This essay ‘Daughters of Destiny – An Indian Perspective’ is about the legacy of the Indian woman; the one she inherited as well as the one she will leave behind.
From time immemorial, the idea of ‘Indian Woman’, has embodied two very contrasting realities. The idea of ‘Indian Woman’ is very different from the reality of the ‘Women of India’.
Born into a society marred by centuries of patriarchal values, most Indian women live out their lives fighting not just their fate but also the rules and restrictions that their families, communities, and culture impose on them. It is no wonder that a country with India’s demographic dividend and resource richness, has failed to achieve its fullest potential. What else can one expect when less than 25% of the female population participates in the workforce?!
But the story of the Indian Woman is not purely one of unending tragedy. It is a story of resilience. Through her trials and tribulations, she has grown to become a symbol of hope for women around the world. Her circumstances do not define her, rather her spirit does. She takes pride in her roles as daughter, sister, wife, and mother; but she refuses to be restricted by them.
“छोडो मेहँदी खडक संभालो, खुद ही अपना चीर बचा लो
द्यूत बिछाये बैठे शकुनि, मस्तक सब बिक जायेंगे
सुनो द्रोपदी शस्त्र उठालो, अब गोविन्द न आयेंगे|” पुष्यमित्र उपाध्याय
“Forget the henna; pick up the sword, prepare to save your honor yourself
Ready to gamble Shakuni awaits; all self-respect will soon be sold
Listen, Draupadi! take up arms; no Govind comes to your aid now.” Pushyamitra Upadhyay
When we hear the words ‘The Indian Woman’, more often than not two images come to mind.
- One is of the powerful, ambitious Indian woman, an embodiment of Durga – The Nari Shakti
- The other image is that of the oppressed, impoverished Indian woman – The Abala Nari
While both these images are certainly true, they do not reveal the full story. For there is a lot more to this feisty, hardened, tenacious species called the Indian Woman.
To know her, one must know where she comes from, where she stands and where she is going. And to do that, we must first understand Indian society. After all, it is this society that has a monopoly – not just over the game, but also over the rules the game is played by.
When I say Indian society, I am not referring purely to India that “awoke to life and freedom” on the 15th of August 1947. I mean the more ancient nation called the Bharatavarsha, which has been a cradle of civilization for over five millennia.
II. The Vedic Period
Hailed as the era when the original scriptures detailing the rituals and practices of the Sanatana Dharma came into being, the Vedic Period was an interesting phase for the Indian subcontinent. Up until that point, structured religion was not an actual concept. While all over the region people worshipped Nature in various forms, the Rig Veda gave it a more concrete format. It consisted of descriptions of gods, various ceremonies, hymns, sacrifices, etc.
But what made the Rig Veda extremely interesting, was that it consisted of verses written not only by Rishis (male-Sages) but also by Rishikas (female-Sages). This showed two very important things regarding that time. The first, that in those times there existed female scholars, and second that their work had (at least in scripture) the same value and acceptability as that of their male counterparts.
Several female authors find a mention in the Rig-Veda, namely Sulabhā Maitreyī, Gārgī Vāchaknavī, Lopāmudra, Visvavārā, etc. There was also a distinction between the types of scholarship. There were the Brahmavādínis, who stayed unmarried and studied the Vedas and there were the Sadyodvāhās, who studied the Vedas till they got married.
According to Altekar (1938), until the beginning of the Common Era, Upanayana or the ceremonial initiation into Vedic studies was as common among girls as it was among boys. Apart from academic pursuits, there are also references to the participation of women in social, political, and religious life. Women had the freedom to participate in war, gymnastics, archery, horse riding, public activities as well as in the selection of male partners.
Women were also important for the performance of religious ceremonies and were seen as equal partners in all social and economic activities. They had exceptional autonomy and the freedom to fulfill their intellectual pursuits. Their contribution to the foundation of the Indian culture has been invaluable.
Ideally, one would think that such an illustrious phase should be followed by further development. However, this was not to be. During this time, there was the monopolization of faith by upper-caste men. They started imposing restrictions on women’s participation in religious ceremonies and education. The study of the Vedas which was previously open to all became an exclusively male privilege.
