WORKING TOWARDS THE CHANGE – WOMEN, CASTE AND REFORM
During the19th century, doubts and debates regarding the social customs and practices started taking a new turn.
This was due tocoming up of the new system and forms of communication. Like for the first time books, newspapers, magazines, leaflets and pamphlets were printed and also cheap and reachable.
All kinds of issues –social, political, economic and religious– could now be debated and discussed by men (and sometimes by women as well) in the new cities.
Thediscussionscould reach out to a wider publicand could become linked to movements for social change.
Thesedebates were often initiated by Indian reformers and their groups. One such reformer wasRajaRammohun Roy (1772-1833), he founded a reform association known as theBrahmo Sabha (later known as the Brahmo Samaj) in Calcutta.
Rammohun Royand the people like him are described as reformers because they felt thatchanges were necessary for society and unjust practices needed to be done away with.
Rammohun Roy was keen to spread the knowledge of Western education in the countryand bring about greater freedom and equality for women.
He wrote about the way women were forced to bear the burden ofdomestic work, confined to the home and the kitchen, and not allowed to move out and become educated.
These people thought that the best way to ensure such changes was by persuading people to give up old practices and adopt a new way of life.
Rammohun Roy was particularly moved by the problemswidows faced in their lives. He began a campaign against the practice of Sati.
He tried to show through his writings that the practiceof widow burning had no sanction in ancient texts.
As many British officialshad also begun to criticise Indian traditions and customs. They were, therefore, was ready to help and listen to Rammohun and in 1829, Sati was banned.
The strategy adopted by Rammohun was used bylater reformers as well. Whenever they wished to challenge a practice that seemed harmful, they tried to find a verse or sentence in the ancient sacred texts that supported their point of view.
A reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, used the ancient texts to suggest that widows could remarryand this was adopted by British officials by passing a law in 1856 permitting widow remarriage.
By the second half of the 19th century, the movement in favour of widow remarriage spread to other parts of the country.
Telugu-speaking areas of the Madras Presidency, Veerasalingam Pantulu, many young reformers andintelluctuals from Bomaby formed an association for widow remarriage.
In the north, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who founded the reform association called Arya Samaj, also supported widow remarriage.
Although, the number of widows who actually remarried remained low. Those who married were not easily accepted in society and conservative groups continued to oppose the new law.
The reformers felt that education for girls was necessary in order to improve the condition of women. They opened schools for girls in order to improve their conditions.
When the first schools were opened in the mid-nineteenth century, many people were afraid of them. They feared that schools would take girls away from home, prevent them from doing their domestic duties.
They felt that girls should stay away from public spaces. Therefore, throughout the 19th century, most educated women were taught at home by liberal fathers or husbands.
Later, the schools for girls were established by the Arya Samaj in Punjab and Jyotirao Phule in Maharashtra.
In aristocratic Muslim households in North India, women learnt to read the Koran in Arabic. They were taught by women who came home to teach.
Reformers such as Mumtaz Ali reinterpreted verses from the Koran to argue for women’s education.
First Urdu novelcame in the later 19th century. All these were meant to encourage women to read about religion and domestic management in a language they couldunderstand.
From the early twentieth century, Muslim women like the Begums of Bhopal founded a primary school for girls at Aligarhand played a notable role in promoting education among women.
Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossainstarted schools for Muslim girls in Patna and Calcutta. She was a fearless critic of conservative ideas and argued for the inferiority of women n all faiths.
By the 1880s, Indian women began to enter universities. Some of them trained to be doctors, some became teachers. women began to write and publish and their critical views on the place of women in society.
Tarabai Shinde, a woman educated at home at Poona, published a book, Stripurushtulna, criticising the social differences between men and women.
Pandita Ramabai, a great scholar of Sanskrit, felt that Hinduism was oppressive towards women, and wrote a book about the miserable lives of upper-caste Hindu women.
She also founded a widows’ home at Poona to provide shelter to widows who had been treated badly by their husbands’ relatives, here women were also trained to be economically dependent.
All this offended the orthodox. Many Hindu and Muslim nationalists felt that their women were adopting Western ways and that this would corrupt their culture and erode family values.
By the end of the nineteenth century, women themselves were actively working for reform. They wrote books, edited magazines, founded schools and training centres, and set up women’s associations.
From the early 20th century, they formed political pressure groups to push through laws for female suffrage and better health care and education for women.
In the 20th century, leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Boselent their support to demands for greater equality and freedom for women.
Many nationalist promised that there would be full suffrage for all men and women after Independence, and asked women to concentrate on the anti-British struggles.