[Status of Women] Role of Women and Women Organization

  • The status of women in India has been subject to many great changes over a Past few millenia. India has most ancient pedigreed system of law, about 6000 years old, marked with fluctuating fortune in the status of women. The Indian women are completely devoted to their families. They are preached in the names of Goddess Durga, Goddess Saraswati, Parvati and Kali. The evolution of the status of women in India has been a continuous process of ups and downs throughout history. Women existed during the pre Aryan ,Dravidian time and are mentioned in the sanskrit literatures. Women represented in the Hindu and Buddhist art and culture. Devi traditions are found in main Hinduism and Tantric Hinduism. Bhakti saints and courtesans are found in north and south India.

  • It was during the Medieval period .which is also called as 'Dark Age' there was a decline in the status of women. They were not allowed to go out, and move with others. They were asked to sit at home caress their children .Early marriage of a girl child, before getting acquainted with her own parents she was given in marriage to an outsider at 12 or13 where after marriage she went to in laws. Thus a girl child was betrothed..Child Marriage,Sati ,Jauhar,Child re-marriage, restriction of education to a girl child and Devadasi system prevailed.

  • Placing women at the centre and then change in their position over time and across pace,religion,regime and caste provides the much needed historical context for a proper understanding of the gender disparitiies in areas like education, employment and legal entitlements to property apart from social and cultural inequality. Anxiety among widows to know about property rights prevailed .The practice of Sati existed and it was believed that those who perform Sati twill reach abode 'heaven' along with their husband. Such families are respected in society and they have high moral values .

  • It is only after Independence women came forward in all the fields and we have seen notable women in the field of education,Art and Culture. A historical perspective to the complexities India continues to face from time to time since Independence.

  • But the status of women in modern India is a sort of paradox. If on the one hand she finds success and the path to success clear ,on the other hand she is suffering , sufferings afflicted by her in laws and family members. Indian women are not treated as equal they are still prejudiced. Nowadays women leave home and now go to work means they are in battlefield with their talent.

Women in Ancient India :

Indus valley civilization-
  • In Indus valley civilization condition of women was pretty good. They were entitled equal honour along with the man in the society.  The worship of mother goddess demonstrates that they were venerated in the form of mother.
Rig Vedic Period-
  • During Rig Vedic period woman had an excellent position and they enjoyed full freedom and equality with men. The position of wife was an honoured one in the household and women enjoyed a position superior to that of a man in the matter of performance of religious ceremonies.              

  • In the matter of education both boys and girls were having equal opportunities. After observing Upanayana Samskar, girls were allowed to spend their life in ‘Gurukul’. In intellectual and spiritual life they occupied a position as man. Education of maiden was considered as a important qualification for marriage.

  • The frequent reference to unmarried girls speaks in favor of a custom of girls marrying long after they had reached puberty. There seems to have been considerable freedom on the part of young persons in the selection of their life partners as they generally married at a mature age. Approval of the parent or the brother was not essential, the boy and the girl made up their minds and then informed the elders though their participation in the marriage ceremony was essential i.e. the blessings of the elders were sought.  There was a reference in Vedic literature that in Kshatriya society brides had exclusive right of selecting their own consorts, which was known as ‘Svaymvara’. 

  • In Rig Vedic society dowry system was unknown but it was connected with the concept of marriage as a dan or gift.  In rich and royal families some gifts were given to son-in-law at the time of marriage. Monogamy was prevalent and practiced in general communities, at the same time Bigamy was also in practice but it was limited to the aristocratic classes.

  • The wife was respected in her new house and wielded authority over her husband’s family. The wife participated in the sacrificial offerings of her husband. Abundance of sons was prayed for so, naturally so in a patriarchal society since the son performed the last rites and continued the line.

  • Remarriage of widows was permitted under certain conditions. Female morality maintained a high standard although but the same degree of fidelity was not expected from the husband.

  • In this age there was no practice of divorce but the custom of widow’s remarriage was in practice.  The Rig-Veda states that the widow had the right to marry again with her husband’s brother.  Whereas Baudhayan and Vasistha mentioned that it is not necessary for a widow to marry her husband’s brother only but she can marry any other person also.

  • Rig-Veda recognized right of inheritance of an unmarried daughter from the property of her father but married daughter was exempted. There were no specific mention regarding right of inheritance of a married daughter or widow.
Uttar Vedic Period -
  • Freedom of marriage continued and remarriage of widows continued to be allowed. Dowries continued to be given but not in the sense that we understand today. The marriage ceremony was the same as in the previous period. As in the previous period the picture of an ideal family life continued.

  • Gradually religious ceremonies increasingly were conducted by the priests resulting in loosing her preeminent position in the household. This was the period during which the importance of rituals increased and so did the importance of the Brahmans.

  • Desire for sons continued, sati was not prevalent. The position of women was not as high as it was in the Rig Vedic period. Female workers were involved in dying, embroidery and basket making.

The Age of the Upanishads - 
  • The anuloma system of marriage ie between the male of a higher caste and female of a lower caste prevailed during this period. The rules of Panini regarding Abhi-vadana ( salutation as a mark of respect to elderly persons in the house ) show that the presence of wives of the lower caste in a house and their association with ladies of a higher caste brought down the general level of womanly culture and led to a deterioration in their status.

Age of Sutras and Epics-
  •  The Grihya-sutras give detailed rules regarding the proper seasons for marriage, qualifications of bride and bridegroom. The bride is at a mature age, over 15 or 16. The elaborate rites indicate that marriage was a holy bond and not a contract.

  • The women held an honored position in the household. She was allowed to sing, dance and enjoy life. Sati was not generally prevalent. Widow Remarriage was allowed under certain circumstances. On the whole the Dharma-sutras take a more lenient attitude than the Smritis of a later age. The Apastamba imposes several penalties on a husband who unjustly forsakes his wife. On the other hand, a wife who forsakes her husband has to only perform penance. In case a grown up girl was not married at a proper time by her father, she could choose her husband after three years of waiting.

  • The most pleasing feature of this period is the presence of women teachers, many of whom possessed highest spiritual knowledge. The famous dialogue between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi and Gargi Vachaknavi show how enlightened the women of that age were. According to the Sarvanukramanika, there were as many as 20 women among the authors of the Rig Veda. These stories stand in contrast to the later age when the study of Vedic literature was forbidden to women under the most severe penalty.

