Introduction to South Asia

South Asia is an area of the world containing remarkable ethnic, linguistic, religious, geographical, and political diversity. This cultural variety makes South Asia a fascinating topic of study but it also means that the generalizations intrinsic to a synthesis of its history are more challengeable than those made about many other areas of the world. Textbooks try to make South Asian history comprehensible by dividing India into North-Aryan-Indo-European and South-Dravidian cultural areas and into Hindu and Muslim India. Over the past two millennia Aryan customs have gradually moved across the Deccan plateau into south India, but their influence remains uneven. Furthermore, these broad categories represent only the most obvious differences and ignore many cultural patterns that frequently were and are more meaningful in the lives of individual South Asian men and women. Thus northwestern India has close cultural ties to Western Asia, whereas northeastern India reflects social arrangements found in Southeast Asia, even though both northwestern and northeastern India are encompassed in the Indo-European language sphere and have populations in which Muslims are a majority. Finally, none of these geographical and cultural categories indicate the intricate mosaic of tribal societies that tare concentrated primarily in northeastern and central India but exist throughout the South Asian subcontinent from the Himalayas to the Malabar coast. These tribal societies have resisted integration into either the Aryan or Dravidian social frameworks until the twentieth century. Consequently, many scholars debate the validity of using the term Indian to describe such a multiplicity of cultures and regions.

Nowhere is the problem of making generalizations more hazardous than in a survey of the history of women. The initial western stereotype of Indian women tended to focus on exotic practices of physical seclusion or purdah and the ritual suicide of widows or sati. Indian nationalists reacted with theories of a golden age for Indian women before the arrival of either Muslim or British imperialists. Recent scholarship on women in South Asia has analyzed the manner in which class, religion, and colonial political and economic structures have influenced the condition of women. There has also been an effort to understand how South Asian women themselves view their options and positions. Yet most of the scholarship on women that has recorded complex variations in the lives of South Asian women has yet to influence the general writing of South Asian history. There have been no major shifts in periodization or in categories of historiography. One example of the inertia in historical discourse is the new school of "subaltern" historians who focus on the autonomous politics of the people as opposed to the elites studied by colonialist and neo-colonialist historians. The "subalterns" have published five volumes of essays, but they include only one contribution on Indian women (Spivak 1987). The following survey attempts to indicate the diverse situations of women in South Asia. But it makes regrettable compromises because of space and because of the bias of current scholarship that deals primarily with north India and the social frameworks associated with Hinduism and Islam.

II. Indus Valley Civilization, 2300-1700 B.C.

The archeological remains of the Indus Valley civilization were first unearthed during the 1920s and are still being excavated. This incomplete record and the difficulty of deciphering the Indus script, which is available only in short texts, has limited the information that we have on women or on many aspects of social and intellectual life during this period. From the material remains that have been dated from 2300 to 1700 B.C., archaeologists have argued for the prevalence of fertility goddesses from figurines with full breasts and hips-an ideal of female beauty and movement that influenced the Indian classical dance tradition. In modern times the tradition is preserved in the bharatnatayam school with its emphasis on delicate movements and the use of mime-and a delight in jewelry as personal adornment that continues into the present era.

II. Aryans and the Vedic Age, 1700-500 B.C.

The arrival of the Aryans during the centuries after 1700 B.C. represented the displacement of an agriculturally-based, literate society by one whose economy was based on cattle herding. In western historiography the most distinctive institutions of the Aryans were their social organization and the Vedas, their religious hymns. The importance of the Vedas as the religious expression and historical record of the Aryans is indicated by the frequent designation of this era as the Vedic period. Aryan society had three main divisions of priests, warriors, and commoners and provided the basic outline for what westerners, first the Portuguese and then the British, came to describe as the caste system. As it evolved over a millennium, the Aryan social framework included four broad categories known as varna, which means color. The brahmans, who were priests and teachers, came to be acknowledged as having the primary position. The kshatriya, who were warriors and administrators, cooperated with the brahmans in the organization and administration of political structures and cultural institutions and were acknowledged to be equal to brahmans or second only to them. The vaishya, the merchants, artisans, and eventually cultivators, were third. These three divisions, which the Portuguese labeled casta (breed), traced their origin to Aryan society and claimed status as the twice-born or clean castes. As such they enjoyed a physical birth and a later ritual birth when they donned the sacred thread that signified their entrance into adulthood and religious learning. The fourth varna, labeled sudras, were the servants of the three higher varna and probably the indigenous people conquered by the Aryans. Below the four varnas were the "untouchable" category who were relegated to occupations considered physically demeaning and spiritually polluting, which generally meant anything dealing with human emissions and death. This division had its own hierarchy that ranged from landless agricultural laborers at the top to midwives at the bottom, who handled directly the polluting afterbirth substances. Each varna was divided into caste groups that claimed descent from a mythic founder, and each caste group was further subdivided into jati that formed the endogamous unit within which one married. Within a jati men and women were born into a gotra or specific endogamous lineage. These categories were not immutable and frequently reflected geographical and ethnic variations. Mobility within the structure also occurred through ritual, political, and economic interactions among jatis or other groups.

Indian historians commonly view the Vedic period, which extended from about 1600 to 800 B.C., as the heart of the golden age of Indian culture. It was one of territorial expansion as the semi-nomadic, cattle herding Aryans moved from northwestern India into the fertile Gangetic plain and then gradually southward into jungly recesses of central India. The Aryans also began to cultivate cereal grains and to use wooden and later iron plows to work the soil. There were economic surpluses to support a priestly class who produced four major collections of religious hymns that they then transmitted orally for centuries. But what was the condition of women during the Vedic period?

