The Status of Women in India

1818 to 1905 AD

An important reason for the decadence of Indian society was the gradual, but steady deterioration in the position of women. The reason why the attention of English educated Indians was first drawn to the necessity of reform in the status of women is that it affected their own kin whose miseries stirred their emotions. Inspite of the good words said by European scholars about the condition of women in the previous period, on an average, their condition was deplorable. Child marriage, lack of education, no widow remarriage, and sati were some of the problems that she faced. Their condition in Bengal particularly, was pitiable.

Through the efforts of English educated Indians, Sati system was banned, education was promoted, and widow remarriage was legalized. Inspite of best efforts, polygamy was not banned in that period. Also, the custom of Purdah, more strictly observed by Muslims and borrowed from them by the Hindus of North India, was opposed by religious sects like the Brahmo and Arya Samaj.

In Mumbai, the agitation for social reforms started earlier than West Bengal due to the fact that the Maratha rulers of the 18th century followed the old Hindu tradition of regulating social affairs and showed a spirit of readmitting converts, intermarriage, remarriage of girls, and prohibition of sale of girls. The establishment of the Prarthana Samaj gave a great impetus to social reform. Jotiba Phule took up the cause of women and started a girls school in Pune in 1851. She also helped widows to remarry.

The spirit of social reform was evident in most provinces. The Mysore government passed a law making marriage before the age of 12 illegal for girls. Baroda fixed the minimum age for girls at 12 and 16 for boys. The system of Devadasis was declining.

Sati was abolished in 1829. The Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act was passed in 1856. It legalized the marriage of widows and held children born out of such marriages to be legitimate. Inspite of the act, remarriage did not make much progress.

Education:Although the former reference was towards high educational attainment of women in the Vedic ages and its gradual decline, things had come to such a pass during the 19th century that a regular system of female education was unknown in India. Daughters of aristocratic families got some elementary education at home and that was all. Missionaries did make some valiant efforts in Bengal to educate girls but they failed because too much attention was placed to preaching of Christianity and lack of good teachers.

Although serious efforts were made to educate women, it failed because of the existence of Purdah and apprehension of the parents that their daughters would imbibe Christian principles. There was no perceived tangible benefit to the educated women and family was worried that the women might show disinterest in doing household work which would lead to an increase in the family budget.

The contribution made by Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar to the cause of women’s education in Bengal must not be forgotten. He opened no less than 35 girls schools between 1857 and 1858.

In Mumbai, women led a comparatively freer life as there was no Purdah among the Marathas.

Some prominent members of the Brahmo Samaj started journals for the promotion of education among women. The Arya Samaj initiated education in Punjab by establishing the Mahakanya Vidyalaya at Jullandar in Punjab (my mother went to this school). Gradually, the institution had secondary and primary schools all over India. Starting 1882, government grants for schools were more liberally given. In 1901-02, there were 12 female colleges in Bengal, Madras and United Provinces.

It is worth pointing out reasons for the deterioration of condition of women in Punjab. Here are excerpts from the interview of Veena Talwar, author of Dowry Murder: Imperial Origins of a Culture Crime the Times of India, Mumbai as appeared on 31st January 2003.

Q. “You blame the British for the accentuation of the dowry problem.

A. Prior to the arrival of the British in India, land was not seen as a commodity which could be bought and sold. Notionally, the land belonged to the king and no one could be evicted from it. Kings showed concern for the peasantry and, when required, were prepared to live more frugally. Ranjit Singh, for instance, waived tax collections for a year, to compensate for lack of rains. The produce of the land was meanwhile shared by all the villagers.

Putting landed property exclusively in male hands, and holding the latter responsible for the payment of revenue had the effect of making the Indian male the dominant legal subject. The British further made the peasants pay revenue twice a year on a fixed date. Inability to pay would result in the land being auctioned off by the government. As a result, peasant were forced, during a bad year, to use their land as collateral to borrow from the moneylender, in order to pay taxes. Chronic indebtedness, instance, became the fate of a large number of peasants who possessed smallholding in Punjab. The British resolve to rationalize and modernize the revenue was particularly hard on women. From being co-partners in pre-colonial landholding arrangement, they found themselves denied all access to economic resources, turning them into dependents. In the event they faced marital problems, they were left with no legal entitlements whatsoever.

Q. Basically what you are saying is that the entire economy became ‘masculine’.

A. Precisely. This was one of the key factors that made male children more desirable. Also, the increasing recruitment of Punjabi peasants into the army saw more and more families practice selective female infanticide. The newly enhanced worth of sons saw families demand cash, jewellery or expensive consumer durables at the time of marriage. The situation has steadily worsened since then but rather than calling it ‘dowry problem’, we should call it the problem of paying,’ groom price’.

The pre-colonial logic for female infanticide was unwittingly strengthened by imperial and land-ownership policies even though the British outlawed the practice in 1870. The British charged heavy fines and apprehended and imprisoned culprits perpetuating such a crime. They did not however think it worth their while to examine the social effects of their own methods of governance that led to an intensification of these problems.

Q. Are you trying to say there was no practice of dowry before the British arrived in India?

A. No, I am not saying that, Dowry, or dahej as it is called in Hindi, has today become a convenient peg on which to hang all explanations about discrimination against women. But in its origins dowry was one of the few indigenous, women-centered institutions in an overwhelmingly patriarchal and agrarian society. Historically, it was an index of the ‘appreciation’ bestowed upon a daughter in her natal village, and not a groom’s prerogative to make demands on the girl’s family. The dowry-infanticide blight was used to justify the annexation of India. Colonialism, it was claimed was a civilizing mission.

Q. How did the codification of customary law affect women?

A. The problem of women worsened following the British decision to codify all customary law. A key word like ‘local’ which meant village in customary law, came to be transformed to mean ‘caste’ or ‘tribe.’ This shift in terminology had implications for women, since they were now seen to belong to patriarchal lineage rather than localities. The whole attempt was to translate social and customary practice, which was flexible, into legal codes from which women were excluded.

Even more significant was the act that colonial administration replaced the indigenous version of democracy in which villagers had representatives with mechanisms of direct control. The British courts replaced the authority of the village panchayat with the patwari-the man who kept village records-by making him a paid employee of the state. This conferred enormous powers on someone who was earlier seen as a servant of the farmers.

Q. Why has modern, independent India failed to get rid of the problem of dowry?

A. We haven’t realised that making a dowry demand is a cultural oxymoron that bears no resemblance to the historical meaning and practice of this institution. Dowry demand must be tread on a par with crimes such as blackmail, extortion or insurance fraud. Instead, they are put in the straitjacket of a dowry case. No wonder the law takes no note of the pain and psychological trauma that a woman suffers in a failed marriage. In other words, we will not be in a position to address the problem of dowry unless the state begins to take a wholly different view of it”.

End of interview, excerpts from the book follow. Also the custom of dowry was widely prevalent in preindustrial Europe and is still to be found in several southern European countries, for which see Marion A Kaplan (1985). Note that when King Charles II married Princess Catherine de Braganza of Portugal in 1661, Mumbai was presented as dowry.

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