Women in Umaria district, India
Shoba Dé, India's best-selling English language author, told Time: "Strong, cunning, often deceitful, and far more in touch with reality than her male counterpart...Indian women are among the most beautiful in the world, but there is something odd about the world's discovering this all of a sudden.""

Women have traditionally been subservient to their fathers, husbands and, in old age, their sons. One sacred texts reads: “In childhood, a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when he is dead to her sons: a woman must never be independent.” She can own no possessions other than her jewelry and similar possession. She is required to serve her husband in every way, even if he is a nasty person, rising before him and going to bed after him.

The traditional view towards women is often seen as protective and in their own interests rather than discriminatory. Women have no birthright to property, but have the right to be taken care of by male relatives. A Hindu son’s most sacred obligation is to his mother. This notion is embodied in the sacred cow, which is worshiped to be “like’ a mother. For a son to deny care for his mother is an unforgivable sin. This view is also shared by Muslims and Sikhs.

According to a UNICEF report "girls and women in South Asia seem to be generally less well cared for by their families, their partners and their societies...Demands made by patriarchal South societies on the time and energy of women are visibly more excessive and unfair than in other regions of the world."

In many ways, women were more liberated in the old days than they are now. In ancient scriptures women were depicted as creators, destroyers and warriors as well as submissive wives, mothers and dancing girls. In Vedic times they could become priests, and remarry after the were widows and participate with their husbands as equals in religious ceremonies.

Book: “May You be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among Women in India” by Elizabeth Bumiller


Women, Societal Views and Religion in India

20120514-tax collectors Hidras_of_Panscheel_Park-New_Delhi-1994_.jpg
tax collectors in India
Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “ ery often in Indian culture, a woman’s body is not seen as an object of pride or pleasure, but as something that is made impure every day, an abode of sinfulness. Thus, a muted yet extremely powerful theme can be found in Hindu marriages: “the cultural unease, indeed, the fear of woman as woman.” Women, as reflected in popular novels and clinical practice, frequently view their sexuality as a capacity to redress a lopsided distribution of power between the sexes (Kakar 1989:13). The age-old, yet still persisting, cultural splitting of the wife into a mother and a whore, which underlies the husband-wife relationship and which explains the often contradictory Hindu views of the woman, is hardly unique to Indian culture, though it may be more pervasive here than in other cultures (Kakar 1989, 17). [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

The social context determines whether the woman is viewed as divine, good, or bad - as partner in ritual, as mother, or as whore. In the context of ritual, women are honored and respected. In her maternal aspect, actual or potential, woman is again a person deserving all reverence. “It is only just as a woman, as a female sexual being, that the patriarchal culture’s horror and scorn are heaped upon the hapless wife” (Kakar 1989, 17).” */

Hindu Goddesses

Shiva and Parvati Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, good fortune and beauty. She is Vishnu's wife. She has two or four arms and is often shown seated on a lotus flower between two elephants with their trunks raised above her, sprinkling water on her. She is often depicted holding a lotus blossom, conch, disc and mace of Vishnu. Many people worship her because she brings good fortune.

Lakshima was born in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. She descended to earth as one of Vishnu’s avatars. She is sometimes depicted as Sita, the wife of Rama, or Rukmini, the consort of Krishna. She appears with each of Vishnu’s incarnations. When Vishnu came to earth as Vamana, the dwarf, Lakshmi appeared as a lotus.

Annapurna, the goddess of nourishment and abundance, is an aspect of the goddess Parvati and is often depicted with a pot overflowing with rice and a vessel filled to the brim with milk. She is the deity that beggars often prey to.

The Ganges is named after Ganga, a river goddess who descended from heaven and had her fall broken by Shiva’s hair. She is the second wife of Shiva. Her sisters are Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Prayers honoring all these holy relatives are recited in the holy river when the bathers submerge themselves to be purified. Ganga represents fertility because she provides water for land. She is often depicted with a bowl of water in one hand and lotus flower in another, sitting on a makara , a legendary sea monster.

Garelaisama. is a female deity associated with edible plants and good luck in hunting as is said to have the power to keep drunk people from quarreling. Whenever an animal is caught a piece of meat is cut off and immediately offered to Garelaisama. In the past hunters often tried to kill only male animals so as not upset the female deity. If one was accidently killed the hunter prayed for forgiveness.

Other Hindu goddesses: 1) Savitri, goddess of movement; 2) Usha, daughter of the sky and her sister night; and 3) Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and knowledge (See Brahma).



Kali — -the Goddess of Death — -is a form of Shakti, a wife of Shiva and the daughter of a fierce mountain god. Also known as Durga, she is often pictured with three eyes, black skin, a tongue dripping blood, a necklace of skulls and a sword used for cutting off heads, and is sometimes shown with a severed head in one hand and a cobra wrapped around her neck.