Most historians of ancient India, both Indian and western, conclude that the position of women in Vedic India was "fairly satisfactory" (Altekar 1978: 338), but they tend to treat the condition of women in a topical manner that does not pay much attention to continuity and change through chronological periods. The major sources for their information are textual, for example the four collections of Vedas. Because of their oral transmission, these religious texts lack chronological precision. Two more recent historians of religion have opposing conclusions. Wendy O'Flaherty has characterized the Rg Veda, the earliest collection of Aryan religious hymns dating from about 1000 to 800 B.C., as "a book by men about male concerns in a world dominated by men [and] one of these concerns is women..." O'Flaherty divides the hymns about women into conversation hymns and marriage hymns. Both types are concerned with sexual rejection of the female by the male, but the marriage hymns end happily whereas the conversation ones frequently do not (O'Flaherty 1980: 245-246). Julia Leslie thinks that some Vedas were composed by women who performed sacrifices to the Aryan gods and probably wore the sacred thread that signified their knowledge of the Vedas and participation in sacrifice, the key religious act of the Aryans. She argues that three of the most notable hymns composed by women are Ghosa (Rg Veda [RV] X, 39 & 40), Apala (RV VIII, 80), and Visvavara (RV V, 28). Apala sacrificed to Indra, the god of storms and monsoons, telling him "Drink thou this Soma [a still undefined ritual liquid which may be translated literally as moon juice] pressed with teeth, accompanied with grain and curds, with cake of meal and song of praise." Visvavara offered sacrifice to Agni, the fire god and a major rival of Indra, pouring oil on the fire and chanting, "Thy glory, Agni, I Adore, Kindled, exalted in thy strength" (Leslie 1983: 91-92). Thus the evidence is mixed on whether or not the Vedic age was a golden age for women. In other parts of the world the shift to a sedentary, agricultural economy appears to have reduced the physical mobility, the public parts of the world the shift to a sedentary, agricultural economy appears to have reduced the physical mobility, the public economic activity, and the personal rights of women, and there is evidence that by the end of the Vedic period such changes were occurring in the lives of Aryan women.

The later Vedic period witnessed a series of religious challenges to the Vedic emphasis on sacrifice and the growing dominance of brahmans. These revolts paralleled key economic changes in Aryan society. After a gradual shift to agriculture and territorial expansion by 700 B.C., Aryans, who increasingly intermarried with indigenous peoples, had the surplus wealth to support cities and new forms of political organization. Religious activity shifted from the worship of many gods to the contemplation of one underlying principle or truth and an emphasis on personal self-control. The Upanishads, which were collections of treatises composed by professional philosophers about 700-500 B.C., explored metaphysical issues and introduced the concepts of karma (that actions have consequences) and transmigration (that essences or souls move through many existences). By the sixth century B.C., Buddhism and Jainism provided heterodox means of achieving release from the cycle of transmigration through many existences). By the sixth century B.C., Buddhism and Jainism provided heterodox means of achieving release from the cycle of transmigration through individuals following the correct life.

All of these traditions allowed for religious participation by women. In the first Upanishad (the Brhadaranyaka), Gargi Vacaknavi, a woman who represents the tradition of Vedic scholarship among women, debated publicly at the court of King Janaka around 600 B.C. Her bold questioning of the concept of negative regression pushed a male counterpart to enunciate the basic doctrine that the ultimate principle or supreme Brahman may be defined only by negatives (Findly 1985). In Jainism women were unconditionally allowed to pursue the monastic life that was considered the preferred life style.

The Buddha sanctioned the establishment of Buddhist nunneries although reputedly with reluctance and after imposing eight special rules that subordinated nuns of any age to male monks. Reinforcing this unequal status, the Buddha reportedly said that his doctrine would last only half as long in India since he permitted the ordination of women. Still, Buddhist nuns were known as teachers of Buddha's dharma to other women and are given credit for composing a text known as the Therigatha or The Psalms of the Sisters (Hoerner 1930). But Buddhist laywomen were perhaps more honored. Both queens (such as the unnamed aunt of Virpurisadata, an Ikshvaku king in the Andhra region of south India during the early third century A. D.) and courtesans (such as Ambapali) were celebrated for the construction of stupas that housed Buddhist relics, temples, and monasteries. Nancy Falk has attributed this seeming Buddhist preference for laywomen over nuns to the Buddhist effort to reconcile itself with the indigenous Hindu dharma that emphasized woman's role as a childbearer. Thus a laywoman fulfilled her basic dharma as a mother and still benefited the Buddhist community through her patronage (Falk 1980: 220-222).

During the last centuries of the pre-Christian era, the more orthodox Vedic tradition associated with the brahmans began to impose restrictions on women and on lower social groups. The sacrificial tradition had become more complex, and knowledge of the Vedas and their ancillary literature was increasingly limited to male brahmans. Now the four major varnas of Hindu society became more defined, intermarriage across varna boundaries being prohibited, and a hierarchy with the brahmans at the top emerged. By 500 B.C. women were increasingly assigned the same low status as sudras, forbidden to wear the sacred thread, and excluded from the performance of sacrifice either as priests or as partners with their husbands. Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain these growing restrictions on the rights and status of women. Altekar, probably the most influential historian on the subject, links them to the growing prevalence of men taking non-Aryan, that is sudra wives, who had to be excluded from sacrifices because of their impurity. Thus it was a small step to exclude all wives from such religious participation (Altekar 1978: 345-347). Leslie argues that the eroding right of women to religious education and sacrificial participation is related to the effort to restrict such activities to the first three varnas, the redefinition of the masculine noun as specifically excluding women, and to the restricted ability of women to own property that was one qualification to be a performer of sacrifice (Leslie 1983: 97-99). Other commentators claim that from about 500 B.C. the increasing complexity of the sacrificial rituals, which required extended education, reduced the opportunities for women, who were being married at a younger age, and thus had little opportunity for obtaining such knowledge. Uma Chakravarti and Kumkum roy attack Altekar's interpretation focusing on non-Aryan wives as racist and argue for more attention to the "connections between women's status and their participation in productive activities, both as producers and as controllers of production." But they lament that there is not yet any serious scholarship on the question of why women lost their right to control property and production (Chakravarti and Roy 1988: WS-8).


