Women and India Part 1

Women and India – Part 1

  • There are approximately 60 crore women in India which makes around 48% of the total population.
  • Yet they are often underrepresented and unrepresented in the top echelon of the nation both economically and politically.
  • India is often portrayed in the western media as a country which is unsafe for women.
  • What is the reality? Is India unsafe for women? How were Indian women treated historically? Who were the prominent women in Indian history?
  • Let us take a moment to try and answer these questions.

Role of Women through history

Women during IVC:

  • Little is known of the true role women played in the Indus Valley Civilization.
  • However, most of the representations we have discovered are representing fertility.
  • The hairstyles, ornaments and dressing clearly indicate the important prominence assigned to women.
  • The bronze ‘Dancing Girls’ statuettes suggest specific, public activities played by women at that time.
  • Statues and imagery of multiple Goddesses including a Mother Goddess has been found.

Women during Rig Vedic Period:

  • While the life of women during IVC is not completely clear, there is much more data available about the life of women during Rig Vedic time.
  • Women were treated the same as men and were given equal rights and education.
  • Women were encouraged to study the scriptures and were given Upanayana Samskara (initiation into learning).
  • It is known that a group of women called Brahmavadini wrote hymns which are part of Rigveda.
  • The most prominent of them were Lopamudra, Vishwawara, Sikta, Nivavari, Ghosa, etc.
  • They were considered to be the custodians of purity and perseverance.
  • The puranas has multiple references of ‘Swayamvaras’ where the women were allowed to choose their future husband from a group of suitors.
  • Though the society was patriarchal, practices such as sati and child marriage were rather rare.

Women during Later Vedic period:

  • The later Vedic period saw a drastic change in the life of women which turned to the worse.
  • Many of the rights which was enjoyed by women in the Rigvedic period became unavailable to women.
  • The marriage age of women became lowered, the concept of Swayamvara became more and more rare.
  • Girls getting an education became a matter of rarity rather than a matter of course.
  • Women were more likely than men to study the Atharva Veda.
  • The development of agriculture and the resultant economic boom had a larger sociological impact on the life of women.
  • Religion was considered as the primary reason for these limits on women whereby they became seen as caretakers.
  • Women’s social mobility dwindled as limits were placed on her; she was not permitted to leave the four walls of her home and was forced to stay at home and work as a housewife.
  • Widow remarriage was forbidden, and widows were compelled to live as widows.
  • The purdah system became prevalent.

Women and Buddhism:

  • Buddhism does not consider women as being inferior to men.
  • The Buddha emphasises the fruitful role the women can play and should play as a wife, a good mother in making the family life a success.
  • In the family both husbands and wives are expected to share equal responsibility and discharge their duties with equal dedication.
  • In fact, a wife was expected even to acquaint herself with the trade, business or industries in which the husband engaged, so that she would be in a position to manage his affairs in his absence.
  • Buddhism does not restrict either the educational opportunities of women or their religious freedom.
  • The Buddha unhesitatingly accepted that women are capable of realizing the Truth, just as men are.
  • This is why he permitted the admission of women into the Order, though he was not in favour of it at the beginning because he thought their admission would create problems in the Sasana.

Women and Jainism:

  • Jainism as a religion believes in the equality of all beings, hence initially they recognised the equality between women and men.
  • However, this belief in equality was not one to last.
  • The separation of the sect into Digambara’s and Shwetambara’s saw a differing opinion on women’s ability to attain salvation.
  • The Digambara Jain sect believes that women cannot achieve liberation without being reborn as men first.
  • Digambara Jains hold this view because they believe that nakedness is an essential element of the road to liberation.
  • This view comes from in part of Mahavira’s own nakedness during his journey to salvation
  • This ban on female nakedness is partly intended to protect both men and women:
  • If women went around naked it would cause men to experience sexual desire and the desire produced would hinder the man’s progress to liberation.
  • Naked women would feel ashamed of being naked and the feeling of shame would hinder their progress to liberation.

Women during the Gupta Empire:

  • The Gupta Empire is often seen as the template which determined the socio-cultural conditions in the Indian subcontinent for the next thousand years.
  • In general, women of the Gupta Empire were viewed as inferior to the men.
  • However, they were still respected and were viewed as equals to the female gods such as Saraswati.
  • Women could be educated in the arts (primarily in music and poetry).
  • They were not, however, allowed to be educated in religious practices or read any sacred texts.
  • Over the duration of the Gupta Empire, there was a decline of the status of women, primarily because of the rise of a new, non-agricultural middle class.
  • Women were not allowed to own property, and anything that she did own could be considered the property of her husband and father.
  • At any given point in her life, a woman was always subject to the will of a man.
  • Women were married at 6 or 7 years old to ensure virginity and chastity.
  • Since she lived with her husband, he could raise her to be the kind of wife he wanted.
  • There were exceptions to this social system. Some women were even a part of government.