The Status of Women in India

1905 to 1947 A.D.

Education: Women’s education made steady progress. The number of female students at each stage increased rapidly. Obstacles like early marriage and orthodoxy were gradually being removed. A new feature introduced during this period was co-education. Divergent views were expressed on the benefits of this policy. This was however, a must in post-graduate education where the number of women students was far fewer. Serious defects in this new system were observed by the Radhakrishnan Commission- “There are few truly co-educational colleges in this country. There is men’s college to whom women have been admitted which is quite a different matter. Sanitary facilities for women are totally inadequate and sometimes even lacking.”

On the other hand, there was a gradually growing tendency among girls not only to be equal to men, but to be like them in all her interest and activities. The progress of Muslim girl’s education was unsatisfactory.

The spread of education among women made them eager for improving their rights. A ladies section was added to the Indian National Social Conference in 1903. While this facilitated change, the actual changes introduced by legislation were few. The Child Marriages Prevention Act became effective in 1930, became applicable to all communities, and penalized marriage if the girl was below 14 yrs and boy 18 yrs of age.

Attempts to have a civil marriage law validate intercaste marriage failed. In 1939, the Indian Legislature passed the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act, which conceded to the Hindu widow a share in her husband’s property and the right to demand partition. While the Baroda govt legalized the Divorce by an act in 1931, it could not be achieved elsewhere in India.

Devadasi: The institution of Devadasi, a class of women who dedicated themselves to the life-long service in temples may be traced back centuries. Although it was a good institution earlier on, it had degraded to nothing but prostitution. An Act was passed in 1925 which extended to the Devadasis - these Sections of the Penal Code made traffic in minor girls a criminal offence.

Widows: Although the Act of 1956 accorded legal sanction to widow remarriage, it was not easy to break centuries of orthodoxy. Measures were taken to improve their lot. Widow homes were founded throughout the country; the most prominent ones being the Widow Home in Mysore, Bangalore, and Mahila Silpasrama in Calcutta, amongst others. The Arya Samaj opened homes in Jullundar and the Jains at Bombay. The pioneering efforts of Prof. D.K. Karve, who founded a widow’s home in Pune to which he added a High School for girls and social service center cannot be forgotten.

My 70 year old mother who hails from what is today Pakistan, told me the tales of ladies of the previous generation, who used to spin the charkha when ever they got free time. It kept them occupied and earned some money too. .

The Swadeshi, Home Rule and Non-Cooperation Movements drew out women of their homes and made some of them participate in the struggle for freedom. An important consequence of this was the near disappearance of the Purdah system amongst the Hindus. On April 10, 1930, Gandhi made a special appeal to the women of India to take up the work of picketing and spinning. The effect was miraculous. Women came out of their homes and offered themselves for arrest and imprisonment.

The World Wars, particularly the second one led to an increase in the employment opportunities for women. This economic freedom along with the struggle for freedom wrought changes in the intellectual, moral and social outlook of Hindu women of the upper classes as had not been witnessed in the past seven hundred years.

Abolition of purdah, co-education, free social intercourse between men and women, increase in the marriageable age and near abolition of monogamy of men were revolutionary changes to have swept India during this period. Alas! These changes were limited to the Hindus. Maybe the British did not help Muslim women because they did not want to antagonize the Muslim community, as part of their Divide and Rule Policy or whatever the reason was, the truth is that the condition of Muslim women has not substantially improved over the years. The Shah Bano Case in the late eighties is an example.

Under influence of modern education and government support, the condition of average Hindu women improved substantially during this period. Post independence, there was a change with every generation starting girls born after 1950. Indira Gandhi’s becoming Prime Minister must have been a source of inspiration for many parents and girls alike.

Dowry: The dowry system did not stand as a stumbling block in a daughter’s marriage in ancient India. In prehistoric times, it was the other way round with the bride’s father demanding payment at the time of shaadi. In rich and royal families, some gifts used to be given to the son-in-law at the time of marriage. Gifts were given out of love and affection for the daughter and sister and not under any compulsion. The system became prevalent in Rajputana during the medieval times because the Rajputs took great pride in their ancestry so if a father wanted a blue-blooded son-in-law, he had to pay for it.

In ordinary families, dowry was a nominal one. It is not till the middle of the 19th century that dowry became an impediment in marriages. Prior to the advent of the British, India was an agricultural economy but subsequently good education, lucrative job, and economic position became parameters on which boys began to be measured. The problem seems to have got accentuated starting the 1900s.

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