(Last Updated on : 18/01/2013)
Women in modern India have largely been influenced by the programs of reform and upliftment which brought about a radical change in their position. Before the advent of British rule in India, the Indian women were in a quite a deplorable social condition with a number of oppressive rules being thrust upon them by society. With the various reform movements and a gradual change in the perception of women in society, there was seen a radical transformation in the position of women in modern India. They now emerged as educated, socially aware, competent "new women" with a strong sense of their individuality and increasingly looking towards newer avenues for self expression.
Position of Women in Pre-Colonial India
Before the coming of the British in India the life of Indian women was rather oppressive, and they were subject to a constant process of subjugation and social oppression. The woman's youth was spent in the preparation of marriage and her entire life was one dependant on the male members of her family. Added to this were various repressive social customs such as Sati
, child marriage, polygamy, lack of proper education and her confinement to the household. Historically, women experienced these rules and prescriptions differently depending on religion, caste, class, age and their place in the family hierarchy. Though a few women became educated, attained fame, and commanded armies, most were denied men's opportunities to acquire knowledge, property, and social status.
Position of Women under the British
The constant works of the Indian reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy
, who were trying to elevate the status of Indian women, and the renewed efforts by British reformers, there was seen a gradual change in the position of women in modern India. By the second half of the nineteenth century there were reform groups in all parts of British India. They focused attention on sati, female infanticide, polygamy, child marriage, Purdah System
, prohibitions on female education, Devadasis
(temple dancers wedded to the gods), and the patriarchal joint family. Their activity acted as a stimulus and encouragement to reform-minded individuals in other areas, and gradually reformist organizations with an all-India identity began to emerge.
The major change in women's lives in modern India came from the British efforts towards modernising them. It became the central social issue in nineteenth-century British India because the foreign rulers had focused their attention on this particular aspect of society. Taken up with their "civilizing mission," influential British writers condemned Indian religions, culture, and society for their rules and customs regarding women. Even before the advent of the British in India, there has been a radically different cultural tradition which had conquered India, that of the Muslims. Century's earlier Muslim dynasties had entered the sub-continent from the northwest and brought to India a new religion and a new way of organizing power relations. However they did not affect the social order much, and kept well away from it. But significant changes that affected the lives of ordinary people first came with British rule. With their aim of commercial gains, they introduced new relationships and brought about a restructuring of the society. In their debates and discussions over how to best rule their subjects in India, it was widely held that a developed society depended on the relationship between the men and the women. While in a modern society women were treated as equals with men, in a backward society they were treated with contempt. Since the British had taken it upon themselves to administer the country and modernise it, they went about trying to bring about a change in the male-female equation.
The missionaries too agreed with this viewpoint. Reverend E. Storrow came to India in 1848 and pronounced Indian disunity a consequence of the low status of women. Storrow's list of strong countries - Israel, Rome, and Western Europe - all derived their courage and virtue from the high position accorded women. Having linked military strength with the status of women, the British concluded that domination of India was natural and inevitable. The ideas which became popular among the British rulers of India included Humanitarianism, Utilitarianism, Social Darwinism and nationalism. It was believed that if there were any hope for India, it would follow from the introduction of Western ideas and institutions. Thus the westernisation brought in a new gender ideology and modification of the actual treatment of women would be the necessary prelude to any positive change.
Reforms for Indian Women
Colonial domination set the change in motion. The ideology that emerged to redefine gender relations was a mixture of new foreign ideas, indigenous concepts, and the response of Indian men and women to the foreign presence in their midst. Those who accepted the idea that society's ills could be traced to the oppressed condition of women saw female education and female emancipation as the first steps towards progress.
Thus there were radical changes in the life of the woman in modern India. There was seen a threefold change in the pattern on women's lives now. First, there were modifications in the appropriate activities for a female at different stages of her life. Second, the accepted area for female action was expanded. And third, individualism was now fast gaining currency among the people. Due to the reform activities and changes set in motion by the British conquest of India, by the end of the nineteenth century there were a number of women who were educated, articulate, mobile, and increasingly involved in public activities. In the rural setting life was dominated by the household for both men and women. With increased urbanization and the growth of new professions associated with colonial domination, work was increasingly separated from the home.
There was seen establishment of new educational, religious and social institutions. As families moved from their village homes to the cities, they increased their contact with the foreigners and they were gradually influenced to change their views regarding traditional household activity. Now girls in increasing numbers started attending educational institutions, social gatherings unrelated to family affairs, and new religious ceremonies.
Concept of New Women in India
The educated, socially active "new women," as they were called, were part of a modernizing movement which sought to modify gender relations in the direction of greater equality between men and women. Many of the "new women" of modern India are even educated in their homes and then sent to a girls' school. Parents who cared about female education waited until their daughters were older before arranging their marriages or occasionally allowed young married women to continue their education. Older brides became mothers at a later age and often played a greater role in child-rearing. Often there were opportunities to exercise some choices of their own and consequently their status was far less derivative than had been true for a previous generation.
One of the most significant changes concerned was what women were capable of doing. There was a gradual shift of women's activities from the confines of the household to the larger social and political scene. The recognition of individualism of women was another major achievement of the modern age. As compared to the generalisations regarding their life and role, formal education and particularly the development of publications intended for and written by women gave women a voice. There was seen the publication of a number of literary works and journals and autobiographies by women which enabled them to communicate with each other and develop new social networks.
Thus, the position of women in modern India was one of great social upliftment. There was a major change seen not merely in the lives of the women themselves but also in the perception of their roles and functions by society. It paved the way for the greater independence and expression of individuality of Indian women. Holistic manifestation of womanhood and the womanly goal with an aim to bring perfect balance between the masculine and feminine forces of accepted history irrespective of gender is what seems to be the need of the hour. Women's empowerment should surpass and outdo gender and reach the whole of humanity to establish a matriarchal society based on creative and generative action.