This was the period when Valmiki’s Ramayana and Vyasa’s Mahabharata were composed. While both epics are portrayed from a very male-dominated perspective, the contribution of women to the success of those stories cannot be denied. Characters like Sita, who was born an orphan and raised as a princess, show extreme courage in the face of unimaginable trauma. She leaves the comforts of Ayodhya and follows her husband into the forest. Even in the end, when her husband casts her out, she goes on to live in a forest and raise her two sons without any outside support.
In the Mahabharata, Kunti faces extreme suffering as a single mother who has to bring up five sons all alone and watch her eldest (Karna) being slain in battle by his brother (Arjuna). On the other hand, Draupadi was born to a father who desired only a son and was then married off to five brothers against her will. She lost all her children in the battle at Kurukshetra and yet, found it in her heart to forgive their killer, Ashwatthama.
These women, of extraordinary courage and unmatched forbearance, became role-models for all women to come.
The real blow to women’s rights in Bharatavarsha came in the form of the Manu Smriti or Laws of Manu. Almost all the social stigma and religious restrictions that women face even today can be largely traced back to this document, which established the hegemony of upper-caste men in society. Women and the lower castes were seen as mere servants, by these masters in a Brahmanical order.
Women’s contribution dipped sorely during this time since they had absolutely no franchise. Their voices were stifled and they were reduced to nothing more than second-class citizens.
But this condition did not prevail for long. As it is often said, you may delay fate but you can never stop it. And the fate of the Indian Woman and her role in nation-building was far from over.
III. Medieval India
In pre-medieval times, many great men had ruled over this vast land. However, with the establishment of the Sultanate in Delhi, a new chapter began in the history of Indian women. In the year 1236, a young woman by the name of Razia, succeeded her father, Iltutmish of the Mamluk dynasty to the throne of Delhi.
Razia Sultan was known for her impeccable administration and strong will. According to the Futuh-us-Salatin, a 14th-century text, Razia had asked her people to depose her if she failed to live up to their expectations. Although her rule was short-lived and she was dethroned in 1240, her rule went down as the first instance of a Muslim woman becoming a ruler of a dynasty.
A similar story of valour came from the Kakatiya Dynasty in the Deccan. A young woman by the name of Rani Rudramma (1263-89), took over her father’s kingdom and ruled for over 2 decades. She had exceptional military skills and had a reputation for recruiting soldiers into her army from the non-aristocratic sections. She asked for their loyalty in return for rights over land tax revenue. This ensured them a steady income and assured her a loyal force.
Among the Rajputana clans, while there were stories of various brave men, one woman stood out; not for her skills on the battlefield, but for her spirituality. The Rajput princess Mirabai was married to Bhoj Raj Singh Sisodia, the crown prince of Mewar in 1516, against her will. But despite her royal connections, Mirabai found her calling in the realm of spirituality. She was an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna and found her path in his service. She laid the foundation of what became the ‘Bhakti Movement’ in the 16th Century. The importance of such a movement, during a period wracked with war and barbarianism, cannot be overstated.
An honourable mention must now go to a very unique dynasty that evolved in central India, in the region of Bhopal. The princely state of Bhopal was founded by a Pashtun soldier, named Dost Muhammad Khan in 1707. It continued to be ruled by his male heirs who took the title of Nawab of Bhopal when they ascended the throne. But for a glorious period of 107 years from 1819-1926, four successive Begums ruled the state with absolute perfection. Qudsia Begum (1819-37), Sikander Begum (1847-68), Shahjehan Begum (1868-1901) and Sultan Jahan Begum (1901-1926). These Begums were tough women, who fought all enemies within and without their state and ensured the prosperity of erstwhile Bhopal.
Other examples of warrior women like Chand Bibi and Tarabai of the Marathas are all well known. But perhaps the most famous heroine of those times remains a young lady by the name of Lakshmibai (1828-58), who ruled the kingdom of Jhansi. The British had created the Doctrine of Lapse, whereby only male heirs could inherit the kingdom. Since Lakshmibai had an adoptive son, the British declared that he could not inherit Jhansi and they laid siege. However, Lakshmibai took matters into her own hands. Battling the colonizers, the brave lady became the symbol of the Rebellion of 1857, often known as the First War of Independence. She was killed in battle on 18th June 1858.
