Traditional Status of Women in Hinduism
Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protects (her) in youth, and her sons protect (her) in old age; a woman is never fit for independence. (Manusmriti 9.3)
According to Hinduism, the female was created by Brahman as part of the duality in creation, to provide company to men and facilitate procreation, progeny and continuation of family lineage.
Vedas on women
The Vedas suggest that a woman's primary duty is to help her husband in performing obligatory duties and enable him to continue his family tradition. Her primary duty is to give birth to his children and take care of them.
Like all the major religions of the world, Hinduism is a predominantly male dominated religion. Women play a secondary role. True in certain ages, such as the Gupta period, women enjoyed freedom and held administrative posts. They also acted as teachers and participated in debates and pubic discussions. However, such privileges were limited to socially well-placed families. It is also true that the norms of conduct were stricter in case of higher caste women and male domination increased in proportion to their caste status. Generally speaking, the Vedas placed comparatively greater duties and responsibilities upon men and exhorted women to help their men in performing such duties. Any respect that women enjoyed in society were as daughters, mothers and wives. It meant that once their husbands passed away, women lost their status in family and suffered from many disabilities.
Division of duties
This is evident from the division of duties prescribed by the scriptures between a man and a woman. A husband has wider obligatory duties than his wife. In fact, the Vedic ceremonies and sacrifices revolve around men. They are performed by men for men. If women are involved, it is usually for conception or procreation where again the emphasis is upon male children.
Women cannot officiate in any Vedic ceremony. They may perform domestic rituals such as puja or perform austerities, but the host of a sacrifice is always a male member.
Respect for women
On the brighter side, Hindus worship many female deities, as aspects of Mother Goddess and consorts of male gods.
The law books prohibit men from harassing or neglecting women in thief households. It is man's obligatory duty to protect his wife and take care of her until the end.
He is not expected to abandon her, since she is a gift from gods under a pledge, except where there was sufficient justification such as mental illness, inability to bear children and adultery.
Similarly, he has an obligation to take care of his aged mother or his dependent daughter.
Women are considered aspects of Nature or embodiment of Universal Mother, Shakti, in her aspect as pure energy (shaktiswarupini). She is extolled as mata, the Mother Goddess, or devi the auspicious one.
Limited freedom in a dependent status
On the other hand, as per tradition, a woman has limited freedom. She is a dependent entity, in a household dominated by male members.
As a young child, she lives under the protection of her father or guardians.
As a wife she lives under the protection of her husband and acts as his partner, advisor and helper.
As a mother she nurtures her children and shapes their destiny.
Women like Sita, Satyavati, Draupadi, Ganga, Kunti, Shakuntala, Menaka, Amba, Anasuya, Damayanti, played an important role in exemplifying the ideal conduct of women in private and in public.
They also exemplify the hardships faced by women in ancient times. Even, Sita, an incarnation of goddess Lakshmi, the queen of Rama, had to bear the brunt of gender discrimination and public ire.
Tradition recommends four prominent roles for a married Hindu woman: that of a servant (dasi), that of an advisor or counselor (mantri), that of a mother (mata) and that of a lover (rambha).
The plight of widows
In some communities in the past, upon the death of their husbands women performed sati and self-immolated themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. This practice is currently banned.
Others, who lost their husbands, lived in seclusion or under the care of their sons or close relations. In either case, the life of a widow was a life of severe hardship.
The hardships and suffering increased proportionately in case of younger widows. Premature death of a man was attributed to his wife. If a man died early, his close relations pointed their fingers at his wife for bringing misfortune upon the family.
Historically, the status of women in India was ambiguous. In theory, she had many privileges and enjoyed an exalted status as an aspect of goddess.
But in practice, most women led miserable lives as servants to their husbands. In the past, until the independence, Hindu men had the freedom to marry more than one wife or keep mistresses.
Prominent members of society such as landlords, merchants, ministers, high ranking officials, scribes and poets visited prostitutes and felt no qualms about it.
At the same time, household women were kept in confinement as per the injunctions of the law books, which stipulated that a woman should not meet any men outside her family without a family member present.
Bias in Hindu law books
The law books are unabashedly male-centric. They do suggest that women should not be harassed and the homes in which women suffered would be without peace and happiness.
