Controversy about the women’s condition shows what role they hold in any given community at a given point in time. The condition of women varies across place and time because their situation is assumed by prevailing civic pattern and social connections. Civic structure, comprising of structures of social relationships, is not stagnant and epitomizes itself in the social change method in any society.
Looking at a glimpse of Indian women’s condition from a historical viewpoint helps us comprehend the reasons and process of the phenomenon of women’s secondary status and depreciation of their roles, responsibilities and duties as compared to those of men, their destitution and exploitation, and eventually actions to boost women’s prestige.
1) The Vedic Age is believed to be the golden era of women’s prestige in India. Based on available Vedic literature, we can say that women were treated generously and relished more liberties than in later times. They had full access to education evidenced by citations to women like Gargi, Maitreyi, and Aditi. Women had the independence to choose their life partners. The age at marriage was higher. Women had a crucial and significant place in the performance of ceremonies, yajnas and other spiritual traditions however, being a patriarchal culture, mothers of sons had an outstanding and very special significance in society.
2) The condition seems to have shifted to the worse in the Post-Vedic Period (Puranic and later times) when the prestige of women was made inferior to that of men. The post-Vedic time is defined by paradox towards women. Women were envisioned both as goddesses or shakti to be worshipped and temptresses to be spurned at the same time. The great epics put mothers of sons and loyal wives on a huge pedestal. Except in the form of goddesses or mothers, women were hardly seen as similar to men. With the possible goal of stabilizing the family as a social society, Manu ascertained the principle of purity as the basis of a code of social code/conduct. Women were seen as the most probable problem to the virtue of the family heritage. They were, therefore, constrained to the four walls of their home. Spiritual or Religious prescriptions and social rules supported each other to relegate women to secondary stature.
The consequence of this vision of women was a prohibition of education to women–forbid to read Vedas or chant mantras. The responsibility of a married woman was restricted to her home and to assist her husband faithfully. She could achieve her salvation through selfless duty to her husband, taking care of his daily necessities so that he could meditate and fulfil Vedic rites. Manu, who is held responsible for the doom women experienced for more than two millennia, considered women in continual need of protection and supervision.
As a result, slowly, early or child marriages appeared to be a norm. The intention for a son to carry on the heritage and the difficulties of safeguarding girls led to female infanticide. A pativrata wife could not reckon getting associated with any other man and hence, if the husband died, she was determined to opt for self-immolation. Sati earned a reputation equal to that of divinities. A woman’s sins were supposed to be accountable for her husband’s demise and so, widows were assumed inauspicious.
3) Right through the Muslim and Mughal rule, these public methods got embedded in the Indian social element. The threat of Muslim invaders dragged women further into isolation and suffering.
4.) At the beginning of the British in India, the significance of women had surpassed its depths. Women were naive and uneducated; they were bound by numerous rituals and fasts; married early and were treated as a product and the most servile maid of the husband. Widowhood was a curse and carried with it a most unfortunate and painful life. The remarriage of widows was an absurd crime. Sati always was chosen, by the family and women themselves, as an option to avoid this lot. Parents killed their female infants to protect themselves. This was primarily the problem of women of upper castes. Women from lower castes had their difficulties. They were not as prohibited as women of the upper class as they had to serve in the fields or the homes of the wealthy upper-caste families but all, involving the husbands, treated them as slaves without any liberties or prestige.
a) It was in this system that the Indian social reformers of the 19th century took up the job of boosting women’s horrible situation. Initiating from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, various upper-caste English educated men in Bengal and Maharashtra and later in the South formulated women’s problems as the priority of the reform movement during the early British time. Influenced by western education, they attempted to pull out the fact that scriptures did not favour the domination of women. Their civic status bestowed them a crucial voice and impacted the neutral British administration to legislate laws to ban Sati and raise the age at marriage (Age of Consent Bill). Several schools were opened for girls; widow residences were organized to give shelter and safety to widows and various reformers supported the remarriage of widows. Same reform movements were instigated in different religious associations, organizations and provinces.
b) The next level of this reform act was the emergence of administration among the women themselves. Women like Pandita Rama Bai and Ramabai Ranade opened widow sedans and girls’ schools and spoke freely against horrible social practices influencing women. The organization of the All India Women’s Conference in 1917 was the first directed attempt by women to have a glimpse into women’s problems related to education, marriage and family and voting rights.
5.) Being elitist, the consequence of different reform movements touched only the upper and middle castes, and further in the urban areas. It stayed for Mahatma Gandhi’s nationalist freedom movement to reach the masses and accomplish the social modification. Women’s large- scale involvement in the freedom struggle was stimulated by two main factors: the use of non-violence and self-sacrifice and the analogy of Mother India related to all women. It invoked women’s living image of a mother sacrificing all for the family – in this case, the large family is the whole of India. Women’s projected qualities of warmth, compassion and self-sacrifice hushed all criticisms of their immediate families. Women took part in all types of the Movement – whether from within the home vicinity or out on the roads. The agenda of the National Congress contained equality and dignity for women. The Nationalist Movement gave rise to the surface, the importance of women’s positions and contributions as also the several shapes of exploitation and discriminations they had to undergo. This extensively facilitated women’s problems and difficulties to get into focus and eventually got reflected in our Constitution after Independence.
6) We now come to the time after independence and adoption of our Constitution that enshrines the ambitions and aspirations of Indian people and the portrayal of an excellent nation where everyone is regarded equal irrespective of religion, caste or gender. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights accepted at that time also impacted the Constitution. The time after Independence was commemorated by various struggles attempted both by the Government and the Voluntary sector to boost women’s status and dignity.
i) The problem in protecting the rights and liberties of women found its best expression in our Constitution. It eliminated bigotry against women in both legal and public spheres. Fundamental Rights in the Constitution guaranteed that women would not confront racism on account of their sex. The State, however, was authorized to make affirmative discrimination in favour of women due to the suppression encountered by them for centuries. Directive Principles of State Policy enjoined upon the State to assure safe and compassionate conditions of work for women. Article 51A(e) assigned an important duty on every citizen not to indulge in processes derogatory to the dignity of women.
ii) Constitutional precautions were clarified into the procedure by authorizing several legislations encompassing the vast spectrum of women’s lives. “The large involvement of women in the freedom struggle and the refined ideas thrust ahead by the social reformers in the 19th century directed to an ado of legislative movement during the 1950s profiting especially Hindu women” (Agrawal & Rao, p. 26). These comprised the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 and the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956. Laws have been approved to legalize abortion, lift the age at marriage and resolve family conflicts. The laws have also been approved to battle social evils like dowry, sati, rape, indecent articulation of women, female infanticide etc. There are various directive principles that become law, like the Maternity Benefit Act and Equal Pay for Equal Work. Although there are various laws regulating job, wages, working conditions, social security, welfare and other facets of labour, not many connect solely to women. Some laws were authorized protecting the spirit of Personal Laws of different religious communities in mind.
The main force of development actions in post-independent India has been expressed in the Five- year Plans. The strategies of noticing the problems and needs of women and observing policies to help women grow and formulate have improved over time. The difference has been in terms of priority, administrative infrastructure and the objectives of policies accepted. The improvement policies have indicated an evolution of techniques to deal with women’s concerns: from ‘welfare’ strategy (first to fifth plans) to ‘development’ (sixth to eighth plans) and ultimately to ‘empowerment’ (ninth and tenth plans).