Throughout history, men and women have played different roles in society. In general, they have performed different types of work and held different responsibilities within the family and society. The law even treats both genders differently, where certain rights are given to men, but not to women, in some part of the world. Moreover, both genders are expected to behave and react in a certain way. For instance, men are expected to be tough and rational, while women to be gentle and emotional. Likewise, India was no different in treating men and women differently. In fact, even today, these differences persist throughout the nation.
However, how was the difference like in ancient India especially during and after the Vedic period, c.1500 BCE to c.500 BCE ?. It is essential to examine how and what made the people in India change the way they treat women. It is also important to know this as the discrimination against women is ongoing and one of the most significant issues now, even in the 21st century.
In order to view and compare the differences in how the women in India has been treated, it can be classified in the following periods: Rig-Vedic period, Post-Vedic period: Buddhist period and Medieval period. This will then give a clearer picture to how women were treated over the different time period.
During the Rig-Vedic period, the Aryans, which translated to "noble" was used as a self-designation by ancient Indo-Iranian people, preferred male offspring than female. Males were often seen as the money magnet as they get money even when they were marrying in terms of dowry. Thus, males were favored than female. However, females were given freedom as much as the male counterparts. They were not chained or governed by rules or principles. Furthermore, there were no Rig-Vedic women who were given more priority than the rest. This is evident from the fact that all Rig-Vedic women attained high status in the society. Women in the early Vedic period were even allowed to further their studies. From these reasons, the women in the Rig-Vedic period were relatively favorable for women. The only limitation was women in Vedic period did not have the same economic rights as the men. Purdah, a religious practice where women were screened from men or strangers by the means of a curtain, was not practiced. Despite the fact that they were given ultimate freedom to choose their own partner, divorce was not allowed. Females treated part of the partner’s family and were given complete freedom in such societies.
In the Post-Vedic era, the Brahmans and Puranas period, things started to change. Women gradually lost their rights. They were not allowed to attain education and were given no freedom to choose their own mate. It was around this period, where pre-puberty marriage started to become more of a norm. This tells us that women were treated more of a burden and treated as a property, as even their parents tried to get rid of them at relatively young age.
In the Buddhist period, which was around c. 6 BC to c. 8 AD, things started to improve for the women. The improvement came about through the advent of the women’s association ,Sangha,which allows women to conduct cultural activities and social services. This, in turn gave rise to more opportunity to be exposed to the public life. However, there were not many changes in the economic status and they remained worse off than men in almost every other aspects of life. Furthermore, not only the educational freedom but also the religious freedom had been deteriorated by this period of time. The disparity between men and women started to widen despite the fact that, Buddhism has always taught people to treat one another equally.
In the Medieval period, thousand years after 500 B.C., the women’s condition continued to decline in terms of basic rights, such as education and religion parity were denied. There was also a restriction on inter-caste marriages, and widows were not allowed to remarry. For instance, if the spouse dies when the women are young, they have to spend the rest of their lives alone are requiring to support themselves without any aid. If the parents of the woman decide to take her back, her sufferings are reduced. But, most parents will consider the women to be part of the spouse family often and decline to take the window in. This does not ease any widow’s burden.
Men and women were no longer equal in fact, the men were seen higher than women. Husbands were respected and given god-like status. This can also be proven by the god in Hindu myth, Manu, who is believed to have given life to humans. According to the myth, Manu said that “A wife, a son and a Slave, these three are declared to have no property, the wealth which they earn is for him to whom they belong”. Social evils such as child marriages, polygamy marriages, girl killing and many other activities that disadvantaged females in general started kicking in.
In general, women used to have equal rights in the past but gradually lost their basic rights. There may be many reasons to this such as the Muslim influence, man being the sole bread winner, men being more rational and stronger than women and stereotypes which were attached to women that portrayed them as the weaker sex. Thus, these may have contributed to why women were treated as such eventually. Furthermore, women lost their respect in the society, where there were lots of crime against women committed, such as child marriages and making use of them as a property rather than someone who has feelings. This mindset of people has to be changed, as women have rights and ability to rule, organize and control society. Therefore, considering women as secondary to men is not moral, this condition remains even in modern times. The society needs to be changed and women need to be recognized, not only in India but everywhere else.