By Anju Anna John:
What do Ramayana, Mahabharata, the medieval age and the post-Independent India have in common? Glaring examples of patriarchy and violence against women!
In an ideal world, we would not have to work on the status of women, independent of that of men. However, in the patriarchal society that we live in today, the status of a woman has generally been lower than her male counterpart, and to a very large extent, the degree of this has varied through the ages.
This makes it even more important for us to understand the historical context of where these values and practices stem from. In my research, I chanced upon the term ‘Historicism’ which essentially deals with the explanation or evaluation by employing the aid of history with the belief that this historical knowledge is significant in human affairs. And that was when Sita came in mind.
Tales of Dharma: Of Ramayana and Mahabharata
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata – which are set in 7000 BC and 5000 BC respectively, are replete with examples of the ‘ideal woman’ like Sita, Draupadi, Ahilya and Mandodari. Sita is the epitome of forgiveness, strength, patience and purity. Some believe that the suffering she endured was because she overstepped the Lakshman-rekha. Taken in today’s context, this would be an ideal reasoning put forward by the patriarchal society in order to make women toe the line. Draupadi on her part was the fiery, strong-willed woman who was rewarded with humiliation when the Kauravas tried to disrobe her. It is not uncommon even in today’s society, that when a woman speaks up against injustice and violence, men humiliate her in order to shut her down. Before the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 it wasn’t uncommon in rape cases for the accused to cite the victim’s previous sexual experience to signify consent. Mandodari – the wife of Ravana – is a character whose fate resonates among many women even today who are forced to respect and honour their husbands despite their transgressions. Ahilya, the wife of Sage Gautama is the embodiment of forbearance; a woman who quietly bears the brunt for the wrongs of others.
Dictating the Scriptures: The Good, Bad and Ugly of the Vedic Age
The Vedic age was known for the verses from Rigveda which promote education of women, and speak of marriage as something only mature women enter into. Moreover, according to Manusmriti, women seem to have been accorded some liberty in choosing their future spouses. Men and women enjoyed equal status. However, the Vedic period brought about the caste system and women in various castes faced their own set of discriminations.
Displaced Notions: Of Purdah and Sati
By the medieval period, the status of women was on the decline. It was during this period that the purdah was introduced into the Indian society. This period was not just about restrictions. There were a number of practices like child marriage, Sati and jauhar that gained prominence. At that point in time, these practices were followed in order to prevent girls and women from being ravished by conquering armies during invasions. Although these practices started off with good intentions, they seem to have overstayed their welcome.
Against the Odds: Women in the Struggle for Independence
Things started to change for the better during the British Rule with many reformers who stepped up and tried to better the lives of women. The independence struggle also brought an influx of women into the limelight. One of the first women to put up a fight against the British was Rani Lakshmibhai. Later, there were many more who joined the struggle for independence; for the first time, women were working alongside men to bring about a change.
Towards Equality and Justice
Following independence, they tell me that women now have equal rights (Article 14) that are protected by the Constitution of the land. The Constitution also protects against discrimination (Article 15) and guarantees equal opportunity (Article 16). However, these fundamentals could only be realised with the aid of specific legislations. Some of the greatest developments in the legislative realm to improve the status of women happened in the 1970s. The Mathura Rape Case brought about an amendment to the Criminal Law that made custodial rape a punishable offence. The Maternity Benefits Act of 1961 helped to actualise the fundamental right of equal opportunity.
Other laws like the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005, the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994 are some of the many that have been brought into force to help improve the status of women in society. However, problems like dowry, domestic violence, gender biased sex selection which prescribe to patriarchal notions, are still there. The child sex ratio, currently stands at 918 girls.
Therefore, maybe the need of the hour is to ensure that there is a proper mechanism to implement these laws and to monitor them, because there is no point in bringing in newer legislations to improve the status of women, if the subjects of these laws are unable to assert their rights. As the world progresses from Sita and Draupadi, to the women who are standing up for their rights today, we need to progress as well, both in terms of our mindsets and practices. For the patriarchal structure to be broken, the society definitely needs a lot more ‘moving forward’, from our side.