The Mauryan empire was the first major centralized state in India and would remain the most extensive example of such a political achievement until the great Mughal Empire founded in A.D. 1526. For this period there exists a major secular source on the legal rights of women. Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the dynasty, was reputedly assisted by Kautilya, a brahman prime minister, who composed the Arthasastra, a handbook of state craft which is often compared to Machiavelli's The Prince. This compendium documents that women had property rights to the stridhan, which was the gift made to a woman at the time of her marriage by her parents and afterwards augmented by her husband. Stridhan was usually in the form of jewelry, which among many cultural groups was a convenient way of carrying surplus wealth, but could include certain rights to immovable property. There were eight forms of marriage. They ranged from the most prestigious, involving the gift of a virgin daughter (kanyadan) by her father to another male, to marriage by abduction while the woman is incapacitated through sleep or intoxication. Marriage was both a secular and sacred institution. Widows could remarry, although, when they did so, they lost rights to any property inherited from their deceased husbands. There is also evidence that women were active in such public economic activities as wage-labor in state-owned textile factories as well as serving as temple dancers, courtesans, and court attendants. There is little information on lower class women other than some comments on laboring women and the need to give works as spinners to such disadvantaged women as widows and "defective girls."

The Arthasastra may be seen as the practical guide for dealing with women, but ideal prescriptions for women were also being formulated during the extended period from the Mauryan empire to the Gupta empire. These centuries, the classical era of Hindu culture, were marked by the effort of cultural elites to classify and codify all branches of knowledge. From 300 B.C. to around A.D. 300, three great prescriptive sources evolved. The first two are the epics of the Mahabharata, an accumulation of almost a hundred thousand verses, that relates the conflict between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas, for control of the fertile territory north of Delhi, and the shorter Ramayana that has its center piece the ideal king Rama and his ideal wife Sita. The third one is the Laws of Manu, which belongs to the category of dharmasastras, or legal treatises.

The Mahabharata has a cast of hundreds who display a fascinating, human combination of high virtue and mortal weakness. There are several women characters who play key roles in the action that portrays the futility of was and the desirability of peace as turbulent Aryans gradually expand into the Indo-Gangetic plain and fight over land, which became valuable as it was utilized for agriculture as opposed to cattle herding. Draupadi is probably the best known, but she is also the most atypical of the prescriptive literature that was emerging simultaneously. She was beautiful, educated at her father's court, able to make an independent choice of husband at a swayanvara (a convocation of suitors), and the wife of the five Pandava brothers. Since polyandry was not practiced in Aryan society, her marriage reflects the influence of tribal customs from possibly the foothills of the Himalayas that provided a boundary to Aryan expansion. A bold personality, Draupadi is usually held up as a strong woman who remained modest.

Other women characters from the Mahabharata recur in Indian culture, generally refashioned in a more submissive form. In the epic, Shakuntala, the daughter of an ascetic, is an simple young woman who meets a prince hunting near her father's forest retreat. When he proposes marriage by mutual consent, a form that did not require religious rites, she asks that her son to be the heir to his throne. After their marriage, the husband returns to his princely occupation and forgets his promise. Several years later Shakuntala boldly travels to the prince's kingdom and demands that he recognize their son as his heir. In his highly acclaimed play entitled "Shakuntala and the Ring of Remembrance," Kalidasa, the great Sanskrit dramatist of the Gupta period, transformed Shakuntala into a shy, submissive girl who becomes a symbol of love in separation.

Neither Draupadi nor Shakuntala were deemed ideal wives, but Sita of the epic Ramayana came to be idolized in that role. Romila Thapar has pointed out that there were many different versions, including Buddhist and Jaina ones, of the Ramayana story (Thapar 1987). But the versions by Valmiki compiled possibly around 200 B.C. and by Tulsidas (1532-1623) in Hindi came to be viewed as the traditional ones. In these two renditions Sita is extolled for her chastity, obedience, loyalty, and faithfulness to her husband despite a remarkable series of trials and subsequent unjust accusations from her husband's subjects. Following her husband from a royal palace into a difficult forest exile, she remains faithful despite temptation by an evil king and despite undergoing an ordeal by fire, at her husband's request, to prove her sexual purity. Even after emerging unscathed from the flames, Sita is forced into forest exile, this time with her sons. She eventually secures recognition of her sons as the legitimate heirs of Rama, and then returns to Mother Earth where she had been born in a furrow. It is interesting that few have commented on her willfulness in not listening to her husband's initial exhortations to remain with her in-laws, as a modern Indian wife in a village might be expected to do when her husband migrates to an urban area to seek work. Still Sita is celebrated as the ideal wife along with Savitri, the wife who skillfully bargains to rescue her husband from Yama, the god of death. Subsequent myths tend to ignore Savitri's intelligent bargaining and to emphasize instead her offer to exchange her own life for that of her husband, along with her capacity for endurance.

