Women of India—Moving Into the 21st Century
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN INDIA
They are tall, they are short. They are slim, they are stout. They are humorous, they are dour. They are immensely rich, they are absolutely poverty-stricken. They are highly educated, they are totally illiterate. Who are they? The women of India. And where are they going? They are moving into the 21st century.
TO MOST people living outside India, the image of an Indian woman is one of grace, beauty, mystery, and charm. Many men turn to India to look for wives, partly because of the view that Indian women are more inclined to be submissive, to please their husbands, and to be good homemakers than their more independent sisters in the West. However, it is misleading to speak of a typical Indian woman in this vast melting pot of varied ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds. All types of women live in this fascinating land.
The history of India is one of many cultures merged either peacefully or by force. There is speculation about where the early settlers, the Dravidians, came from. Their origin seems to be through a mixture of Australian and southern Mediterranean peoples, with particular connections to Crete. As the Aryans and Persians moved into India from the northwest and the Mongols from the northeast, the Dravidians withdrew to the south. So we find, generally, that the women of south India are of a smaller build and are darker skinned than the women of the north, who tend to be taller and fairer skinned but still have dark hair and eyes. People in the northeast often have Oriental features.
Religion has played a major role in establishing the status of women in India. Because modern India is a secular state, every effort is being made to change traditional views that have kept women from progressing. Great steps are being taken to increase educational opportunities, not for just wealthy or influential women but for all. Literacy classes, job-oriented training in villages, and free schooling for girls are changing the face of Indian womanhood.
On June 22, 1994, in the state of Maharashtra, a big step forward was taken when a government policy on women was released. Described by India’s vice president, K. R. Narayanan, as “historic” and “revolutionary,” it addressed basic problems of women, such as joint-ownership rights, guardianship, housing benefits, and equal opportunities in employment.
As more women attend colleges and enter the job market, no longer restricted to the home, the question of changes in the moral climate has been raised. Reports appear of drug abuse and declining morals in colleges. The media play a major role in the metamorphosis of some younger Indian women. Comparing Indian motion pictures of 30 years ago with today’s, many find that the portrayal of women has vastly changed. One Indian woman commented: “The former demure, gentle, self-sacrificing heroine of movies when I was in school has given way to the modern girl who, when unhappy, walks out on her husband and in-laws and fights for her rights and her independence.”
But India is still, on the whole, restrained in conduct and dress compared with many countries. The most commonly worn dress, the beautiful sari, modestly covers most of the body. With younger women, especially in the north, the shalwar-kameez, a loose dress worn over pajama-type slacks, is popular. Western fashions, seen mainly in Bombay, Goa, and Calcutta, are usually of a modest style and length.
New Openings in Employment
What sort of employment is open to Indian women as they move toward the 21st century? A large proportion of India’s population live in villages, and their work is agricultural. Millions work in the fields. Women work alongside the men doing all types of farm work. They also carry water long distances from rivers and wells and laboriously collect wood for fuel. During work, babies are perched on the hip or laid in hammocks strung from trees.
Since the turn of the 20th century, rural Indian families have flooded into urban areas seeking employment. Women have worked in textile mills and factories. Modernization of industry, however, affected women workers more than men. Men were trained to operate the machinery, but women were not. This caused much hardship for women. They were reduced to carrying materials on building sites, pulling handcarts loaded with heavy sacks, selling used clothing, or doing other low-paying work.
Social reformers made efforts to improve the lot of women. Movements such as SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) sprang up, their goal being to help the uneducated women workers to take care of their health so that they could work, to be sufficiently literate to escape being trapped in corrupt practices, to improve their working skills, and to learn to save so as to build their own capital and avoid the high interest rates exacted by unscrupulous moneylenders. When asked about using feminism as a social tool, prominent sociologist Zarina Bhatti stated: “In India feminism means to listen to the problems of women, organise them, try to impart technical education to them along with health and nutrition.”
At the same time, views have been changing about the situation of educated women from wealthy families considered higher on the social scale, as well as women from middle-class families. Now women from both backgrounds can be found in all fields of activity, not just teaching or medicine. They have careers as airline pilots, models, air hostesses, and police and are found in top executive posts. For many years India had a woman as prime minister, elected in the world’s largest democracy. Indian women hold commissions in the armed forces and are lawyers and chief justices, and thousands have gone into business as entrepreneurs.
