Women, the other half of ‘mankind’, have been facing discrimination and oppression, even in the 21st century. Most of us Indians think that the status of women has always been inferior to that of men since forever. However, many of you will be surprised to know that women enjoyed a much better than today and an equal status to that of men during the Rig Vedic times. An egalitarian society existed during the Rig Vedic era. Women took equal part in politics, they had equal right to education. They were even given the option to pursue studies for life and had the choice to marry or not to marry, which many of present day women do not have. The age of marriage was 16-18 years.
Daughters and wives had the same property and inheritance rights as the sons and husbands. The practice of marrying one’s own brother in law (Niyoga), after the death of husband, was permitted. Some women even had polyandrous marriages. One can say that the Rig Vedic times were better than today.
It was during the Later Vedic era that the position of women took a turn. The society wasn’t egalitarian anymore. Patriarchy came in and changed everything. Women were barred from taking part in politics. They were now only given vocational education. Their choice to marry was taken away and they were married off by 8-10 years of age. The practice of Niyoga and Polyandry vanished, but polygyny continued. The concept of bride price was introduced.
Even the literature of later Vedic times shows misogyny. Philosophers like Manu, Yajnavalkaya justified the inferior status of women and the beating up of wives and slaves!
The position worsened even more during the Mughal era. Purdah system was introduced wherein women had to cover their face at all times. Child marriages increased and polygyny flourished even more. Even the law system was against women. Evidence by women wasn’t regarded as credible. Evidence by 2 Muslim women was equal to evidence by 1 Muslim man. In fact, to prove rape charges against another man, the victim had to produce at least 4 witnesses, leading to low conviction rate.
But, during the British Rule, in the pre independence phase, British officers wished to change the scenario. In 1795, female infanticide was abolished. Birth registration and verification became necessary. In 1829, due to the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and William Bentick, the practice of Sati was abolished as well. In 1856, widow remarriage was legalised. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar spread the importance of educating girls.
After Independence, women were finally granted the Right to Vote, Right to property. Various legislations were implemented like Dowry Prohibition Act, Prevention of Sexual Harassment at workplace Act, Pre-natal Sex determination techniques prevention Act, Maternity Benefit Act etc. Other schemes like Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao- Sukanya Yojna etc were implemented which improved the sex ration in certain districts. The recent judgement on Triple Talaq too is hailed as a major step to empowering Indian women.
Let’s hope for a world where there is no requirement of women empowerment.
– Jahnvi Sharma