There is also a Tamil epic, Shilappadikaram or "The Lay of Anklet," from about A.D. 450 in which the primary heroine is Kannaki, a devoted wife. She suffers the loss of her husband to beautiful courtesan but still offers to sell a gem-encrusted ankle bracelet to help him repay his depts. When he is beheaded because of an unjust accusation, Kannaki, in her wrath, destroys by fire the city where her husband met his fate. Eventually the goddess Parvati pacifies Kannake, who is reunited with her husband in heaven. The husband suffers because of bad actions in an earlier life, but Kannaki demonstrates the power of chastity and righteousness.

The Tarnished Age of the Guptas, A.D. 320-540

Although its territorial extent was about half of that of the preceding Mauryan empire, the Gupta empire is seen as the classical age of Indian culture because of its literary and artistic accomplishments. It was the great age of Sanskrit poetry and drama, of sculpture, and of cave temple architecture as seen at Ajanta and Ellora. The available sources yield relatively little enlightenment about specific women, whether elite or non-elite. But some information on roles for elite women comes from the Kama Sutra, a manual about the many ways to acquire pleasure, a legitimate goal for Hindu men in the householder, or second stage, of their lives. Women were expected to be educated, to give and to receive sexual pleasure, and to be faithful wives. Courtesans were trained in poetry and music as well as the skills of sexual pleasure and were esteemed members of society. Since visual artists in India remained anonymous until the twentieth century, we presently know nothing about the possible role of women in the creation of the great sculpture and painting of the Gupta period.

Another secular view of women is provided in popular stories such as the collection, Tales of Ancient India, translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen, that portrays faithful wives, decadent Buddhist nuns, and scheming courtesans. Courtesans were the one category of women who were likely to be educated and sometimes were known to have spoken Sanskrit. A prime example of a noble-hearted courtesan was Vasantesena, the heroine of the "The Little Clay Cart," a popular play in Sanskrit ascribed to Sudraka (ca. A.D. 400). Vasantasena is an exception to the stereotype of greedy courtesans in her willingness to sacrifice her jewelry for her lover. She, however, achieves respectability only by becoming his wife. The other major dramatic female heroine of classical Indian literature is Shakuntala, who is now represented as a docile young woman who yearn for her distant lover in Kalidasa's "Shakuntala and the Ring of Remembrance." Barbara Stoler Miller (1984: 36) has emphasized how Kalidasa's play seeks a balance between duty and passion. Only after the king and Shakuntala have learned to control their passions is the king able to recognize Shakuntala as his wife and the mother of his son Bharata, who will rule his empire. Once again a sexually active woman must be contained within the bounds of marriage.

Legal Rights of Women

The legal rights, as well as the ideal images, of women were increasingly circumscribed during the Gupta era. The Laws of Manu, compiled from about A.D. 200 to A.D. 400, came to be the most prominent evidence that this era was not necessarily a golden age for women. Through a combination of legal injunctions and moral prescriptions, women were firmly tied to the patriarchal family much as Confucianism in China enjoined women to observe the three obediences to father, husband, and son. The following extracts from the Laws of Manu reflect the effort of the brahmanical elite to restrict the legal independence of women, to establish the moral subordination of wives to husbands, and to socialize women in self-control.

In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent [Manu V, 148].

Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife [Manu, V, 154].

A virtuous wife who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste, reaches heaven, though she have no son, just like those chaste men [Manu V, 160].

But a woman who from a desire to have offspring violates her duty towards her dead husband, brings on herself disgrace in this world, and loses her place with her husband in heaven [Manu V, 161].

A wife, a son and a slave, these three are declared to have no property: the wealth which they earn is (acquired) for him to whom they belong [Manu VIII, 416].

(When creating them) Manu allotted to women (a love of their) bed, (of their) seat and (of) ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice, and bad conduct [Manu IX, 17].

In the sacred texts which refer to marriage the appointment (of widows) is nowhere mentioned, nor is the remarriage of widows prescribed in the rules concerning marriage [Manu, IX, 65].

A man, aged thirty years, shall marry a maiden of twelve who pleases him, or a man of twenty-four a girl eight years of age; if the performance of his duties would otherwise be impeded, he must marry sooner [Manu IX, 94].

Thus the Laws of Manu severely reduced the property rights of women, recommended a significant difference in ages between husband and wife and the relatively early marriage of women, and banned widow remarriage. Manu's preoccupation with chastity reflected possibly a growing concern for the maintenance of inheritance rights in the male line, a fear of women undermining the increasingly rigid caste divisions, and a growing emphasis on male asceticism as a higher spiritual calling. Although the Laws of Manu represent the effort of brahmans to impose their ideals as the dominant practice in Hindu society, the authority of these injunctions would be modified in practice by the continuity of customary laws, especially in geographically isolated areas where tribal customs prevailed (Chaki-Sirkar 1984). The impact was also limited in areas where the Sanskritic tradition was relatively weak, such as Kerala, where matrilineal descent among the Nayars prevailed until the late nineteenth century.

In India the legal right of women to hold property is further differentiated by the presence of two legal traditions, the Mitskara and the Dayabhaga, which regulate the division of property among Hindus. In the Dyabhaga school, which is unique to Bengal, ownership of property is vested upon the death of the previous holder. This school allows a widow to inherit her husband's share when he dies if there is no male heir. It appears that this effort to provide for the widow might have been one reason why sate (the ritual death of widows) became more prevalent in Bengal than some other areas of India. The Mitskara school that prevails throughout the rest of India awards ownership in property at birth to males and does not grant any property rights to a widow (S.N. Mukherjee 1982: 161-162).

