British were engrossed in plundering the country, and transporting valuable items to their country. They implemented the “divide and rule” policy, but were not concerned about religion. Unlike Muslims, the British neither barred Indians from practicing their religion, nor destroyed temples. They, however, worked toward promoting their language by creating plenty of schools and colleges.
Some of the youth, who had received the English education, started examining the country’s conditions seriously. People started thinking about introducing reforms in society. Raja Rammohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, and Gopalakrishna Gokhale founded Arya Samaj and Brahma Samaj, and undertook several social reforms.
Although it was an ancient tradition, Raja Rammohan Roy thought the tradition of Sati, by which the widow was forced to self-immolate on her husband’s funeral pyre, was horrible, and decided to eradicate it completely. But the traditionalists would not accept such a proposal. Very few accepted it, and support for it also was minimal. Despite the opposition Rammohan Roy faced in his motherland, he was not discouraged. He went to England, discussed it in detail with the British Government, returned to India and convinced the then Governor General of India, Lord William Bentinck, to declare a law making the practice of Sati illegal in 1829. Rammohan Roy became a personification of Brahma in this world for women, who had the fortune of being alive after husband’s death.
Women could live longer after their husband’s death; but, living was widows was hard. They were not allowed to remarry, due to social constraints imposed on them. Under foreign government, there were no facilities for them to receive education. Other adults at home would not permit it either. How many parents could support widowed daughters? It is normal for the raging hormones to act up in young adults, regardless of gender. After parents’ death, the widows without any monetary resources became free laborers under the control of demeaning brothers and brothers-in-law. Life for them was the very personification of silent hardships.
Kandukuri Veeresalingam avowed to change these conditions. He founded homes for widows and created educational opportunities for them. They were taught English and Sanskrit in those schools. He also founded separate schools for them. He wrote textbooks in simple, easily understood language on various subjects for the use of widows. He wrote numerous stories, plays, and novels illustrating the cruel, heart-breaking traditions, and stupid beliefs that were causing enormous harm to the society. He found suitable grooms and arranged marriages for those who wished to remarry. He encouraged young men to marry widows. Veeresalingam rendered invaluable service to widows. He was a great benefactor to countless women, whose lives could have otherwise ended like stumps.
Another champion of women’s cause was Gurujada, a great poet and writer, who had written heartrending plays about bride price, dowry, their disastrous effects on families, and the hardships the families were suffering. His musical play puthadi bomma. Purnamma is a timeless classic that speaks of his artistry.
The women were aware of only the environment of their homes but knew nothing of the outside world for several centuries. While staying within the confines of their homes, they, however, have acquired worldly wisdom and imbibed the spirit of the stories of Ramayana, Maha Bharata, Bhagavata and History. Although the women of those times were not literate, they were knowledgeable in all Sastras through oral tradition. Some of them learned Sanskrit and Telugu from gurus and studied the five kavyas. Sitting in the dark corners of their homes, they have written poetry and written kavyas.
Some women wrote romantic kavyas in order to please kings, and promoted the idea that women were basically created to entertain men only. This was a primary factor in our society, which led to the assumption that women were meant to dedicate themselves to the bedroom and kitchen.
In the fourth quarter of the 19th century, some wealthy families, being persuaded by social reformers, sent their daughters to cities for education. They fought against the popular contention, “Why educate women? Are they going to work or undertake any worthwhile job?”, and helped their daughters earn degrees. Some of them became doctors. That was considered a progressive step during that period. Among the professional fields, women were able to enter teaching and medical professions without having to fight for it. The wealthy laid the path, and the middle class families followed them. Girls entered schools and colleges in Districts and Taluks. There were no separate schools for girls yet. Coeducation was implemented.
There were, however, questions about this progress. For instance, how many girls went to school? Up to what level? And, what did those, who had received education, do with their education?
Also, not everybody wanted education for their girls; and, many did not want higher education for their daughters. Many of them thought it was enough if a girl learned the alphabet, and was able to check the laundry list. Some families however, decided to continue their daughters’ education until marriages for them were arranged. On the boys’ side, young men were in school or completed Western education, and so, expected the brides to have some education as well. That resulted in women discontinuing their education after marriage.