  • As in all patriarchal societies during that age the birth of a daughter was unwelcome. The son lived with his parents, earned money for the family, protected the family from enemies and perpetuated the name of the family.  

  • The Ramayan along with the Mahabarat and the puranas constitute the epic literature in India. The position of women gradually deteriorated not only in the society but also in the family. The discontinuance of Upanayana, the neglect of education and lowering of the marriage age produced disastrous consequence upon the position and status of woman. During this period a woman was considered to be a living commodity which could be kept on bet and could be sold or purchased.

  • But we also get quite contrary views from Ramayan and Mahabarata.  Bhisma says that during this period women were respected.  Sita is regarded as one of the five ideal and revered women in India, the other four being Ahalya, Draupati, Tara and Mondodari. There are references in Mahabarata which reflects that women used to guide men on religious and social questions. Mahabarata says the “Goddess of prosperity” resides within the woman who is given to truth and sincerity kind who pays due report to the gods and the Brahmana.  It was expected of a good woman to cooperate with her husband in religious pursuits. Marriage was a religious sacrament.  A woman was considered unfit for independence at any time as she required protection throughout her life.
In The Age 600 BC to 320 AD-                    

  • Marriage between the same caste was preferred although inter caste marriages were prevalent.  Of the eight forms of marriage prescribed by the Dharma-sutras, the Arhsa form of marriage was most popular. The bridegroom was selected by the girl’s father. According to Nearchus the Indians “marry without giving or taking dowries but the girls, as soon as they are marriageable, are brought forward by their fathers and exposed in public, to be selected by a person who excels in some form of physical exercise”. This indicates a modified form of Svayamvara. While girls continued to be married around 16, there was a tendency to marry them before they attained puberty. It was probably due to the anxiety to maintain their body purity. Lowering of the marriage age affected their education and culture adversely. After Extreme emphasis was now laid on the physical chastity of women which discouraged widow remarriage, divorce and encouragement of sati.

  • There is also evidence that women were active in such public economic activities as wage-labor in state-owned textile factories as well as serving as temple dancers, courtesans, and court attendants. There is little information on lower class women other than some comments on laboring women and the need to give works as spinners to such disadvantaged women as widows and "defective girls."

  • During the earlier part of this period, there were highly educated women holding an honorable position in society and household. There were lifelong students of sacred texts or those who pursued their study till marriage. Women also recd training in arts, music, painting and for some military training also. Buddhist and Jain nuns renounced the world for the sake of spiritual salvation. Jain texts refer to Jayanti who carried on discussions with Mahavira himself and later on became a nun.

  • Inspite of the progress, there were growing disabilities.  Earlier the girls went through the Upanayana ceremony but now it was only a formality. Manu laid down that marriage was equal to Upanayana while Yajnavalkya took the step of prohibiting Upanayana ceremony for girls. The wife who performed Vedic sacrifices was denied the right to do so. Narada is however, more considerate towards women. Greek writers have stated that sati existed, was in vogue in Punjab, possibly confined to the warrior class only.

  • Women courtesans were not looked down by religious leaders or kings. Some of them were highly accomplished and in the point of culture, standing resembled the Hetairai of Athens. A famous courtesan Amrapali who lived during the reign of Bimbisara (300 to 273 BC) was a beauty whom Buddha visited.

  •  Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the dynasty, was reputedly assisted by Kautilya, a brahman prime minister, who composed the Arthasastra, a handbook of state craft which is often compared to Machiavelli's The Prince. This compendium documents that women had property rights to the stridhan, which was the gift made to a woman at the time of her marriage by her parents and afterwards augmented by her husband. Stridhan was usually in the form of jewelry, which among many cultural groups was a convenient way of carrying surplus wealth, but could include certain rights to immovable property. There were eight forms of marriage. They ranged from the most prestigious, involving the gift of a virgin daughter (kanyadan) by her father to another male, to marriage by abduction while the woman is incapacitated through sleep or intoxication. Marriage was both a secular and sacred institution. Widows could remarry, although, when they did so, they lost rights to any property inherited from their deceased husbands. There is also evidence that women were active in such public economic activities as wage-labor in state-owned textile factories as well as serving as temple dancers, courtesans, and court attendants. There is little information on lower class women other than some comments on laboring women and the need to give works as spinners to such disadvantaged women as widows and "defective girls."

  • There is also a Tamil epic, Shilappadikaram or "The Lay of Anklet," from about A.D. 450 in which the primary heroine is Kannaki, a devoted wife. She suffers the loss of her husband to beautiful courtesan but still offers to sell a gem-encrusted ankle bracelet to help him repay his depts. When he is beheaded because of an unjust accusation, Kannaki, in her wrath, destroys by fire the city where her husband met his fate. Eventually the goddess Parvati pacifies Kannake, who is reunited with her husband in heaven. The husband suffers because of bad actions in an earlier life, but Kannaki demonstrates the power of chastity and righteousness.
In The Age 320 to 750 AD-

  • The Gupta Empire is seen as the classical age of Indian culture because of its literary and artistic accomplishments. Some information on roles for elite women comes from the Kama Sutra, a manual about the many ways to acquire pleasure, a legitimate goal for Hindu men in the householder, or second stage, of their lives. Women were expected to be educated, to give and to receive sexual pleasure, and to be faithful wives. Courtesans were trained in poetry and music as well as the skills of sexual pleasure and were esteemed members of society. Courtesans were the one category of women who were likely to be educated and sometimes were known to have spoken Sanskrit. A prime example of a noble-hearted courtesan was Vasantesena, the heroine of the "The Little Clay Cart," a popular play in Sanskrit ascribed to Sudraka (ca. A.D. 400). Vasantasena is an exception to the stereotype of greedy courtesans in her willingness to sacrifice her jewelry for her lover. She, however, achieves respectability only by becoming his wife. The other major dramatic female heroine of classical Indian literature is Shakuntala, who is now represented as a docile young woman who yearn for her distant lover in Kalidasa's "Shakuntala and the Ring of Remembrance."

  • There was a growing tendency to lower the marriageable age of girls with girls being married before or after puberty. Marriage within the same caste was preferred but prohibited within certain degrees of relationship.  Girls of high families had adequate opportunities for acquiring proficiency in higher learning. In Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, instances of princess are mentioned whose intellect was sharpened by knowledge of the Sasatras. The literary evidence of the Gupta age proves that girls of high families as also those living in hermitages read works on ancient history & legend. Girls living in royal courts were trained in singing & dancing too. Vatsyanana draws a picture of a good wife which may be taken as a reflection of the real life during that period.

