Women in History 


The Constitution of the Republic of India ensures equality for women and men in every sphere of life and activity.  The fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution specifically mentions: "The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them".  Women in India have been given equality of opportunity in all matters relating to education, employment, and legal status, and they can  aspire to grace the highest office of the State.  However, this is truly not indicative of the existing position of women in general in the country, as yet.  Though, legally and constitutionally, all women have equal access to and right to venture in every walk of life, a vast majority of them are still illiterate and uneducated. This is a paradoxical situation, which must be understood and seen in its historical perspective. The status of women and their activities can be divided into three main historical periods, the ancient, the medieval and the modern. 


Ancient period


From the available documentation, it is revealed that women enjoyed a fair amount of freedom and equality with men in the fields of education and religion during the Vedic period.  According to A.S. Altekar, in his well known book "Position of Women in Hindu Civilisation", wrote that in the Vedic period, women from higher sections of society were given equal rights in the field of religion, and they attained distinction in the realm of theological studies and philosophy.  Distinguished women such as Gargi and Maitrayee are well known names of this period, who excelled as scholars in their own right.  During the ancient period, there were icons such as Sita, Damayanti, Draupadi and three of the Panchkanyas, Ahilya, Tara, Mandodari, who are still remembered with great reverence in Indian society.  It was in the later period, approximately 500 BC, that the status of women gradually declined with the Smritis and other religious texts giving diktats which adversely affected women's freedom and rights.   With the rise of Brahaminism and due to conflicting religious and social thoughts, the place of women remained subordinate and unsatisfactory.   Buddhism and Jainism, however, continued to give a place of honour to women.  Women were eligible for admission to the religious order in both Buddhism and Jainism.  Bhikshuni Sanghamitra was one of the main proponents of Buddhism of her time. 


Medieval Period     


The medieval period saw further deterioration in women's position in society and their subjugation in the religious and legal spheres.  This was a period when important scriptures propagated the idea that women were unfit for freedom and deserved no Independence.  They should be kept under the authority of men in all stages of life. During the early ADs due to foreign invasions and later in the early years of British rule in India there was further set back in the position of Indian women.  The purdah system, which was not practiced as a rule in the Indian society, became prevalent due to uncertain socio-political reasons.  The growing incidence of female infanticide, the custom of child marriage, and the inhuman practice of sati became a part of the social culture, along with the religious ban on widow remarriage. 

Though there are conflicting opinions about the status of women in this period, it was in this period that India saw the floodgates open to social reforms. Inspite of many handicaps the medieval period also had its share of great women in the fields of politics, literature, education and religion.  Women were equally eminent in the field of administration and state crafts.  Razia Sultana, Empress Noorjahan, Chand Bibi , Maharani Jija Bai, Rani Padmini  are some women with exemplary achievements.  The Princesses of the Mughal courts and women from higher social circles were well educated and pursued many cultural activities.  Jahanara Begum and Princess Zebunnissa were well-known poetesses and they also influenced the ruling administration.  The Bhakti movement brought many women poet saints from different social and economic classes to join Vaishnav and other traditions of devotion, and also the sufi traditions in different parts of India. Akkamadevi, Mirabai, Rami Janabai, Lal Ded, etc. are well known names in the field of devotion and poetry.   


Modern Period


In the modern period, the status of Indian women can be divided into two distinct periods, the British Rule, i.e. Pre-Independence India and Post-Independence India.  The British Rule in the 18th Century brought in some degree of political orderliness, but the social structure, customs and practices remained unchanged.  It was mainly during the 19th Century that the reform movement undertaken by enlightened thinkers and leaders of Indian society understood the importance of women's participation that the status of Indian women started changing for the better.  Though initially all the leaders were men, women gradually came into the scene and played their role not only in changing history but also the society as a whole, through their efforts in different areas of work such as education, politics and freedom movement, women's movement and social welfare.  Mrs. Annie Besant, Dr. Sarojini Naidu, Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Mrs. Nellie Sengupta, and many others gave a direction to Indian womanhood towards change and betterment.  Indian women actively participated in the freedom movement, which also had different thrusts and ideologies.  The founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent movement not only led to political emancipation but also was a step in the right direction for social and national reconstruction.  Women took equal initiatives and participated in all types of struggle for freedom, i.e. non-violent movement advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and the National Congress, as well as in the violent and armed movements advocated by other leaders in different parts of the country.  Women's enthusiasm in participating in the armed revolution helped Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to set up the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army.  Women's participation in the freedom movement was so extensive that the achievers are many in number.  Some names of great significance are Smt. Kasturba Gandhi, Madam Bhikaji Cama, Sarla Devi, Muthu Lakshmi Reddy, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kriplani, Durga Bai Deshmukh, Priti Lata Waddedar, Captain Lakshmi and Janaki Davar of INA, Jahanara Shahnawaz, Randhabai Subbarayan, etc.


Women in Post-Independence India


In 1947, India won freedom from foreign rule.  In 1949 a Constitution was drafted which gave equal rights and status to all Indian citizens.  Independent India has seen various reforms and programmes for the uplift of women of all communities. Indian women have played an important role from the very beginning of Independence in different walks of life.  Women have taken bold steps in all nation building activities, which started with education and has now blossomed into women's involvement in every activity of India.  They have participated in all activities such as education, politics, media, art and culture, service sectors, science and technology, etc.



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