There has been a systematic decline in women’s status despite recent advances in their education and economic status
Empowerment of women in Indian context primarily means that they should be able to turn aspirations into policy and law. They should have control over their lives and livelihood decisions. They should also be able to pursue self-realisation and self-assertion, and live informed, rational, self-interested lives as those in the upper reaches of Indian society. In today’s world India occupies a strategic position in Asia being the largest in South Asian countries with a population of over one billion. Women constitute a population of 495.74 million, with 360.52 million in rural areas and 135.22 million in the urban areas. The human development status of women shows wide interstate and intrastate variations. There has been a systematic decline in women’s status despite recent advances in their education and economic status. It is also in contrast with the position that women enjoyed in different phases of Indian history.
Perceptional tradition of India
The worth of a civilization can be judged from the position that it gives to women. A survey of Indian social history reveals the fact that women enjoyed a high dignity and freedom in society. She was adored by parents, cherished by husband and revered by children. In the Rigveda we read the existence of the son and the daughter side by side, the former taking to the profession of the father while the latter inheriting the glory and honour of her mother. The birth of a daughter was endorsed with acclamation in the period of the Upanisads for which certain rituals were prescribed to be performed by the man who wants a learned daughter to be born. At that time Indian society was perhaps matriarchal and men and women enjoyed equal rights. Even in the initial phase of Aryan period the importance of women as mother or wife was recognised not as an auxiliary in the management of the household but the very centre of the domestic world and empress in her home. The husband identified her with his very home, his abiding hearth. A wife, says the great seer Visvamitra.” is home and dwelling. She is auspicious, the most auspicious who brings blessings and prosperity of her husband’s household.” Thus, she enjoyed a high dignity and freedom in society especially in comparison to Spartan and Athenian position of women where they were treated merely as vegetables. Even in that period the social adjustment of women folk was so perfect that we find no complaint on the part of the women against the authority of the man.
Women status in Rigvedic period
At the close of the Rigvedic period various social restrictions were imposed on the freedom of women. This process started when Sakas, Abhiras, Hunas and others who were also, called the non-Aryans, raided the rich plains of India and was lost in the Aryan social fabric. The new comers were enveloped in the Aryan folds and absorbed in the Indian social matrix. In that kind of situation the Aryans strove and struggled to devise means to keep their blood pure and then ran after an unreasonable mirage. They prescribed rules for early marriages and banned freedom of women in deed, speech and even thought. Further women’s position in society was also weakened by the laws of Manu and its fundamental assumption that women are completely dependent on men. ‘From the cradle to the grave, a woman is dependent on the male, in the childhood on her father, in youth on her husband, in old age on her son.’ Manu advocated that married woman could own no property; “their wealth belongs to those whom they belonged”.His philosophy regarding women forced them to accept their lot with humility.
Around 1000 A.D. Muslims began invading India and temporary hopes were raised because Islam had granted much stronger legal position than prevalent in India that time. But unfortunately all that the upper society borrowed from the Muslims was the system of Purdah in order to save Hinduism from the yoke of Islam. The social taboos were tightened and this further deteriorated the position of women. The women members, such as Jodhabai, Nur Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal of the royal household who played an undeniable role in making the majesty can hardly be considered as representatives of the typical Indian women – Hindu or Muslim. An important point in this regard is that this inferior position of women was largely confined to the North, particularly among the upper urban classes. In the South, society was more settled because it was not much influenced by the changes that took place in the North. At large, both Muslim and Hindu women in this period remained restricted to their private domain only.
Women status in British period
Emancipation of women in India witnessed a drastic change with the advent of Europeans, especially the Christian Missionaries, who undertook the work of social reforms as an essential part of their programme. Conversions made on behalf of these missionaries invited a criticism and reaction among the Hindus. Religious Hindus and social reformers sprang into leadership to take the initiative in such matters. In the Pre-British Indian society, except in the early periods of the Vedic times, woman was assigned a position subordinate to man. Law and religion did not recognise the equality and equal rights of man and woman. Society permitted man to have rights and freedoms from which woman was excluded. Emergence of the new economic environment, the establishment of the new political system and the spread of modern Western education found expression in the movements initiated in order to liberalise the women of India.
In later years a powerful reformist movement led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal, Justice Ranade in Bombay and Swami Dayanand Saraswati in Punjab sprang up. They denounced the disabilities that handicapped women’s social advancement and tried to abolish practices such as Sati, early marriage etc, through legal means. With the help of Lord William Bentick in 1829 the system of Sati was abolished followed by the legalisation of the remarriage of widows in 1856. The thought that women’s education was the only means to solve all the problems took a definite shape. This was championed and advocated by Swami Vivekanand and Ishwar Chand Vidyasagar in Bengal that paved the way for the furtherance of women’s education leading to the formation of Indian Federation of university Women and its seven branches in the state. Emancipation and empowerment of women in India was made a prime objective of the national movement which was being fought under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. The reformist and educationist movement continued in India and as a result of the British influence on Indian culture and civilization, the position of women had, once again, undergone a change. They actively participated in the national movement and their warm patriotism and unabashed enthusiasm won for them the love and respect of their fellow countrymen who, after independence, became founding fathers of Indian constitution.
(Author is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar)