(Last Updated on : 10/08/2010)
One scholar drives home the point that "The lives of Indian women began to change significantly in the late nineteenth century when the colonial government, critical of the treatment of both Hindu
women, found allies among Indian reformers. Keen to reform their own society, these men agreed that women should be educated and play some role in public life."
Indeed, reformist stalwarts like Raja Rammohun Roy formed a coalition power with the British to abolish the social abuse, Sati. Again, Pundit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar consolidated the way for the remarriage of socially forsaken widows through the Widow Remarriage Act no XV of 1856.He empathetically lamented the deep distress of Indian womanhood, while campaibning for widow-remarraige: "The country, whose male population is unkind, unreligious and unaware of the distinction between the good and the evil and don`t care about justice and fairness and where abiding the rituals is the chief preoccupation of religion, should not give birth to girls!"
The air of reformation held high the urgency for casting the enlightenment of education on women. The sea or sagar of Vidya, i.e. Knowledge, the erudite and social-activist, Vidyasagar inundated the nation with the deluge of education. He opened 30 schools for girls in Bengal
to promote the betterment of the feminine community. Similar to him was the Telegu feminism-enthusiast, Kandukuri Virasalingam Pantulu of Andhra Pradesh
. In fact, the Bengal Renaissance of Consciousness, Intellectuality and Cultural pursuits, ushered in a phenomenal rebirth or Renaissance of the Consciousness of Women`s Well-being amidst the prevalent tyrannical society.
The British government eager to prove their liberal, ethical and pro-modernity attitude resorted to the "woman question". This is the fundamental feminist question concerned with the rights and progress of women. British denounced the existing insignificance of Indian womanhood, and tried to initiate some feminist welfare activities to show their socio-cultural advancement and Western nobility. They took help of the native indigenous modern minds like Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Keshubchandra Sen and other eminent Indians. What began as a more or less contest for moral supremacy among the oriental tradition and the Western civilization, was turned into a beneficial move by the benevolent Indian priests of humanism, like Rammohan Roy.
The ancient Indian system of learning involved the accretion of the knowledge of the sacred Vedas and Puranic Sastras . The biased caste-system made Vidya available for the Brahmin or the priestly class, the Kshatriya or the warrior class and the Vaishya or the businessman`s class. The Shudras or the non-Aryan class were the socially marginal section, barred from accessing education. Early Vedic society, allowed girls to acquire knowledge and grow into prominence. We can boast of women poets like Lopamudra and Gargi but in the later Vedic society, the orthodox Brahmins introduced blind superstitions, rituals, and rigid customs, which forbade Girls from learning. Only some women hailing from the upper class Vaisnavite (followers of the cult of lord Vishnu
) families could study the precious Puranas. Islam wanted girls to be knowledgeable about the Quran and accounting tactics. However the austere confinement of girls within the four wall of the interiors of house-prison , minimized the possibilities.
We recognize a severe disappointment of the Western educational entrepreneurs with the oppressive social norms. In his Report on the Condition of Education in Bengal (1836), the annoyed William Adam informed with condescension: "A superstitious feeling is alleged to exist in the majority of Hindu families, principally cherished by the women and not discouraged by the men, that a girl taught to read and write will soon after marriage become a widow." Adam was disgusted with the disgraceful fear, that loomed large over the Hindu and Muslim social arena. The overriding tension was that "knowledge of letters" would teach female to oppose the meaningless coercion. The terrible situation made Hindu women absolutely dependent on fathers in childhood, then on husbands in marital life, and ultimately on the sons during the old age. All her life, a woman observed religious practices wishing for the long and safe life of the male members of her family, as per as the custom. So, it was easy to impose the demeaning superstition that a woman`s contact with learning was harmful. She would welcome the curse of her husband`s death, and thereby would turn her into hell.
Rassundari Devi , the author of the autobiographical, "Aamar Jiban" and one of the pioneers in indigenous women`s writings , poignantly describes her indomitable struggle for reaching the gateways of education:
"I was so immersed in the sea of housework that I was not conscious of what I was going through day and night. After some time the desire to learn how to read properly grew very strong in me. I was angry with myself for wanting to read books. Girls did not read. That was one of the bad aspects of the old system. The other aspects were not so bad. People used to despise women of learning... In fact, older women used to show a great deal of displeasure if they saw a piece of paper in the hands of a woman. But somehow I could not accept this." Rassundari did accomplish in her mission, although it was a slow but steady process.