Ancient customs and practices were losing their hold gradually. But nobody had a definite, clear-cut, idea regarding what should be the goal and what should be the ideal. Nevertheless, the one custom, that of marrying girls before puberty, continued to prevail. Traditionalists continued to have their daughters married at the age of 8 (the practice, probably, came into vogue during Muslim rule). Usually the groom would be 16, and either attending college or about to enter college. As a part of arranging a marriage, the groom would be introduced to the girl for the sake of appearances; but the decisions would be made by adults. One of the possible consequences was the groom would change his mind after he finished schooling, becomes more sophisticated, and find her not up to his expectations; and, leave her. Other reasons could be she was not civilized enough, not beautiful enough, and/or, simply she was not to his liking. Thus the number of rejected wives increased considerably. Some parents married little girls to older and/or disabled men out of greed. In those circumstances, some girls rebelled while a few took to undesirable ways.
Harabilasa Sarda took notice of the despicable consequences of these girls’ marriages before puberty, and worked towards enacting a law against child marriages. The Sarda Act was enacted in 1929. By then, Sati practice, polygamy, and child marriages had ended.
We could see a bit of an improvement in the women’s conditions.
About this time, Gandhi started assembling an army to organize the National Movement. He looked all over the country for resources. One half of the population was women, who never stepped outside the front door. They were confined to their homes by meaningless customs and senseless beliefs. Gandhi needed their strength, and the gold they had in their possession. With that in mind, Gandhi made use of the strength of their language skills to persuade and attract others to his movement. He invited brave women to participate actively in it. He sent diligent women door to door, asking them to reject foreign goods and embrace native products. He engaged a few others to persuade other women to burn foreign clothes and picket against liquor stores. The Gandhian movement helped the status of women to move one step up. Gandhi praised them for their work. Our society has learned that, “Women can accomplish anything with their bravado and determination; can confront any and every kind of situation. They are capable of any sacrifice. We have read that women took part in wars in the past. Now, we are watching them in action.” It was an eye-opener. That our women had sustained beating and imprisonment is a case in point.
In Kolkata, the Hindu Muslim riots flared up and resulted in dreadful acts. Gandhi sent Sarojini Naidu, an eloquent speaker with an angelic voice, to act as an intermediary to appease the two parties. Both the parties, Hindus and Muslims, calmed down because of her captivating voice. This is one more example of women’ strength.
Mahatma Gandhi watched his mother and wife closely, and learned that our customs and traditions were ingrained in our women. He believed that women must be engaged in order for society to progress forward. Therefore, he employed women to eradicate the untouchability prevalent in our society. He showed the path for women to work toward regaining women’s identity, which was ignored by women in general, and in the society. Mahatma Gandhi awakened them; he said, “Up until now, the society believed that women should silently bear with men’s evil ways, and be devoted to their husbands, a tradition known as pativratyam[Wife’s unflinching devotion to husband.] Actually, wife is the right person to show him the right path, when he turns to evil ways, no matter however much she loves him and respects him. That is her duty. Doing so does not taint her pativratyam.”
“The dowry system is ruining families,” he said, and that the change should come from women first. “Women need not feel desperate, and get married by paying huge amounts of money, especially when it is not a suitable match. Goddess Parvati is the role model for girls. She performed severe penance, and obtained Lord Siva as husband; she did not buy him with money. Young women could remain unmarried, take to austerity, and dedicate themselves to the service of the country.”
Women’s conditions improved considerably during Gandhi’s lifetime. Separate schools and colleges for women were founded. Women imbibed newly found vitality and social conscientiousness. While their husbands were political prisoners, they managed the household with children and older adults skillfully. They spun thread on spinning wheel, and had clothes made. That was their primary vocation for a while.
IN INDEPENDENT INDIA
As a result of Gandhian movement, women obtained voting rights after India achieved Independence. At that time, women in no other country had voting rights. Some women won in elections and became Members of the Legislative Assembly. Srimati Ammanna Raja was elected as Deputy Speaker. Eventually, women became ministers, prime ministers, planning commission members, governors, ambassadors, and vice presidents at U.N.A.
In independent India, according to the laws of the nation, men and women have equal opportunities without discrimination of caste, religion, color, or sub-sects. They are given education and job opportunities also.
