Introduction: One of the major problems of India society is the inferior position accorded to women. The do not enjoy equal status and their condition is far from satisfactory. In this article, we have tried to cover the condition, status and position of women in different period, viz. Ancient, Medieval, British and Independent period.
Ancient Period: The Ancient Indian women enjoyed a comparatively high status during the early Vedic period (2000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.), surpassing contemporary civilizations in ancient Greece and Rome.
The Aryans were mostly busy fighting wars. However, they regarded women as useful and productive members of society. The condition of Vedic Women was good. Women also enjoyed religious status like that of men, especially in Vedic initiation and studies. The Rig Veda provides ample evidence to prove the concept of equality of women with men as regards access and capacity to acquire the highest knowledge, even the knowledge of the Absolute.
The Rig Veda accorded the highest social status to qualified women of those days. Women were appointed at important positions. In that period, marriage was not compulsory. It was considered a social and religious duty, and was generally undertaken at an advanced age. On the whole, during this period the position of women was high.
However, the status and position of women fell in the later Vedic and epic periods. They were not considered equal to men and did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as men. Knowledge of the Vedas became limited among women. Wives became silent partners of religious ceremonies. Manu, the celebrated ancient law-giver, stated that man should enjoy unquestioned supremacy over his wife. He declared that women had no right to study the Vedas. Infant marriages and polygamy were prevalent during this period. Three instances of “Sati” are recorded in the Ramayana and one in the Mahabharata. Despite all this, women were respected and idealized, as for instance Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, Sati Ansuya, Savitri and Damyanti. Buddhism and Jainism were at first indifferent towards women and Lord Buddha was reluctant to admit women into his faith. Later, women were admitted to Buddhism and Jainism.
Medieval Period: The condition and status of women in India declined with the passage of time. During the medieval period, woman was given a position subordinate to man. Law and religion did not recognize the equality and equal rights of man and woman.
The women’s place was largely regarded as being in the home. In short, the role of women was conceived to be one of subservience to her husband, the master and ruler of the family.
However, by the 15th century, the situation underwent a change. There was a general revival of Indian society which led to considerable improvement in the status of women. The Bhakti movement played a helpful role. The saints preached equality of the sexes and pleaded for equal opportunities for women.
Low status of women, despite outstanding examples: It is true that our history recorded instances of outstanding women like Gargi, Maitreyi, Rani Rudrama Devi, Sultana Razia Begum, Lakshmi Bai, Mirabai, Ahalyabai Holkar, Nur Jahan, Mehr-un-nisa, Maham Anga, Chand Bibi, and Tarabai who accomplished great feats in the spheres of literature, art, philosophy, administration, and even warfare.
The above are few of the great Indian women of this period. Other names are, Jahanara Begum – the partisan of Dara Shikoh, Roshan Ara – the partisan of Aurangzeb, Zeb-un-nisa, the daughter of Aurangzeb and Jija Bai, the mother of Shivaji, ect. Jija Bai is considered typical of Indian womanhood.
However, these women belonged to the royal and aristocratic families of society and hence were free from conditions of social disabilities and subjection in which the mass of women lived.
Despite such outstanding instances, the position, status and condition of women in India was poor. They were generally excluded from succession to property and this led to their dependence on men. The joint family was a source of great strength to women. The legal position of Hindu women, especially from the point of view of inheritance, was again, generally speaking, unsatisfactory. Polygamy was permissible and legal.
Widow-marriage was prevalent among the non-Brahmins of Maharashtra, as also among the Jats of the Punjab and the Jamuna valley. In the middle of the 18th century, social evils increased tremendously. Though women were generally subject to the will of their masters, there were instances of active women participants in political affairs.
British Period: When the British came in to contact with the Indian people in the latter half of the 18th century, the position of Indian woman had deteriorated to the lowest level. Ideologically, women were considered a completely inferior species, having no significance, no personality. Socially they were kept in complete subjection, denied all rights and were suppressed and oppressed, on having been branded as “basically lacking an ethical fibre”.
A distinct change was noticeable when Indian society bore the impact of the British rule and of new ideas. In Bengal, the Brahmo Samaj movement made rapid progress, arousing a new desire among women for freedom. A few woman overcame their social handicaps and achieved positions of distinction. They included Toru Datta, Ramabai, Swarana Kumari Devi and Kamini Roy. These attempts notwithstanding, women did not get the benefit of Western education. Women of upper classes suffered from the custom of enforced widowhood and a ban on divorce. Among the lower classes the practice of “Devdasi” was in vogue.
