My column in today’s DNA
“The intent of matrimony is not for man and wife to be always taken up with each other, but jointly to discharge the duties of civil society, to govern their families with prudence, and educate their children with discretion.” Said an anonymous author in an American Magazine, way back in 1807, exemplifying the almost universally accepted view on marriage. Marriage was for alliances – political and economic, it secured bloodlines, it created economic units, it trained the next generation. All those kinder gentler ‘emotions’ that we talk about today such as love and companionship were not even part of the overall equation. It was also a time when the woman was property, a belonging. She was owned by her parent’s family before marriage and her husband’s family after marriage, decisions made for her by her father, husband, and later, her son or the oldest male relative. Few women in that period were educated, even fewer had control over their lives or destinies. For most, life was to be led in complete and utter obedience to the prevalent system.
Indiawas no exception to the miserable state of women. The powers that be, at that time, possibly thought that there was nothing wrong with the way women were treated, it was after all, for their own good. Women could be carried away by enemies, by their own sexuality, by freedom. They needed to be protected from all of it. And that meant locking her up behind closed doors, all her life . And, if she needed to be killed to be protected, so be it. A woman had no status without a man to protect her. Wives, widows, daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers, sister were all treated badly. Some women rose up to be matriarchs but her role was to impose the rigid rules of patriarchy.
It took men of exceptional vision and courage to change the status of women inIndia. We rattle off names like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chander Vidyasagar, Jyothirao Phule, Haribilas Sarda, Maharishi Karve, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru little understanding the public and social pressure, revilement and censure these men had to face to take up the cause of rights for women.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy fought to ensure that Sati was banned. He went against the Hindu orthodoxy to fight for the rights of women. He agitated for the women to inherit property. He worked towards education for women. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar took this one step forward. He worked tirelessly to ensure the rights of widows, including working to get the Widow Remarriage Act, of 1856, passed. Jyotirao Phule too worked in the area of preventing female infanticide, widow remarriage and girls education. Life was further complicated for Jyothirao Phule because he was from theMalicaste and had to combat caste discrimination and strictures to fight for the right of women. Maharsishi Karve, the founder of SNDT university, not just fought women’s rights, the rights of widows – he married one. Rai Sahab Haribilas Sarda was another champion of women’s rights. He sponsored the bill that outlawed pre pubescent marriages for girls inIndia. The Sarda Act, named in his honour, set the marriageable age of Indian girls – not just Hindu girls – to fourteen. The next major blow against orthodoxy and for the rights of Hindu women was the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. It allowed Hindu women the right to divorce. Championed by Ambedkar and made an election issue by Nehru it was fought tooth and nail by the Hindu Orthodoxy, which lost.
For every leap of women’s rights from the time of Raja Ram Mohan Roy – the bogey of destruction of family has been raised. In each case it has been defeated. An institution that stands on the exploitation of one party, will break sooner or later. Women’s rights will not make families weaker, they will make them stronger.
Today as women stand on the threshold of yet another leap forward to women’s rights with the proposed amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act, including the right for the woman to claim 50% of ‘joint’ property, as well as faster divorces – it is time that we paid a silent tribute to all the men who over the decades who fought for the rights of women. Without them it would have been impossible to get this far. Finally, is tragic that the rights of women, inIndia, are divided by religion and that Muslim women are deprived of the rights that Hindu women are given by law. It is sad they had no champions to fight for their rights and that successive Indian governments sacrificed the rights of Muslim women in order to woo the orthodoxy for electoral gain.