  •  In the Gupta period lived the chaste and austere life prescribed by the Smritis. Sati was extolled by some but strongly disapproved by others. In the absence of any reference by the Chinese travelers it would be correct to believe that the custom was not widely prevalent during this period. Probably due to the foreign invasions and its consequences for women, the custom of sati, though confined to the warrior class earlier began to gain widespread acceptance, be perceived as a great sacrifice. The tendency to regard women as weaker and not of strong moral fibre got stronger during this period although women as mother, sister continued to be highly respected.

  • Remarriage of widows though coming into disfavor was not forbidden. The only direction in which the position of women improved was in the sphere of proprietary rights. As society began to discourage widow remarriages, there began to arise a class of childless widows who needed money to maintain themselves. Due to a lowering of the age of marriage, girls were not educated as before. This reduced the position and status of women. Brides being too young had no say in choosing their partners. Love marriages were a thing of the past. During this period, marriage became an irrevocable union, but it was one sided in favor of the husband. Since women were not as educated as before they did not know what their rights were. Among the most striking changes may be the increased recognition in Katyayana of the women’s right to property and a remarkable rule in Atri that allowed women molested by robbers to regain her social status. Some women enjoyed political power e.g. Prabhavati-gupta, daughter of Chandra-gupta II who ruled the Vakataka kingdom on behalf of her son, in the 4th century a.d.  Available literature seem to indicate that married women in higher families did not usually appear in public without veils. The silence of Hiuen Tsang indicates that women in general did not observe the Purdah or remain in seclusion.

Women in Early Medieval Period :

  • Like the earlier period, women were generally considered mentally inferior. Their duty was to obey their husband blindly. A writer illustrates the wife’s duty of personal services towards her husband by saying that she shall shampoo his feet and render him such other service as befit a servant. But he adds the condition that the husband follows the righteous path and is free from hatred as well as jealousy towards the wife. The Matsya Purana authorizes the husband to beat his erring wife (though not on the head or the breasts) with a rope or a split bamboo. Women continued to be denied the right to study the Vedas. Furthermore, the marriageable age for girls was lowered, thereby destroying their opportunities for higher education. The omission of all reference to women teachers in the dictionaries written during the period show the poor state of higher education among women. However, from some of the dramatic works of the period, we find the court ladies and even the queen’s maids-in-wating capable of composing excellent Sanskrit and prakrit verses. Various stories point to the skill of princesses in the fine arts, specially in painting and music. Daughters of high officials, courtesans and concubines were also supposed to be highly skilled in the various arts, including poetry.

  • As for marriage, the Smriti writers say that girls were to be given away by their parents, between the ages of six and eight or between their eighth year and attending puberity. Medhatithi made inter-caste marriages exceptional. Marriage with the daughter of a maternal uncle is condemned. Marriage by mutual love is condemned by Medhatithi and he said that one should marry a girl who is much younger than himself, she must get married between the age of eight and achieving puberty.

  • If a girl’s guardian cannot find her a match before she becomes of marriageable age, then she can choose her partner after staying in her father’s house for three years after attaining puberty. While love marriages were known they were solemnized after approval of the girl’s guardians. Sometimes, girls with the approval of their parents opted for a Svayamvara ceremony. Remarriage was allowed under certain condition  when the husband had deserted (i.e., was not heard of ) or died , or adopted  the life of a recluse, or was impotent or had become an out caste.

  • In general, women were distrusted. They were to kept in seclusion and their life was reigned the male relation – father, brother, husband, son. However, within the home they were honoured. If a husband abandoned even a guilty-wife, she was to be given maintenance. With the growth of property rights in land, the property right of women also increased. In order to preserve the property of a family, women were given the right to inherit the property of their male relations. With some reservation, a widow was  entitled to the entire estate of her husband if he died sonless. Daughters also had the right to succeed to the properties of a widow. Thus, the growth of feudal society strengthened the concept of private property.

  • The practice of sati was made obligatory by some writers, but condemned by others. According to an Arab writer, sulaiman, wives of king sometimes burnt themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands, but it was for them to exercise their option in the matter. It appears that with the growth of the practice of large numbers of women being maintained by the feudal chiefs, and with the resultant disputes about property, there was a tendency for the rite of sati spread.

  • Purdah was not prevalent during this period. According to Abu Zaid, most Indian Princess while holding court allowed their women to be seen unveiled by the men present, whether native or foreigners.

  •  The general level of their culture is high. Silamahadevi, wife of the Rashtrakuta emperor, Dhruva, probably ruled jointly with her husband. Several Queens of the Kara dynasty ruled in Ores. Sugandha and Didda of Kashmir administered extensive kingdoms. There were learned women as well as administrators. Sarasvati, wife of Mandanamisra, who acted as an arbitrator in her husband’s disputations with Sankaracharya, was a learned scholar herself”.        

Women in Medieval India :

  • Medieval Indian history spreads over 500 years. It is predominantly the history of Muslim rulers. Muslim appeared in India as a warrior class. Their rule in India is divided into two Eras; The Era of Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Era. The only women who had ever occupied the thrown of Delhi was Razia Sultan. She was not only a wise ruler but also a women of Dauntless courage. She set the role of model for politically empowered women in India. In Mughal Era India saw the rise of some eminent muslim women. Qutluq Nigar Khanm Babar’s mother gave wise counsel to her son Babar, during his arduous campaign for the recovery of his father’s heritage.Gulbadan Begum was a  women of exceptional poetic talent who wrote Humayun-namah. Nur Jahan and Jahan Ara took an active part in the state affairas.  Nurjahan was the greatest muslim queen of India. She was very embodiment of beauty and military valour. Mumtaj Mahal a princess of a rare beauty combined with superb intellectual talents and aesthetic tastes. India has also produced heroic  women.  Chandbibi, who appeared on the ramparts of the fort of Ahmednagar dressed in male attire and put heart in the defenders of that town against the powers of Akbar himself; Tara Bai, the Maharata heroine who was the life and soul of Maharata resistance during the last determined onslaught of Aurangazeb; Mangammal, whose benign rule is still a green memory in the South, and Ahalya Bai Holkar, to whose administrative genius Sir John Malcolm has paid amagnificent tribute. The Moghul princesses of course played a notable part in the court life of Agra and Delhi. Jehanara, the partisan of Dara Shikoh, Roshanara, the partisan of Aurangazeb, Zebunnissa, the daughter of Aurangazeb, whose poems (under the pen name of Makhfi) have come down to us and others represented the culture of the court.  Jija Bai, the mother of Shivaji, is more typical of Indian womanhood than the bejewelled princesses who wrote poetry, played within the walls of their palaces or administered States. She was a true type of Indian womanhood, a devoted mother, strong-willed and autocratic at home but wholly subordinating hereself to the interests of her son.

