Women in India

In media, especially Western, there has been a lot of talk about gender-discrimination in India. Some report claims that India is one of the most dangerous place for women to live due to various reasons. These reasons, both prominent and sundry – although visible in almost every sphere of public life – manifest themselves in most cruel ways as female-foeticide and rape.

What do they mean by ‘dangerous’ is not at all explained. Is it premature death by unnatural causes? Given the life expectancy of Indian females, surely it does not qualify for one of the most dangerous place on the planet. If female foeticide is
one of the main reason, then why does some of the Western countries do not figure in the list where abortion rate is as high as 20% – slightly more than half of them surely will be females. And what about on per capita basis? Female foeticide proves that there is an alarming bias against girl child in India but it does not prove that there is an alarming sense of feudalism for women for bias against unborn child is not the same thing as the bias against a living human.

If by ‘dangerous’, they mean domestic violence then there is an element of truth in the report. There might have been some exaggeration. It is a common habit among journalists to lobby for some cause and they usually believe that its ok to stretch the point somewhat if it serves a good cause. This behaviour become more prominent in reports written by social-activists.

Ideally, a student of society is not suppose to talk, write and think passionately, for passion is only a thin veil for lack of argument. But its hard to remain aloof when you see that something is wrongly written and would be perceived distorted.

I, as a student of society, can say the work of the journalists are not very helpful in analysing a society for journalists do not spend much time reading the past of a society and trajectory of its growth. But the comments they pass look like a comment on a whole culture and nation rather than the cause and effect of an issue in a given timeline. This sure is misleading specially to those who do not have first hand experience of particular culture.

India was perhaps the most hierarchical society (Ref : Homo Hierarchicus by Louis Dumont) in the past and continue to do so in present. The discrimination based on gender and caste is still very much real. Modernity is still a new phenomenon in India and has not touched all corners of it, given the limited reach of communication and literacy among women and men in rural areas. Beside modernity in India is a skewed concept. To many, it means negation of traditions.

The good thing is that there is empowerment of women though its reach and pace is rather limited. Nothing could be more revealing than the fact that in the electrical department of IIT Bombay, one of the most modern segment of the society, we have only two female professors — a ratio much smaller than the ratio of female and male students. It is hard to agree that we did not receive applications from worthy female candidates since at EE – IIT Madras, there are many female professors. What is more distressing that we do not seek out female candidates. If this medieval ratio is present in the community of professors, what would one infer about the normal section?

We do not treat our women like Sweden and Norway but we are not going backwards. After all, 4 chief ministers of India are females. They got support from their male patron in their early political career but they reached to the zenith by themselves. Mayawati and Mamta Banerjee are two extreme cases of female agency in a largely male dominant profession. Given the level hostility against them in media, their achievements rather become more impressive. There are channels, even in the most traditional part of the society, for women to grow. However these channels are only available to those who already have a backing from their families or a patron.

Wars may have been a major factor in degradation of status of women especially in Northern part of India. When war occurs, women becomes the first victim. In India, since a lot of feudal culture lived together, women mobility was restricted – presumably for their safety. We have seen outsiders as conqueror and warriors. It has stopped the economic development and also reduced that trust among people. Also most of the feudal castes and clans, which British used to call martial races, resides in these areas. These martial races, has been low on education and modern-ideas. They have many medieval customs which are still practiced.

The warrior heroes on these lands in those times were mostly Rajputs (when Muslim invaded) and Mughals (when British grew in their influence) and they had the custom to put their women behind the purdah. Though they were known to treat their women with utmost pride and dignity were their mobility was restricted and they were not allowed to be educated. Many other groups took clues from their hero’s and started treating their women in such a ways. My own grandmother is illiterate and my mother could not continue education after 5th grade since her father was not in favour of it. Now the same village boasts 5 female graduates and arts and sciences. True, that their education is not world class but one should be blind to ignore the change in last 50 years.

There still are many who believes that a book called ‘Smriti’ and ‘Shashtras’ written by Manu some 2500 years ago should be considered ‘the laws’. These laws have some of the most derogatory remarks about women and lower castes. The basic idea was pollution. Since most of the lower caste people assigned work which was considered ‘polluted’ such as tanning, farming and cleaning the roads, their touch was avoided by higher caste Indians for not to get polluted. Women were considered polluted during their periods.

