The Status of Women in India

A Note on Status of Women in Western Society

The Doctrine of perpetual tutelage of women was not taken seriously by Hindu society, can be gauged from the fact that a women’s share in property kept on increasing. If suppression of women was indeed the aim, her share in the property should have come down but the opposite happened. According to Dr. Leitner, the Educational Commissioner of Punjab during the third quarter of the last century, “the elderly women of the house had the difficult job of mediation in family disputes.”

It must be noted that the doctrine of perpetual tutelage of women was universally accepted everywhere till recent times. Quoting Prof. Gilbert Murray, “To the average Athenian, it was probably rather wicked for her to have any character, wicked for her to take part in public life, wicked for her to acquire learning.” Even Aristotle thought that like slaves, artisans and traders, women should occupy a subordinate place. Their will is weak, virtue less perfect and self-sufficient and deliberative faculty rather inconclusive. Male, by nature, is superior and female inferior. The one rules and the other is ruled.

The Roman Law regarded the wife as the daughter of her husband as far as her juridical status was concerned, for a long time. She could not sign a will, make a contract or become a witness. Down to 200 A.D., even mothers of several children continued to be under the tutelage of their male relations. “Women is always dependent”, says Confucius, “and owes due homage to her father-in-law and husband.” In the Christian marriage, the wife has to take the vow of obedience at the time of her marriage; logically speaking this places her under the perpetual tutelage of her husband.

The Bible argues that women should never usurp the authority over man, but be always subordinate to them, firstly because Eve, and not Adam, was deceived and secondly because the former was created out of a rib of the former. At the synod of Macon in 585 A.D., the assembled bishops debated whether women were human beings at all and finally concluded, they were.

Numerous writers of medieval Europe have emphasized on the inferiority of women. Milton held that women ought to obey without argument. Rousseau, the apostle of freedom, condemned women to a servile position. Girls, he argues, should be subject to restraint. Even educated ladies of the 18th century felt that women should not dream of independence. The French Revolution which stood for equality was not prepared to grant it to women. The French National Assembly treated women so contemptuously that it even refused to read their petition. In the Anti-Slavery Congress held in London in 1840, women delegates from America were not admitted because British representatives felt that it was contrary to the word of God that women should sit in the Congress. In England there was a determined opposition to the admission of women to the medical course down to 1888 A.D. Oxford University would admit women students but would not give them degrees till 1920 A.D.

Divorce: The earlier Dharmasastras tell us that divorce was permitted under certain circumstances at the beginning of the Christian era. Around the 5th century B.C. a wave of asceticism passed over Hindu society. Inspite of lots of opposition, it became well grounded around the beginning of the Christian era that a women could be married only once. To divorce one husband and to marry another, because the marital life was not happy, began to appear as a grossly sensual procedure. It may be pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church holds the same view today, as it regards marriages as indissoluble (The book was written in 1956). In England, down to the middle of the 19th century, a divorce could be had only by an Act of Parliament. Between 1715 and 1855 A.D., only about 180 persons could get divorce through Parliamentary Legislation.

Duty of Obedience: According to the Avesta, a good wife is one who is obedient to her husband. The Vedic marriage ritual, does not enjoin the duty of obedience upon the wife. The original Christian ritual, specifically enjoined the duty of obedience upon the wife. She took the oath that she would love and obey her husband till her death, while the latter merely observed that he would love and cherish her. The deliberate differentiation in the oath was a natural corollary of the theory adumbrated in Paul, V, 22, that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. It is interesting to note that even in 1928, the British Parliament refused to sanction the proposal to delete the reference to obedience from the wife’s oath. The theory of wife’s subordination is dying out in the West.

Physical Assault of Wife: With the reduction in the average age and education of girls, physical assault of the wife did happen in India. But was the situation any different in the West? In medieval Russia, the bride’s father supplied his son-in-law with a new whip as a symbol of his authority and it was hung over the bridal bed. There was a proverb current in Germany during the 15th century that “women and an ass existed only to be beaten.” In England, as late as 1891 A.D. only, was the husband’s right to inflict corporal punishment on his wife first denied by law courts. We should, thus, not be very surprised if Hindu Smritis had 2000 years ago, recognized the husband’s right to inflict a mild punishment on his wife, warning him at the same time that he would be liable to punishment if he overstepped his limits.

