Fight For Women’s Rights India – History Essay
The fight for women’s rights would prove to be a long and grueling process, but British presence in India would prove to play a positive role in this process. The fight would be especially difficult because those
religious traditions that were part of the culture in the country were very adamant in their beliefs on the role of women in society, but British seemed to be determined to turn India into what they deemed as a civilized nation. The British believed that the “Indians, like anyone else, could be transformed through the workings of law, free trade, and education.” This statement proves that the British came into India with the idea that they were going to transform this nation into one they could be proud to call a colony. With this in mind it could be argued that the British are actually responsible for starting a women’s rights movement in India.
In order to be successful in their fight to give women more rights in India the British utilized several tactics. Now in power of governmental activities in India, and not afraid to flex their power to promote their own ideals, they began to pass important pieces of legislation. One of the most powerful tools a government has is its ability to pass legislation. The British started with proclamation that would prove to be extremely influential, the abolition of sati. The abolition of sati was not so much a victory for women in terms of saving them from the funeral pyre, but it was more of an invitation for women (and men) to involve themselves in a movement against a barbaric religious tradition. This sent a message to women throughout the country telling them that their rights were an interest of the British. In addition to legislation, education was a key component of the fight for women’s rights. A popular quote sums up the role education played in the advancement of women’s rights very nicely. “God helps those to help themselves.” Now that women had the tools to educate themselves they could make their opinions known. Education of course was passed onto men as well, and lucky for women western ideas were in favor of women’s rights. Men became more tolerant of their women as western education took root. Not one of these movements was more important then another, every one helped contribute to what would eventually be a successful women’s movement. The stories in Of Women, Outcastes, Peasants and Rebels do a very good job of illustrating the progress being made in its different forms. An example of each of these movements can be found in at least one story throughout this text.
In our country [India], once a man is married, he no longer has, or needs to have, any kind of concern about the marriage. His attitude toward his wife becomes like that of a man-eating tiger’s need to have a human, any human. Whatever his condition and age, as soon as he lacks a wife, he has no hesitation, nothing but compulsion, to get another (Rabindranath Thakur Haimanti).
This is an excerpt from the short story Haimanti. This quote does a very good job of illustrating the woman’s place in Indian society prior to reforms made in the 19th and 20th century. For women the fight for equality was not an easy task. Mass amounts of men in India who held more traditionalists attitudes felt that woman’s place in society was as it should be. “Many movements of the later nineteenth century gave a central place to teachings related to women, seen as a particularly potent symbol of the proper moral order (Metcalf & Metcalf 144).” A woman’s purpose in life is very clear, they are to marry a man, give birth to his children, and answer to his every whim. Those men that were not in favor of reform in the country used religious propaganda to make certain that these British ideals of women’s rights did not sink in. Unfortunately for those traditionalists the religious ideals they promoted would prove only to slow down the process, not stop it.
In the Old Woman, written by Manik Bandyopadhyay, a young woman, named Menaka, is being thrown out of what has been her residence for the past year. She married and lived in her husband’s house, with his family. His family was not very fond of her and once her husband passed away she was no longer a welcome member of the household. “…because she had no parents and was married off by her uncle’s family, they could not get back at the shrewd uncle for not giving all of the promised dowry.” Assuming this family is of a lower caste, and not in a financially comfortable condition they have no problem dismissing this woman who had married into their family. In lower castes a woman was put on the street if she was a widow and no longer contributed financially to the family she married into, in some cases she could go back to live with her parents, but many times even her own parents would refuse her simply because they could not afford to feed, cloth and shelter another person. Families of lower caste felt very little responsibility towards a widow, mostly because she was now seen simply as a financial burden. At the end of this story Menaka encounters an old woman who has a profound effect on her life. The old woman sees Menaka weeping and shares with her, her own story of grief that is very similar to Menaka’s. “I spent less than one night with my husband. After he died on the wedding night, they all said, ‘Throw out that unlucky wife.’ Did I leave? Could anybody make me leave? I bit the ground that the home stood and hung on.” The lesson of this old woman very much reflects the teachings of another woman that dedicated herself to educating and motivating widows like herself. Pandita Ramabai advocated women’s education and social reform. When she was widowed at the age of twenty-five, Ramabai educated herself in England, returned to India and proceeded to found several home schools dedicated to the education of widows.
