Women in India
The status of women in India has been subject to many great changes over the past few millennia. With a decline in their status from the ancient to medieval times, to the promotion of equal rights by many reformers, the history of women in India has been eventful. In modern India, women have held high offices including that of the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Parliament, Leader of the Opposition, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers and Governors.
Women’s rights are secured under the Constitution of India — mainly, equality, dignity, and freedom from discrimination; further, India has various statutes governing the rights of women.
As of 2011, the President of India, the Speaker of the parliament and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lower House of the parliament were women. However, women in India continue to face numerous problems, including violent victimization through rape, acid throwing, dowry killings, honor killings, marital rape, and the forced prostitution of young girls.
Women during the early Vedic period enjoyed equal status with men in all aspects of life. Works by ancient Indian grammarians such as Patanjali and Katyayana suggest that women were educated in the early Vedic period. Rigvedic verses suggest that women married at a mature age and were probably free to select their own husbands in a practice called swayamvar or live-in relationship called Gandharva marriage
Indian women’s position in society further deteriorated during the medieval period, when child marriages and a ban on remarriage by widows became part of social life in some communities in India. The Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent brought Purdah to Indian society. Among the Rajputs of Rajasthan, the Jauhar was practiced. In some parts of India, some of Devadasi were sexually exploited. Polygamy was practiced among Hindu Kshatriya rulers for some political reasons. In many Muslim families, women were restricted to Zenana areas of the house.
Traditions such as Sati, Jauhar, and Devadasi among some communities have been banned and are largely defunct in modern India. However, some instances of these practices are still found in remote parts of India. The Purdah is still practiced by Indian women in some communities. Child marriage remains common in rural areas, although it is illegal under current Indian law.
During the British rule, many reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Jyotirao Phule fought for the betterment of women. Peary Charan Sarkar, a former student of Hindu College, Calcutta and a member of «Young Bengal», set up the first free school for girls in India in 1847 in Barasat, a suburb of Calcutta (later the school was named Kalikrishna Girls’ High School).
While this might suggest that there was no positive British contribution during the Raj era, that is not entirely the case. Missionaries’ wives such as Martha Mault née Mead and her daughter Eliza Caldwell née Mault are rightly remembered for pioneering the education and training of girls in south India. This practice was initially met with local resistance, as it flew in the face of tradition. Raja Rammohan Roy’s efforts led to the abolition of Sati under Governor-General William Cavendish-Bentinck in 1829. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s crusade for improvement in the situation of widows led to the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856. Many women reformers such as Pandita Ramabai also helped the cause of women.
Women in present India now participate fully in areas such as education, sports, politics, media, art and culture, service sectors, science and technology, etc. Indira Gandhi, who served as Prime Minister of India for an aggregate period of fifteen years, is the world’s longest serving woman Prime Minister.
The Constitution of India guarantees to all Indian women equality, no discrimination by the State, equality of opportunity and equal pay for equal work. In addition, it allows special provisions to be made by the State in favor of women and children, renounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women, and also allows for provisions to be made by the State for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.
Feminist activism in India gained momentum in the late 1970s. One of the first national-level issues that brought women’s groups together was the Mathura rape case. The acquittal of policemen accused of raping a young girl Mathura in a police station led to country-wide protests in 1979-1980. The protests, widely covered by the national media, forced the Government to amend the Evidence Act, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Indian Penal Code; and created a new offence, custodial rape. Female activists also united over issues such as female infanticide, gender bias, women’s health, women’s safety, and women’s literacy.
Since alcoholism is often associated with violence against women in India, many women groups launched anti-liquor campaigns in Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and other states. Many Indian Muslim women have questioned the fundamental leaders’ interpretation of women’s rights under the Shariat law and have criticized the triple talaq system.
In the 1990s, grants from foreign donor agencies enabled the formation of new women-oriented NGOs. Self-help groups and NGOs such as Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) have played a major role in the advancement of women’s rights in India. Many women have emerged as leaders of local movements; for example, Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
The Government of India declared 2001 as the Year of Women’s Empowerment (Swashakti). The National Policy for the Empowerment of Women came was passed in 2001.
In 2006, the case of Imrana, a Muslim rape victim, was highlighted by the media. Imrana was raped by her father-in-law. The pronouncement of some Muslim clerics that Imrana should marry her father-in-law led to widespread protests, and finally Imrana’s father-in-law was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The verdict was welcomed by many women’s groups and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
Fast forward to 2016, 70 years since independence – the situation stands such that reports indicate a dwindling tendency in participation rates of women in the formal labor force and political participation of women being no more than 10%.
The National Crime Records Bureau has further recorded an alarming rise in the rate of crimes against women which serve to only complicate any chance of improving the participation rates of women in various areas of society.