Unmarried women passed the tests such as I.A.S and I.P.S. Later, married women also were allowed to take those tests.
CHANGES TOOK PLACE IN WOMEN’S RIGHTS TO INHERITANCE.
Dharma Sastra rules were framed with the progress of society in mind. The progress of any society depends on the boundaries by the society, set at a given time. If the rules were not changed according to changing times and conditions, it would lead to unruliness and rebellion. The customs and traditions of ancient times are bound to change in step with the changing times. The law that had been put in place previously must, of necessity, be changed according to current practices and customs for the sake of the welfare of society. Changes must be accepted even when those are against the Vedic prescripts. Accordingly, some social reformers undertook to make changes in the laws in 1937.
Until then, widows had the right to husband’s property only in nuclear families. After the changes in the law were made, widows earned the right to the husband’s property in both nuclear families, and divided families alike. Father had to pass his son’s property to the widowed daughter-in-law and grandson’s property to his widowed wife. This was, however, limited to enjoying the property during their lifetimes only.
Regardless of numerous changes in the law, a daughter had no right to father’s property. It was the responsibility of the father or brothers to make sure that the girl was well-taken care of, and her marriage was arranged in due course. If the father died, the remaining property would be divided among the brothers after proper arrangements were made for the daughter’s marriage. After the marriage, the daughter would continue to enjoy these rights in the in-laws home. With the seven steps she had taken around the sacred fire along with her husband at the time of marriage, she would become the responsibility of her husband. From that moment on, there would be changes in her rights, and status.
In ancient times, the property rights extended to three generations only. Death rituals were performed up to three generations only. Accordingly, the heirs were sons, son’s sons and his great-grandsons. If there were no sons, the daughter, daughter’s daughter, and great-grand-daughter would inherit the property. if there were no heirs, the dead person’s property would go to his mother. After her, his father, and then, his brothers would inherit the property, in that order.
Our Dharma Sastra acknowledged eight types of marriages. There is no one Sastra or Sutra that is applicable to all types of marriages. When a man from higher caste marries a woman from lower caste, it is called anuloma (descending order) marriage. The Hindu Law does not acknowledge it as legal. The marriage would be recognized only after the couple get married under Special Marriage Act.
The Hindu Law did not provide property rights to women. She could enjoy the property after her husband’s death, but would not have the right to donate it, or sell it. No matter how rich her father is, she will have no right, not even an iota, to the property. In modern times, the women’s situation is devastating due to lack of rights and economic freedom. It fell, exclusively, to women’s lot to face all hardships and losses that may arise in marriages. Women’s lives depended on the kindness of others, both in the maternal home and in-law’s home.
Under these circumstances, the Government of India appointed a Committee to examine the widows’ rights as prescribed in Mitakshari, 1937, Hindu Women’s Property rights, and daughter’s rights in father’s property. In June 1941, the Committee reviewed the said laws, and reported that making minor changes in Hindu Law was not sufficient, and suggested that the entire Hindu Law should be examined in its entirety, and codified.
Accordingly, the government appointed another committee. In February 1947, this Committee traveled around the country, and noted the flaws in the original bill. The Committee submitted a report of their findings, and a draft bill suggesting the changes that needed to be made in the Hindu Law to Parliament in August 1948.
The second chapter of Hindu Code Bill contains its suggested reforms regarding marriage. The details included the marriage practices, registration, oaths, witness accounts, and certification. In the third chapter, divorce, reasons for it, ways of proving them, remarriage, and determining children’s status were included. In the fourth chapter, adoption, legally acceptable adoption, qualifications for it, right to deny adoption, and other angles, were addressed. Sixth chapter described the property rights in nuclear families and debts. Details regarding women’s property was addressed in the seventh chapter; inheritance of women’s property in the eighth and ninth were given. The tenth chapter addressed the inheritance of women’s property.
After lengthy discussion regarding Hindu Code, the Select Committee submitted its report. This report provided some important changes in the Hindu Code in step with their progressive views.
According to the new Hindu Code, sons would not have the right to inherit property based on birth. Only the owner of the property would have full rights to his property during his lifetime, and nobody else. Property, both real and personal, either inherited, earned by himself, or with other family members jointly, will be distributed according to his Legal Will. Women would have full rights on the property, they have received. Inheritance rights in the case of men’s property were designed differently from those of women’s property. It was determined that women should receive one half of the property men had received. Both Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assembly denied daughters equal rights along with sons.
