Indian Women Through Ages

In spite of their urge for equality, Indian women were not being able to lead a life exactly on par with men. Always they kept their own aims and objectives, desires and aspirations, dress styles and behavioral patterns, and roles and statuses. This fact does not indicate that men and women represent two different cultures as such. Both Indian men and women represent one way of life, one culture and one heritage.

Swami Vivekananda had said “that country and that nation which did not respect women have never become great nor will ever in future”. Swami’s words bring us to a conclusion that the status assigned to women in any society reflects the nature of its cultural richness and the level of its civilization standards. A study of the history of status of women has therefore great importance to understand the cultural rich ness and the civilization standards of a particular society.

Women in ancient India, particularly during the Vedic period, enjoyed a position which was on the whole much more satisfactory than in the later periods. Women underwent almost a kind of Servitude during the medieval period and their position went on improving during the British period and after independence. Today Indian women are almost assigned an equal status with men. All their political, economic, educational and other disabilities have been removed legally.

The history of Status of women India can be studied in three stages namely

• Status of women in Ancient India
• Status of women in medieval India
• Status of women in modern India

Status of women in Ancient India
There are two opinions regarding the status of women in ancient India. Some scholars say that ancient Indian women were almost “the equals of men”, while some others argue that women were held not only in disrespect but even in positive hatred. These scholars formed their opinion on the basis of some passages from our classical literature. But their opinions do not mirror the actual position of women, because most of the opinions are contextual.

The status of women could be learned by analyzing the social, economic, political and religious rights they enjoyed over the years. The status of ancient Indian women can be better studied in the following stages

• Vedic and post Vedic period
• Period of Dharmashastras and epics
• Puranic period
• Buddhist period

Women in the Vedic and the Post-Vedic Periods

It is believed that Vedic Period is spread over from 3000BC to 600 BC. We can make only some general observations and broad generalizations regarding the status of women during this vast period

Literary and historical researches have revealed that women held a position of equality with men during the Vedic period. They never observed ‘purdah’ (veil) in the Vedic and epic periods. They enjoyed freedom in areas such as education, marriage, economic production, spending money, religious activities etc. They enjoyed freedom in selecting their mates (Swayam vara). Love marriages were also there (Gandharva Vivaha) 

Widows were permitted to remarry. The custom of Niyoga was prevalent in which a brother or the nearest relative of a deceased husband could marry the widow with the permission of elders. They however were not able to divorce. Even men did not enjoy that right. Women were given complete freedom in family matters and were treated as ‘Ardhanginis’ (Better halves).The practice of Sati is nowhere mentioned in the Rig-Veda Dowry was there but it was not a social evil , was just a symbolic practice.

Though male children were preferred to female children, daughters were never ill treated. They received education like boys and went through the Brahmacharya discipline including the Upanayana ritual. Women studied the Vedic literature like men and some of them like Lopamudra, Ghosa and Sikata –Nivavari, figure among the authors of the Vedic hymns. Other women scholars of the age included Vishwavara, Apala, Shashijasi, Indrani, Sasvati, Gargi, Sulabha, Maithreyee etc 

In property matters there were disparities between men and women .Women enjoyed limited rights in inheriting property. Each unmarried daughter was entitled to one-fourth share of patrimony received by her brothers. They had control over their “Stridhan” (Gifts and properties received at the time of marriage).As a wife woman had no direct share in her husband’s property. As a widowed mother, she had some rights. Thus it could be generalized that the social situation was not in favor of women processing property, and yet protection was given to them as daughters and wives.

In the religious field, wife enjoyed full rights and regularly participated in religious ceremonies with her husband. Women actively participated in the religious discourses. They could even perform sacrifices by themselves in the absence of their husbands.

Women during the epics and dharmashastras

Women in the epics also had given honorable positions like women of the Vedic age. The two classical epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata have given a respectable place for women. In both of these we find vast references of the expression of courage, strong will power, and valor of women, like Kaikeye, Sita, Rukmini, Satyabhama, Subhadra, Draupathi, Savithri and others.

