In this article we will discuss about the Social Condition of Women in India during Eighteenth Century:- 1. Women in the Society 2. Purdah 3. Infanticide 4. Child Marriage.
Women in the Society:
The condition of the women in the society was far from satisfactory. Although the Muslim laws provided women rights to property and right to divorce, their women folk was not also having a respectable status in the Muslim social set up.
Even before the Muslims were not influenced by the hierarchy of status created by the sanskritization of the Hindu society, Raziya Sultana was opposed for succession to the throne and later on nobody lamented on her being disgraced by the “nobles” only being belonging to the fair-sex. The number of wives kept by these “nobles” and other Muslim officers vindicates the fact that they were considered species of sexual pleasure.
As a consequence of this approach, purdah system and their segregation are self-explanatory to their low social status. Their status in Hindu society was even worst. They had almost no rights to property and marriage laws were very cruel.
The following traditions followed in the society vindicate their vulnerable conditions:
According to the religious taboos, the wives used to burn themselves with their dead husbands. This act was known as “Sati”. This custom was practiced almost throughout the country. In the early years of the British rule this custom was more rampant in Bengal. This number of satis approximated more than three-fourths of the total in British India.
The number of statis was the largest in in Hooghly, Nadia and Burdwan of Calcutta Presidency. It showed an upward trend in the 1880’s in Ghazipur (Uttar Pradesh) and Shahabad (Bihar). It numbered between 27 and 40 in western India. It was, however, not performed in southern Konkan. Sati performances occurred more in Ganjam, Masulipattam and Tanjore in comparison to other parts of the southern peninsula.
It was rare in other places, and it was practiced mainly by the women of high caste such as Brahmins and Rajputs of Rajputana, the Punjab and Kashmir. Though it was, a noble act to the princely women, sati rites were generally performed by the middle and lower class women.
“The position of women in the Hindu system, the plurality of wives in some cases (especially among the Kulin Brahmins) the prospects of enforced austerity after the husband’s demise, social convention, strong local feeling of the rite, the malevolent intentions of Brahmins, the antiquity and adoration of the practice were factors contributing to the continuance of sati.” However, this rite made the womenfolk sub-citizen of the Indian society of the eighteenth century.
Considering them as the species of sexual pleasures, the women were secluded and the purdah had long become an established system both among the Hindus and the Muslims. The general insecurity and lawlessness which prevailed at that time made their seclusion more tight. This seclusion deprived them of any opportunity to educational institutions.
As a result their physical and mental degradation was inevitable. The Hindu women-folk was more pitiable. They were subjected to certain centuries old abominable socio-religious customs such as infanticide, child marriage, polygamy, forced cellibacy of widows etc.
Killing of the female children was not common in all the castes. It was however, a normal feature of the kshtriyas and it was practiced secretly. The British Resident at Benares, Jonathan reported this practice among the Rajkumars of Benares.
Later on this practice was discovered among the Jadejas of Kathiawar and Kutch ; Kuchwah Rajputs ; Chauhan Rajputs, the Pathak Ahirs of Mainpuri and among the wealthier end upper sections of the Punjab. The Bedis of Jullundur were so accustomed to it that anybody among them who kept a daughter was excommunicated.
This practice, perhaps, first came into the Chauhan Rajputs who killed their daughters lest they fell prey to the Muslim invaders. It was also the cause of killing by the Bedis which arose out of a fit of temper of Guru Nanak whose grandson Dharam Chand was the first to adopt it, and later it got a superstitious colour and continued into posterity as a social custom. Another cause was the rise of dowry.
The parents of the female children had to spend large sums. Out of pride, in conjunction with the fear of poverty and fear of disgrace, made the killing of the infants extremely barbaric. At many places the chlid was destroyed immediately after birth by filling the mouth with cowdung or by administering a small pill of opium or by not feeding the female child.
This practice though a crime was abolished in the nineteenth century but there are certain cases which took place even after independence in Haryana, Rajputana, Punjab and Himachal. Pendaramy is the result of this infanticide of female children.
Our epics reveal that the Hindu girls in the ancient times had the freedom to select their husbands themselves. Swayambar was such practice among the ruling families. The false pride developed in the medieval times of martial and social prestige, had deprived the females of freedom to marry with husband of their choice.
Besides, the change in the approach towards womenfolk considering them as species of sexual pleasure also created a problem for their parents, since the climate had not only bestowed beauty to the Indian women but also they reached a marriageable age at an early age.
Robert Orme observed: “Nature seems to have showered beauty on the fairer sex throughout Hindustan, with a more lavish hand than in most other countries. They are all, without exception, fit to be married before thirteen.. .”
The parents were also conscious of unsocial elements which resulted from the mercenaries employed by the war lords for acquiring their own independent estates. The parents found resort in early marriage. This became a common feature by the eighteenth century.
However, the early marriage was more for social security than the sign of backwardness. Buchanan’s observation is rarer the truth: He said: “In this country the marriage is properly only a betrothing, and the wife never enters the husband’s house; and does not cohabit with him until she arrives at the age of maturity, when she is conducted home with great expense and ceremony.”
The gauna practiced still in rural areas of northern regions of India was in his mind while explaining the marriage. The instability of the eighteenth century had, however, created more anxiety among the parents and it accelerated child marriage at a faster rate. In this way, a good half of the society was locked up in the four walls of houses.