One truth came to light during the discussions for finalizing the bill. The lawyers, who drafted this bill, were not sufficiently knowledgeable in Sanskrit to interpret the ancient Dharma Sastra texts. The Sanskrit scholars, who were involved in this process, did not have the necessary English language skills to explain the Hindu Dharma texts in English to the lawyers. The net result is, it led to the inequality between men and women in our society.
Well-known Vedic scholar Shakuntala Rao Sastri, ascertained in her book, Women In Dharma Laws,[ Shakuntala Rao Sastri. Women in Hindu Laws. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. 1953.] as follows, “Working towards restoring the rights, which women had enjoyed in ancient India, back to women is a sign of progress. It would have served the purpose well for the public if the original Hindu Dharma Sastra was properly understood and adopted. During the time that Dharma Sastra was configured, no other country in the world had assigned that level of status to women.”
By the beginning of the third quarter of the nineteenth century, a little more progress had been made. The number of separate schools and colleges for women increased considerably. Women entered the field of literature and were recognized as writers and poets. Prior to the nineteenth century, some women had received kanakabhishekam (a custom of honoring poets and writers by showering them with gold coins). In the current century [20th C], women writers have received Sahitya Akademi awards, won first or second prizes in competitions held by magazines. Some women have been writing novels and stories for movies; A few are honored with swarna kankanam [Golden bracelet]. Several women have entered Medical, Educational and other fields, and become invaluable assets to our society. They are shining in politics as well. Some seats are reserved for women in various positions in government.
Ayyadevara Kaleswara Rao created a bill prohibiting dowry, an ill-conceived tradition, that has been ruining families economically. According to the bill, expenses for a marriage must not exceed Rs. 2000.00. If it exceeds the limit, both the giver and the taker will face punishment.
When we review this, one feels like asking, “What else they would need? What else would they want?”
Does our society uphold the ancient tenet, yatra naaryastu poojyante ramante tatra devataah (Where women are worshipped, there Gods revel)? Has the world of women progressed to that point? We cannot help but wonder if our country is one step ahead of other countries, when we look at the number of women, who have acquired college, post-graduate and doctoral degrees, and are working in high ranking jobs.
However, everybody knows that progress in the cities appears to be only a daze, and is good only for boasting. This is only one fourth or one fifth of one percent. It is only good for a show off, but for most of the time, it is a star in the sky, unreachable by ordinary people.
In our society even today, people gasp, “Oh, No,” the moment they hear the word ‘girl’. Parents are having hard time to find suitable grooms for their girls; the girls mostly are engaged in doing chores at home, and going to school until they get married. Grooms are available only in the black market. Either overtly or covertly, the dowry problem is hurting parents and humiliating girls. Even for the girls, who are educated and holding jobs with the hope of living on their own, the situation is less than satisfactory. There is no value for their education or earning power. Some parents are postponing their weddings because of their (parents’) dependence on daughters’ incomes. Today, even for the women who have jobs, it is hard to get married. Parents are not thinking about the girls’ happiness. Working wife is rarely respected by her husband. It is also rare for a woman in a lower cadre position to get the same satisfaction as a man in a higher position. Even now, it is difficult for a woman to work without fear amid several male co-workers. She earns yet cannot enjoy economic freedom.
On one hand, the movie producers are making hundreds of thousands rupees by displaying women’s physical attributes. On the other hand, women in the lower class are getting crushed by various problems in one form or another. No matter however morally they lead their lives, there is no safety in their married life. They have no right to live a moralistic life, and no pleasure in living with inebriated husbands. There are laws for working women to receive equal pay but not full pay during maternity leave.
Numerous problems are haunting women in our society. Can education, money, jobs, or wisdom protect them from the discrimination prevalent in our society? How far the woman’s status in the country has improved because of laws, moralistic words or lectures?
For all these conditions, there is only one important reason. We have to ask –
What do you mean when you say “woman”?
How does society perceive women?
In its mind, “Woman is a weakling, frail, an object of pleasure for men; she belongs to a separate race, caste, class, or religion.”
