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Status of Women over Varied Periods in Indian Society

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Abstract: One of the major problems of India society is the inferior position accorded to women. They do not enjoy equal status and their condition is far from satisfactory. This paper provides us a detailed description about the condition, status and position of women in different period, viz. Ancient, Medieval, British and Independent period simultaneously few of the personalities have been discussed in detail that has played an important role in upbringing of women status in the particular Era. This paper will also throw light on different aspects of Women’s life and how the status of women can be enhanced through small changes which can be inculcated into a person’s day to day life. It also ends up with various suggestions and ideas which can help to empower the status of women in society. Key Words: Women empowerment, Ancient Era, Medieval Era, British and Independent India. Introduction: One of the major problems of India society is the inferior position accorded to women. They 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: 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. Scriptures such as the Rigveda and Upanishads mention several women sages and seers,notably Gargi and Maitreyi.

Originally, women were allowed to undergo initiation and study the Veda’s. In the Dharmasutra of Harita, it is mentioned that:There are two types of women: those who become students of the Veda and those who marry immediately. Of these, the students of the Veda undergo initiation, kindle the sacred fire, study the Veda, and beg food in their own houses. In the case of those who marry immediately, however, when the time for marriage comes, their marriage should be performed after initiating them in some manner. 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 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.The Rig Veda had rendered the highest social status to qualified woman of those days. But status of woman fell in the later Vedic and Epic period. They were not at all treated equally with men or we can say that they were not enjoying equal rights and privileges as compared to men. Though the woman participated in each family ceremony with men but they only played a role as a silent observer not an active participant. As per Manu, men always enjoy unchallenged authority over their wives. Child marriages, Polygamy and Sati were prevalent at that time. 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 position of Indian women 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 practised. In some parts of India, some of Devadasis were sexually exploited. Polygamy was practised among Hindu Kshatriya rulers for some political reasons. In many Muslim families, women were restricted to Zenana areas of the house. During the sultanate period, social status of a woman, both in Hindu and Muslim communities was very low. She was regarded as the property of men. Females belonging to the nobility observed purdah and were rarely allowed to go outside the house. Firuz Shah Tughluq, (1309-1388) prohibited women from even visiting holy shrinesAs a custom, rulers and nobles married many women and kept slave girls in a place called harem. Their women, while not always getting a very good treatment from them, were considered as their honour. The Rajputs, especially after being defeated in wars, killed their wives and slave girls in order to save their honour. Women had no freedom and were suppressed. Peasant women had to work at home as well as in the fields. Their life was very hard and without love and respect. Among the Hindus, the custom of ‘sati’ was common in which a widowed woman had to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. However, women belonging to the nobility had some privileges; they could get education at home and enjoyed some freedom.

However, there have been women who got the opportunity to play important roles in politics and the administration. Razia Sultana (1236-1240): During the Sultanate period, Razia Sultana became the successor of her father, Iltutmish (1211-1236). She was the first Muslim woman to sit on the throne as a ruler. Razia was talented, wise and excellent as an administrator. She received trainings in fighting, leading armies, administration, etc. The Turkish nobility had no intention to further comply with the Iltutmish’s appointment of a woman as his heir; they disliked Razia because her policies supported non-Turks more than they did the Turks; therefore they disapproved of Rizia’s bold behavior and started rebelling against her. 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, NurJahan, Mehr-un-nisa, Maham Anga, ChandBibi, 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.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. 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 fiber”.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 women overcame their social handicaps and achieved positions of distinction. They included Toru Datta, Ramabai, Swarana Kumari Devi and Kamini Roy. These at¬tempts 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. 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 lathes 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 econo¬mics, sociology, science, mathematics, etc. Social hindrances began to disappear gradually. Purdah almost became a thing of the past. 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. 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. Women’s safety law v Indian Penal Code, 1860 v Married Women’s Property Act, 1874 v Guardians & Wards Act, 1890 v Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 v Muslim women (protection of rights on divorce) Act, 1986 v Commission of Sati(Prevention) Act, 1987 v National Commission for Women Act, 1990 v Workmen’s compensation Act, 1923 v Indian Successions Act, 1925 v Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 v Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013

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. As compared to the past, women in modern times have achieved a lot but in reality they have to still travel a long way. Women may have left the secured domains of their home, but a harsh, cruel, exploitative world awaits them, where women have to prove their talent against the world who see women as merely vassals of producing children. The Indian woman has to make her way through all the socialized prejudices against her, and the men yet have to allow and accept the women to be equal participants in the country’s way forward.

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