Imagine a world where the women’s position is acknowledged, they have exclusive rights to choose their partners, their education is considered an important qualification and they are given the freedom to take part in public activities. Though not completely unimaginable, it is not something that we expect to see in the near future, especially in a country like India which is witnessing a declining ratio of women. Did you know that India’s sex ratio has fallen to 896 women per 1,000 males, according to the Sample Registration System Survey 2015-17? However, this was not always the case. There was a time when women were honored and empowered – the ancient times. Ironically, Indian women enjoyed a comparatively higher status during ancient times, surpassing contemporary civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.
In ancient Greece, women were considered to be an inferior species. Intellectuals argued that men had more in common with the Gods, while women were compared to the animal kingdom. They were considered to be weak, in need of a guardian who had control over their lives. Though provided education, its ultimate goal was to prepare her for her role in taking care of the family and not intellectual development. Once married, merely 13-14 years old, their sole role was to look after the house. They were not allowed to go out and in the event they did, they were looked down upon and labeled as prostitutes or slaves.
Similarly, according to Roman law, women were passed from paternal authority onto the husband’s authority. The Roman family was male-dominated, headed by the senior-most male member, and women, considered incapable of managing affairs themselves, were not even allowed to control the property that they owned or had inherited. Not much information is available on Roman women as nobody wrote about them and since they were not taught how to write, they could not tell their own stories.
This is not to say that all women stayed hidden in the shadows. There were a number of powerful goddesses, such as Athena, Persephone, and Artemis who provided advice to Greek heroes. When Rome was a monarchy under Tiberius, it was a woman, Antonia, who had revealed the plot for killing Tiberius and saved him. However, the extreme social restraint on women persisted in the classical antiquity.
In contrast, the Rig Veda provides evidence to support the equality of women in the early Vedic period (1500 BC – 1000 BC) in India. In fact, it proclaimed that women should be given the lead in ruling the society and the nation. Their education like the boys’ went through the Upanayana ritual (rite of passage that marked the acceptance of a student by the teacher) and the Brahmachari discipline (signifying spiritual birth originating from knowledge).
The Rig Veda also rendered the highest social status for women. They exhibited huge potential for contributing to human civilization. The Aryans, who were mostly fighting wars, regarded women as productive members of society. They had the freedom to participate in war, gymnastics, archery, horse riding, decision making and selection of partners. Marriage was not forced onto women, and both men and women were regarded as the joint heads of the household in the Rig Vedic society. Though the overall position of women was lower than that of men, it was still good on the whole.
Vedas, Upanishads and the Epics are filled with scholarly, prosperous and knowledgeable women. Gargi Vachaknavi, an ancient Indian philosopher, challenged the claim of a notable sage on his superiority among the scholars by posing questions about the soul that left the learned man confounded. Maitreyi, another scholar mentioned in the Rig Veda, contributed towards the enhancement of her husband’s personality. If we talk about the Epics, Mahabharata had Draupadi who through her moral strength and determination prevailed over the vengeful men. She stopped Bhima and Krishna from killing Ashwattama (who killed five of Draupadi’s sons) as she didn’t want another woman to suffer the loss of a child.
However, it all changed in the later Vedic period (1000 BC – 600 BC). The Aryans introduced the caste system as a means of controlling the local population when they invaded South Asia. Restrictions imposed by the caste system and the Brahmanical austerities led to the decline in the status of women. Women started being discriminated against on the basis of education and their rights. A man was given the status of God, education was denied to women, sati became prevalent, and the practice of dowry which was earlier only symbolic emerged as a social evil. The later Vedic period also gave rise to female foeticide as it was believed that the birth of a son was ‘a bliss incarnate’, while that of a daughter was the root of the family’s misery.
The situation improved slightly during the period of Buddhism and Jainism (600 BC – 200 BC) as some of the rigidities were relaxed. Buddha preached equality and due to the relatively broad-minded Buddhist philosophy, women regained art of their lost freedom. They could take up an educational career if they desired or progress forward in Buddhist monastic life. Their political and economic didn’t show improvement, and after this, the circumstances worsened.
With the introduction of Brahmanism in the age of Dharmashastra and Manusmriti (200 BC – 200 AD), i.e. code of Manu, the dignity and status of women were reduced to one of mere subservience. Lack of formal education rendered women as an insignificant section within a patriarchal society. Gender inequity crept in and women were denied fundamental human rights. The Manusmriti stated that a woman’s submission to male control was the principal duty of her life.
Thus, though India initially assigned women a dignified role, the tables have since turned. Centuries of foreign invasions impacted the customs regarding women. Historical studies and women’s status in the contemporary world shows that Indian society has not accepted womanhood as being equal since the age of Dharmashastra.