That is the reason women are unable to win society’s empathy in regard to her welfare, pleasures and pain, and a better life for themselves. It craves to enjoy her because she is weak, believes she should be treated only as an object of pleasure, humiliates her, ridicules her. If it gets a chance, it causes her to fall, and even makes money by throwing her as an enticement.
Because society views her as somebody else.
Is the relationship between man and woman like the relationship between the mill-owner and a worker?
Or, like the relationship between the ruler and the ruled?
Is that because of the difference between the weak and the powerful?
Or, something like the difference between the learned and the ignorant?
It is totally confusing.
Some claim that there is no redemption for women until patriarchy is gone and matriarchy prevails. Others argue that men and women, together, make up society, share responsibility for managing the house equally, and that their collaborative effort is the foundation of the home and society. The respect a woman receives extends to the man as well, and also her status, clout, progress, knowledge and acumen. If she is humiliated, it goes to the man and extends to society. Her insults are insults to the man.
The word ‘woman’ stands for mother, wife, and daughter.
If one does not think along those lines, one cannot understand who a woman is.
Since some women have started thinking along those lines, change has started taking place. So also revenge and angst. Things like defiance of men, accusations, insulting articles, and words have started flying around. Men and women should be living affably, like in the expression, “ksheera neera nyayam” (like milk and water). Instead, their modes of thinking are moving in opposite directions. Polite language has given place to rudeness. Some women go even further, and ask why women cannot make the same mistakes men make? Why they could not be forgiven in the same manner as men for the same mistakes? Instead of suggesting ways to change men’s attitude, some women are fighting for rights to make the mistakes men make.
This attitude has resulted in mutual insults and ridicule. Before the laws and rights are established fully, there used to be the tradition of “respecting women and worshipping women”. Even when there was no right to inheritance, there was the tradition of sending women to their in-law’s home with several gifts such as cash, gold, things of value, fruits, and new garments. There was a tradition of respecting her even when she was an enemy’s wife. Even the enmity at its worst was never shown on women but remained between the men. Women have been treated as mothers, wives, and daughters always.
Now, it has turned upside down. There is no procreation without woman. It is the mother who carries the child for nine months, feeds, and raises it. Woman is the foundation for man’s pleasures in this world as well the next. Woman is one half of man. It is not possible for each to achieve complete progress without the other. Even if it is accomplished, it will not give the same pleasure as the pleasure of being together. Therefore, it has to be done collectively.
The mode of thinking in our society must change. Women are the backbone of our society and life-support. In our society, civility and the view that we should get respect by respecting women must develop naturally. There is no use of passing laws and regulations, without people imbibing good manners. Scholars, writers, social reformers and politicians need to realize this truth.
Nowadays we are hearing serious discussions about harmoniousness of ideas and patriotism. We are talking about them, and encouraging them. The elite assert unanimously that people will be happy and prosperous with that kind of harmony. They hope for it.
But, from where should this ideology of harmoniousness arise? Experienced individuals claim that our culture was born and conserved in the homes of ancient rishis. But then, where is its root? Where is the root collar for this plant?
MUTUAL RESPECT IS NEEDED.
For harmonious thinking, people should understand each other, be empathetic to each other’s happiness and distress, and be there for each other in times of need. Each should wish the best for the other. This empathy must start with couples. Then, it should extend to society, and finally, permeate through out the country, like the scent from Jasmine flowers. If a man cannot empathize with his mother, wife and daughter, he cannot do so in other places either. Society cannot fare well without the education, and degrees that teach courtesy and generosity. In a society that is not doing well, men and women may fare well, but begetting healthy children would be hard.
The person, who thinks everything is fine when he is fine, needs to change his attitude and invite women into his world. Then only we will have real progress. If one person fares well, that is not progress. Similarly, when women rebel, fight for their progress through laws, and installing matriarchy, that too would be incomplete. The real progress is when both men and women work side by side with congeniality. That is well-rounded progress. And it lays ground for the progress of future generations.
(The Telugu original, Bharata naari – naaduu neduu, was written by Illindila Saraswati Devi, and published by Yuva Bharati, 1975.
This translation by Nidadavolu Malathi is based on the text available on www.archive.org. Translator is grateful to the site.)
(December 26, 2021)