Indian Women





The Conflict of Women in 20th Century India


Throughout recorded history, women the world over have been held to different standards than men. They have been consistently oppressed in nearly all aspects of life, from political to personal, public to private. In the 20th century, great strides have been taken to end this oppression and level the playing field. In India however, a number of deeply rooted traditions have made this effort particularly 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 the numerous historical women’s conflicts unique to the Subcontinent. It took the overwhelming success of Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution to unite women politically and 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. Violence against women was one of the main focuses of the movement. 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 occurred frequently. Why then, if these events were happening so often, was there so much apathy towards them on the part of the courts and the police? To answer this question 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 practice 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, and involving them in the political movements of the times.
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 themselves.
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