Sati: The custom of sacrifice of the widow at the funeral of her husband was widely prevalent since ancient times. Although there is no direct evidence that it prevailed during the Indo-European Age, the fact that it was practiced among the Gauls, Goths, Norwegians, Celts, Slaves, and the Thracians would justify that it was probably well established among the Indo-Europeans. In China, when a widow killed herself in order to follow her husband to heaven, her corpse was taken out in a great procession. Sati was quite common in Kashmir, probably due to its proximity to Central Asia, which was the home of the Scythians, among whom the custom was quite common. It traveled to the islands of Java, Sumatra and Bali along with the immigration of Hindus there.

Niyoga or Levirate (is a widow marrying her husband’s brother): Up to about 300 B.C., widows were not required to commit sati. They could remarry, marry their husband’s brother or remain widows. It may be noted that the custom of Levirate was quite common in many ancient civilizations. Among the Jews, a women could become the wife of her husband’s brother without any ceremony. If he refused, she would spit on his face. The Old Testament also declares that if a woman becomes a widow, her husband’s brother shall go unto her and take her into wife and perform the duties of a husband’s brother unto her. (Deuternonomy, 25, 5-10). The marriage of Hamlet’s mother with Claudius and of Henry VIII with Katherine indicates an earlier custom of Niyoga, eventually developing into a regular remarriage with a brother-in-law. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj encouraged niyoga, probably because it had Vedic sanction.

Purdah: There is no doubt that Purdah was unknown in India down to 100 B.C. It is only after the starting that some sections of society in Northern India, notably royalty, began to advocate greater seclusion for women, i.e., they put a veil. (Could be the impact of foreign invasion). The Chinese travelers of the 7th century A.D. did not mention it, either. The Purdah system became widely prevalent in North India subsequent to the Muslim invasion.

Seclusion of women was not confined to India alone. In Athens, 500 B.C., women could not meet their husband’s guests or go out of the house without proper guards. A bridegroom could not see his bride before marriage in ancient Greece. At Sparata, women had separate apartments and could not be present at banquets. In Assyria, veil was worn by all married women. In Persia, seclusion of women had become quite common before the beginning of the Chrisitan era. The Bible lays down that women should not speak in public at the Church. Tertullian says “For a virgin of virtuous habits every appearance in public with an unveiled face is equivalent to suffering a rape”.

To come down to modern times, women lived under restrictions. Down to 1850 A.D. in England, a woman could not take a walk, much less a journey, alone, nor could she ask a fellow worker to visit her, unless the worker was a girl. When two ladies spoke at a meeting convened for the purpose of supporting a women’s cause in Parliament, a Member of Parliament said, “Two ladies have disgraced themselves for speaking in public”. When the House of Commons was built in 1844, it was great difficulty that a Ladies Gallery was sanctioned.

Child Marriage: In the Vedic Age down to 400 B.C., girls were married between the ages of 16 to 18. In 400 B.C. to 100 A.D., the age was gradually lowered and the tendency was to marry girls at the time of puberty. With importance being attached to chastity, pre-puberty marriages came in vogue after 200 A.D. Sati, satisfactory economic condition, and the joint-family system encouraged early marriage. The Sarda Act of 1929 made the marriage of girls and boys before the age of 14 and 18 an offence.

Child marriages were common in Europe for a long time. In ancient Rome, maidens were married at the age of 10 or 12. In the age of chivalry, girls were often married at the age of 5 because marriage was a matter of military tactics and alliances. The rule of the Church that boys and girls should be married at the age of 15 and 12 was openly flouted. In England, except in the upper classes, child marriage was common in Tudor times. Though in actual practice, late marriages became common by 1850 A.D., up to 1929, the minimum legal age of marriage continued to be 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In 1929, Parliament raised it to 16 for both boys and girls, partly as a reaction to the Sarda Bill introduced in India.

