The Conflict of Women in 20th Century INdia Essay

This essay has a total of 1745 words and 9 pages.

The Conflict of Women in 20th Century INdia

The Conflict of Women in 20th Century India

Throughout recorded history, women all over the world have been held to a different
standard than men. They have consistently been oppressed in nearly all aspects of life,
from political to personal. In the 20th century though, great strides have been taken to
end this oppression and level the playing field. However, in India, a number of deeply
rooted traditions have made this effort all the more difficult, and as a result, women's
triumphs over oppression in India are all the more intriguing. To understand the position
Women found themselves in at the dawn of the 20th century, one must have a general
understanding of their numerous historical conflicts unique to the Subcontinent. It took
the overwhelming success of Gandhi's nonviolent revolution to create the an atmosphere
whereby women, empowered by the times, could take a stand for their equality.

The 1970's saw the beginning of a highly organized modern women's movement in India. One
of the main focuses of the movement was violence. Harassment, wife-beating, rape, and
"dowry deaths" were all too common, and police enforcement was ineffective as were most
attempts at prosecution. Commonly called "atrocities against women", these acts were very
common. Why then, if these events were so common, was there so much apathy towards them
on the part of the courts and the police? To understand this one must look back upon a
history marked by religiously and culturally accepted forms of oppression such as female
infanticide, polygamy, purdah and sati.

Purdah, still practiced today in many Moslem societies, is the act of covering a women in
cloth to protect them from the gaze of non-family males, in order to maintain their
purity. This practice became common in India in the days of the sultanate. From a
traditional western perspective this is a very repressive requirement. Gandhi took a
particular pleasure in bringing women out of purdah.

Sati is another story. Early British rule in India was careful to stay out of the
traditions and private lives of the natives. They ruled indirectly, typically demanding
monetary tribute from local leaders in exchange for allowing them to rule as they pleased.
This philosophy changed dramatically under the governor-generalship of Lord William
Cavendish Bentinck which began in 1828. He began a much more interventionist policy that
included the an increase in transportation facilities, industrialized cloth production
(which displaced the ancient commercial structure) and he abolished the ancient tradition
of sati (female infanticide was also outlawed by the British). The last of which caused a
great rift in India's intellectuals and businessmen. Sati is an ancient Hindu tradition
whereby a widow is burned in the cremation fire of her departed husband. This practice
was abhorred by British missionaries and businessmen. However, to many of India's
intellectuals it was an act of bravery and dedication on the part of the widow, to be
admired. This is evidenced by the first petition against the intervention, which stated,
"Hindoo widows perform (sati), of their own accord and pleasure, and for the benefit of
their Husbands' souls and for their own, the sacrifice of self-immolation called Suttee
(another spelling of sati)- which is not merely a sacred duty but a high
priviledge"(Stein, p. 222).

For those who did not take part in this practice, the life of a Hindu widow was a very
restricted one. A census conducted in 1881 showed that one-fifth of all women were
widows, so these restrictions were very important. The Dharmashashra of Manu (a Hindu
text) talks about how a Brahmin widow should act stating, " but she may never mention the
name of another man after her husband has died.(Stein, p.94) As child brides were common
in the Subcontinent, one often saw young widows unable by traditional law to remarry and
make an attempt at a new life. Furthermore, they rarely had the education to support

Education was historically bestowed solely upon the males. In the 19th century only the
wealthiest of families sought after any sort of formal education for their female
children, and there was no movement in the government to change this. "A survey of Madras
found over 5000 girls enrolled in Indian language schools, as against 179,000 boys"(Stein
p.268). This lack of concern for the formal education of women exemplifies how their
place in society was viewed.

The treatment of high cast women was one of the first forms of oppression attacked by
advocates of women's rights. In the 1860's action was taken by avid social reformer
Madhav Govinda Ranade, who founded the Widow Re-marriage Association and the Deccan
Education Society (which sought to increase young women's educational facilities).
Although Ranade challenged some of traditions that prevented the liberation of women, he
was seen by many as a hypocrite, himself taking on a child bride after the death of his
wife. Soon however women would take the reins in the battle for their own independence.

A woman by the name of Ramabia is considered, "the first Indian Feminist to address other
women directly about emancipation" (Stein, p.275). She, like Ranade, was a member of the
Brahman caste. She would go on to travel and study in England and later in America, where
she wrote about the mistreatment of women in India. A converted Christian upon her return
to India, Ramabia opened schools for high cast women. This effort, in conjunction with
various projects Ramabia worked on for women, was far ahead of its time and it would take
nearly a century before women would tightly bind together to formally resist oppression.

Early in the 20th century women were forbidden to protest their condition or even to
congregate to discuss the matter. This was a right even the lowest cast, the
untouchables, was bestowed. It was a common belief at the time, that free women would
inevitably come to neglect their marital responsibilities. The Indian National Congress,
led by Gandhi, was one of the first political organizations to actively include woman,
even women formally in Purdah.
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