  • During the medieval period the social life of women underwent great changes. Dependence of women on their husbands or other male relatives was a prominent feature of this period. Devoid of avenues of any education, having lost the access to Streedhana or dowry, they virtually became the exploited class with disastrous results for themselves and the nation. Indian women were politically, socially and economically inactive except for those engaged in farming and weaving. Political subordination includes the exclusion of women from all important decision- making processes. With the advent of Muslims in India, the social movement of Indian women was restricted. They were prohibited to attend public functions and were not free to participate as men's equals in religious functions like yajnas, obviously indicating a degradation of her role as she was getting wrapped in isolation. Another social evil that existed in society during this period was child marriage. These pre-pubescent marriages adversely affected the health of the girls. These child brides were denied all intellectual, physical and spiritual development. It virtually punctured the fragile psyche of Indian girl child. Her self-image was torn into shreds by the patriarchal family which denied her basic freedom. Indian womanhood was mercilessly locked in the echo chamber. Similarly most of the women made themselves believe that the ideal place for them was the home. Thus they were persuaded by circumstances to accept their inferiority and secondary position. Men being providers, women became dependent on them economically, for their subsistence except for the labour classes, where both men and women participated in subsistence farming and other occupations.

  • Many social evils like female infanticide, sati, child marriages, Purdah system or zenana, the seclusion of women developed during the middle ages, due to the political instability of northem India, especially due to various invasions. Muslims who came to India were mainly warriors and they did not give much importance to Hindu ideals like chastity and pativrata dharma So the seclusion of women was encouraged mainly by the Rajputs and the other upper castes like Brahmins. Polygamy was the first reason which contributed to the subordination of women. Muslim rulers in India had large harems. Thus women came to be regarded as instruments of sensual satisfaction. Even among the Hindus there was no limit set to the number of wives a man could take. Marriage in Islam is a contract. But a Muslim man can have as many as four wives. Thus even religion encouraged the abject subordination of women for the reasons best known to it. Islam also made husband the head of the family and insisted that a wife should obey all his commands and should serve him with utmost loyalty, whether he was worthy of it or not.

  • Another social evil that existed in medieval India was female infanticide. This particular system was prevalent among Rajputs and other high castes. Even among the Muslims this custom existed. The evil mainly orginated from the belief that only the birth of a son could make salvation possible for parents. Only a son had the privilege of performing Samskaras. And lastly the son began to be considered as the maintainer of the race. So in most of the noble families the female child was killed either by poisoning or by burying her alive. Some of them were drowned to death.

  • Purdah gained popularity with the advent of the Muslims. The purdah system existed among Kshatriyas in the period of Dharma Sastras. But the Hindu women veiled only their face or sometimes only covered their heads with sarees or "dupattas." But for Muslims it meant complete veiling. Purdah actually is a Persian word which means curtain. According to Patricia Jeffrey "Purdah is a part and parcel of stratification in India It becomes the mental foot binding, the frogs in a well syndrome, the submissiveness of the young bride and the inability of adult women to cope with the world outside."

  • Dowry system was a common phenomenon. It actually meant "Stridhana" which included gifts, ornaments, property, and cash presented to her by her father or her relatives. But in the medieval period the term acquired special significance. It meant money or "Dakshina" which was actually presented to the bride groom along with the bride. In Vedic times it ensured some sort of security for her. But during the middle ages she was not free to use it as it was owned by her husband and his kith and kin. During the Middle Ages the term "Stridhana" acquired huge dimensions. The Hindus and Muslims favoured this custom of dowry. It could be paid in cash or kind along with the bride. During the Vedic ages it was given with the intention of providing security for women when a crisis occurs. She was free to make use of this "Dhana." But the Middle Ages witnessed a sudden transformation. The Stridhana received by the groom belonged completely to the in-laws. The bride did not have free access to this wealth, which rightfully belonged to her. Dowry system existed even among the Muslims, especially among the Shias. As years rolled by dowry became an integral part of the marriage ceremony. This in a way contributed to female infanticide, as it became a heavy burden on the poor. The birth of girls became a nightmare to the majority of the population. Another negative effect of the dowry system was that the Indian woman lost her importance as a worthy human being. She began to be regarded as movable and removable property by her husband. Created by the so-called law-givers and upholders of religion in the medieval age it literally induced physical as well as intellectual damage on women in medieval India. It took away her fledge ling morale which was as expectedly delicate. Above all it resulted in the emotional break-downs and the traumas of a serious kind. Thus her self-concept received another lethal lash at the hands of the dark forces that ruled the roost.

  • The condition of the Hindu widows became more miserable during the medieval period. Rigidity of caste system denied them the right to freedom and social mobility. Inhuman treatment was offered to the widow. She was forced to lead a life away from worldly pleasures. A widow was also secluded from society as well as family. Another pre-requisite for a widow was shaving the head. She was thus humiliated mercilessly by contemporary society. The condition of the Muslim widow was slightly better owing to the fact that she could marry after a certain lapse of time following her husband's death.

  • 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 honour. The feudal society of the time encouraged "Sati" which meant self-immolation of the widow. By burning herself on the pyre of her husband, she proves her loyalty. Even the child widows were not spared from this gruesome ritual. According to Saroj Gulati "because of the continuous wars, there were chances of too many widows young and old, and a big question was how to accommodate them without bringing stigma to the family or creating problems for society."  And Sati was considered as the best course even though it was the worst crime perpetrated on Indian women from many angles of reason or humanity.

  • Prostitution became a recognised institution. The Devadasi system which was prevalent among the Hindus and the courtesans who adorned the court of Muslim rulers, degraded the status of women in society. Under the Devadasi system women were the brides of gods. But they were supposed to entertain kings, priests and even members of the upper classes. The fact that they were exploited by the existing male-dominated society is clearly revealed in the testimony of Alberuni: "the kings make them an attraction for their cities, a bait of pleasure for their subjects, for no other but financial reasons."    

