Indian Women

Medieval Indian Women



Medieval India was considered the "Dark Ages" for Indian women. Medieval India saw many foreign conquests, which resulted in the decline in women's status. When foreign conquerors like the Mughals and the British invaded India they brought with them their own culture, which in some cases adversely affected the condition of women and in some cases emancipated them.

Over the ages in India women have been treated as the sole property of her father, brother or husband, not been given any choice or freedom of her own. One more reason for the decline in the status of women and their freedom was that original Indians wanted to shield their women folk from the barbarous Muslim invaders. As polygamy was a norm for these invaders they picked up any women they wanted and kept them in their "harems". In order to protect them Indian women started using 'Purdah', (a veil), which covers the body. Due to this reason their freedom also became affected. They were not allowed to move freely and this lead to the further deterioration of their status. These problems related with women resulted in changed mindset of people and they began to consider a girl as misery and a burden, which has to be shielded from the eyes of intruders and needs extra care. Whereas a boy child did not need such extra care and instead will be helpful as an earning hand. Thus a vicious circle started in which women were at the receiving end. All this gave rise to some new evils such as Child Marriage, Sati, Jauhar and restriction on girl education

  • Sati: The ritual of dying on the funeral pyre of the husband is known as "Sati" or "Sahagaman". According to some of the Hindu scriptures women dying on the funeral pyre of her husband go straight to heaven so it's good to practice this ritual. Initially it was not obligatory for the women but if she practiced such a custom she was highly respected by the society. Sati was considered to be the better option then living as a widow as the plight of widows in Hindu society was even worse. Some of the scriptures like 'Medhatiti' had different views it say that Sati is like committing suicide so one should avoid this.
  • Jauhar: It is also more or less similar to Sati but it is a mass suicide. Jauhar was prevalent in ancient Rajput societies. In this custom wives immolated themselves while their husbands went to perform Saka, i.e face the larger army of the enemy knowing that they will be killed since they are outnumbered. When people of the Rajput clan became sure that they were going to die at the hands of their enemy then all the women arrange a large pyre and set themselves afire, while their husband used to fight the last decisive battle with the enemy. Thus protecting the honour of the women and the whole clan.

  • Child Marriage:It was a norm in medieval India to get girls married at the age of 8-10. They were not allowed access to education and were trained in house work instead. Child marriage had its own share of problems such as increased birth rate, poor health of women due to repeated child bearing and high mortality rate of women and children.

  • Restriction on Widow Remarriage: The condition of widows in medieval India was very poor. They were not treated as equals and were subjected to a lot of restrictions. They were supposed to live pious life after their husband died and were not allowed entry in any celebration. Their presence in any good work was considered to be a bad omen. Many widows also had to have their hair shaved off as a mark of mourning. They were not allowed to remarry. Any woman remarrying was looked down by the society. This cruelty on widows was one of the main reasons for the large number of women committing Sati. In medieval India living as a Hindu widow was no short of a curse.

  • Purdah System: The veil or the 'Purdah' system was widely prevalent in medieval Indian society. It was used to protect the women folk from the eyes of foreign rulers who invaded India in medieval period. But this system curtailed the freedom of women.

  • Female Education: The girls of medieval India and especially Hindu society were not given formal education. They were given education related to household chores. But a famous Indian philosopher 'Vatsyayana' wrote that women were supposed to be perfect in sixty four arts which included cooking, spinning, grinding, knowledge of medicine, recitation and many more.

    Though these evils were present in medieval Indian society but they were mainly confined to Hindu society. As compared to Hindu society other societies such as Buddhism, Jainism and Christians were a bit lenient. Women in those societies enjoyed far more freedom. They had easy access to education and were more liberal in their approach. According to these religions gender was not the issue in attaining salvation. Any person whether a man or a woman is entitled to get the grace of god. During the time of king Ashoka, women took part in religious preaching. According to Hiuen Tsang, the famous traveler of that time, Rajyashri, the sister of Harshavardhana was a distinguished scholar of her time. Another such example is the daughter of king Ashoka, Sanghmitra. She along with her brother Mahendra went to Sri Lanka to preach Buddhism.

