Status of Women In India – A Historical Perspective

Author: Aakarsh Kamra

The status of women in India is explained by Manu who is believed to be the Law giver according to the Hindu Mythology, ‘Na Stree Swatatramarhati’ i.e. a woman does not deserve independence. Further it is provided that a woman was made from a crooked rib and if you try to bend it straight it will break, therefore treat the woman kindly. As we have entered the 21st century women have established their status in the society equal to that of men and slowly the male dominated patriarchal society is transforming into a society where both men and women are treated at parity.

It is often said that the status of women is the best way to understand a civilization, its progress and the shortcomings. In case of India, women have come a long way from being ostracized from the society in the ancient times to joining the armed forces, corporate sectors and probably all professions that the male members of the society are eligible to undertake.

However the present situation has been achieved after a lot of struggle, strife and hard work by reformists, organizations, the governments and responsible citizens. The status of women in India has several deficiencies that are clearly indicated in the physical quality of life in the country, which relates to their literacy rate, life expectancy at birth and infant mortality rate. These deficiencies have prevented them from participating fully in the nation’s social and economic development and placed them in a vulnerable situation. Though it is not possible to bring about a catharsis through mere legislation, it is undoubtedly necessary to have an effective legislative policy to guard their rights and privileges.

During the British Rule, many social reformists tried to empower the status of women by their efforts and initiatives selflessly and ardently. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar and many others played a pivotal role in empowering the status of women by working tirelessly against traditionally accepted evil societal norms, cultures and practices that were detrimental to the development of the women folk. During the medieval period and thereafter Indian women were treated as commodities and were mere objects for reproducing children and as an aid to continue the family chain. Women were given minimal rights; they were hardly provided any education and were mostly confined within the four walls of their residence.

Evil practices such as sati were encouraged by the members of the society and the poor woman whose husband died had to sacrifice herself by sitting on the funeral pyre of the husband as such a practice was considered as an act that would give heavenly blessings to the couple. The scriptures have also time and again encouraged the practice of Sati. And as I write this project a woman in Chhattisgarh has recently committed sati by jumping into the funeral pyre of her husband and the same is encouraged and glorified by the members of the family of the women.

It is often a practice that after the women commits sati a temple is built in her honor at the place where she commits the act. Such outrageous practices and customs are still prevalent in India in spite of plethora of laws and a separate legislation in the form of commission of Sati Act, 1987 that have been enacted for the welfare of the women folk. The other incidence of sati in India though there have been many but the case of Roop Kanwar is amongst the most important cases that had sought national as well as international attention.

India has an adequate legal machinery to deal with such issues however in spite of these laws a number of cases appear where crimes against women are carried on consistently. The practice of Jauhar was prevalent amongst the Rajputs wherein the wife of the dead warriors used to immolate themselves.

As we enter the 21st century we find that women are by no means less competent than men and this can be evidenced by the X and XII results of the board examinations across the country where women have been surging ahead by far every year. However when we look at the sex ratio in the country we feel disgraced and embarrassed the 2001 census shows that for every 1000 male members there are 933 females.

Keeping the statistics in view the legislators have framed the PNDCA 1994, the act aims at preventing the offence of female feticide and provides heavy penalty for aborting a normal female child to not only the members of the family of the pregnant women but also the lab, nursing home or the hospital where such tests and operations for aborting the fetus are done. After independence the framers of the constitution while drafting the constitution at several occasions had considered the need for drafting special provisions for empowering the status of women. And for that purpose the framers of the constitution had incorporated various provisions that aimed at uplifting and improving the position of women in the post independence era.

In India religion has always been the most important factor in defining and determining societal relations. Women since ages have been a victim of these outrageous practices wherein India being a multi-religious society, every community has its own personal laws because of which the women of that community suffer the most. The women belonging to the Muslim community have been brought to the mainstream a number of times be it because of unequal treatment during birth.

In Shah Bano v. Mohd. Ahmed Khanthat is regarded as a landmark judgment the issue of maintenance to a Muslim woman was in contention, the court in this case held that a Muslim woman was entitled to maintenance from her husband to which she was entitled to under the statute within section 125 of the criminal procedure code.
However the upheaval caused by this judgment was to such a massive extent that the government under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi at that time was forced to nullify the judgment by enacting a legislation, Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 which upheld the Muslim personal laws and once again women were made victims of oppression and exploitation in the name of religion and the sacrosanct personal laws.

Another problem that has haunted the development of women since ages is the fact that the women are controlled by social sanctions. Whenever a crime is committed against a woman, the society frowns upon her and in the name of traditions and customs many of the crimes committed and atrocities done; the women are precluded from reporting the same to police or investigating authority.

Keeping this in mind the convention on the status of women in India had many decades back suggested for the setting up of a commission that shall deal with the matters that are helpful for the empowerment of women. The committee on the status of women had visualized it as autonomous expert body to advise the government on women’s issues and act as a powerful advocate of their rights.

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