V.B. Prescriptive Roles for Women

V.C. Women in Religion

VI. Spread of Islam into South Asia, 1000-1700

VI.B. Women in Politics

VI.C. Women and Religious Practice

Arrival of Europeans, 1600-1800Women in Colonial South Asia, 1800-1947

VIII.B. Economic and Professional Opportunities for Indian Women

The practice of purdah in India restricted women from active participation in the public sphere but provided the foundation for some professional work among certain categories of Indian women. The two major areas were education and medicine. Originally older Indian men were teachers of Indian girls before the age of puberty. Then missionaries and unmarried western such as Annette Ackroyd Beveridge became the dominant component of the educational effort, but they were expensive. Gradually Indian women, widows, Christian converts, and a few Brahmo women entered the teaching profession as the schools expanded. Some Brahmo women taught because their marriages were relatively late, but salaried work was not considered suitable for either single or married Indian women until much later in the twentieth century. Still, teaching girls was a socially acceptable form of employment for those few women who preferred or were socially constrained to remain single.

The practice of medicine among Indian women, particularly the specialties of obstetrics and gynecology, was dominated by Indian women. Western women were the pioneers, and the activity was closely linked with missionary endeavors. Clara McSwain, an early graduate of the Pennsylvania Medical College for Women, came to India in 1870 and was soon followed by a long series of Americans, of whom the most prominent would be Ida B. Scudder, who founded a major medical complex at Vellore in South India. (Americans came first since women were not admitted to British medical schools until the 1870s). the usual manner for Indian women to consult with Indian male medical personnel was through intermediaries, including the use of a doll to indicate parts of the body that were experiencing pain. Even that contact was rare for most women. Childbirths were the major physical events in a woman's medical history, and there she was attended by a midwife (dai) who was considered an "untouchable" because she had to handle the ritually polluting afterbirth. Some Bengali Brahmo women studied modern means of delivery with an emphasis on sanitation, and assisted relatives and friends. But as western medicine developed in India, obstretics and gynecology became female-dominated in contrast to the west where male gynecologists gradually usurped the position of female midwives. Geraldine Forbes (in a personal communication) has pointed out, however, that Indian female physicians joined the chorus of voices that denigrated that techniques of midwives. While these traditional midwives remained the sole medical resource for the vast majority of Indian women, elite women turned to western medicine delivered to them by Indian women practitioners.

There has been little scholarly attention to the economic activity of women in colonial India, so our knowledge is sketchy. Some elite women were zamindarins, or landholders, in Bengal and had varying degrees of authority in managing their estates. But most elite women who worked for pay were in the professions that catered to other women. Among non-elite women there were a variety of occupations. In major urban centers and army cantonments prostitutes had limited economic independence but at the price of physical abuse and callous government regulation (Ballhatchet 1980). Courtesans, most prominently those in Lucknow, were preservers of an elite culture and entrepreneurs who owned property and paid taxes (Oldenburg 1984: 133-142, 1990; Post 1987). Women were employed in some manufacturing areas, most notably jute, matchmaking, and textiles. One recent study concluded that the declining participation of female textile workers in Bombay after 1929 was caused by rationalization and retrenchment in the industry done to the disadvantage of women rather than of men (R. Kumar 1983). In Bengal the proportion of women in the workforce declined sharply as modernized industries expanded because of the preference for male workers and social constraints on female mobility (N. Banerjee 1989). The vast majority of non-elite women were employed in the agricultural sector (K. Kumar 1989). The most visible women agricultural laborers worked on tea and coffee plantations. But women laborers were generally hidden from statistical surveys. In many areas they processed food, such as cleaning or grinding grain within the zenana, or worked in the fields on an irregular basis. Their male relatives and the colonial officials who produced the categories for the census did not deem such tasks to be part of the economic process. Hence these women were not included in the censuses that formed the basis for later research and policy decisions.

VIII.C Indian Women's Organizations

In the late nineteenth century, Indian women began to form their own associations without any initiative from Indian men. Many of these groups met intermittently, conducted their meetings in Indian languages, and have left few documents. The available records indicate that Indian women were acquiring the organizational skills needed to call meetings, formulate resolutions, debate them, and then forward them to appropriate authorities. The difficulty in sustaining these associations reflects the fact that their organizers still maintained their primary commitment to their roles as mothers and wives. Thus organizational involvement was subject to family responsibilities: preparation for weddings, education of children, and maintenance of the household as their elite husbands were transferred to various locations. There is relatively little research on such organizations beyond the Bengal area, but we know that they also existed in western India and probably elsewhere (Forbes 1982a).

In Bengal, the first women's organizations were linked to the two factions within the Brahmo Samaj and generally emphasized the need for "improvement" rather than emancipation of women. The emphasis was on women becoming more responsible wives and mothers and gradually supporting appropriate charitable activities outside the home (Borthwick 1984: 271-302). Shudha Mazumdar (b. 1899), a member of a prominent Bangali Brahmo family, gives a graphic portrayal of her involvement in women's organizations in rural Bengal. Mazumdar first became involved in 1916 in what Indian women labeled social work and acquired speaking and organizational skills working with women. By 1919 she only reluctantly agreed to come out of purdah by going to a garden party, but she soon went to an annual session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta (S. Mazumdar 1989: 123-156). Mazundar's experiences reveal how the opportunity to accompany her husband to his various postings in rural Bengal enabled her to form a close tie with her husband, to participate in women's organizations, and to emerge from purdah without facing the immediate strictures of older male and female relatives.

