Discussions of gender within Hinduism are particularly interesting because “Hinduism is marked by a heritage of patriarchal hierarchy” with “a strong matriarchal mythology” (Joshee 73). Although the trinity in Hinduism [Brahma, Visnu and Siva] is male, “their power cannot be enacted without the female aspect” or sakti (Joshee 73-75). Elements of Hinduism, such as sakti, can empower women, however, most uphold patriarchal ideals and gender roles. Feminism defines patriarchal societies as those that “control” women in three elements, “sexuality, reproduction and labour” (Desai 1676). The oppression of women is integral to the operation of this patriarchal society. Although there are some similarities between Hinduism and feminism and feminism in other parts of the world, the patriarchy manifests itself differently everywhere. As a result, there are contextual differences in the gender inequalities and the conversations around these inequalities. For the purposes of this article, feminism will be defined as the movement towards liberation in a patriarchal society through advocating and implementing change with the intent to create social, political and economic gender equality.
In Vedic times, women were able to participate in religious rituals, become educated, and marry at an older age. Their status “systematically deteriorated” so by the time of the epics it is evident that women were not appreciated or equal to men in the same way (Dhruvarajan 44). The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Laws of Manu propagate the ideal of “loyal and obedient wives whose only goal in life is to please their husbands” (Gross 74). Wives and women are seen in this text as needing to be under the control of and dependent on a man, their father in childhood and after that their husband. It is interesting to note that in the alternative oral retellings of the epics, patriarchal norms are disturbed (Sugirtharajah 100).
Entering into the wife role has traditionally been accompanied by a dowry. After marriage, if a woman is not able to produce a son, her husband is permitted to remarry by the Dharma Sastras (Chakravarti 2249). Stridharma is the duty of the wife to her husband. Despite such cultural and social practices, marriage is seen in the Hindu tradition as two halves, the husband and wife, joining as complementaries and “considers husband and wife spiritually one” (Nayar 210).
It has been suggested that “Aryan hegemony” dominated “Dravidian matrilineal traditions” and thus powerful goddesses were incorporated as secondaries to gods in the “Aryan patriarchal religion” (Dhruvarajan 45). This interaction with the Aryans could be one reason for the degeneration of the status of women. It has been also suggested that “the erosion of the position of women” can be associated “with the coming of Islam and the Mughal Empire” (Joshee 73). However, some suggest the status of women would have been better under Muslim law than Hindu law, at the time. A ruler of the Mughal Empire, Akbar, at one point attempted to abolish the practice of sati, making him the first to do so (Joshee 74).
Sati was the old Hindu tradition of the immolation of the widow on her late husband’s funeral pyre. Although the practice of sati may be classified as “murder of the cruellest kind”, some satis died with “courage and exaltation”, depending on the consent or willingness of the women (Nayar 446-447). Devout Orthodox Hindus believed that the practice of sati ensured the woman, her husband and their families would be rid of bad karma and “would be in paradise for 35 million years” (Nayar 256).
The social and cultural elements above illustrate the role of women predating the rise of feminist thought in India. In the 12th century, Mahadeviyakka, a female ascetic of the Virasaivism movement, did not conform to traditional gender roles and chose living naked and without a husband or male companion. She claimed to be “transcending” gender roles, therefore “attained to peace (Olson 498). Mahadeviyakka however is a rare example from India’s past of independent female thought and it is not until the 19th century that feminist thought and movements worked to elevate women’s social status.
19th century feminism was mainly focused on the gender inequalities faced by upper caste women and issues such as child marriage, sati and education. In 1818, Raja Ram Mohan Roy brought sati to the public’s attention. He distributed pamphlets that argued against claims for textual pro-sati evidence and petitioned for legal action on sati, mentioning that women were being “induced by the persuasion of their next heirs” (Sarma 19). Because of these actions, a government order abolished the practice of sati in 1829. In 1848, Mahatma Phule started a school for untouchable girls and a home for the upper caste widows who were socially outcaste because of illicit sexual relations. He claimed that the “‘softer’ forms of gendered domination that the upper caste women faced were no less oppressive than the expropriation of manual and sexual labour experienced by the lower caste women” (Ghosal 795). Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Mahatma Phule were among the first to introduce feminist notions and challenge societal gender norms (Rani 64). With the influence of Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Brahmo Samaj in 1872, Act III prohibited polygamy, permitted widow marriage and promoted higher education for girls (Rani 64).