This unexpected turn of events despite a promising start to a national narrative of development demands a close look at gender roles in the context of the society it is born of. Only in assessing gender roles and social attitudes to such gender roles despite progressive laws can one possibly understand what has worked for India and what hasn’t. And most importantly for that which hasn’t worked, “gender roles” can tell us “why” the situation has turned out that way. To begin the discussion, let’s first start by defining what “gender” is:
“Gender” is a socio-cultural construct which provides the implicit framework that charts out the general relationships between the sexes in a society.”
In India, where religious myths and traditional attitudes define virtues and vices( relative to interpretation) , and these in turn condition popular imagination to form the social culture, the ideal and permissible cultural role of a woman becomes a contentious issue that can barely be assessed in uniform terms.
However, a careful observation validates the fact that patriarchy has had an upper hand in general in most traditional norms across the country. In this context, India with its sub-continental geographical expanse and its unique patchwork of regionally diverse cultures becomes a template for a special kind of gendered discrimination.
This discrimination brings together the different oppressive practices from different traditional communities to write out a common low position for women which often go unquestioned due to selective “scripture-based” justification for retaining order in communities. This form of discrimination has over time acquired the status of a norm, permeating the overall cultural attitude towards determining claims of women at multiple levels, besides limits already being imposed on production entitlements owing to the forces of globalization.
Under the guise of prosperity backed by a steady growth in economic parameters thus, gendered discrimination serves to adversely affect human development of a significant section of the population, rendering them vulnerable to poverty and related security issues.
The Human Development Report 2015, published by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program me) recorded that women across the world undertake most of the unpaid housework and care giving work in their homes and communities.
Due to a disproportionate workload in terms of care giving duties, women most often have less time for other activities such as paid work and education. In a sample of 62 countries, it is interesting to note that on an average 4.5 hours a day were devoted by men to social life and leisure while for women, the number of hours was reduced to 3.9 in India.
Besides the lack of time faced by women after care giving activities to pursue income generating skills and active careers, they also find themselves often subjected to a family imposed ideal of priority skill sets to work on which in turn shapes them to cater to the requirements of a chauvinistic marriage market rather than a job market.
Interestingly, educated married women in urban areas have been found to be socially “wired” to bend to the pressures of their in-laws and drop out of the labor force after marriage to give priority to their care giving duties at home. There are also instances of women willingly leaving their jobs as they are conditioned to believe that housekeeping, child bearing are their primary duties and roles.
This issue is as much a matter or cultural indoctrination as it is of cultural pressure. There is also a noted differentiation in establishing culturally accepted priorities for men and women. For women, the disproportionate pressure to sustain the marriage, manage the household, bear and bring up children alongside careers naturally push them to often compromise with their work life aspirations.
Given that society is hostile to women who break the mould and rewrite their priorities on their own, conforming to the code becomes the easier and thus the more frequently opted choice. It’s often vital for those who want to maintain a relationship with their own parents and family.
Work culture in India also adopts the same attitude and would rather fire young mothers or women with conservative social norms than invest in arrangements such as:
- Assisting them with more flexible work hours
- Allowances for travelling or facilities for pick up and drop off
- Building crèches or day care facilities for their employees’ children
Life for the upper class women, educated women is different but no better. Despite their qualifications, what acts against them is a threat to their security while working outside their homes, travelling to universities and colleges.
Right from jilted lovers seeking to teach their beloved a lesson for rejecting them through extreme means like acid attacks and rape, to men on the streets treating women with contempt through harassment and molestation for stepping out and holding equal positions – the story follows a similar narrative almost everywhere across the length and breadth of the country.
Sati is an old, almost completely defunct custom among some communities, in which the widow was immolated alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although the act was supposed to be voluntary on the widow’s part, its practice is forbidden by the Hindu scriptures in Kali yuga, the current age. After the foreign invasions of Indian subcontinent, this practice started to mark its presence, as women were often raped or kidnapped by the foreign forces. It was abolished by the British in 1829. There have been around forty reported cases of sati since independence. In 1987, the Roop Kanwar case in Rajasthan led to The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act.
Jauhar refers to the practice of voluntary immolation by wives and daughters of defeated warriors, in order to avoid capture and consequent molestation by the enemy. The practice was followed by the wives of defeated Rajput rulers, who are known to place a high premium on honor. Evidently such practice took place during the Islamic invasions of India.
Devadasi is often misunderstood as religious practice. It was practiced in southern India. Women were «married» to a deity or temple, disallowing them from ever marrying a mortal. After this, the women were sold into sex work, ‘devoting themselves to a life of service to the goddess’. The ritual was well-established by the 10th century CE. By 1988, the practice was outlawed in the country, but it continues in some regions, usually involving girls of the lowest caste.