    The status of women in Southern India was better than in Northern India. While in Northern India there were not many women administrators, in Southern India we can find some names that made women of that time proud. Priyaketaladevi, queen of Chalukya Vikramaditya ruled three villages. Another woman named Jakkiabbe used to rule seventy villages. In South India women had representation in each and every field. Domingo Paes, famous Portuguese traveler testifies to it. He has written in his account that in Vijaynagar kingdom women were present in each and every field. He says that women could wrestle, blow trumpet and handle sword with equal perfection. Nuniz, another famous traveler to the South also agrees to it and says that women were employed in writing accounts of expenses, recording the affairs of kingdom, which shows that they were educated. There is no evidence of any public school in northern India but according to famous historian Ibn Batuta there were 13 schools for girls and 24 for boys in Honavar. There was one major evil present in South India of medieval time. It was the custom of Devadasis.

  • Devadasis: It was a custom prevalent in Southern India. In this system girls were dedicated to temples in the name of gods and goddesses. The girls were then onwards known as 'Devadasis' meaning servant of god. These Devadasis were supposed to live the life of celibacy. All the requirements of Devadasis were fulfilled by the grants given to the temples. In temple they used to spend their time in worship of god and by singing and dancing for the god. Some kings used to invite temple dancers to perform at their court for the pleasure of courtiers and thus some Devadasis converted to Rajadasis (palace dancers) prevalent in some tribes of South India like the Yellamma cult. During the colonial times, social reformers started working towards removal of the Devdasi practice on the grounds that it supported prostitution.
The plight of women in medieval India and at the starting of modern India can be summed up in the words of great poet Rabindranath Tagore:
"O Lord Why have you not given woman the right to conquer her destiny?
Why does she have to wait head bowed,
By the roadside, Waiting with tired patience,
Hoping for a miracle in the morrow?"

Modern Indian Women



The status of women in modern India is a sort of a paradox. If on one hand she is at the peak of ladder of success, on the other hand she is mutely suffering the violence afflicted on her by her own family members. As compared with past women in modern times have achieved a lot but in reality they have to still travel a long way. Women have left the secured domain of their home and are now in the battlefield of life, fully armored with their talent. They had proven themselves. But in India they are yet to get their dues. The sex ratio of India shows that the Indian society is still prejudiced against female. There are 917 females per thousand males in India according to the census of 2011, which is much below the world average of 990 females.

There are many problems which women in India have to go through daily, some of which are:

  • Malnutrition
    On of the major causes of mal nutrition among Indian women is gender inequality. In many parts of India, especially rural India, women are the ones who eat last and least in the whole family. This means they eat whatever is left after the men folk are satiated. As a result most of the times their food intake does not contain the nutritional value required in maintaining the healthy body. In villages, sometimes women do not get to eat a whole meal due to poverty. The UNICEF report of 1996 clearly states that the women of South Asia are not given proper care, which results in higher level of malnutrition among the women of South Asia than anywhere else in the world. This nutritional deficiency has two major consequences for women first they become anemic and second they never achieve their full growth, which leads to an unending cycle of undergrowth as malnourished women cannot give birth to healthy children.
  • Poor Health
    Malnutrition results in poor health of women. The women of India are prejudiced from birth itself. They are not breastfed for long. In the want of a son get pregnant as soon as possible which decreases the caring period to the girl child, whereas male members get adequate care and nutrition. Women are not given the right to free movement that means that they cannot go anywhere on their own if they want and they have to take the permission of male member of family or have to take them along. This means that women miss visiting doctors even when they should, which adds to their poor health.
  • Maternal Mortality
    The maternal mortality rate in India is among highest in the world. As females are not given proper attention, which results in the malnutrition and then they are married at an early age which leads to pregnancies at younger age when the body is not ready to bear the burden of a child. All this results in complications, which may lead to gynecological problems, which may become serious with time and may ultimately, lead to death.
  • Lack of education
    In India women's education never got its due share of attention. From medieval India women were debarred from the educational field. According to medieval perception women need just household education and this perception of medieval India still persists in villages of India even today. Girls are supposed to fulfill domestic duties and education becomes secondary for them whereas it is considered to be important for boys. Although scenario in urban areas has changed a lot and women are opting for higher education but majority of Indian population residing in villages still live in medieval times. The people of villages consider girls to be curse and they do not want to waste money and time on them as they think that women should be wedded off as soon as possible.

    The main reason for not sending girls to school is the poor economic condition. Another reason is far off location of schools. In Indian society virginity and purity is given utmost importance during marriage and people are afraid to send their girl child to far off schools were male teacher teach them along with boys.