In the same vein, they prescribe many restrictive conditions for women and curtail their freedom.
A modern Hindu woman would feel enraged, rightly so, if she goes through the contents of the Manusmriti, which is particularly discriminatory and harsh against women.
It is true that the law books were not followed by many castes and their enforcement was limited by the authority and influence the kings and local rulers enjoyed.
In general, Hindu women from the lower castes enjoyed much greater freedom than the women in the households of higher castes.
Many girls were married off at an early age to relatively older men and the life of such women when they reached puberty was full of hardship.
The situation is gradually changing. It is difficult to draw generalizations about the status of present day Hindu women because the society is complex.
In general, life in cities is much different from life in the rural areas. Those who live abroad live in different conditions than those who live in the country.
Yet, we have ample indications that women are still subject to many restrictions and disabilities in rural areas as well as urban areas.
The financial independence of women and the education levels of the family play an important role in this regard.
Women in urban areas face numerous challenges in their professions and personal lives. But overall, life is better for them compared to the past.
Love marriages outside caste or community are scorned and sometimes the couple are killed or excommunicated by the elders in the family or villages. Widows can now have a life of their own and even remarry. They draw a lot of sympathy. But discrimination continues since they are not treated in the same manner as married women during rituals and family functions.
The marriage customs have also undergone change. There are now age restrictions on marriage. Women enjoy a great say in their marriage matters. The law gives them clear assurances as to their rights and freedom.
Problems faced by present day Hindu women
However, Hindu women have a long way to go to enjoy an equal status with men. They have to cope with many social and economic pressures and resolve many problems that afflict their lives today such as the following.
1. Dowry problem, which is acute in certain castes and communities
2. Parental interference in marriage and career matters
3. Domestic violence and abuse
4. Violence against women which often goes unreported
5. Bride burning and dowry deaths
6. Gender based abortions
7. Gender inequality in the treatment of children
8. Dwindling sex ratio. Sex ratio in many parts of India has fallen considerably in the last few decades due to gender discrimination. According to a recent UN sponsored report (2013), it may take not less than 50 years for a state like Haryana to return to the natural state of sex ratio.
9. Women trafficking. According to the same UN sponsored report (2013) female feticide worsened the sex ratio in Haryana to such an extent that it has led to the trafficking of women from various parts of India to that state where they are turned into domestic workers or forcibly married against their will. Girls who are forced into such marriages against their will are called "Paro."
10. Sale of women. Every year, hundreds of women and young girls are either bartered or sold into sex trade or modern form of slavery
Women in Hindu families have a long way to go before they can consider themselves truly free. Many Hindu men still entertain a traditional mindset and view women with sexist and judgmental attitude. The Indian movies reflect the attitude of an average Indian male towards women in general. Until that undergoes transformation, women may continue struggle under the weight of traditions, oppression of men, social and economic discrimination and the compulsions of modern life.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Problems and Status of Women in Hindu Society
- Hindu Marriage Traditions And Wedding Rituals
- Gender Bias in Hinduism
- Hindu Marriages And The Duties Of Husband And Wife In A Traditional Hindu Family
- Symbolism of Puja, the Ritual Worship of God in Hinduism
- Symbolism of Ganga As the Purifier and Liberator
- Goddesses of Hinduism, Their Symbolism and Significance
- Hinduism and Divorce
- Hinduism and Abortions
- Parenting and Children in Hinduism
- Hinduism and Adultery
- Hinduism and Homosexuality
- The Hindu Marriage, Past and Present
- Hindu Marriage Laws For People Who Live Abroad
- Hinduism and Polygamy
- Hinduism and Premarital Relationships
- Hinduism - Sex and Gurus
- Hinduism and Prostitution
- About Suicides in Hinduism
- The Staus of Buddhist Women in Buddha's Time
- Discourses of the Ancient Nuns, Bhikkhuni-Samyutta
- Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of Wealth and Wellbeing
- About Goddess Parvathi or Shakti
- Hinduism - The Role of Shakti in Creation
- Lessons from the Dance of Kali, the Mother Nature
- Manusmriti the Laws of Manu - Introduction