Women through the ages

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based retired government officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

pastimes15The ancient society of hunters and gatherers was intensely dependent on one another and the premium was on cooperation and collective values. As a corollary, there was absence of male supremacy over women, and the division of labour was equitable and fair. Both men and women took part in decision making. The institutions and social arrangements have always been a product of particular historical circumstances. As the society gradually evolved into settled civilisation, and with the polarisation of society into classes and the rise of the state, the women started losing out everywhere, and the patriarchal domination over property family came into existence. From being co-decision makers with men in primitive societies, they were thrust into a position of dependence and subordination.

The new intensive production techniques tended to prioritise men’s labour over women’s for the first time, when the primitive society was trying to organise into a settled civilisation. With the use of agricultural equipment (by those days’ standards) – heavy ploughing and use of cattle and horses – women started losing out to men. While it relieved women from drudgery, it deprived them of being decision makers and the social status it accorded. Similarly, in trade and commerce, it tended to become male monopolies. The control over thoughts allowed men to exercise disproportionate influence and in aristocracies, it was much worse, because women didn’t have to go out and work, and share space with men.

From this dominant trend, unequal property rights emerged and women started losing out in inheritance, and much later in matters of divorce proceedings, and in access to education and other entitlements. Any sartorial imposition was also from that perspective, to keep women tied at home and hearth. And since the medieval societies often indulged in warfare and territorial acquisitions, to grab the resources of other societies, women’s position became more confined to domesticity, but even here, since it was the male, who worked and earned the ‘livelihood’, the key decisions about the future of the household or lineage became the patriarchal monopoly.

In India, during the post-Mauryan period, if not earlier, the structure and dynamics of social relations in that era were governed by the social laws that were rigid and patriarchal, based on the scriptural canons, regarded as authoritative by the orthodoxy and the dominant elite. In that socially restrictive order, women’s position was firmly established, much below the male counterpart, and her access to property, inheritance was limited and varied according to caste, custom and mores and religion.

The sharpening of the theoretical structure may have been a response from the orthodoxy to the more flexible and liberal attitudes reflected in the Buddhist texts towards caste and gender. By then, feudalism had started making deeper inroads, huge land grants to the priestly class were becoming more and more common and the governance was considered as a compact between the ruling clans and the orthodox priestly class, much to the exclusion of the vast majority of those who worked on agricultural land, artisans, craftsmen and others.

Education of a limited kind was permitted to women of the upper social crust, but was certainly not intended to encourage their participation in discussion or any trade or occupation. Women’s access to property, inheritance was limited and varied according to caste, custom and religion. Social practices were not uniform and matrilineal systems organized inheritance differently from the patriarchal.

India has come a long way since the time when polygamy, purdah system, ban on widow remarriage, complete absence of education for female child, female infanticide, child marriages were some of the social evils that had vice-like grip over the society. Even barely two hundred years ago, the social evils and superstitions had reached such a stage where social reforms became imperative. This was the period when the westernized educated elite revolted against rigid social conventions, outdated customs, social taboos and blind dogmas. Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Jyotibha Phule, Savitri bai Phule, Ranade and others were the pioneers of the social reform movement, that was to become the first gingerly steps towards evolution of India as a modern entity.

Post-independence, there was a concerted attempt to pursue social reforms aimed at protecting the rights of socially underprivileged and women. In the fifties, a major social reform was enunciated to empower women, to make laws more equitable for them, especially in the areas of property and inheritance rights, education, marriage and divorce. This is considered a landmark change towards greater gender equity, that was to transform the face of India, forever.

Women everywhere are questioning the unequal gender relations and breaking the glass ceilings of patriarchal domination and mindsets, making the environment less exploitative and more gender-friendly. In every sphere of public activity, be it in bureaucracy or politics, or business or self-employment, women are taking on responsibility, earlier perceived as male-oriented areas. Even in such fields hitherto dominated by men as higher education, finance, energy, economic development, climate change, foreign affairs, defence, trade and infrastructure, women are increasingly making their presence felt.

As we evolve into modernity and realise that most of the regressive social practices, customs and mores were detrimental to women, who used to suffer more from patriarchal religious domination, it is time to take a critical look at all such restrictive practices that hamper and curtail women’s activities in the public space that made the male-female relationship more unequal, skewed and iniquitous.

Social reforms are slow in coming everywhere, India or South Asia being no exception, but to truly evolve as a modern society, an objective and dispassionate critique of all regressive practices that have brought misery to women and other marginalised and socially underprivileged sections, and that have only strengthened the powerful oligarchs, would be the best answer. To keep people tied up in superstitious beliefs, received wisdom, handed down edicts and commandments, would only deflect attention from the critical and core issues of life and livelihood impacting the majority of our impoverished masses, including unjust and unequal gender relations.

A country which doesn’t critically and continually examine its past, and discard what is considered regressive, iniquitous, unjust and derogatory to its women, socially marginalised sections and other disadvantaged groups, is condemned to repeat it, to its collective misery.