Women in ancient India had enjoyed a remarkable and better state than their descendents in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. History tells us that in those times, women used to possess dynamic powers and personalities and there are several examples of their undaunted courage and mental faculties under most trying times and circumstances. They have ruled over vast empires ably and effectively. Ahilyabai Hooker’s administration of her state was once considered model for India. Besides capable administrators, they were notable poets, scholars, artists and regional leaders.
In the 18th and the 19th centuries, however, the condition of Indian womanhood was perhaps at its nadir, i. e. the lowest point. They were subject to social and religious taboos, economic and corporal exploitation and oppressed due to social evils of purdah, sati, and child marriage, female infanticide of foeticide, maltreatment, hunger and malnutrition. It is rightly said that during that period when India was fighting to free herself from the clutches of British rule the women of India were fighting their own battle to emancipate themselves from wicked customs and social systems.
The movement for women’s upliftment was initiated by Brahma Samaj under eminent social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The isolating and secluding custom of purdah was broken by Brahma women in the 19th century when they moved freely in society. But perceptible changes did not come before the beginning of the twentieth century. It was the genius and farsightedness of Gandhiji which realised the untapped potential in the womanhood of India which he wanted to utilise for the development of rural India. He gave a specific call to women to come forward and openly participate in the non-cooperation movement.
Gandhiji himself was not certain about women’s response towards such a movement which demanded sacrifices and physical suffering. Moreover, after having been isolated behind the ‘purdah’ for centuries they could not be expected to break the shackles so easily. But at that crucial time the Indian women showed such great courage that they left the menfolk behind and took up all types of work connected with the national movement. K. M. Panikkar in his ‘Awakening of Women’ writes that the Indian women had no separate movement for their emancipation.
Participating in the national movement, they broke free from social bondages that custom had imposed on them. With the achievement of independence, many legislative reforms were made to raise the status of women in society. They were considered equal to men in every walk of life. Equal rights were given to them to participate in democratic processes of casting vote in State Assemblies as well as the Parliament. They were appointed to the highest posts as members of the Cabinet, as Governors of Provinces, as Ambassadors and leaders of delegations to international conferences.
But the equality of women cannot be established by honoring a few high profile ladies who have made recognizable achievements in some fields like art, literature, politics and treating the vast majority of general women as second class citizens below men. The equal status of women can be gauged from how the average woman lives in our society. Some people feel that even today, the gender equality is a myth, not reality. Their views in this regard are that despite our powerful judiciary National Women’s Commission, State Women’s Commission and the Human Rights Commission, the crime graph against women is rising.
The reason is that in our country, the women continue to have an inferior social status. Out of the total population of 1027 million as per 2001 census, about 496 million are women and play second fiddle to the 531 million males. It is believed that male chauvinism and domination is as old as the civilisation itself. Nothing much has changed today so far as the feeling of male dominance is concerned. Most of the sections of society are conservative and cruel in their attitude towards women and are invariably successful in establishing male superiority almost everywhere.
No amount of political sermonizing, legal manipulations and official smokescreen have been able to bring justice, equality and veneration to women. Today they are subjected to all sorts of evils and crimes like female foeticide and infanticide, child marriage, wage discrimination, neglect in education, deprivation of rights, general underfeeding, maternal malnutrition, sexual harassment, molestation, rape and even murder. A large number of women are done to death at the altar of dowry every year in our country. No place seems to be safe for them-workplaces, households, hostels, roads and even buses.
The newspapers carry news of one or the other wicked act against women almost every day. The prejudiced males are adamant in their stance that women are biologically the weaker sex and their only job is child bearing, child rearing and housekeeping. Even the strong legislation and the outstanding feats of many women achievers in almost all walks of life have not been able to change this attitude. The feminist movements have done nothing except making some noises here and there. However, accepting the above gloomy picture into would be unfair to society in general and males in particular.
It is true that women have remained a controversial subject since ages. They have often suffered excesses at the hands of males. But it cannot be denied that a social change has occurred in the thinking of society regarding the status of women. We call it a male-dominated society. It is the intention of today’s society to bring equality and respect for women. Proposed reservations for women up to 33% in the Parliament and the Legislatures is a testimony to the fact that today’s male wants women to come forward and contribute in building up new and progressive India. It is the male who has taken such initiatives for her.
The women who have been given opportunities have, on their part, justified the claim of equal rights with men. They have produced equal or better results in many fields. It is believed that providing 33% reservations to women in Parliament and Legislatures would not only revolutionise the politics but also have major social implications as well. Women are sincere and self-sacrificing in nature. They will provide high moral standards, ethics and integrity to public life. One-third strength of women in the Parliament would definitely provide grace and decency to the proceedings.
Being far less corrupt than men, it will brighten India’s future. The last two decades have seen a sea change in the status of women. They have entered every field of activity. Before the last quarter of the 20th century, they had mostly ventured to become teachers or nurses. Very few ladies had joined other jobs or professions in India. Today, one can find women in every conceivable job. They are doctors, engineers, scientists, pilots, drivers, conductors, chartered accountants, bank officers, insurance agents, police officers, army officers, film directors, ministers, fashion designers and what not.
In army they have shown physical strength and endurance in sub freezing temperatures, heights of hills, deserts and hot tropics. They have proved better administrators, shrewd and successful businesswomen, efficient sports persons, prolific writers, thinkers, philosophers and psychologists. They have excelled in all fields because they have been given their fair share and an equal opportunity to stand up and deliver. What has changed during the last two decades is the attitude of the parents towards their girl child.
As the girls have shown in the field of education, the parents have given up their preference or insistence on male child. As the floodgates of opportunities have opened for both males and females for new jobs and professions with the development of science, technology and informatics, today the parents neither hesitate to give higher and professional education to their girl child nor to send them away from home to undertake trainings and jobs. Stray incidents of harassment apart, women generally have started feeling much safer and secure at their homes, workplaces and in transit.
They have become more conscious of their rights the development in education mass media and communication channels have removed the distance and time barriers in seeking and getting justice. There is no doubt that things have improved a lot in terms of women’s acceptability and recognition as ‘fair sex’ rather than weaker sex. A lot more needs to be done especially in areas where orthodoxy still prevails though in lesser intensity. If one has to conclude one must say that women equality these days is no longer a myth but reality.