Anandamayi Ma, a female guru in the early 19th century, provides an interesting example of the ideal wife role in Hinduism. Apparently there were no sexual relations in their marriage, Ma and her husband still loved and cared for each other. Ma was spiritually gifted and therefore was her husband’s guru (Lipski 7). Some unmarried girls could avoid disappointing their family by becoming spiritually devoted to Ma (Hallstrom 204). She still recommended women maintain their traditional role as the ideal wife (Hallstrom 210).
At the end of the 19th century, women leaders became more active in the feminist movement in India. With these leaders came the development of women’s groups and organizations. 1915-1925 saw the formation of Women’s India Association, the National Council of Women of India, Annie Besant’s Home Rule League and the All-India Women’s Conference (Rani 64). Annie Besant supported uplifting the status of women in India, while advocating for women to maintain their traditional Hindu roles. She supported feminism only to the extent that women would remain mainly absent from the public sphere. For example, she opened a school for girls, but only so they could learn to be better wives (Anderson 31). In 1921, women gained the right to vote in the Madras and proceeded to campaign for further political equality (Rani 64).
Mahatma Gandhi brought feminism into the movement for Indian independence [India gained independence in 1947], yet also advocated for women’s ideal role as serving her family. According to Gandhi, Sita from the Ramayana was an ideal wife and devotee (Dhruvarajan 44). Gandhi “worked for the Indian women’s emancipation tirelessly” and saw their political involvement as integral to the rise of women’s status (Baruah 13). He even said that “women is more fitted than men…. to take bolder action in ahimsa” (Sarma 6). He was greatly supportive of women’s freedom in India and within Hinduism because he believed daughters and sons should be treated with “perfect equality” (Sarma 8). He favoured a meritocratic shift, in which persons were valued without regard for gender. These radical notions not only brought about political and social change in the status of women, but also instilled a sense of “strength and power” in the “souls” of Indian women (Sarma 10). It was during this time of social reform that women were more encouraged to join the political sphere.
Post-independence India carried this view forward in legislation and under article 15(1) in the Indian Constitution there cannot be “discrimination by the State on the grounds of…sex” and 15(3) allows “special provisions” for women and children (Kalyani 75). At this point, feminism in India was largely removed from political discourse. It was seen to have been successful in achieving the original mandate. This decline also occurred in the western feminist movement after the suffragette or first wave movement (Kumar 20). It was not until the 1970s that feminism in India experienced a revival and could be because of a growing discontent amongst women regarding their involvement, or lack thereof, in India’s post-independence development. This position generally blames “patriarchal culture” for ”diluting freedom and equality”, therefore even though the constitution guaranteed equal rights after independence, women were not equally represented in the government (Rani 65).
The Committee on the Status of Women in India was established in 1971(Ghosal 799). Their report, Towards Equality, brought forward gender inequality issues into the political sphere (Ghosal 780). This report gives reasons why reserving seats for women would be of benefit to India and provides counter arguments outlining the fallacies in the opposition to this reservation. In the report it states that “[o]nly a system of reservations…will help to broaden the base of women’s representation” (Thakur 237).
In 1979 the “campaign against dowry murders” was the first time that dowry deaths were referred to as murders. Prior to this they were legally referred to as suicides (Kumar 22). In the 1980s, feminists like those involved in the “campaign against dowry murders”, influenced the government to pass and strengthen legislation regarding domestic violence. Additionally, feminists wrote simple manuals intended to help women escape domestic violence (Gangoli 103). Discussions around domestic violence and the uncommon practice of sati were further fueled by”the death of a young woman in Rajasthan in 1987” (Kumar 28). Following this, The Commission of Sati Prevention Act was enacted to prevent the practice and glorification of sati. The act clearly states that the practice of sati is “nowhere enjoined by any of the religions of India as an imperative duty” (http://www.wcd.nic.in/act/2314).