Most scholarly accounts of Indian women's organizations tend to begin with the twentieth century and to focus on the All-India Muslim Ladies Conference (AIMLC), the Women's Indian Association (WIA), the National Council of Women in India (NCWI) and the All-India Women's Conference (AIWC). All of these organizations demonstrate the close ties between social reform, education for women, and nationalist politics, but they also reflect the differing orientations of their founders and chronology of their foundation. The All-India Muslim Ladies Conference, founded in 1914, was connected with the inauguration of a new residence hall for the Aligarh Girls School, and early institution for Muslim women. Its principal supporters were an Indian male reformer and his wife, Sheikh and Begum Abdullah, and Sultan Jahan Begum of Bhopal, the only woman ruler among the princes of India. The Conference remained associated with the Aligarh group in Muslim politics. Failing to expand during the 1920s; it became defunct by 1931 (Minault 1978: 88-103). Muslim women would not form a distinctly Muslim organization until 1949 with the creation of the All Pakistan Women's Association (Chipp-Kraushaar 1970).

The Women's Indian Association reflected the growing political involvement of Indian women and the work of sympathetic British feminists. Margaret Cousins (1878-1954), an Irish feminist and a Theosophist, helped to organize a deputation of Indian women in 1917 to petition for an extension of the franchise to Indian women (Ramusack 1981a). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), a poet who was the first woman president of the Indian National Congress in 1925, led the delegation and reflects the multiple interests of Indian women activists. In the same year Cousins and Dorothy Jinarajadasa, an English feminist married to a Ceylonese, Buddhist leader of the Theosophical Society, called the first meetings of the Women's Indian Association. This group was based in Madras, utilized the network of the Theosophical Society, and worked for political ends, such as the franchise, as well as social reforms.

The All-India Women's Conference evolved in response to the call from the governor of Bengal for suggestions on what was an appropriate educational curriculum for Indian women. The indefatigable Margaret Cousins did much of the initial organizing work but closely collaborated with Indian women activists. At their meeting in Poona in 1927 the women realized that education could not be discussed in isolation and so decided to meet annually and to expand their consideration of other social issues. Seeking a broad base of membership, the AIWC specifically decided to remain apolitical. Much of its initial energy was devoted to the establishment of Lady Irwin College of Home Sciences in Delhi. Although many of its resolutions related to the preparation of women for roles in an extended family of public activity, the AIWC also debated controversial social issues. As early as 1932 it called for public clinics to dispense information on contraception (Ramasack 1989). During the extensive negotiations over constitutional reform and the civil disobedience movement in the early 1930s, the AIWC cooperated with other women's organizations to demand a more radical extension of the franchise to women. In 1934 it also began to lobby for a uniform civil code that would guarantee a more radical extension of the franchise to women. In 1934 it also began to lobby for a uniform civil code that would guarantee legal rights to all women regardless of their religious affiliation in such key areas as marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. During the late 1930s many of the AIWC officers became absorbed in the struggle for independence. Consequently, organizational activity dwindled significantly when, by the early 1940s, its officers such as Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (1889-1964) and Vijayalakshmi Pandit (b. 1900), the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, were jailed for political activity. World War II further disrupted its organizational network.

There are varying interpretations of the women's movement in India prior to independence. Vijay Agnew emphasized its close ties to the nationalist movement and argues that women "perceived their participation in politics as being supportive of the activity of their male family members...and did not change the ideals of Hindu womanhood" (1979: 140,144). Women became active as mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters and did not seek power for themselves. Jana Everett outlines two dominant ideologies. One was a women's uplift approach, which emphasized "reform of social practices so as to enable women to play a more important and more constructive role in society." The other was a "women's rights" strategy, most clearly exemplified by the AIWC, which sought "the extension of the civil rights enjoyed by men in the political, economic, and familial spheres to women" (Everett 1981: 82). Geraldine Forbes emphasizes that Indian women pursued a social feminism, which she defines as "an interest in women's rights combined with an acceptance of the traditional definition of womanhood that justified women's public role in terms of biological and psychological uniqueness...Indian women sought to extend their housekeeping role to the world outside the walls [of their homes]" (Forbes 1982b: 238-239). Most scholars acknowledge the significant achievements of these women's organizations, but increasingly, some (Forbes 1979b) have expressed concern over the lack of attention to the situation of lower-class women by middle-class women leaders.

VIII.D. Indian Women and Political Activity

The founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 is frequently seen as inaugurating the nationalist movement in India, although political protest against British rule began far earlier. Because of physical seclusion, Indian women had little contact with the colonial administrative structure except through the experiences of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Depending on the location of the annual meetings of the congress, women began to attend as observers and even delegates. They, however, did not participate in the debates. By 1900 women in Bengal and western India were becoming more vocal. The protest against the partition of Bengal by the British in defiance of the opposition of the Bengalis mobilized many new groups. Women became particularly involved in the swadeshii movement, which promoted the use of indigenous over foreign products. Since they were in control of consumption in the domestic sphere, women could participate in swadeshi activity, purchasing local products, without challenging their traditional roles (Borthwick 1984: 341-356; Forbes 1988).