Changes in the Marriage Field
With this trend toward independent employment, how does the modern Indian woman feel about marriage? The 19th and 20th centuries brought great changes for married Indian women. The ancient custom called suttee, in which a widow voluntarily burned herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was abolished under British rule. Child marriage has been banned by legislation so that now a girl under the age of 18 cannot legally marry. Demanding dowry from a girl’s family has also been legally banned, but this evil still exists. Many thousands of young brides have been murdered in one way or another, either because their family failed to provide sufficient dowry or because more money could be obtained from a second marriage.
Gradually, the underlying causes of dowry deaths are being addressed. Traditionally, at marriage an Indian girl went to her husband in his parents’ home and remained there until her death. Under no circumstances would her parents take her back into their home. Lacking a formal education, most women could not leave their husband’s home and work to support themselves. So young women were often tortured and had the threat of death hanging over them, and if their parents could not provide more money or goods to satisfy greedy in-laws, the brides simply waited in mute agony for their eventual fate, usually a staged fatal accident in which a cookstove would explode or a flimsy sari would catch fire.
Now legislation, women’s police units, and women’s courts and support groups offer a married woman a place to turn for help if she feels her life is in danger. With more education available and job opportunities opening up to them, some women choose not to marry or to marry much later in life after making a career for themselves. Thus, dependence on males, often leading to harsh domination, is not as great.
Girl Babies Getting More Attention
Another problem that affects women, and that is changing as the 21st century approaches, is the inordinate desire for male children. Based on ancient religious teachings, along with economic considerations, this concept has often led to infanticide of female babies and mistreatment of girls by giving them less food, education, and health care than that given to boys.
In recent times the use of amniocentesis to determine the sex of the fetus, frequently leading to abortion of females, has become widespread. Although regulated by law, the procedure is still quite a common practice. Earnest efforts are being made to change the view that a male child is to be preferred.
Man-made philosophies have downgraded women in many ways. The treatment of widows is an example. In ancient India, remarriage of widows was acceptable. But from about the sixth century C.E., lawgivers opposed this, and the lot of widows became pitiable. Refused remarriage, often robbed by relatives of the possessions of their dead husbands, treated as a curse on the family, many widows chose immolation on their husband’s funeral pyre rather than a life of abuse and indignity.
From the late 19th century, reformers tried to ease the burden of such women, but deeply embedded emotions die hard. In many communities the lot of the widow, sometimes a very young woman whose aged husband has died, is truly a miserable one. Says Dr. Saharada Jain of the Institute for Development Studies: “The trauma of widowhood mainly stems from the fact that women are so conditioned that their entire psyche is built upon the husband’s identity.” Efforts are being made to help widows move toward the 21st century with dignity.
Rural and Urban Differences
There is a vast difference between urban women and those in the rurals. It is estimated that 25 percent of rural women are literate; in cities a much higher percentage benefit from schools and colleges. To help rural women, social workers arrange literacy classes, health-care training, and employment schemes. Some state governments have reserved 30 percent of the openings in the public sector, cooperative societies, and local self-government for women. Women’s movements seek to alleviate the pain and misery that is the lot of millions in India. To some extent these have had success. So, what can we say about the future of the women of India?
On Into the 21st Century!
Is the role of the Indian woman changing as she moves into the 21st century? Yes, and rapidly at that. But Indian women face a situation similar to that of their sisters all over the world. There is progress, but there are setbacks. There is hope, but there is despair. There are beautiful homes and luxurious life-styles, but there are slums, grinding poverty, and numbing hunger. For millions anything more than bare subsistence is beyond reach. Others appear to possess all the world has to offer. For most the future is uncertain; they have dreams but also reservations.
For some, however, the future is bright with promise, especially for those who have hope in the Paradise earth to come under the reign of Jehovah’s Kingdom by Christ Jesus. (Revelation 21:1, 4, 5) These look forward with total confidence to a 21st century in which women will enjoy life to the full.
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Carrying bricks to a building site
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Drawing water for home use
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In conference with men
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Operating a computer