    The lack of education is the root cause for many other problems. An uneducated mother cannot look after her children properly and she is not aware of the deadly diseases and their cure, which leads to the poor health of the children. An uneducated person does not know about hygiene this lack of knowledge of hygiene may lead to poor health of the whole family.
  • Mistreatment
    In India violence against women is a common evil. Not just in remote parts but even in cities women bear the brunt. They are subjected to physical and mental violence. They are the one who work most but are not given their due. Every hour a woman is raped in India and every 93 minutes a woman is burnt to death due to dowry problem. There are many laws such as The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, The Hindu Succession Act of 1956, The Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, The Hindu Women Right to Property Act of 1937, The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, to protect women and punishment is severe but the conviction rate of crime against women is very low in India.
  • Overworked
    Indian women work more than men of India but their work is hardly recognized as they mainly do unskilled work. Their household chores is never counted as a work, if a woman is working in a field to help her husband it will also be not counted as a work. A study conducted by Mies in 1986 states that in Andhra Pradesh a woman works around 15 hours a day during the agricultural season whereas a male on an average works for around 7-8 hours.
  • Lack of power
    In India a large percentage of women do not have power. They cannot take decisions independently not even related to their own life. They have to take permission of male members for each and every issue. They don't have any say in important household matters and not in matter of their own marriage.
  • Marriage
    The family mainly fixes the marriages in India. The scenario in villages is very bad. The girl is not consulted but is told to marry a groom whom her family has chosen for him. They are taught to abide by the whims and fancies of their husbands. Going against the wishes of husband is considered to be a sin. In marriage husband always has the upper hand. The groom and his parents show as if they are obliging the girl by marrying her and in return they demand hefty dowry.
  • Dowry
    Another serious issue in modern India. Courts are flooded with cases related to death due to dowry harassment by husband and in laws. In ancient times women were given 'Stridhan' when they departed from the house of their parents. This amount of money was given to her as a gift which she can use on her and her children but her in-laws did not have any right on that amount. This amount was supposed to help the girl in time of need. Slowly this tradition became obligatory and took the form of dowry. Nowadays parents have to give hefty amount in dowry, the in laws of their girl are not concerned whether they can afford it or not. If a girl brings large amount of dowry she is given respect and is treated well in her new home and if she does not bring dowry according to expectations of her in laws then she has to suffer harassment. Due to this evil practice many newly wed women of India have to lose their lives.
  • Female infanticide/foeticide
    As women were supposed to be and in some areas of India are still considered to be curse by some strata of society their birth was taken as a burden. So in past times they were killed as soon as they were born. In some of the Rajput clans of Rajasthan newly born girl children was dropped in a large bowl of milk and were killed. Today with the help of technology the sex of the unborn baby is determined and if it is a girl child then it is aborted. In all this procedure women do not have any say they have to do according to the wish of their husbands even if she does not want an abortion, she has no choice.
  • Divorce
    The divorce rate in India is not so high compared to western countries but that does not mean that marriages are more successful here. The reason behind low level of divorce rate is that it is looked down by the society. It is regarded as the sign of failure of marriage, especially of women. She is treated as if she has committed some crime by divorcing her husband. In some communities like Muslims women did not have the right to divorce their husband they were divorced at just the pronouncement of "I divorce you" by their husband thrice and they could not do anything except to be the mute spectator. Recently Muslim Law Board has given right of divorce to women. After divorce women is entitled to get her "Mehr" for herself and her children's sustenance. In Hindu society women get maintenance for themselves and their children after divorce.
The statistics testifies to the brutalities afflicted on women folk

Social IndicatorIndiaWorld
Infant Mortality Rate, per 1000 live births7360
Maternal Mortality Rate, per 100,000 live births570430
Female Literacy, %5877.6
Female School Enrollment4762
Earned Income by females, %2658
Underweight Children, %5330
Total Fertility Rate3.22.9
Women in Government, %67
Contraception usage, %4456
Low birth weight babies, %3317

Though there are problems in the lives of Indian women but they are always ready to fight all the odds and enjoy their life to the full they have their own talent, hobbies, and they socialize according to Indian customs.