Mohandas Gandhi is generally credited with greatly expanding the participation of women in nationalist political activities. Many scholars have emphasized the importance of Gandhi's ideology and program that called upon women as mothers, wives, and daughters to join the nationalist struggle. Gandhi directed women to spin yarn, to wear khadi (the cloth woven from such yarn), and to promote temperance. These activities protested against British economic dominance and could be performed within the home, which was viewed as the legitimate sphere for women. Thus, political activity did not necessarily demand a break with custom or the disruption of the household (Agnew 1979; Ahmad 1984; basu 1976; Kishwas 1985). In an insightful essay, Sujata Patel (1988) has recently analyzed how Gandhi's undeniable empowerment of women, occurring within the context of family and marriage, was closely related to his own background as a middle-class, urban Indian. Thus Gandhi's rhetoric, although it provided the justification for masses of women to become involved in the nationalist struggle, did not demolish the separate spheres of Indian women and men.

Ganhi's appeal started to bring women into the public arena during the 1919 noncooperation movement. Basanti Devi (1880-1974) and Urmila Devi (1883-1956), the wife and sister of C. R. Das, the leader of the Congress in Bengal, were among the first women to sell khadi and to be arrested for their efforts. Women intensified their public commitment during the 1930 civil disobedience movement. Gandhi had barred women from participating in the Salt March that opened that 1930 campaign because he did not want to be accused of using Indian women as a shield against British repression. Once he was arrested, however, women openly challenged British authority through protest marches in Bombay as well as through the socially constructive work of picketing toddy and foreign cloth shops, promoting handspinning, and the wearing of the coarse, itch khadi. Gandhi's use of religious rhetoric to describe such activity enabled many women to participate without threatening the patriarchal social structure. Some contemporary scholars, however, have been critical of Gandhi's claim that women were better able than men to practice satyagraha or non-violent resistance because of their greater capacity for self-sacrifice, because it tended to reinforce traditional stereotypes of ideal feminine qualities that subordinated the individual to the group (Mies 1980; Patel 1988).

Some women had accepted a more revolutionary political orientation by the late 1920s. In Bengal particularly, a few young women, in their late teens and early twenties, joined their brothers in terrorist attacks on British officials and British institutions. Because the older revolutionary groups were in disarray, the newer revolutionary organizations acknowledged that women could perform the same activities as men: smuggling messages and weapons, manufacturing bombs, raiding British armories, and assassinating British officials. Bina Das (b. 1911), a student first at Bethune and then Diocesan College, is a well-known example of these women because of her dramatic but unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the governor of Bengal in February 1932. Her contemporaries, Santi Ghose (b. 1916) and Suniti Choudhury (b. 1917), had been successful in their attack on the district magistrate in Comilla in 1931, and Pritalata Waddedar led a group of fifteen men who raided the Chittagong Club, killing one person and injuring twelve others. These women stressed the importance of political freedom, which would bring about social change for all of Indian society including women (Forbes 1981a).

The participation of Indian women in the British Government of India was much more restricted than that of their male counterparts. Yet Indian women received a prompt, positive, although limited, response to their request for the franchise from Indian male-dominated legislative councils and consequently did not feel that antipathy toward male legislators that was associated with western suffragists. During the 1920s a narrow franchise was granted to Indian women, province by province. Madras led the way in 1923, and two Indian women ran for the Madras Legislative Council in 1926. Neither of them won. Muthalakshmi Reddy (1886-1968), a physician, was nominated as the first woman legislator and was selected as deputy speaker of the Madras Council. Although she was interested in a broad range of issues, she was most noted for the espousal of legislation to end the institution of devadasis (M. Reddy 1930). Devadasis were women dedicated in their youth to service of the gods in Hindu temples. Their ritual function was to dance before the temple god. Embodying auspiciousness, they were patronized by Hindu rulers. In some areas devadasis came to be expected to have sexual relations with temple priests and even devotees. More recently, most prominently in western India, the existence of devadasis has become a cover for prostitution. The religious institution of devadasis was most widespread in centers of Hindu orthodoxy, particularly Madras (Tamilnadu), Mysore (Karnataka), and Orissa (Kersenboom-Story 1987; Marglin 1985; M. Reddy 1930, 1964 [?]).

Women achieved the franchise in all provinces by 1930. The Government of India act of 1935 extended the franchise among women but through terms that most Indian women's organizations found unacceptable. For example, in an effort to get around the fact that few married Indian women owned property, the British offered the vote to the wives of certain classes of male property owners and of military personnel. This practice followed the pattern of gradual extension of the franchise to women that had been pursued in Great Britain, but Indian women wanted universal franchise and not partial steps that were based on a woman's relationship to a man (Forbes 1979a). the provincial governments based on this act had two female ministers: Vijayalakshmi Pandit (b.1900) in the United Provinces, and Hansa Mehta (b. 1897) in Bombay. Still the elections of 1936 unfortunately presaged the difficulty that women candidates would have in obtaining the party ticket and then engaging in the bruising campaigning necessary to win an election in post-independent India.

British colonial officials had made what they perceived as the degraded position of women in India into a major ideological argument legitimating British rule in India. They passed legislation that extended certain rights to women, for example enabling Hindu widows to remarry. At the same time the British enshrined the underlying spirit of the brahmanic Laws of Manu in the Gentoo Code of 1772. Gradually the British evolved an extensive legal system that enforced a legal code severely restricting the independence of women and their right to property and control over their children. Because of their ignorance of the complexity of competing legal systems in India, the British actually reduced the flexibility that customary law had provided for many women. Despite the ambivalent record of the colonial overlord on legislation related to women's rights, many Indian nationalists were stung by the British accusations and actively promoted social reforms "to improve" the condition of women but without changing the basic structure of family relationships. Some argues that women in India had had a golden age before the arrival of the Muslims, and reform efforts were attempting to recapture the lost eminence of women. Still others glorified the self-sacrifice, devotion, and obedience of Indian women as superior to western emphases on independence and alleged self-centeredness. Many resented the colonial government's interference in the private sphere. Elite Indian women began to articulate their own social programs during the late nineteenth century. By the twentieth century they were one of many groups politicized by the independence struggle, and they subordinated women's rights issues to the demand for freedom. They hoped that independence would bring full equality with Indian men.

