Gender Bias in Hinduism

Gender Bias

by Jayaram V

Few days ago there wa a news story that a girl was severely beaten in India and her mother was beater to death, following an argument and altercation over the girl's decision to wear a jean pant. The people who were responsible for this thought that it was inappropriate for the girl to wear jeans in public.

It happened in a world where in countries like the USA young women habitually wear half pants and short pants in public and no one cares about it as a moral issue.

There are still many people in Hindu communities across the world who believe that women need to be told what they should wear, how they should look or where they should go. There are many predators in the coutnry who do not let go a chance to molest women or harass helpless girls in buses and trains and solitary places.

This unfair treatment of women in Hindu society is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for centuries and millenniums. We are gradually becoming aware of the number of atrocities against women by men because of the 24/7 news cycle.

In this article we will examine how this inequality manifest itself in the Hindu marriage customs and practices and how it limits women's freedom to make decisions for themselves.

Women are not goddesses

In Hinduism, tradition gives more importance to men rather than women in matters regarding marriage. Hindu world is essentially a man’s world. Although a number of Hindus worship goddesses and female deities, they do not extend the same attitude towards women. In this regard they do not seem to suffer from any inner conflict because in their minds they see the distinction between the goddesses and the mortal women as clearly as they see the difference between the earth and the sky. In all fairness, we have to state that they do not treat men as gods, but just as fellow beings. We have stated this to clear the  misconception that in Hinduism all women are treated as goddesses. It is true only in limited sense.

Sanatana Dharma is meant for men only

Hindu dharma or the Sanatana Dharma is essentially meant for men, for their continuation through male progeny and their salvation. All other purposes are secondary. The Vedas, the inviolable scriptures are clear. Creation is for men and their enjoyment. A man lives through his sons, but women do not live through their daughters. A man alone has the privilege to transmit his knowledge and powers through a transmission ceremony to his elder son, and women are not even allowed to witness it. Women should not be allowed to live freely or on her own. She must be always under the care of a male person, father, brother, husband, son or relation, but never a a male who is not any of these.

Women duty is only to serve, assist and enable

Thus, in Hindu religious rites and rituals, women play a secondary role and serve as an enabler for her husband to achieve his four aims of human life. A wife's traditional role in a marriage is to assit her husband as a servant, mistress, counseller and mother. We can always brag about exceptions to this norms, about women who participated in religious discussions, ruled as queen, participated in wars and stepped out of their bounds to live for a while. But these are brief commercials in a soap opera that has been going on for thousands of years.

Man is the center the universe

It is a man’s duty to produce offspring and serve his ancestors. It is a man’s duty to protect his wife (or wives) and care for them. It is upon a man’s shoulders the welfare of his family, society, the world and beings rest. His wife is more or less, a silent partner, if not a mute witness to the sacrifice of life performed by her husband with herself as one of his sacrificial materials. In the past, women played a subservient role in family matters. Whatever influence she had was mainly through her charm or the good nature of her husband. Unfortunately, the tradition continues in many communities and families even today.

Child marriages to get rid of girls.

Child marriages were common in ancient times. It facilitated older men and widowers marrying young women before they even reached puberty. It allowed families to free themselves from the responsibility of feeding and protecting young girls.

The dictum was a woman’s place was in her husband’s home and family. The earlier she married and went there the better it was for her parents, her family and her husband’s family. Socially and economically, a girl child was considered a burden.

Gender based abortions to get rid of girls

This attitude does not seem to have changed much even now in modern Hindu society, considering that not less than a million abortions are performed in India every year based on gender, without any noticeable public protest.

Unlike in the USA, no political party is willing to take up this issue on an ideological basis. It is a paradox that in a community that reveres Mother Goddess on a large scale, girl children receive such callous treatment.

The plight of widows

In the past, the plight of the widows was even more pitiable. Widows were not allowed to participate in marriage ceremonies or remarry. They were morally held responsible for the premature death of their husbands and they had to carry that guilt and the burden of shame for the rest of their lives. Their very presence was considered inauspicious. Whatever might be the caste into which they were born, the widows were treated on par with the untouchables. Under certain circumstances, the law books permitted a childless widow to beget children through the brothers of her deceased husband. But more or less this was ploy to retain the ownershp deceased person's proptery by the members of the family.

Sati was a means to get rid of unwanted women

In some communities, it was customary to sacrifice the wife of a deceased person on his funeral pyre as part of an ancient custom, a practice that is now considered illegal and barbaric, but not without inviting muted protests from some who still believe in their right to practice such customs as part of their religious freedom or obligatory duties. However, this practice was not universal. Women had the option, except in certain communities, to exercise their choice.

Polygamy meant more women to serve the same husband

Polygamy was an approved practice. It was approved by the law books for various reasons. Men had the permission to marry another wife if the first wife was unable to conceive, mentally deranged, chronically sick, or unable to bear male children. Men from higher castes were permitted to marry more than one wife, without the need to justify it on moral or religous grounds. Kings invariably married many women out of political expediency or for pure pleasure. The wives of a king participated in religious ceremonies and sacrificial rituals such as Asvamedha along with their husband. Sometimes, the king gave away his third or fourth wife as a gift to the priests who performed the sacrifices for him. Polyandry was also practiced in certain communities traditionally, but on a very limited scale. However, presently polygamy, without the consent of the wife, is declared unlawful. Monogamy is the standard practice. According to the Hindu Marriage Act passed in India, a Hindu cannot marry another spouse while married to one already, unless prior written consent is taken.

Gender bias was legitimized in Hindu law books

Hindu law books show a clear bias against women in family matters and relationships. The Manusmriti (9.1-3) suggest that women should be controlled, and kept under watch since they cannot be trusted. The law books also do not consider gender equality as an important consideration in marriage or society, although they emphasize that in a marriage relationship, each partner has a unique role, which cannot be compensated by the other. They declare the head of the family, who is traditionally the husband, as the primary upholder of obligatory duties (dharma) and the recipient of all ritual honors, and his wife as his partner and associate (saha-dharma-charini) in fulfilling them.

In a traditional household, according to the law books, the woman of the house should play an important role in family and household work, but keep a low profile in social matters. She should avoid outside exposure and contact with men of other families to prevent the family from falling into disrepute. In comparison, her husband is allowed to enjoy greater freedom and authority and command more respect and importance both in the house and society. Life revolves around him. Privileges to the family accrue because of him. His wife enjoys a good status only as long as he is alive. When he dies, she loses everything, her wealth, her identity, her comforts and her status and her right to participate in social and religious ceremonies.

Thus, clearly and unequivocally the Hindu law books relegate women to a subordinate position in relationship to men. The status of women in society and the equation between men and women are slowly changing in present day Hindu society, but there is still a large gap. In many families and regions of India, women still suffer from oppression, domestic violence, dowry related deaths and several other disabilities.

Gender bias in today's world

Bias towards women and girl children continues even now in many Hindu families and even among highly educated and wealthy Hindus. Female infanticide in the form of abortions is a major social issue which not many people are willing to discuss in public.

Thanks to the modern education, people have even lost the sense of right and wrong. There is hardly any protest against abortions in India because no one want to speak againt it or speak about it in public and incur the wrath of proabortion groups and the extreme left.

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