Attire
In ancient India, both men and women used to wear clothes which did not need stitching. This custom resulted in women wearing the unstitched long cloth to cover the lower part of body this clothe came to be known as 'Sari' and the upper half of the body was covered with "Stanpatta", modern day 'choli' or blouse which was tied at the back. This attire of the past along with certain modifications continues till today. It is the major attire in rural India. In northern India and especially in cities women also wear 'Salwar kameez', which is comfortable in workplace. Nowadays some women in urban India also wear westernized dresses like trousers and shirts but still a lot of women prefer wearing Indian attire.

Recreational Activities
Traditionally Indian women would spend their free time with their husband's family and indulging in activities like needle work or knitting. The modern Indian career woman on the other hand spends most of her day at work and may spend her free time such as weekends shopping or going out with her friends for movies or lunch/dinner. Most women also prefer doing their own grocery shopping these days and free time may also be spent buying house hold essentials

Women Empowerment in India



Though women of India are not at par with her counterpart in the Western world but she is getting there. India has examples of commendable women from history who set an example of extraordinary bravery, which even men might not be able to show. Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi was the one such woman. She was the one who put even British rulers to shame with her extraordinary feats in battle. She fought for her kingdom, which Lord Dalhousie, British Governor General, had unlawfully annexed. She was in a true sense the leader of uprising of 1857. There are certain men who took the cause of women in India. There have been social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekanand, Swami Dayananda Saraswati who have helped women gain a strong standing in society.

  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy

  • Born on 22nd may 1772 he was the torchbearer of social reforms for the women. He was strictly against the evils prevalent in society in his time. He was against the practice of Sati and helped abolish it and it was due to his efforts that Lord William Bentinck banned the custom of Sati in 1829. Though this law was not a great deterrent but it changed mindset of people to some extent. Ram Mohan Roy also did great work in the field of women's education. He was against child marriage and favored widow remarriage. He married a widow thus setting the example for the whole society. Along with 'Dwarka Nath Tagore' he founded the "Brahmo Samaj" for the reform of Indian society and emancipation of women.

  • Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar

  • Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was popularly known as Vidyasager, which means ocean of knowledge. Testifying to his name he was truly the sea of knowledge. He was a pillar of social reform movement of West Bengal in 19th century. He widely read ancient Hindu scriptures and came to know that the gender divide which was prevalent in Bengal was not encoded in our ancient texts instead it is the politics to keep women subordinate to men. He strongly supported women education in Bengal and went door to door to persuade people to send their girl children to school. He also did a lot in the field of widow remarriage. He opened many schools for girls.

    Mahatma Jyotirao Phule
    Born on April 11, 1827, Pune, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was a real philanthropist. He was the one to open first girl school in India. He is also credited with opening first home for widows of the upper caste and a home for newborn girl children so that they can be saved from female infanticide.

    Swami Dayananda Saraswati
    He was the founder of Arya Samaj who translated the Vedas from Sanskrit to Hindi so that the common man could read it and understand that the Vedic Hindu scriptures gave utmost importance to women. He emphasized for the equal rights for women in every field. He tried to change the mindset of people with his Vedic teachings.

  • Mahatma Gandhi

  • The social reformers of 19th century laid down the stage for the emancipation of women but it was Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi under whose influence these reforms reached masses. He was the one who liberated Indian women from the clutches of 'Purdah' and other social evils. He brought them from their confinement and asked them to participate in the struggle for independence. According to him women should be liberated from the slavery of kitchen only then their true potential could be realized. He said that responsibility of household is important for women, but it should not be the only one. In fact she should come forward to share the responsibilities of nation.

    When Gandhi came to the stage of Indian struggle for independence then the average life span of the Indian women was only 27 years and only 2%women were educated. This shows what a Herculean task it was to bring the women of India out of their homes and get them to fight for the cause of the nation. But it was due to his efforts that so many women like Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kriplani and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur came forward. He spread the message of equality of the gender to the masses and criticized the desire of Indian people to have male child instead of a female. Gandhi was also strictly against child marriage and favored widow remarriage. He urged the youth to come forward and accept young widows as their life partner. He said that the girls are also capable of everything boys can do but the need of the time is to give them opportunities so that they can prove themselves. It was mainly due to his efforts that when India got independence the 'right to vote' came naturally to Indian women whereas in other developed nations like England and America women got this right very late and that too after lot of protest.