Women in the Bhakti Movement :

  • Bhakti movements which flourished during the medieval age gave rise to a new class of man and women who cared little for gender bias. The liberal current, which to some extent widened the horizon of women, was the Bhakti movements, the medieval saints’ movements.Female poet-saints also played a significant role in the bhakti movement at large. Nonetheless, many of these women had to struggle for acceptance within the largely male dominated movement. Only through demonstrations of their utter devotion to the Divine, their outstanding poetry, and stubborn insistence of their spiritual equality with their contemporaries were these women reluctantly acknowledged and accepted within their ranks. Their struggle attests to the strength of patriarchal values within both society and within religious and social movements attempting to pave the way for more egalitarian access to the Divine.

  • The imagery of bhakti poetry is grounded in the everyday, familiar language of ordinary people. Women bhaktas wrote of the obstacles of home, family tensions, the absent husband, meaningless household chores, and restrictions of married life, including their status as married women. In many cases, they rejected traditional women’s roles and societal norms by leaving husbands and homes altogether, choosing to become wandering bhaktas; in some instances they formed communities with other poet-saints. Their new focus was utter devotion and worship of their Divine Husbands.

  • However, while male bhaktas could engage in this role-playing on a temporary basis, returning at will to their privileged social status as males, women bhaktas faced overwhelming challenges through their rejection of societal norms and values, without having the ability to revert back to their normative roles as wives, mothers and in some cases, the privileges of their original high-caste status.

  • While it is tempting to see women’s participation within the bhakti movement as a revolt against the patriarchal norms of the time, there is little evidence to support this perspective. Injustices and the patriarchal order itself were not a major focus of these poet-saints. Women bhaktas were simply individuals attempting to lead lives of devotion. Staying largely within the patriarchal ideology that upheld the chaste and dutiful wife as ideal, these women transferred the object of their devotion and their duties as the “lovers” or “wives” to their Divine Lover or Husband. Nonetheless, that their poetry became an integral aspect of the bhakti movement at large is highly significant and inspirational for many who look to these extraordinary women as ideal examples of lives intoxicated by love for the Divine.

  • Further, it would appear that with the movement’s northward advancement (15th through 17th centuries), its radical edge as it pertained to women’s inclusion was tempered. Greater numbers of women took part in the movement’s earlier development (6th to 13th centuries); it is largely male bhaktas and saints that are today perceived as the spokespersons for the movement in its later manifestations. The poetry of women bhaktas from this latter time period is generally not indicative of a rejection of societal norms in terms of leaving family and homes in pursuit of divine love. Instead, some of the later poet-saints stayed within the confines of the household while expounding on their souls’ journeys, their eternal love for the Divine, as well as their never-ending search for truth.

Female Bhaktas :

  • The poets outlined below represent a panorama of female poet-saints within the Bhakti movement. Some were extraordinarily radical in their rejection of social norms and values, leaving husbands, families, and society behind in order to extol their love for God. Others attempted to fit into more traditional roles in society by maintaining their responsibilities as wives and mothers. All wrote exquisite poetry that has been passed on through bards and singers throughout India.

  • Akkamahadevi, also known as Akka or Mahadevi was a bhakta from the southern region of Karnataka and a devotee of Shiva in the 12th century CE. Legends tell of her wandering naked in search of her Divine Lover; her poetry, or vacanas tell of her frustration with societal norms and roles that restricted her. They also bear witness to her intense, all-encompassing love for Shiva, whom she addresses as Chennamallikarjuna. Through Shiva and Shiva alone is her love fulfilled; through separation from her “lord white as jasmine” is her heart broken.

  • Janabai was born around the 13th century in Maharashtra in a low-caste sudra family. As a young girl she was sent to work in the upper-caste family of Namdev, one of the most revered of the bhakti poet saints. While within this household, she continued to serve Namdev, both as a servant and as his devotee. Janabai wrote over three hundred poems focusing on domestic chores and the restrictions facing her as a low-caste woman.

  • Mirabai, or Mira is said to have been born into a ruling Rajput family. Mirabai’s poetry tells of her vision of Lord Krishna when she was a child; from that point on Mira vowed that she would forever be his bride. Despite her wishes, she was married into another princely family at a young age. Yet the numerous legends surrounding Mira tell of an undying devotion toward Krishna, her true husband. Central to these accounts are Mirabai’s struggles within the family she had been married into, including unsuccessful attempts made by her jealous husband to kill her. Others focus on her sisters-in-law’s efforts to obstruct Mirabai in her desires to join the company of wandering saints, actions deemed utterly improper for a woman of her high-caste status. Eventually, Mirabai left her husband and family in pilgrimage to various places associated with “her Dark Lord,” including Brindavan, Krishna’s holy city. There she was initially rejected because she was a woman. Yet Mirabai’s reputation of devotion, piety, and intellectual astuteness eventually led to her inclusion within the community of the saints of Brindavan.

  • Bahinabai or Bahina was a poet-saint from 17th century Maharashtra, writing in the form of abangas, women’s songs that accompanied their labors, especially in the fields. Her writings are particularly autobiographical, recounting her childhood, puberty and married life. Despite having obvious conflicts with her husband due to her overarching and ecstatic love for her Divine Lover in the form of Lord Vithoba, another name for Krishna, she took her role as wife and responsibilities to her earthly husband seriously. Her husband was also critical of her allegiance to the bhakti poet-saint Tukaram. Nonetheless, her poetry reflects an attitude of duty and respectful empathy toward both her marriage and her spouse. This becomes clear through her writings on the responsibilities of women toward their husbands.

Women in Modern India :

  • Modern India refers to the period form 1700 A.D. to 1947 A.D. In the back ground of the intellectual upheaval of the 18th and 19th centaury there witnessed a world wide demand for establishing of independent and egalitarian nationalist societies which invariably emphasized the equality of women with men. Women in modern India have largely been influenced by the programs of reform and upliftment which brought about a radical change in their position. With the various reform movements and a gradual change in the perception of women in society, there was seen a radical transformation in the position of women in modern India. Before the coming of the British in India the life of women was rather oppressive, and they were subject to a constant process of subjugation and social oppression. The women’s youth was spent in the preparation of marriage and her entire life was one dependent on the male members of her family. Though a few women became educated, attained fame and commanded armies, most were denied men’s opportunities to acquire knowledge, property and social status.