It would not be incorrect to say that Rani Lakshmibai was the torchbearer for the participation of women in the Indian freedom struggle.
IV. Women in the Indian Freedom Struggle
Post-1857, India became a part of the British Empire. After the Rebellion, laws become stricter and more inhuman. But it also marked the beginning of a new and spirited battle for Independence. And women were at the forefront.
Education post the Vedic period had become a luxury for women of all classes. Sending girls to school was considered almost unforgivable since it was seen as a license to rebel. During the 1850s, the social reformer and educationist Savitribai Phule, with complete support and encouragement of her husband and teacher Jyotirao Phule began to advocate staunchly for the right of girls to go to school. They were already running three girls’ schools in Maharashtra and facing a lot of criticism for their work; however, despite being ostracized, they never gave up their mission.
Savitribai Phule is often considered the first female teacher of India and her birth anniversary on January 3, is celebrated as Balika Divas in Maharashtra.
Another important woman in the field of literature, who gained immense notoriety for her unapologetic writings, was Ismat Chughtai. Born in 1915, Ismat was one of the prominent members of the Progressive Writers Movement. She, accompanied by men such as Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Saadat Hasan Manto, and others wrote against the oppression of the colonizers and demanded that they leave India to the Indians. Ismat Chughtai was also one of the first writers (across genders) to write about subjects that were taboo, such as homosexuality, the female form, and the rights of women in a male-dominated society. She often found herself in Court, defending her work to flabbergasted judges and members of the elite, who could not imagine the ‘blasphemy’ she was talking of. Ismat Chughtai was a woman far ahead of her time.
When Mahatma Gandhi entered the scene of the Indian National Movement, there were two women who played important roles in rallying the women of India to join the agitation. The first was Annie Beasant and the second was Sarojini Naidu. Both were proud members of the Indian National Congress and contributed extensively to the movement through their work. Sarojini Naidu went on to be President of INC. She also published many famous works of poetry that earned her the title of “Nightingale of India”.
During the Quit India Movement all the women under the able leadership of Anne Besant, Sarala Devi Chaudhari, Nehru, AshSarojini Naidu, Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Lata Devi, Aruna Asaf Ali et al stepped out of their homes and onto the battlefield. They fought with their words and their voices; they even went to prison for their cause.
Ultimately their blood, sweat, and tears lead to the remarkable moment when India was finally liberated.
V. The Women of Independent India (1947 – Present)
When India became Independent, from the very first day it was decided that all men and women would be considered equal citizens in the eyes of the law. Women would be free to go anywhere, do whatever they please, live however they wished, and become whatever they chose, as long as they stayed within the ambit of the law.
When the Constitution was to be made, a Constituent Assembly was formed of 389 members. 15 of those were women. While the number may seem paltry by 21st century standards, it was a huge step during that time.
Women like Sarojini Naidu, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Ammu Swaminathan, Dakshayani Velayudhan, Begum Aizaz Rasul, Durgabai Deshmukh, and many more, were at the forefront. They ensured that the voices of their sisters reached the parliament and rung loud and clear in the ears of their male compatriots. Women’s suffrage has been enshrined in Article 326 of the Constitution and Indian women have voted in every election since 1951.
In 1947, Amrit Kaur became the first female Cabinet Minister in the first-ever Indian Cabinet. Her legacy continued strongly with women getting continuous representation in the Parliament. In the year 1966, Indira Gandhi became the first Indian woman to occupy the office of the Prime Minister. Under her leadership, India went on to win the 1971 war. For her swift decision-making and refusal to bow before the opposition, she was referred to as the “Only Man in the Cabinet”.
