In India, during the 15th, 16th and subsequently 17th century, women were considered to be just vessels for piling on work that men didn’t find feasible to do, such as cooking, washing, doing the laundry, spending time with the children etc. Women had been looked down upon as second best.
Whenever there was a marriage, the father of the bride would give away his daughter like a liability. Some of the words that are actually mentioned in the Hindu transcripts containing marital rituals, the father of the bride has to convey to the groom something like, “I henceforth give away my daughter as a servant to you for lifetime”. From the words it suffices to say that the status of women was rather shallow and demeaning during the early centuries, in India.
Let us go back in time to those eras when the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were written, the two great epics that made its mark as classic tales in the history of Indian literature. In Ramayana written by Rishi Valmiki, Sita was the wife of the rightful heir to the throne of Ayodhya, Rama.
When Rama was sent to exile, Sita was kidnapped by the spiteful king of Lanka, Ravana. The entire story revolves around how Rama fights and kills Ravana to rescue his wife and win back his throne. However when Sita had returned to Rama after the end of Ravana, Rama forced her to walk bare-feet on the sacrificial fire to prove her chastity.
This disgraceful and disrespectful act of how Sita had to prove her chastity to her own husband, and only then was she accepted back into his life ,highlights the status of women in the Indian society.
Mahabharata was written by Rishi Vyasa, where due to a curse inflicted on Draupadi, she was forced to marry all five of the Pandavas together. This in itself was highly disrespectful and to top it all Draupadi was used as a bet in a treacherous game of dices played between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
When the Pandavas lost the game, The winning party began to strip off Draupadi’s saree in an attempt to deeply humiliate her, while all her five husbands stood still and watched and did nothing to stop it. This evidently displays objectification of women in the Indian society to an extent that their dignity is openly used as a betting tool in a game of dice between men.
Evil against women
Women in India have frequently fallen victim to several social evils which stripped them off their dignity, making them weak and vulnerable and subsequently even lead to several deaths. During the early ages , a very prevalent ritual was the Sati. Sati was a ritual that was performed when a married man with a living wife passed away.
In such cases the wife was burnt alive along with the corpse of her dead husband. It was believed during these periods that women were born to serve men all their life, so when the husband passed away there was no reason for the wife to be alive any more. The wife was burnt along with her husband so that in the afterlife she could serve her better half. This of course was downright murder and an atrocious ritual which was banned by the revolutionary Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
Another popular custom was the ban on widow remarriage. Widows were not allowed to remarry and they were subjected to a life of drudgery and pain after the death of their husbands. They had to live in separate compartments and were not allowed to talk to anyone or meet anyone.
They had to eat tasteless food and spend all their hours engrossed in worship. They were not allowed to be present during any joyous ceremony or touch anything given by someone who is not a widow. The widows were alienated from the rest of the world and treated in a way as if they had a disease.
However, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was the man who finally gained permission for the allowance of widow remarriage thereby breaking an age old torture method inflicted only on women, forever.
Women during these dark days were not allowed to have even the basic education or attend school. They were married off at too young an age and often to men who were more than twice their age. They were subjected to a life of intense humiliation, pain, domestic violence and torture at their in-laws.
Another social evil that exists in the society even today is female foeticide. Female Foeticide is the abortion of a female fetus outside of legal methods. Sons are often considered to be a boon in Indian society as they carry forward the family name and also is free from the process of giving dowry during marriage.
On the contrary , women are often considered to be the burden in Indian society. Hence after prenatal sex determination when the family finds out the baby to be born is a female, they get rid of it through illegal means. Due to this shameful act at present there is only 927 females per 1000 males in India.
Revolution in the status of women
However, in course of time certain strong willed and ambitious women helped revolutionise the status of women in India. The revolution started in 1848 when Savitribai Phule along with her husband opened a school for girls in Pune and became the first ever female teacher in India, since before that women were forbidden from even the basic education.
In 1886 Kadambini Ganguly and Anandi Gopal Ghosh became the first females to be trained in Western Medicine. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885, and in 1917 Annie Besant assumed control over the office as its first ever female president followed by Sarojini Naidu in 1925 who became the first ever India-born female president of the INC.
In 1979, Mother Teresa bagged the Nobel peace prize for her immense contributions to the Indian society. Pratibha Patel became the first female president of India in 2007.
Status of women in India today
If we look up close and personal around us, and observe treatment of women in this post modern society, we can see how the lifestyle of women in India has changed drastically, especially in the urban areas. A woman in India living at the heart of the city wakes up every morning and goes to work in offices which used to be unthinkable at one point of time.
We see women running multinational companies and organisations on their own, working outdoors from morning till night, and even earning more than their male counterparts. A woman of the 21st century India demands equality and respect, and acceptance in society. With the rising discussions on feminism and women empowerment, campaigns and protests against discrimination, the women of the 21st century India have not sat idle but have battled their way up the social ladder, proving that they are not only meant for serving their husbands and giving birth to children.
Women at the moment have a 50% reservation in railways in India, a major chunk of all educational institutions is run by women, they play a vital role in the Indian economy and 40% of the total votes polled in elections come from women. Women also hold major political positions and have a 30% reservation of seats in the Union Parliament.
The status of women therefore its safe to say, has improved over the last century due to modernism and westernisation creeping in into the Indian society. Governmental propaganda such as “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” started by BJP government with an aim to inspire every parent to give their daughters a fair chance at education and “kanyashree” started in West Bengal by the state government under CM Mamata Banerjee that offers money needed to provide basic education to underprivileged young girls has also led to the increase in the educational rates among women especially in the rural areas. Women in the rural areas have set up cottage industries dealing in woven cloths, jute baskets and handicrafts and are not confined to their houses anymore.
Up to more recent times 24 year old Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi of the Indian Air Force became the first Indian female fighter pilot to fly solo. Avani flew a MiG-21 Bison which is essentially a jet aircraft which has the highest recorded landing and take-off speed in the world.
Hima Das became the first Indian woman sprinter to win an international championship, 5 times in one year. With these milestones set by women in so many different fields India has now started looking at women in a new light. The wind of revolution is taking over little by little and we see women all over job sectors, media organisations, as well as in the parliament and judiciary.
However, with rape cases making headlines every single day in the newspapers, women in India still have a long way to go. Still in the public transports women are subjected to molestation and groping, women travelling after 10 in the night on the streets of India feel unsafe, new born babies as well as 80 year old women get raped, women get cat-called and eve-teased on every step of the way.
The realisation has to come from within, and Indian men have to be taught from childhood that women should be respected and not objectified. They should be taught that a man and woman are physiologically different but discrimination on the basis of gender is a social evil that needs to be eradicated at all costs. Everyone has the right to live life on their own terms and enjoy a harassment-free livelihood.