In 1990, the National Commission of Women was established to provide the State with information regarding the adherence to the laws regarding women and the progress made towards gender equality in India. The original constitution was amended in 1992 to mandate a reservation of one third of seats for women in local level elected bodies (Rani 66). Although women have been constitutionally allowed to hold parliamentary positions after independence, women have always held less than 8% of the parliamentary seats in India (Kalyani 8). The laws may change, but these changes do not always change the social, political and economic status of women in India. This is shown in the laws regarding violence against women, especially marital rape. In a 1996 UN report, 74% of judges prioritized women preserving their family, “even if she faces violence” (Kalyani 76). Marital rape is not an offense. The law defines rape as only “penetrative intercourse” and unless there is physical injury to the husband due to the victim’s resistance, the victim “is generally assumed to have consented to it” (Kalyani 75). 65.3% of women reported abuse in this 1996 UN report and the majority of these cases were not public abuse (Kalyani 73). Feminists offered considerations which were presented by a committee for amendments to this law, including expanding the provision on hospital and police rape. Because of these recommendations, child rape and child marriage were made legally separate categories. Child marriage is “reprehensible” and child rape within this marriage is seemingly impossible because “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife is not rape” (Gangoli 86).
The UN report also showed that for every 927 women in India, there are 1000 men. This population gap has only gotten worse in the last 70 years, despite development progress made by India as a whole (Kalyani 8-12). The “50 million missing campaign” works to solve this gap [see websites below Bibliography], these women are not missing persons, but instead have been eliminated from the population due to “female infanticide”, “dowry-related murders” and “maternal mortality rate” (Banerji).
In 2014, feminists at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Technology and Ambedkar University Delhi were asked to illustrate their own experiences with gender inequality in India through signs that were photographed in the campaign “#INeedFeminism”. One participant’s sign reads “I need feminism because I want my parents to know that it’s no sin to be me; to be a girl. That being a man does not give my brother an edge over me” [see websites below bibliography]. Another campaign has expanded on this with signs for why “India needs feminism”. The feminist movement sees a necessity for further improvements to be made regarding issues such as human trafficking, the Harijas or third gender, and sexual harassment or eve teasing.
Feminism continues to evolve to meet new challenges and strive for gender equality in every sector. For example, Reshma Saujani, a Hindu Indian American lawyer and politician started the organization “Girls Who Code” to minimize gender inequalities in the technology sector (Chanen 11). She aims to empower young women by providing an opportunity for them to learn to code.
Women are now able to learn the Vedas, partially because of western scholar influences and therefore increased access to religious information. Although some religious rituals are still restricted to men, women do assist or participate with some, if not most of the rituals, and there are rituals exclusively for women (Wadley 123). There has also been a significant rise in female gurus, who do not conform to traditional women’s roles of wife and mother, as they devote themselves to a life of asceticism (Wadley 123). This path counters the social norms and may not be accepted by the woman’s family.
Women in India are actively involved in addressing gender inequalities and changing the patriarchal society; they may even use traditional elements of Hinduism to do so. For example, a grassroots feminist movement began in 2002 known as “The Mahila Shanti Sena” and uses Ghandian principles of sakti as a “creative, transformative power” (Joshee 77). In this way, they are able to inspire women to have a role in politics by using a “positive and culturally appropriate model” (Joshee 81). They focus on non-violence so “when the United States army went to Iraq”, The Mahila Shanti Sena organized “rallies, formed human chains and created handbills” to bring attention to the harmful effects of war, particularly for “women and children” (Joshee 77). The power of sakti is used to empower women to be active, nonviolent initiators of change in their own communities. Hinduism and feminism continue to interact symbiotically to improve the status of women in patriarchal society, building on the advances outlined above made by feminists in the 19th and 20th century.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Anderson, Nancy Fix (2002) “‘Mother Besant’ and Indian National Politics.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 30(3):27-54. Accessed March 31, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03086530208583148
Banerji, Rita (2009) “Female Genocide in India And The 50 Million Missing Campaign.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and The Pacific 22. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue22/banerji.htm
Baruah, Arunima (2003) Women in India (An Exhaustive Study). New Delhi: Anmol.
