The status of Indian women can be divided into two distinct periods, the British rule, i.e., Pre-Independent India and the Post-Independent India. The British Rule in the 18th century brought in some degree of political orderliness, but the social structure, customs, and practices remained unchanged. It was mainly during the 19th century that the reform movement undertaken by enlightened thinkers and leaders of Indian society like Raja Rammohan Roy who understood the importance of women’s participation that the status of Indian women started changing for the better.
Though initially, all the leaders were men, women gradually came into the scene and played their role not only in changing history but also the society as a whole, through their efforts in different areas of work such as education, politics and freedom movement. Mrs. Annie Besant, Dr. Sarojini Naidu, Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Mrs. Nellie Sengupta, Durgabai Deshmukh and many others gave a change and betterment.
When most of the men freedom fighters were in prison the women came forward and took charge of the struggle. Indian women actively participated in the freedom movement to highlight the importance of the elevation of the status of the Indian women which also had different thrusts. The founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement not only led to the political emancipation but also was a step in the direction for social reconstruction.
Women took equal initiative and participated in all types of the struggle for national freedom, i.e., non-violent movement advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, as well. Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi whose heroism and superb leadership laid an outstanding example of real patriotism. Indian women who joined the national movement belonged to educated and liberal families, as well as those from the rural areas and from all walk of life, all castes, religions, and communities.
Women’s enthusiasm in participating in the armed revolution helped Netaji Subash Chandra Bose to set up the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army. Women’s participation in the freedom movement was very extensive. Smt. Kasturba Gandhi, Madam Bhikaji Cama, Sarla Devi, Muthu Lakshmi Reddy, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kriplani, Durga Bai Deshmukh, Priti Lata Waddedar, Captain Lakshmi and Janaki Davar of INA, Jahanara Shahnawaz, Randhabai Subbarayan, etc., are only a few to have out of the many.
Throughout history and in many societies including India, gender inequality was part and parcel of an accepted male-dominated culture. Atrocities and discrimination are the two major problems, which the women face in contemporary India. The traditional mentality assumes that women are mainly confined to the household activities like “kitchen and kids”. They have been considered as the sex object and inferior to men in different spheres of life. The ‘Sati Pratha’, ‘Pardah System’, ‘Child Marriage’, ‘Dowry System’, etc., have been some forms of atrocities and discriminatory attitudes against women. Even after six decades of Indian Independence, women are still one of the most powerless and marginalized sections of Indian Society.
The principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Indian Constitution in its Preamble, Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles. The Constitution not only grants equality to women but also empowers the state to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favor of women.
Parliament passed various legislations to safeguard Constitutional Rights to women. These legislative measures include, the Hindu Marriage Act (1955), The Hindu Succession Act (1971), Equal Remuneration Act (1976), Child Marriage Restraint Act (1976), Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (1986) and finally Pre-natal Diagnostic Technique (Regulation and Prevention of Measure) Act (1994) etc. Apart from these, various welfare measures have been taken up by the Government from time to time to empower the women.
The Government of India in 1953 established a Central Social Welfare Board with a nation-wide programme for grants-in-aid for women, children and underprivileged group. A separate department of women and child development was set up at the Centre in 1985 to give a district identity and provide a nodal point on matters relating to women’s development. National Commission on Women was created by an Act of Parliament in 1992. Besides these, India has also ratified various International conventions and human rights.
A woman, in general, had various responsibilities like looking after the comforts of her husband, bringing up children, serving elders of the family, showing compassion to the guests and servants, etc. Though woman received education to a limited extent, she had good knowledge of religious rituals, as she sat with her husband in offering worship and attending temples. She had to discharge multiple responsibilities as a wife, daughter-in-law, mother, mother-in-law etc.
There have been a lot of changes over the past few millennia, in modern India women have held high offices including that of the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Leader of the Opposition, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers, and Governors. Women’s rights are secured under the Constitution of India — mainly, equality, dignity, and freedom from discrimination; further, India has various statutes governing the rights of women.
However, women in India continue to face numerous problems, including violent victimization through rape, acid throwing, dowry killings, marital rape, and the forced prostitution of young girls. India has been ranked as the worst G20 country to be a woman.