Indian culture has always had a revered place for the female and the feminine. The Goddess Parvathi is considered the mother of all creation, sometimes elevated above even the great Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Eshwara. She represents all that feminism is; a ferocious destroyer of demons, a loving mother, a beautiful, devout wife and a wise and strong lady. But, we have always been a land of paradoxes. So what was the reality of the status of women in Indian society?
Ancient and Medieval North India
Not much is known about how women lived or what role they played in the Indus Valley Civilization (2500-1700 B.C). But, worship of a Mother Goddess associated with nature and fertility was very prevalent, which maybe the origins of Goddess worship in modern India. Archeological evidence found in Harappan sites, like the Bronze Statue of the Dancing girl, showcase the possible role played by women in public life.
In the Early Vedic period, or the Rig Vedic period, women enjoyed relatively more importance than during the Later Vedic Age. Lady intellectuals like Maitheyi and Gargi composed several hymns in the Vedas. They participated in political assemblies, Sabha and Samiti, and also officiated in rituals and sacrifices. Gandharva marriages, where the ladies were free to choose their grooms, was the predominant style of starting families. As Aryan society entered the Later Vedic period, women lost freedoms and privileges one by one, until their only role was to be either a mother, a housekeeper or a labourer. Around the Gupta age, social evils like the sati system, child marriage and ostracisation of widows emerged.
Early Vedic society was predominantly tribal, nomadic and pastoral. Cows were the sign of wealth and social structures were simpler. The tribe did not have a powerful king or a standing army to wage battles and conquer territories. The King, or Rajan, was merely a first among equals and decisions regarding the tribe’s welfare was made by assemblies of elders (Sabha) and all the members of the tribe ( Samiti). We can see that the society was more egalitarian; women were also considered equal members of the tribe, who fought wars, composed literature and took care of their own sustenance.
Gandharva marriages were the predominant type of marriage in this tribal society. A man and woman of the tribe would meet in daily activities, shops, tribal fairs and festivals, spend more time together and decide to be wedded for life. This kind of marriage was not accompanied by detailed rituals or witnesses, nor was the consent of parents necessary.
As agriculture improved with increased usage of iron in the Later Vedic period, land became important, especially those with iron mines. The tribe prospered and increased in size, becoming less mobile. Territories with boundaries emerged, and for their protection, powerful kings with standing armies became inevitable. Perhaps, the concept of ownership of property and the need to pass it on to one’s own offspring, bound the bearer of offspring (women) to the man and his land. The owner of land could marry more than one woman, who would give him the desired offspring. But the same freedom was not allowed to women, since, her offspring from another man would lay a claim on the land. King Ashoka, scion of Mauryan dynasty had at least four wives. Parents started seeking greater control over their offspring’s life as they held the source of sustenance- land. After the loss of the women’s marital freedom, they lost the others too, gradually.
Finally, the Manusmrithi (written between 200 B.C and 200 A.D), the law book of Hindu social life, declares that a woman must seek the protection of her father, then her husband and then her son; she is subordinate to man. As wars became common, causing social upheavals, girls were married off at tender ages to secure their futures. With the advent of Muslim invaders around 9th century, the risk of being carried away or raped or enslaved, made them even more dependent on men for their protection. Several customs of the invaders like purdah were imposed on women. An example is, the Rajput women committing jauhar, or mass self-immolation to save themselves from invaders.
The practice of sati was first documented during the Gupta period, but it occurred sporadically only among women of the higher classes. Some historians claim that sati was committed so that the property of the man was secured within the family. In the event that the widow remarried, her children may lay claims on the property. For the same reason, widows were forced to shave their heads, discard ornaments and colourful clothes, so that their desires and the desire of men looking at them would be extinguished. They were branded as harbingers of bad luck, to be confined to the home, doing menial tasks, making it impossible for them to rebuild their lives. The Gupta Age was certainly not a golden age for Indian women. For example, it is claimed that Brahmans disapproved of Gandharva marriages as they would have no income from it.
The status of women in Indian society pretty much continued in the same state until the advent of the British.
Ancient and Medieval South India
The Aryans, upon their advent to India, are said to have encountered a type of people, they called dasyus, who were dark-skinned and short. Historians identify dasyus with indigenous people of India called Dravidians. South India is referred to as the land of Dravidians, where Dravidian language and much of their culture still stands strong. But, with centuries of inter-marraiges and migration, no person in India is strictly Aryan or Dravidian.
The Sangam Age (400 B.C to 200 A.D) took birth in South India, 2000 years after the Indus Valley Civilization. It was a glorious era for Tamil literature and culture and poetesses of this age composed many works. There are reports of even priestesses performing rituals in some temples. The Sangam Age epics, Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, tell the story of two brave women, unlike the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which revolve around men and valour. An ancient and powerful South Indian dynasty, called the Satavahans, accorded great importance to the mother. The kings took the name of their mother, for eg., Gautamiputra Satakarani and Vaisishtiputra Satakarani.
Social evils like sati were less prevalent in South India. In fact, around 11th century, matrilineal family systems (Marumakattayam) were consolidated in Kerala and few other regions, where the property was passed onto the daughter and granddaughter. But matrilineal societies did not mean that women held much power. Instead of the husband, her brother was the head of the family. Husbands and wives did not live together; their loyalties lay with their maternal homes.
Women in South India were a little better off than their North Indian counterparts, but they were still subordinate to men. They were denied proper education, choice in matrimony, participation in public life and married off as children. The conditions of widows was little better.
There was a lot of difference between the lives of women of higher and lower castes. Women of the lower class worked to supplement income of the family; they were more independent. Women of the higher class, despite being confined to the antahpura or harem, carried on maritime trade, commissioned works of art and architecture. For example, Jahanara Begum, the favourite daughter of Shah Jahan, maintained trade relations with the English and the Dutch and owned several ships. A Chola queen, Sembiyan Mahadevi, was instrumental in patronizing the development of Chola art.
How did the British colonization, which shook up the Indian society, culture and polity, affect Indian women? In the next post!