Chakravarti, Uma. 1995. “Gender, Caste and Labour: Ideological and Material Structure of Widowhood.” Economic and Political Weekly 30 (36):2248-56. Accessed February 6, 2016 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4403192.
Chandra, K. (2007) Women Marriage in India Past and Present. New Delhi: Cyber Tech Publications.
Devi, D. Syamala (1994) “The Contribution of Women Parliamentarians in India.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 55(4):411–16. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41855712.
Dhruvarajan, Vanaja. (1999) “Hinduism and the Empowerment of Women.” In Gender and Society in India Volume One. edited by R. Indira and Deepak Kumar Behera, 33-49. New Delhi: Manak Publications.
Gangoli, Geetanjali (2007) Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies and Violence in India. Burlington: Ashgate.
Ghosal, Sarbani Guha (2005) “MAJOR TRENDS OF FEMINISM IN INDIA.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 66(4):793–812. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://0-www.jstor.org.darius.uleth.ca/stable/41856169
Gordon, Leslie A., Deborah L. Cohen, Jill Schachner Chanen, Martha Neil, and Stephanie Francis Ward. (2012) “Opening Statements.” ABA Journal 98(10):10-13 Accessed March 31, 2016. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/23423722.
Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell (1999) Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma 1896-1982. New York: Oxford University Press.
Joshee, Reva and Karen Sihra. (2013) “Shatki as a Liberatory and Educative Force for Hindu Women.” In Gender, Religion and Education in a Chaotic Postmodern World. edited by Zehavit Gross, Lynn Davies, and Al-Khansaa Diab, 73-83. New York: Springer.
Kumar, Radha. (1989) “Contemporary Indian Feminism.” Feminist Review 33:20–29. Accessed March 27, 2016. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/1395212
Lipski, Alexander (1988) Life and Teaching of Sri Anandamayi Ma. Delhi: Morilal Banarsidass.
Menon-Sen, Kalyani, and A. K. Shiva Kumar (2001) Women In India: How Free? How Equal?. Report commissioned by the Office of the Resident Coordinator in India: United Nations. Accessed February 28 2016. https://web.archive.org/web/20060911183258/http://www.un.org.in/IMAGES/kmsbk_1-22.pdf
Nayar, Pramod K. (2013) Women in Colonial India: Historical Documents and Sources. New York: Routledge. Volume III and V.
Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. P. 498
Pechilis, Karen (2004) The Graceful guru: Hindu female gurus in India and the United States. New York; Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Rani, Celine A. (2002) Emerging Pattern of Rural Women Leadership in India. Delhi: Kalpaz Publications.
Rath, Sharada and Jyotirmati Samantray (1999) “Women’s Movement: A Crave for Gender Equality.” In Women in India A Search For Identity, edited by Sharada Rath and Navaneeta Rath, 233-248. New Delhi: Anmol.
Sarma, Bina sKumari (2006) Role and Status of Indian Women Through the Ages. Kolkata: R. N. Bhattacharya.
Sugirtharajah, Sharada (2002) “Hinduism and Feminism: Some Concerns.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18(2):97-104. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/25002442.
Thakur, Bharti “Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India” In Women in Gandhi’s Mass Movements, 235. Bharti New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications.
Wadley, Susan S. (1977) “Women and Hindu Tradition.” Signs 3(1):113-125. Accessed February 26, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173084
Raja Mohan Roy
Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Independence
Politics in India
Women in Hinduism
Article written by: Kate Korte (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.