Status of women in India during the British period-

  • If a person who died a hundred years ago came to life to day, the first and most important change that would strike him is the revolution in the position of women. The study of the English literature by a section of the Indians which helped them to assimilate the western democratic and liberal ideology, an ideology subsequently utilized by them to start social and religious reform movements in India. During the British rule, a number of changes were made in the economic and social structures of Indian society, and some substantial progress was achieved in elimination of inequalities between men and women, in education, employment, social rights etc. Prior to this period, the status of women was in an unpromising state.

  • The idea of imparting education to women emerged in the British period. After the Bhakti Movement, the Christian Missionaries took interest in the education of the girls. The Hunter Commission too emphasized on the need for female education in 1882. The Calcutta, Bombay and Madras institutions did not permit the admission of girls till 1875. It was only after 1882 that girls were allowed to go for higher education. Since then, there has been a continuous progress in the extend of education among females. Though the number of girls studying at various levels was low, yet there has been a marked increase in the number of female students at every level from 1941 onwards.

  • At the end of the Nineteenth Century women in India suffered from disabilities like, child-marriage, practice of polygamy, sale of girls for marriage purposes, severe restrictions on widows, non-access to education and restricting oneself to domestic and child-bearing functions. The Indian National Conference started in 1885 by Justice Ranade contained these disabilities.

  • Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who played an important role in getting the Sati system abolished raised voices against the child-marriage and fought for the right of inheritance for women. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar launched a movement for the right of widows to re-marry and also pleaded for educating women. Maharaja S. Rao, ruler of Baroda State worked for prevention of child-marriages, Polygamy and getting the rights of education to women, and the right of re-marriage to widows. Swami Vivekananda, Annie Besant, and Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Dayanand Saraswati also took interest in the social and political rights of women. Gandhiji was of the opinion that, women should labour under no legal disability. He was in favour of treating daughters and sons on an equal footing.

  • Some women organizations like the Banga Mahila Samaj, and the Ladies Theosophical Society functioned at local levels to promote modern ideas for women. These organizations took up issues like women's education, abolition of social evils like purdah and Child marriage, Hindu law reform, moral and material progress of women, equality of rights and opportunities, etc. It can be said that, the Indian women's movement worked for two goals.
(i) Uplift of women.
(ii) Equal rights for both men and women.

Social Laws Concerning Women-

  • The condition of women, by the time the British established their rule, was not encouraging. Several evil practices such as the practice of Sati, the Purdah system, child marriage, female infanticide, bride price and polygamy had made their life quite miserable. The place of women had come to be confined to the four walls of her home. The doors of education had been shut for them. From economic point of view also her status was miserable. There was no social and economic equality between a man and woman. A Hindu woman was not entitled to inherit any property. Thus, by and large, she was completely dependent on men.

  • During the 19th and 20th centuries some laws were enacted with the sincere efforts of social reformers, humanists and some British administrators to improve the condition of women in Indian society. The first effort in this direction was the enactment of law against the practice of Sati during the administration of Lord William Bentinck.

Female Infanticide :

  • Female infanticide was another inhuman practice afflicting the 19th century Indian society. It was particularly in vogue in Rajputana, Punjab and the North Western Provinces. Colonel Todd, Johnson Duncan, Malcolm and other British administrators have discussed about this evil custom in detail. Factors such as family pride, the fear of not finding a suitable match for the girl child and the hesitation to bend before the prospective in-laws were some of the major reasons responsible for this practice.

  • Therefore, immediately after birth, the female infants were being killed either by feeding them with opium or by strangulating or by purposely neglecting them. Some laws were enacted against this practice in 1795, 1802 and 1804 and then in 1870. However, the practice could not be completely eradicated only through legal measures. Gradually, this evil practice came to be done away through education and public opinion.

Widow Remarriage-

  • There are many historical evidences to suggest that widow remarriage enjoyed social sanction during ancient period in India. In course of time the practice ceased to prevail increasing the number of widows to lakhs during the 19th century. Therefore, it became incumbent on the part of the social reformers to make sincere efforts to popularize widow remarriage by writing in newspapers and contemporary journals.

  • Prominent among these reformers were Raja Rammohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. They carried out large scale campaigns in this regard mainly through books, pamphlets and petitions with scores of signatures. In July 1856, J.P. Grant, a member of the Governor-General’s Council finally tabled a bill in support of the widow remarriage, which was passed on 13 July 1856 and came to be called the Widow Remarriage Act, 1856.

Child Marriage-

  • The practice of child marriage was another social stigma for the women. In November 1870, the Indian Reforms Association was started with the efforts of Keshav Chandra Sen. A journal called Mahapap Bal Vivah (Child marriage: The Cardinal Sin) was also launched with the efforts of B.M. Malabari to fight against child marriage. In 1846, the minimum marriageable age for a girl was only 10 years.

  • In 1891, through the enactment of the Age of Consent Act, this was raised to 12 years. In 1930, through the Sharda Act, the minimum age was raised to 14 years. After independence, the limit was raised to 18 years in 1978.

Purdah System-

  • Similarly, voices were raised against the practice of Purdah during the 19th and 20th century. The condition of women among the peasantry was relatively better in this respect. Purdah was not so much prevalent in Southern India.

  • Through the large scale participation of women in the national freedom movement, the system disappeared without any specific legislative measure taken against it. Struggle against the Caste System and the related Legislation Next to the issue of women emancipation, the caste system became the second most important issue of social reforms. In fact,the system of caste had become the bane of Indian society.

Abolish of Sati System in India-

  • The sati system was one of the worst systems that were practiced before the independence revolt in 1857. It is the system in which the girl used to die with her husband in case the husband dies before the girl. It  was a social funeral practice among some Indian communities in which a recently widowed woman would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. From about 1812, the Bengali reformer Raja Rammohan Roy started his own campaign against the practice. He was motivated by the experience of seeing his own sister-in-law being forced to commit sati. Among his actions, he visited Calcutta cremation grounds to persuade widows against immolation, formed watch groups to do the same, and wrote and disseminated articles to show that it was not required by scripture.

  • On 4 December 1829, the practice was formally banned in the Bengal Presidency lands, by the then-governor general, William Bentick. The ban was challenged in the courts, and the matter went to the Privy Council in London, but was upheld in 1832. Other company territories also banned it shortly after. Although the original ban in Bengal was fairly uncompromising, later in the century British laws include provisions that provided mitigation for murder when "the person whose death is caused, being above the age of 18 years, suffers death or takes the risk of death with his own consent".