Women in Post-colonial South Asia, 1947 to the Present

IX.A. Women in Independent India

Independence meant a significant improvement in the legal status of Indian women. The 1950 Constitution granted them the right to vote and an equal rights provision that there was to be no discrimination of the basis of sex. But it did not bring a uniform civil code. Jawaharlal Nehru had promised reforms in the personal laws for Hindu women but encountered strong opposition from orthodox Hindu groups. It took him until 1954 and 1955 to secure a series of legislative acts known collectively as the Hindu Marriage Code that most importantly prohibited polygamy and established divorce by mutual consent. Many women activists were disappointed, however, by the decision to allow Muslims to follow their personal law in an effort to reconcile the ten percent Muslim minority that stayed within India after the creation of Pakistan (N. Desai and Krishnaraj 1987: 311-328; Sarkar 1976).

Muslim women in India remained under Qur'anic injunctions, which permitted a man to have four wives as long as all were treated equally. There is much controversy over the security afforded to women in marriage and inheritance by Qur'anic law and the four schools of Muslim law (Carroll 1979, 1982a, 1982b). Some Muslim reformers in India have argued for a uniform civil code. They cite Muslim states in the Middle East that have them and claim such codes afford protection to women who are relatively uneducated and without the support of sympathetic male kin. Orthodox Muslim groups, reaffirming the validity of Qur'anic injunctions, have been strengthened by the growing support for Muslim fundamentalism during the late 1970s and the 1980s. The case of Shah Bano, a Muslim woman who sued for support from her former husband under the Indian Penal Code, has recently brought these issues to public attention. In 1985 she received a positive verdict from a Hindu judge, but his action raised a widespread protest from orthodox Muslim political and religious leaders. After some initial hesitation, Rajiv Gandhi supported a bill, named, ironically, the Muslim Women's (Protection of Rights on Divorce ) Act, which essentially prevents Muslim women from utilizing the Indian Penal Code to redress a marital issue. Divorced Muslim are to rely upon their natal families or the Muslim community for support.

The 1950s and 1960s represented a period in which elite women reaped the rewards of independence in India. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, serving as ambassador to the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, achieved international distinction. Padma Naidu, the daughter of Sarojini Naidu, was appointed the governor of the state of West Bengal. Hansa Mehta achieved prominence as vice-chancellor of M. S. University in Baroda. Sucheta Kripalani even served as chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Women were elected to state legislatures and the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, in numbers which were slightly higher than the female representation of around three-and one-half percent in corresponding bodies in western countries, including the United States. Most notably, Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India in 1966. Although being Nehru's daughter aided her initial selection, she demonstrated her ability to remain in power through several elections until her tragic death in 1984.

Middle-class women, a minority of about 10 percent of Indian women, found new opportunities for employment and public service. The professions of teaching, medicine, and government service absorbed increasing numbers of educated women. Those women who preferred to combine volunteer social service with their family responsibilities were coopted onto the Central Welfare Board, which oversaw social service institutions that received government funding. In an analysis of what these women activists did after 1947 in Madras, Patricia Caplan has pointed out that "women play an active part in class formation, not only as housewives and workers, but also as members of voluntary organizations and dispensers of social welfare" (Caplan 1985: 5). In other words, some Indian women activists had yet to focus on the fundamental social changes needed to improve the condition of the vast majority of Indian women.

Personalized images in elite Indian women can be found in literature, memoirs, and autobiographies, and of non-elite women in ethnographical studies. R.K. Narayan (b. 1907), a south Indian novelist who created the fictional town of Malgudi, has encompassed a broad range of women within his work. In his The Dark Room (1938), Savitri, the heroine, cannot escape from a stifling family situation because of her lack of economic independence and self-confidence. Daisy, the heroine of his last novel, The Painter of Signs (1976), is a government birth-control worker who refuses both ties to natal family and marriage proposals. Anita Desai (b.1937) has focused on the lives of urban women and has etched the divergent paths of two sisters in Clear Light of Day (1980). Memoirs, such as those by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1986), Gayatri Devi of Jaipur (1976), Vijayalakshmi Pandit (1979), and Begum Shaista S. Ikramullah (1969) are important expressions of their authors' autonomy. The Nectar in the Sieve (1954) by Kamale Markandaya is the most readily available novel about peasant women, but perhaps more authentic accounts of the lives of such women are in anthropological studies,, such as Behind Mud Walls (1989), in which William and Charlotte Wiser have studied the same north Indian village over four decades from 1930 to 1970. All of these novels and memoirs were written originally in English. Although there are many Indian women writing in Indian languages, regrettably few of their novels, short stories, and poems have been translated into English or these translations are not easily available in North America. Four notable exceptions are the Longman Anthology of World Literature by Women (Arkin and Shollar 1989) that includes selections by twelve Indian women; a collection of Bengali short stories by Mahasweta Devi that Kalpana Bardhan has translated (1990); Truth Tales, edited by a collective in Delhi (1990); and a massive two-volume anthology by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita of the writings of Indian women from 600 B.C. to the present (1990, 1991).