Franchise: There were democratic assemblies in the Vedic Age. Women were expected to speak with composure and success in public assemblies. Things, however, changed after around 300 B.C. Starting about 1920, women began to play an important role in the Independence Movement as well. Sarojini Naidu, Vijaylakshi Pandit to name a few. Indian women are lucky that they got the right of franchise, almost, without asking.

It is well known how the First World War worked as a miracle in winning over the most deadly opponent’s of women’s franchise. The British Parliament granted franchise to its women in 1918.

Ascetic School Hostile to Women: It appears that some Hindu writers have painted women in very black colors, not because they believed in what they said, but because they were anxious to dissuade men from marriage and family life. It may be noted that this tendency to attribute all and imaginary faults to women is not confined to the Renunciation School of India alone.

Socrates said, “ Woman is the source of all evil, her love is to be dreaded more than the hatred of man, the poor young men who seek women are like fish who go to meet the hook”. While Christ did not indulge in any tirade of women the same cannot be said of other saints. St. Paul says “It is good for man not to touch a woman; marriage was a concession, a degradation to avoid fornication”.

Nuns: During the Vedic Age, a woman was indispensable to her husband from a spiritual and religious point of view. During 1500 to 1000 B.C., the volume of Vedic studies became very complicated and time consuming which meant that lady Vedic scholars became rarer. With the steady deterioration in her position starting 300 B.C., things began to change. Buddha reluctantly admitted women as monks and Digambara Jains held that women can never get salvation except by first being born as men.

It may be noted that early Christian fathers shared similar views. The Council of Laodicea closed the doors of preaching career to women in 365 A.D., and not all agitation has succeeded even till 1956 in getting them opened. Islam permits women to read the Koran but not preach it.

Nudity: The real explanation of women appearing without covering their busts properly in the sculptures, paintings of Southern and Central India seems to be the artistic convention of that age. Breasts are the most significant symbol of motherhood and the artistists felt that they should be uncovered in works of art, though they may be actually covered in real life. This matter should not be confused with indecent thoughts.

Convention in India or European countries prescribed a scantier dress for woman than what is actually used in real life. This will be apparent to all students of ancient and modern sculptures and paintings of Europe. We cannot conclude that women in modern Europe move about in a nude condition because they appear uncovered in some works of art, and thus, the same logic applied to the Indian women.

Religion of Goddess – Quoting Jagdish C. Joshi from The Times of India, “The phenomenon of feminine theology in Brahmanical religion tradition is unique because all over the world the female gods were replaced by male gods. Diana and Berecynthia, Isis and Cybele were exiled with the coming of Christianity although female hierophanies reappeared in the figures of Mary and the female saints. However, the figure of the version and its supporting theology are subordinate to her son.

Of all the religious practices and beliefs concerned with feminine divinities it is Shaktism which gives the Goddess a place of supreme importance. In this tradition female is raised above the male as Durga described as Shakti, the energy of the cosmos. Without her we are told in one of the texts that the world is lifeless and even, the great Shiva is merely a corpse. An analysis of the legends, doctrines and abstract philosophies indicates the first, the Goddess is portrayed as power, and the female Shakti element is identified as the essence of reality, the male element playing a subservient role. Second she is identified with Prakriti, the primeval matter. As such she is identified with existence or that which underlines all existent things. Thirdly, she is described as giving food to all nourish all life and to cause decay. Fourthly, the Goddess incarnates in herself all the brilliance and power that the Gods collectively possess and her pervasive magic gives them sufficient power to be able to battle with all evil.

It is an exuberant celebration of the various forms of Devi, the Goddess, and their role in her victory over the demons who are supposed to be tormenting the people of this earth. She is also described as the embodiment of supreme eternal knowledge which becomes the cause of the release from bondage”.

Also read-
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2. Incredible women of Bharat
3. Women Gurus in Hinduism
4. Vivekanand's vision for women
5. Five elemental women
6. Women of God as Mother in the Indian tradition

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