Emergence of Women Organization in India :
Pre-Independence -

  • A unique feature of the Indian women’s movement is the fact that early attempts at women’s emancipation were set in motion by men. Social reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Maharishi Karve and Swami Dayanand Saraswati challenged the traditional subordination of women, encouraged widow remarriage and promoted female education and equality in matters of religion, among other issues. Mahila mandals organised by Hindu reformist organisations such as the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj encouraged women to step out of the confines of their homes and interact with outsiders.

  • Pandita Ramabai, one of the pioneers of the feminist movement, with the help of Justice Ranade set up the Arya Mahila Samaj in 1882. She envisaged creating a support network for newly educated women through weekly lectures and lessons at homes, where women could learn and gain confidence through interactions.

  • Women’s auxiliaries of general reform associations also served as a platform for women to discuss social issues, express opinions and share experiences. The Bharata Mahila Parishad of the National Social Conference was the most prominent among such fora. Though the NSC was formed at the third meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1887, the Mahila Parishad was launched only in 1905.

  • All the above efforts significantly impacted the social status of women. Early attempts at encouraging women to communicate outside their families and local committees thus, stemmed from the broader social reform movement and efforts to ameliorate the conditions of women.

  • But a major shortcoming of the movement at this juncture was that it was essentially elitist in character. The reforms were intended for privileged upper caste women and did not take up the cause of the vast masses of poor and working class women. Also, male‐guided organisations still saw the household as the woman’s first priority and did not make efforts to employ education as an instrument to enhance their participation in society.

  • The early nineteenth century also saw concerted efforts towards education of women. Schools and educational institutions promoting female public education mushroomed across the country.

  • The pre‐Independence period saw women’s issues linked to the nationalist agenda at various junctures. Political participation of women, calling for a redefinition of conventional gender roles, was the hallmark of this phase. Women began openly demonstrating their opposition to foreign control by supporting civil disobedience actions and other forms of protest against the British. Opportunities to organise and participate in agitations gave women the much‐needed confidence and a chance to develop their leadership skills. Cutting across communal and religious barriers, women associated themselves with larger problems of society and opposed sectarian issues such as communal electorates. Political consciousness among women grew, owing to a general understanding that women’s issues could not be detached from the political climate of the country.

  • During this period, the earliest women’s organisations formed within the historical context of the social reform movement and the nationalist movement were theWomen’s India Association (WIA), National Council of Women in India (NCWI), and the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1917, 1925 and 1927 respectively. Each of these organisations highlighted the importance of education in women’s development.

  • The WIA, founded by Margaret Cousins in Madras, worked extensively for the social and educational emancipation of women. Associated with the Theosophical Society, it encouraged non‐sectarian religious activity and did creditable work in promoting literacy, setting up shelters for widows and providing relief for disaster victims.

  • Women in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta (now Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata) through networks developed during World War I work, linked their associations together and created the NCWI in 1925. A national branch of the International Council of Women, its most prominent member was Mehribai Tata, who fiercely campaigned against passive charity and urged men to support female education.

  • The most important of the women’s organisations of the time – the AIWC – first met in Poona in 1927. Though its initial efforts were directed towards improving female education, its scope later expanded to include a host of women’s issues such as women’s franchise, inheritance rights, to name a few.


  • The Constitution of India drafted in 1950 granted equal rights to men and women. A slew of rights such as the right to vote, right to education, right to entry into public service and political offices brought in complacency among women’s groups. Though scores of women took part in the sharecroppers’ movement in Telangana in Andhra Pradesh in 1948‐50 and in anti‐alcohol movements in Uttarakhand in the 1960s, this period saw limited activity in the area of women’s rights.

  • In post-independent India, the women’s movement was divided, as the common enemy, foreign rule, was no longer there. Many of the Muslim members went over to Pakistan. Some of the women leaders now formally joined the Indian National Congress and held positions of power as Ministers, Governors and Ambassadors. Free India’s Constitution gave universal adult franchise and by the mid fifties India had fairly liberal laws concerning women. Most of the demands of the women’s movement had been met and there seemed few issues left to organize around. Women’s organizations now saw the problem as one of implementation and consequently there was a lull in the women’s movement.

  • Women dissatisfied with the status quo joined struggles for the rural poor and industrial working class such as the Tebhaga movement in Bengal, the Telangana movement in Andhra Pradesh or the Naxalite movement. Shahada, which acquired its name from the area in which it occurred, in Dhulia district in Maharashtra, was a tribal landless labourers’ movement against landlords. Women played a prominent role and led demonstrations, invented and shouted militant slogans and mobilized the masses. As women’s militancy developed, gender based issues were raised. There was an anti alcohol agitation as men used to get drunk and beat their wives. Women went round villages breaking pots in liquor dens.

  • Meanwhile in Ahmedabad, what was probably the first attempt at a women’s trade union was made with the formation of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) at the initiative of Ela Bhat in 1972. Its aim was to improve the condition of poor women who worked in the unorganized sector by providing training, technical aids and collective bargaining. Based on Gandhian ideals, SEWA has been a remarkable success.

  • The anti price rise agitation launched in Bombay in 1973 by Mrinal Gore of the Socialist Party and Ahalya Rangnekar of the CPI-M, together with others, mobilized women of the city against inflation. The movement grew rapidly becoming a mass movement for consumer protection. So many housewives got involved in the movement that a new form of protest was invented by women coming out in the streets and beating thalis (metal plates) with rolling pins.

  • The Nav Nirman movement, originally a students movement in Gujarat against soaring prices, black marketing and corruption launched in 1974 was soon joined by thousands of middle class women. Their method of protest ranged from mass hunger strike, mock funerals and prabhat pheris.

  • The Chipko movement got its name from the Hindi word ‘chipko’ which means to cling. This clinging to trees was a particular action people used to save trees, which were crucial to their lives, from being felled. The movement began in 1973 in the small hilly town of Gopeshwar in Chamoli district when representatives from a sports factory came to cut trees. Women joined the movement in 1974 and with their united strength prevented the contractor from cutting trees. It was the women of Chipko who brought to public attention the importance of trees and the need to protect the environment.