Throwing women out on the street to fend for themselves may seem barbaric, but doesn’t compare to what was practiced by smaller groups of upper caste families. A religious tradition known as sati was observed. Sati was regarded as a “heroic act of romantic self-sacrifice” by those people who practiced it, but was regarded as barbaric by British colonists. This religious ceremony consisted of a widower throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, burning her to death. Sati was a traditional religious ceremony that was not considered out of the ordinary by most. Despite its publicity, sati was not responsible for the deaths of thousands of woman a year, it was not widely observed, but was still responsible for approximately eight hundred deaths per year. It did not face any resistance until 1829 when Lord William Bentinck abolished this religious observance to the dismay of those people who had practiced this religious tradition. The British used the treatment of women in Indian as a substantiation of what they believed to be a barbaric and brutal culture that they needed to correct. Of course traditionalists did not take this sitting down. Many families that had practiced sati in the past continued to do so, when they were punished for their crimes they protested. The power of the British was simply too strong, and the abolition of sati was only the beginning of the British effort to give woman a fighting chance in Indian society.
Woman, in addition to basically being seen as an expendable asset, they contributed very little to society in India. This was not a matter of choice, but was tradition. A woman in the story Letter from a Wife, by Rabindranath Thakur, is obviously distressed with women’s current position in Indian society. “It seems ironic to me that human beauty, which the Creator makes in a flitting mood of enjoyment, should be priced like a commodity in a religious society such as yours.” Although women were still discriminated against there was “a new ideal of female domesticity, across religious lines, also took shape during the decades at the turn of the century. In that ideal women were meant to be educated and ‘respectable’…” (Metcalf & Metcalf 146). This was huge turn of events for woman. Before women were uneducated, therefore few really knew how little rights they had. Now that women were being educated they began to analyze their surroundings and realize that something was not right. The ‘new’ women soon began to play an active role as advocates of reform. Soon educated women were fighting against this repressive tradition and setting up schools to further the education of women in India. “The new norms of female behaviour helped draw new lines of social identity (Metcalf & Metcalf).” Education was taking root in the society of India, but there was still a great deal of resistance to this women’s movement. After all it had only been a few decades, and for an entire country of people to abandon their religious traditions and ideals because of western teachings is not realistic. “Your never recognized in these fifteen years the part of me that wrote poetry, perhaps because you did not wish to see in me anything that went beyond my role as your wife and a daughter-in-law of the family (Thakur 98).”
Once one reads further into Haimanti it becomes apparent that Thakur supports the reformist attitude. The narrator of the story is a young man in love with a girl only two years his junior, her name is Haimanti. Traditionally men married girls that were much, much younger, it wasn’t strange for a man as old as thirty to marry a girl that was only twelve years old. This young man insists that he is in love with this woman, and lucky for him he is the member of a household that is very tolerant of reformist’s beliefs. “…my grandfather was a staunch rebel against the tradition, with no belief in any of the established customs and rituals. He had eagerly read and absorbed English liberalism. But my father was a staunch follower of the tradition.” With beliefs that were this reformist the narrator’s grandfather was most likely a member of the bhadralok. If he was not a member of the bhadralok he definitely benefited from their movement. The bhadralok prospered under British colonialism, and were very found of the teachings of western education, like English liberalism. The bhadralok movement was very popular amongst those people of upper-castes such as merchants, clerks and government employees. In its beginnings the bhadralok movement was confined to people of the upper-caste, but it slowly made its way to the masses. The bhadralok were very proud of there newly discovered knowledge and wanted to share it with the common people. Soon the education of men, coupled with the education of women offered opportunities for reform in the country. Although woman were being educated and focused on achieving equality they could not have done it alone. Reformist thinkers like the grandfather Haimanti were a big part of the advancement of women’s right.
British colonialism had very few positive impacts on society in India, but the result of their presence was not all bad. They were vital in the women’s fight against discrimination in India. The British were advocators of woman’s rights, and were disgusted by the fact that such a cruel and intolerable act could be committed with such social acceptance, in addition to the discrimination they face in every day life. Not only did the British themselves support the women’s movement, but they were also responsible for the Indian people’s exposure to western education and culture. The ideals and morals that western education promoted were beginning to take their toll and helped in the advancement of women’s right significantly. Although the British regarded the Indians as an underdeveloped people they believed they were capable of making changes. As people in India began to embrace more western ideas, and education they began to turn away from religious traditions that were seen as unsavory in western teachings.
The fight for women’s rights would prove to be a long and grueling process, but British presence in India would prove to play a positive role in this process. The fight would be especially difficult because those religious traditions that were part of the culture in the country were very adamant in their beliefs on the role of women in society, but British seemed to be determined to turn India into what they deemed as a civilized nation. The British believed that the “Indians, like anyone else, could be transformed through the workings of law, free trade, and education.” This statement proves that the British came into India with the idea that they were going to transform this nation into one they could be proud to call a colony. With this in mind it could be argued that the British are actually responsible for starting a women’s rights movement in India. Of course do not make the mistake of believing that the British were responsible for all the progress made. Those women who had suffered for centuries and those few progressive men did most of the leg-work. The British merely laid the foundation for th movement, and simply sat back and watched it unfold in front of them.