During the period of Dharmashastras and Puranas the position of women underwent a major change. Daughters were regarded as second class citizens when freedom of women was curtailed. The discontinuance of upanayanam, neglect of education, and the lowering of age at marriage caused disastrous problems upon the position and status of women.

In the social field pre puberty marriages came to be practiced, widow remarriage was prohibited; husband was given the status of God for a woman, education was totally denied to women, custom of Sati became increasingly prevalent. Purdah system came into vogue and practice of polygyny came to be tolerated.

In the economic field, a woman was totally denied and it was said that “a wife and a slave cannot own property”. In the religious field, she was forbidden to offer sacrifices, prayers, practice penance, and undertake pilgrimages.

Women in the Buddhist Period

In the Buddhist period, the status of women improved a little, though there was no tremendous change. Buddha preached social equality and tried to improve their cultural, educational and religious statuses.

Buddhism never regarded marriage as an inescapable thing for women. Widowhood was not considered disrespectful. Women could pursue education and they were permitted to become “Sanyasis” (saints). The bhikshuni sangha opened new avenues of cultural activities for women. Their political and economic status however remained unchanged.

Status of women in medieval India

The medieval period (500AD to 1500 AD) was again a set back for the Status of women in India. The Muslim invasion of India changed the entire society including women.
Practice of child marriage, prohibition of widow remarriage etc were imposed again.

The practice of child marriage came into being again in the fear of Muslim invaders marriage in an early. The seduction or kidnap of young girls by the Muslims compelled the parents to arrange their daughters to marry in an early age. This kept the women away from education, and had to suffer the brunt of family life in an earlier age.

The glorification of the ideal “pathivratya” made the society prohibit widow remarriage. Child widows had a miserable life. They were denied education and public life. Prohibition of sex-life made a few of them lead immoral life and some even became prostitutes. To prevent sex offences child widows were forced to forsake all types of beautification to make them unattractive. The glorification of Pathivratya and the miserable life as a widow made many women to go for Sati. Sati refers to a practice in which the married women used to jump into the funeral pyre of their husbands with the hope of attaining “sadgathi” or “moksha”. There were instances were married women are forcibly pushed into the funeral pyre of their husbands.

There was also the horrible practice of “Jauhar” in which the Rajput women used to immolate themselves collectively with a view to protect their chastity whenever it was very much endangered.

After the Muslim invasion the Hindu women also forced to wear Purdah (veil) like Muslims women to protect themselves from the sexy look of the invaders. The purdah system led to the complete seclusion of women from education and public life.

Devadasi system is another social evil which caused the degradation of Indian women. It is a custom that denies marital opportunity to women in the name of religion insisting them to become devadasis or basavis to serve the God in the temple as dancers and singers. The devadasis and basavis compelled by circumstances to become prostitutes. This system spoiled the prospects of many young girls in the medieval period.

Muslim women also were in an equally poor position in India. The Muslim community which believes in male dominance could hardly give equal rights to women. Muslim men could marry four women and divorce any wife at will by giving her talaq.Women did not have similar rights. They were restricted from public life, education, cultural and religious activities.

Status of women in modern period

Along with the British people the western culture and it’s life styles and values also came to India.It helped to improve the women life.


Silent Assasin on March 18, 2009 at 10:58 AM said...

Nice attempt to open up the status of women in India through ages.

Shilpa on October 24, 2009 at 2:43 AM said...

No idea, about it sorry, I like only me not others

Archana Nair on July 15, 2013 at 12:02 AM said...

Its really objective...Please do complete it

Maitreyi Ray on April 25, 2014 at 11:32 PM said...

The essay is an excellent attempt to explore the changes in the position of women in India through the ages.The break-up suggested makes the essay an easily comprehensible one.
The position of women suggested in the classical epics is, however debatable and ambiguous. The concern of the society regarding a woman's chastity and purity,right from the age of Ramayana is a hindrance to free and full life of a woman even today. The pawning of Draupadi in Mahabharata only points out the fact that a wife was regarded as her husband's property;who rightfully owned her and her sexuality.

Jisha Jagadeesh on August 3, 2015 at 1:18 PM said...

Thank you So much for the comment maám....Your comment is really encouraging...sorry for such a very late reply...I hope you will excuse me for this...

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