Some other first’s for Indian Women:
|1886||Anandibai Joshi||Woman Doctor|
|1963||Sucheta Kirpalani||Chief Minister|
|1970||Kamaljit Sandhu||(India) Gold Medallist Asian Games|
|1972||Kiran Bedi||IPS Officer|
|1978||Sheila Sri Prakash||Entrepreneur – Architecture|
|1979||Mother Teresa||(India) Nobel Laureate|
|1989||M. Fathima Beevi||Judge of Supreme Court of India|
|2007||Pratibha Patil||President of India|
|2014||Sushma Swaraj||Minister of External Affairs|
|2019||Nirmala Sitharaman||Minister of Finance|
|2018||Archana Ramasundaram||DGP Paramilitary Force|
In the 1950s, the percentage of Indian women attending Universities was somewhere around 10% and of those, less than 5% were studying science and engineering. Women were not encouraged to opt for professions such as engineering which was seen as the domain of men.
However, in less than 5 decades, that reality was turned on its head. In the year 2000, the enrolment of women in universities stood at about 40% and in 2018-19, 43% of women in Universities were studying STEM subjects.
The truth of these numbers can be easily understood when we look at the number of women today in Indian Space Research and Missile Programs. The entire Chandrayaan Mission was spearheaded by Muthayya Vanitha and Ritu Karidhal of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), had Tessy Thomas, helming the Agni-IV missile system program. Even the current DG of DRDO is a woman, J. Manjula.
There have also been several women of Indian origin who have achieved remarkable things in the world scenario. Indira Nooyi was the first Indian woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. Gita Gopinathan who was made the Chief Economist of the IMF is also of Indian origin. Similarly, in international space research, we have women like Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams.
All these laurels may seem like the Indian woman has freed herself from the shackles that patriarchy had her in. However, the truth is far from this. The women mentioned above, represent the 5% that make it. They are the ones who, not only got opportunities but also an environment that helped them succeed.
For 95% of Indian women, the reality is not as happy.
The National Crime Reports Bureau in their 2019 report, said that Crimes against women had gone up by almost 7.3%. A total of 4,05,861 cases were registered, with a majority of them being reported under the IPC section 498-A, for domestic violence by husband and/or relatives.
The Covid-19 Pandemic and ensuing lockdown only made things worse, with The National Commission of Women (NCW) receiving 13,410 complaints of crimes against women between March – September 2020. About 4,350 of these were domestic violence. Almost 1/3rd of these complaints were filed in the initial months of lockdown from March-May 2020.
The wheel that started with the illustrious Vedic period is slowly coming full circle, as the participation of women in all spheres of society increases.
With every new day, Indian women fulfil their own dreams and aspirations, while contributing immensely to Nation Building. As teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, actors, writers, homemakers, and in every other conceivable role, the daughters of India are striding into the future with their heads held high.
To this end, I believe that what began with poetry must be concluded with poetry.
“क़द्र अब तक तिरी तारीख़ ने जानी ही नहीं
तुझ में शोले भी हैं बस अश्कफ़िशानी ही नहीं
तू हक़ीक़त भी है दिलचस्प कहानी ही नहीं
तेरी हस्ती भी है इक चीज़ जवानी ही नहीं
अपनी तारीख़ का उनवान बदलना है तुझे
उठ मेरी जान! मेरे साथ ही चलना है तुझे” कैफ़ी आज़मी
“History has not understood your worth thus far,
Not only tears, but there are also burning embers within you.
Not just entertaining stories, there is a reality to you
Not just your youth, your existence has value too.
You have to change the title of your history.
Rise my Darling! For you have to walk with me.” Kaifi Azmi
– Vaidehi Vihari
The author, Vaidehi Vihari, secured 4th Rank in the 5th National Essay Writing Competition on Nation and Nationalism 2021.
Bibliography: All references in order of usage:
- Pal, B. (2019). The saga of women’s status in ancient Indian civilization, Miscellanea Geographica, 23(3), 180-184. Available Here
- Altekar, AS 1938, The position of women in Hindu civilization: From prehistoric times to the present day.Benares Hindu University Press, India.
- Sreenivasa Rao’s Blog – Rig Veda Position of Women Available Here
- Buhler 1964, Mánusmṛiti: The Laws of Manu, Translated in 1886, Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi.
- Position of Women in Medieval India Available Here
- Status of women in British Period Available Here
- Shadow Pandemic Available Here
- Crimes in India Available Here
- Women Scientists in India – Rohini M. Godbole, Indian Institute of Science & Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, Jawaharlal Nehru University