Women Achievers



With the help of these social reformes, the women of India slowly started recognizing their true potential. She started questioning the rules laid down for her by the society. As a result, started breaking barriers and earned a respectable position in the world. Today Indian women have excelled in each and every field from social work to visiting space. There is no arena, which remained unconquered by Indian women, be it politics, sports, entertainment, literature or technology.

  • Politics

  • Women of India are highly active today in politics, right from Sarojini Naidu, Vijaylakshami Pandit, Sucheta Kriplani who were the torchbearers for the women of India. Mrs.Vijay Lakshmi Pandit was the first Indian woman to hold a post in the cabinet, thus paving the way for other women. The most important name in the category of women politicians of recent times is Mrs Indira Gandhi. She was the one who made world stop and notice the talent and potential of Indian women. She was the first women Prime Minister of independent India. Today her daughter-in law Mrs Sonia Gandhi is following her footsteps and is leading the Indian National Congress.

    Other women who have made their name in politics of India are Shiela Dixit, Uma Bharti, Jayalalitha, Vasundhra Raje and, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee.

  • Sports

  • Indian women have achieved great laurels for the nation in every sport. Whether it is cricket or hockey India have national women team for every game. Indian women cricket team has won Asia Cup of 2004 and 2005 and made country proud. Some women sports icons of India are:
    • P.T. Usha (Athletics)
    • Kunjarani Devi (Weight lifting)
    • Diana Edulji (Cricket)
    • Sania Mirza (Tennis)
    • Karnam Malleshwari (Weight lifting)
    • Saina Nehwal (Badminton)
    • Mary Kom (Boxing)
  • Art and Entertainment

  • This arena is full of Indian women. We have many names to boast of like M.S. Subbulakshmi, Indian Nightingale Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle as famous singers. Madhu Bala, Rekha and Aishwarya Rai as Bollywood queens.

  • Literature

  • In past women of India used to write, but their work did not get the recognition. Today they are getting their dues. Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Shobhaa De, Jhumpa Lahiri are famous names in Indian literature. Not just in India now these women are recognized all over the world. Arundhati Roy has been awarded with the Booker Prize of 1997 for her work "God of Small Things". Kiran Desai has been given the Booker Prize of 2006 and Jhumpa Lahiri got recognition in the form of Pulitzer prize.

  • Corporate Divas

  • Kiran Majumdar Shaw is the undisputed corporate queen of India. She is the richest Indian woman. She is the MD of Biocon India. She is the wealthiest entrepreneur of India. Majumdar Shaw initially wanted to become a doctor but could not get admission in medical colleges but even then she did not lose courage and went on to become India's first woman 'Brew Master' and subsequently corporate queen. Other names in this list include Vidya Mohan Chhabaria, Chairperson of Jumbo Group, Naina Lal Kidwai, Vice Chairperson and Managing Director of HSBC Securities and Capital Market, Sullaijja Firodia Motwani and Mallika Srinivasan.

  • Social saints

  • Mother Teresa is one name which every Indian is familiar with. She was the person who used to consider the smile of her countrymen as her wealth. She worked for those whom even their own families have deserted. She did not care whether she is in the company of a person suffering from communicable disease or whether it is day or night. Whenever or wherever one needed her she was present. She opened various homes for these people most famous of which is 'Nirmal Hriday". It is open to everyone irrespective of caste, creed or religion.

    Another important names working for the cause of people includes Aruna Roy who worked for the save RTI Campaign and Medha Patekar who is associated with Narmada Bachao Andolan.

  • Universal Queens

  • Indian women have not just made their mark on earth but they have engraved their name in the whole universe by flying to space. Kalpana Chawla, who was the member of Colombia Space Shuttle, which exploded on its way back, was the first Indian women astronaut who visited space station. Following in her footsteps is another woman of Indian origin, Sunita William, who has become the second one to be the member of International Space Station crew.

    Indian women have some a long way since the medieval times, but she still has to go a long way to go. The desire of Indian women can be best summed up in the following lines of 'Song of an African Women':

    I have only one request.
    I do not ask for money
    Although I have need of it,
    I do not ask for meat . . .
    I have only one request,

    And all I ask is
    That you remove
    The road block
    From my path.

Present Status of women in India

Some Bright Spots
  • India has the world's largest number of professionally qualified women.
  • India has largest population of working women in the world.
  • India has a large number of female doctors, surgeons, scientists, professors, than the United States
Last Updated on : 11/29/2012


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