However, some promising beginnings were made. From about 1878, university studies particularly medicine, began to attract Indian women and around 1888 some women went across the seas even to America to seek new knowledge. As early as 1892 the first Indian woman took her Civil Law degree in England. The ban on women practicing law was removed in 1920 in England. Among the first batch of women to be called to the London Bar was an Indian woman.
During the non-cooperation movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi, he directly appealed to the women of India that led to the awakening of thought in women. Women joined men in equal footing during the great struggle for Indian’s Independence.
This participation of women in the national struggle loosened the social bondage in which they were held. Their equal participation with men in the struggle led to the breakdown of traditional conceptions and brought about a profound change in the attitude of women.
Improvement in condition and revival of status of women during the British period: The early years of the 20th century witnessed rapid progress in breaking down prejudices against women’s education. A number of women’s societies sprang up. The Women’ Indian Association was founded by Mrs. Annie Besant in 1917, with the primary aim of promoting women’s education. The Federation of University Women was formed in 1920 to affiliate women graduates’ associations for more effective advance in the status of women. The National Council of Women was founded in 1925 to federate the Provincial Women’s Council and other women’s organizations. The first All-India Women’s Educational and Social Congress was held in 1926. Socio-religious reform movements like the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophical Society gave added impetus to this awakening.
Thousands of women took part in the freedom struggle under Gandhiji’s leadership fearlessly facing police lathis and guns. They gradually became conscious of their rights.
Soon after the Government of India Act of 1935 introducing provincial autonomy came into effect, many women became ministers in Congress governments. Many women took to studying economics, sociology, science, mathematics, etc. Social hindrances began to disappear gradually. Purdah almost became a thing of the past. In the social and political fields, men and women started working side by side. Educated girls began to marry by choice and some of them took to the stage. Music and dancing were assiduously cultivated and some of the women achieved world fame in the arts.
In 1914, an All-India Muslim Ladies Conference was organized. In 1924, it passed a resolution suggesting a number of social reforms. Among educated Muslim women, Purdah was greatly relaxed. The position of Muslim Women registered a marked improvement.
On 26th January, 1931, the Indian National Congress passed a historic resolution on Indian women.
After Independence: The improvement in women’s position and status became further evident when immediately after the independence, Indian women made their mark by becoming Governors, Cabinet ministers, and ambassadors. Several measures were taken by the Government of India to assign equal status to women in the economic, political and social fields. More avenues were opened to them to show their talents and have a sense of participation in national activities.
The Constitution of India pledges equality of status and opportunity to men and women. The passage of several Acts by the Parliament and the process of social change brought about by industrialization and urbanization during the last few decades have done much for women’s emancipation both legally, politically and socially. Now the members of the family are individuals before the lay, and the Constitution has guaranteed equal rights to women.
Indian women, like men, have the right to vote and the right to be elected. Mrs. India Gandhi, the first women Prime Minister of India, is the pride of India’s women folk. She served for fifteen years and remained the undisputed leader of the most powerful party in India. She was considered to be the most powerful woman in the contemporary world. Women can serve on juries, and there are many women doctors, lawyers and even justices.
Constitutionally, they have equal rights. They have the right to own, manage control their own property. Today, a married woman has the right to divorce; a widow can remarry.
The Constitution of India provides for equal rights for all, irrespective of caste, creed and sex. The Fundamental Rights guarantees equality of men and women in every walk of life. Article 15 assures that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of sex and says: “Nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women.”
Causes of Declining gender ratio: Though India modernized along various dimensions, there is a declining trend of sex ratio. There causes contributing to this declining sex ratio :
- Females are under enumerated in the Indian census.
- Indian families prefer sons, and female infants are consequently neglected.
- Frequent and excessive child-bearing has an adverse effect on the health of women and
- Certain diseases have a high incidence in woman.
All these indicate the worsening condition of women as a whole. Its social manifestations may be seen in the increasing incidence of dowry and the declining position of women due to erosion of their economic and social roles. The process of development itself has generated changes, which have widened and increased socio-economic inequalities, in general, and between men and women in particular.
Conclusion: The acceptance by educated women of an insulting institution like dowry indicates that our womenfolk have never examined the real meaning of the constitutional and legal guarantees.