  • The publication of Towards Equality, the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in 1974 and the United Nation’s declaration of 1975 as the International Year of Women beginning with the First World Conference on Women in Mexico, generated a new interest in and debate on women’s issues.The data collected by CSW Report after exhaustive countrywide investigation revealed that the de jure equality granted by the Indian Constitution had not been translated into reality and large masses of women had remained unaffected by the rights granted to them more than 25 years earlier. It provided the intellectual foundation of a new women’s movement that found expression both in activism and the academia. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the growth of numerous women’s groups that took up issues such as dowry deaths, bride burning, rape, sati and focused on violence against women. They stressed the sexual oppression of women in a way previous reform or feminist groups had never done. They questioned the patriarchal assumptions underlying women’s role in the family and society based on the biological sex differences implying a “natural” separation of human activities by gender differentials, the public political sphere being the male domain and the private familial sphere as that of the female which eventually translates into a domination of male over female. It was held that based on such a dichotomous perception of male and female roles, women find themselves in a secondary role which may sometimes lead to humiliation, torture and violence even within the family. Such a questioning of the patriarchal character of the family and society was not evident in the earlier phase of the women’s movement. Thus they held that the first step towards women’s liberation was to become aware of such patriarchal assumptions based on biological sex differences and roles.

  • Some of the earliest autonomous women’s groups were the Progressive Organization of Women (POW, Hyderabad), the Forum Against Rape (now redefined as Forum Against Oppression of Women), Stree Sangharsh and Samata (Delhi). Among the first campaigns that women’s groups took up was the struggle against rape in 1980.

  • The amended law was enacted in 1983 after long discussions with women’s groups. Since then, women’s groups have lobbied again to have the law further changed to make it more stringent and have also fought for an implementation machinery to be set up without which the law is less effective than it was intended to be.

  • The POW in Hyderabad organized new and fresh protests against dowry. In the late 1970s, Delhi became the focus of the movement against dowry and the violence inflicted on women in the marital home. Groups which took up the campaign included ‘Stree Sangharsh’ and ‘Mahila Dakshita Samiti’. Later, a joint front called the ‘Dahej Virodhi Chetna Mandal’ (organization for creating consciousness against dowry) was formed under whose umbrella a large number of organizations worked.

  • The anti dowry campaign attempted to bring social pressure to bear on offenders so that they would be isolated in the community in which they lived. Experience in the campaign revealed the need for counseling, legal aid and advice to women. It was in response to this that legal aid and counseling centers were set up in different parts of the country. Women’s organizations also succeeded in getting the dowry law changed.

  • Sati was declared a punishable offence in 1829. Yet in 1987, Roop Kanwar, a young widow, was forcibly put on the funeral pyre of her husband and burnt to death in a village in Rajasthan. Women’s groups rose in protest and declared this to be a cold-blooded murder. They demanded a new Sati Prevention Bill.

  • There were several campaigns in the eighties relating to women’s rights. Among them was a campaign, in 1985, in support of the Supreme Court judgment in the divorce case where Shah Bano, a Muslim woman, had petitioned the Court for maintenance from her husband under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Act and the Court granted her demand. The orthodox Muslims, however, protested against interference with their personal law. In 1986, the government introduced the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights in Divorce) Bill denying Muslim women redress under Section 125. Women’s associations protested against this outside Parliament. Over the years it has become clear that changing laws alone means little unless there is a will to implement them and unless there is education and literacy which makes women aware of their rights and allows them to exercise them effectively. It was this realization that has led the women’s movement to take up in a more concerted manner programmes of legal literacy and education, gender sensitization of textbooks and media.

  • Women’s studies as an identifiable area of teaching and research emerged in the 1960s in the United States, although the intellectual antecedents go back further, most noticeably in the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Wolf. The contemporary women’s movement provided the impetus for the establishment and growth of women’s studies across disciplines. Women’s studies spread to India slowly at first and then more rapidly following the UN Mid Decade Conference in Copenhagen in 1980. The Indian Association of Women’s Studies established in 1981 is an institution of women academics and activists involved in research and teaching. In the last three decades a large number of books and journals by and on women have appeared. There are publishing houses that bring out books exclusively on feminist subjects. Efforts are being made to prepare reading and teaching material with a feminist perspective. A number of universities and colleges have women’s study centers.

  • All the major political parties, the Congress, BJP, CPI, CPI (M) have their women’s wings. The new women’s groups declare themselves to be feminist. They are dispersed with no central organization but they have built informal networks among themselves. Their political commitment is more leftist than liberal. The Indian women’s movement is often accused of being urban basedand middle class in character. While the urban feminists are more visible and articulate, rural women have also mobilized themselves.

  • While street level protests and demonstrations give the women’s movement visibility, this is clearly not enough. What is needed is attention to basic survival needs such as food, safe drinking water, sanitation and housing. Women need education, health care, skill development and employment; safety in the home and at work. The last few years have seen the broadening and expansion of the movement to take in a whole range of issues.

  • Women’s organizations not only lead campaigns and march on the streets, they, including the older ones such as AIWC, YWCA and others, run shelters for battered wives and women who are victims of violence and provide counseling and legal aid. They conduct training workshops on various issues. They also help in forming self help groups to make women economically self - reliant. The success of the women’s movement has not been in the number of women appointed to office or in the number of laws passed but in the fact that it has brought about a new consciousness on the entire question of women in Indian society.

  • There would have been no women’s movement in India if Indian men in the nineteenth century had not been concerned with modernizing women’s roles.  They focused on certain issues such as sati, child marriage, condition of widows, education, etc., because they saw the world through the prism of their own class and caste. Their efforts led to bringing women of their own families into the new world created by colonial rule. Women came out and created a space for themselves. They started organizations of their own, first at the local, then at the national level. They were motivated by liberal feminist ideas and the belief that education, granting of political rights, and legislative reforms would improve women’s position. They fought for the country’s freedom and believed that independence from foreign rule would remove obstacles in women marching forward. In the second phase, the women’s movement was more radical and challenged patriarchy.

  • Yet in terms of numbers, few women, even now, are involved in the women’s movement and one should not exaggerate its impact. The large majority of India women still live below the poverty line leading miserable wretched lives. While there have been scattered and sporadic examples of women’s outraged protests against rape, dowry deaths or sati, women have not been able to mobilize themselves enough to exert political pressure and focus attention on those problems which are today affecting their role and status. Despite this long history of women’s struggle, Indian women are one of the most backward today in terms of literacy, longevity, maternal mortality, female work participation and sex ratio.

  • Changing societal attitudes and women’s own self perceptions which are deeply rooted in our psyche and social structure is not easy. For every step forward that the movement takes, there may be a possible backlash, a possible regression. History shows that though the struggle for women’s rights is long and hard, it is a struggle that must be waged and won. The women’s movement thus has a long way to go in its struggle for bringing about new values, a new morality and a new egalitarian relationship.

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