A modern day city dwelling Indian would not even able to understand the idea of pollution. But influence of these laws has left strong habits in their consciousness. One of influence of these laws are non-secular categorisation of work. Indians still love to grade works they do. Unlike Japanese, we have only respect of well-born and well to do, and there is no respect for useful work. Since most of the useful work is polluting in one sense or another. This scorn for these kind of work is best visible in our restaurant. Indian never say ‘thank you’ to a waiter or waitress in restaurant.

Going back in time, In one of the oldest epic, Mahabharta, it seems that women has much more freedom than most of the modern societies do provide even in these days. Women Chastity was an elastic concept. A women was free, despite of being married, to seek sex with some notable warrior or a learned man for a child. In same ways, it was dharma (duty) for a warrior to accept a women if she approached him for a son and not for pleasure. Manu was not born only few centuries later than Mahabharta was written. This shows that society sometimes changes rapidly in time-span of few centuries. At the present juncture, India does not look impressive when it come to women life. (Ref: Yuganta, Irawati Karve)

To add to these random facts, one major factor has been the ‘mode of production’. Northern states are wheat producing states while southern states are rice producing states. In cultivation of rice, everything is done by hand and the labour of women become much more important. Thus the role of a women is of a co-worker rather than a dependent. When a woman become shareholder in work, she is respected. If a women is not allowed to or can not make a living, what options she have if treated with violence? She has to suffer quietly. Even among villages and towns where women mobility is restricted, adult girls prefer to work if a chance is provided.

An interesting fact, put forward by D D Kosambi, is that in Travencore area plough was invented or discovered very late and agriculture remained in hands of women. Since tilling with plough would have required cattle power and muscle power, it would have transferred control of land from the women to men. Men were mostly in the business of hunting. Where plough was invented early, men got into agriculture for they were in charge of controlling wild animals. With hunting becoming secondary occupation, there is no wonder that men took the control of land from women in these ‘advance’ society. In Travencore area, such as Kerala, the society is still matriarchal.

Muslim rule in India has also contributed to degradation of women. But it would be wrong to say that they created these patterns of mind. They only strengthen those patterns. Manu was well established before Muslim established themselves here. Most of Indian Muslims were converted and conversion to another religion does not change habits and pattern of mind.

These behaviour of misogamy are not going to go away easily since people who are moving into middle class are from small cities and town where traditional misogamy is much more deeply rooted. One can easily hears mockery and derogatory comments about girls in college campuses. Women in our society grows up to be meek, afraid and insecure. Fortunately, many families sure has moved ahead on roads of female empowerment due to reasons ideological and material. Also, a rising secularism of work, especially in IT and others, have given a segment of women much more monetary power. Time will tell how they are going to use it?

One exception in India is state of Kerala which despite of having very low per capita income has Human development Index comparable to first world country. It has a fertility rate at replacement level, India’s lowest birthrate, lowest infant mortality, highest age of marriage and longest lifespan. Furthermore, Kerala’s literacy rate is over 94%. The major difference between Kerala and rest of the India that here society is matriarchal.

And for these tendency of ranking, comparing societies generally leads to fruitful outcomes. But to compare for the sake of ‘holier than thou’ or for ranking purpose is not only simplistic but also irritating.


[1] See ‘Men and Women’ – Amartya Sen

[2] NyTimes have been more rational about reporting women in India.

[3] From the point of view of Social Anthropology, these honor killing does not imply that women are treated with dignity in these societies. They give much more protection to their women. But they are not that much forgivable should a women cross the limits of their custom. These custom may look ridiculous to outsiders.

[4] The gap in North and South Indian is really revealing. There is very low chance that a woman will be manhandles in bus or train in southern city say Chennai than in northern city like Delhi. In fact, Delhi looks like a culture-less city with its reasons in history. After 1857, this city was destroyed by British (you guys would never escape :-p) to teach a lesson for uprising. The great families of Shahajahanabad was thrown out and merchant, traders and like wise people were forced to move in. Since then, it could not create a identity of its own.

[5] Female foeticide and domestic violence in India is really very high. And it is not restricted to some classes or castes. All of India suffer from it. Its terrible. But these do not restrict women agency all-together.


Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

4 thoughts on “Women in India”

  1. Regarding your observations on the number of female professors in India, I should point out that even in the US, percentage of female faculty members in Science and Engineering is very low. In fact, in my department (Duke University, Computer Science), there are only two female professors. I often feel a bit puzzled about this phenomenon.

  2. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a great revolution in the history of women. The evidence is everywhere; the voice of women is increasingly heard in Parliament, courts and in the streets.In Indian all the women are looking so beautiful and helping nature also and understanding nature each other.

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