It was obvious that women were so intellectually and emotionally blind, under the cover of false definition of femininity tied on their vision, that one woman was prejudiced against the efforts of the other to attain freedom. On the contrary, true womanhood is only understood and adhered to, when illuminated by education. It is education which makes a female competent enough to handle the issues of her life, to be self-sufficient, to become an able daughter who can have economic independence and support her family, to stand by her husband in difficult times, and to rear up her children with the right education. Certainly, the strength of today`s global woman lies in the truth that she is a multi-tasker, invested with such outstanding caliber.
Haimavati Sen (1866-1932), born a half-century later, than Rassundari Devi portrayed her childhood in Khulna District of East Bengal: "The outer quarters were my resort, that is where I spent all my time; during the office hours I stayed in the school room. The teacher was very fond of me. I greatly enjoyed listening to the lessons. But I had no right to education. Though I lived like a boy in every respect, in matters of education I remained a woman. It is a popular superstition in our country that women, if educated, have to suffer widowhood; hence that path was entirely closed for me. But I was inspired by an eager wish God had planted in my heart."
Indian society thus deliberately practiced conspicuous gender-equality. There sprouted a lot of hostility from the conservative lawmakers of society against the new innovations, like advent of education for women. And hence it was really tough for the colonial government as well as the interested reformers, to give a concrete shape to their dreams.
The Calcutta School Society was built in 1816 to improve the status of female education.
Radha Kanta Deb, the secretary of this society, was committed towards the cause and helped the coming up of the Calcutta Female Juvenile Society (founded in 1819 by Baptists). In 1821, the School Society asked Miss Mary Anne Cooke, who came down to Calcutta to manage the task. The Church Missionary Society appointed Miss Cooke for the purpose. The resultant was the establishment of thirty schools for "respectable" Hindu girls. The schools expanded their work under the finances funded by the Hindu aristocracy. However the endeavor, did not bear fruits, as the elite class intentionally distanced themselves from the institutions where the poor crowded tempted by gifts of clothing and other articles.
The Church Missionary Society tasted greater success in South India. The first boarding school for girls came up in Tirunelveli in 1821. By 1840 the Scottish Church Society constructed six schools with roll strength of 200 Hindu girls. When it was mid-century, the missionaries in Madras had included under its banner, 8,000 girls.
J. E. Drinkwater Bethune was a legal member of the Governor-General`s Council and President of the Council of Education in British India. Calcutta witnessed the contribution of J.E.Drinkwater in the creation of the Hindu Bahka Vidyalaya in 1849. The curriculum was secular and the medium of instruction was Bengali. Pandit Vidyasagar was entrusted with the responsibility of the school secretary. Bethune motivated various renowned families to take part in this venture. By 1850 there were eighty students, going to the school. In 1863 the school was populated with ninety-three girls, ranging from five to seven years in age. Portions of them were related to the "lowest class", a data that exhibited the developing circulation of education.
Initially the Indian social-correctors and the British supervisors went into a dispute over the course of operations. The Indian intelligentsia did not approve of the first girls` school, founded by the Missionaries. It was unfortunate that until the grants were afforded by the government and the Wood`s Despatch, 1854, in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Wood`s Despatch, launched in July 1854, drew the government `to the importance of placing the means of acquiring useful and practical knowledge within reach of the great mass of the people`. Wood`s Despatch, particularly emphasized on the need for women`s education: "The importance of female education in India cannot be over-rated; and we have observed with pleasure the evidence which is now afforded of an increased desire on the part of many of the natives to give a good education to their daughters. By this means a far greater proportional impulse is imparted to the educational and moral tone of the people than by the education of men.."
To conclude, women`s education started spreading its wings. The outcome was the evolution of the nineteenth century generation of the "new woman". The latter half of the 19th century started seeing the rise of Indian womanhood to freedom and assertion. Women used to attend schools and colleges, though in limited numbers, receive education and assume the respectable professional roles of teachers and doctors. Saraladevi Chaudhurani, Kamini Roy, Lady Abala Bose, Pandita Ramabai
were the celebrated examples of the "new woman" of the times. The new women voiced their feelings on contemporary affairs, penned their arguments in instruments of expression, such as the journals or magazines, and even participated in mainstream nationalist politics, to represent the Indian womanhood. Women established their presence in almost all the areas, which were previously the monopoly of men.