The 19th century India was far far away from being the ideal society for a girl child to live in. The state of girls and women at that time was worse than anyone could imagine. The male child was considered superior to her (as it still is the reality for many of Indian families). She had no right to study either. By the time a girl crossed the age of 6 or 7, she was stopped from setting foot outside her home and the preparation for her marriage would have already begun. By the age of 10-11, most of the girls were married and that too with men way too older than them. And soon they were forced to give birth.
The only thing worse than getting married without her will was to become a widow. In the early period of the 19th century, Sati was still prevalent in the society. So a girl had to go through mental and sexual trauma until her husband was alive and after his death, she had to sit on his pyre and get burned to death. Even after the horrific Sati practice was abolished, a widow’s life was not easy. She had to go through living hell.
But the 19th century was also the period which saw the rise of women’s right activism and feminism in India. Much credit to this should be given to the British Raj. It was the time when the middle class developed in India. The middle class, which had received colonial education, was highly influenced by the lifestyle of the colonial rulers. They tried to imitate them and they realized that the condition of women is big hurdle in this attempt, and thus they started educating women.
The nationalists saw this as the influence of western culture and thought of it to be threat to the indigenous culture. But the women reformists argued against this saying that educated women will have more say in the family and thus they can stop young Indian men from being influenced from Western culture and they will the custodians of Indian culture.
Here I would like to mention some great reformers who influenced the lives of girls and women of India and made them a lot better.
Raja Rammohun Roy: He is the most popular and most influential reformer of Indian society. He brought many social, religious and educational reforms. He founded Brahmo Samaj to fight against polygamy, girl education and sati. It was his efforts which lead to the Abolition of Sati regulation in 1829.
Jyotiba Phule and Savitri bai Phule: The couple was the pioneer of women’s education. Savitri Bai Phule opened the first school for women. Jyotiba Phule saw oppression of women as tool to maintain Brahminic dominance over Indian society. He was among the first to start widow remarriage.
Behramji Malbari: He was a writer and editor and was the first one to raise the issue of bad state of women in Indian Press. His efforts was behind the Age of Consent Act which raised the age of consent of all girls, married or unmarried, for sexual intercourse from 10 years to 12 years.
The 19th century India was patriarchal and misogynistic in its ugliest and extremest form but it was also a period when the struggle for women’s rights started in India.
Note: I had published this article on my blog.