Kali is known for her dance of death and is revered for coming to earth and defeating the hideous demon Raktavijra, known for being ability to reproduce himself 1,000 times with each drop of his blood that falls to earth. Like Shiva, Kali is regarded as both a destroyer and a creator of life, but is feared because she has taken her demon slaying too far, demanding blood sacrifices from humans and once almost killing Shiva.

Kali is the patron saint of thieves and a creator of problems for travelers as well a goddess that delivers good things to those that worship her. She was born as a fully grown woman with ten arms and acquired her taste for blood when she killed Raktavijra and drank his blood to prevent him from reaching the earth so he could reproduce himself.

Kali is often depicted as a warrior with weapons in each hand. She rides a tiger or lion, fights with a buffalo and frequently is shown sitting on a lotus platform, holding a lotus flower, beads, a water pot and sometimes the trident of Shiva. Many of here followers feel her hostile reputation is undeserved because most her aggression is focused on defeating and slaying demons.

Kali is arguable the most popular of all Hindu goddesses and is especially popular in Calcutta and Bengal in eastern India, where she is known as Durga. Explaining why Kali is so popular despite here bloodthirsty nature, a taxi driver in Calcutta, told the New York Times, "Outside, she is looking very bad. But inside, Kali is very sweet goddess. Whatever you want — -house, job, car, husband, child — -when you make her sacrifice, then she will give it anything."

Kali Worship and Rituals

Hindus have honored Kali with small clay idols called purjas , a major festival in Calcutta, and a film shown over and over again that features her as a lion and a goddess that shoots lightning bolts from the third eye on her forehead that are capable of decapitating demons and producing a lot of blood.

The rituals and objects that honor Kali are often quite gruesome or macabre. Purjas sold at festivals show her strangling pregnant women. Cremation grounds, normally regarded as places of pollution, are regarded by some Kali followers as places of rebirth, worship and meditation. Some devotion rituals — -such as chanting Kali’s 108 names in Sanskrit and laying a garland of limes at the feet of her images’are more mundane.

Kali is sometimes honored and placated with animal sacrifices. In most cases a goat is sacrificed to say thanks for some particularly good fortune. The animal is decapitated with a quick chop. It is considered auspicious to be splattered with the blood. The head is given to the Brahma priest who performs the sacrifice. The person who offered the goat for sacrifice gets to take the carcass home and eat it.

Humans at one time were sacrificed for Kali. The practice is still believed to be kept alive in some parts of Bihar, where there is some evidence that rituals involving child sacrifices have been conducted by followers of cults that worship goddess Kali. See Tantric Rituals Below.

See Calcutta Durga Festival, Tantrism and Thugs.

Hindu Women and Menstruation

In Hinduism, women are both an object of worship as the Mother-Goddess and source of pollution (when they are menstruating, giving birth or have been widowed). The Hindu mother is a figure of unimpeachable purity and respect in all Hindu families. But in some places, menstruating women have to live secluded in special houses during their period and are not allowed to enter a kitchen touch salt, attend a religious ceremony or enter a temple.

Among some groups, particularly upper caste groups, a girl is kept isolated for two weeks after she has her first period. She is considered polluting and is not allowed to look at or be looked at by any males lest they become polluted. Women bring the menstruating girl food but even they don’t touch here. From that time onward the girl is regarded as a woman. During the first four days of her period she is expected to remain isolated. She is not allowed to prepare food or come in contact with any males.

With the onset of the first period, a girls relationship with other males and males in her family changes. There is no more playing around with her brothers. They are expected not to touch her and to treat her as “sacred”: defending her honor and preventing her from dishonoring her family. Hindu women are expected to be shy and demure and not to speak unless they are spoken to. The aim of the father and the family is to marry her off to a good man.

Hindu Women and Men

Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Parvati
Hindu women are taught to worship their husband like a god and be so faithful they want to follow their husbands in death. One Indian woman told the Washington Post: "You talk to any Indian lady, and they will say the want to die in their husband's arms. We look at the moon because the moon lives forever, and my husband's life should be as long as the moon shines in the world." [Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post]

Molly Moore of the Washington Post wrote: "The festival of Karva Chauth—held in the once every autumn on the forth day after the full moon—is the most important day of the year for married women. It is the day the truly devout wife will take no food, no water and no tea from the moment the stars disappear in the morning until the moon rises in the nocturnal heavens. It is the day on which she beseeches the gods to grant her husband a long life, that she may not die a widow." The festival began hundreds of years ago when, according to legend, a man swallowed by a crocodile was brought back to life when his wife promised the gods she would not eat or drink anything until she saw the first moon.

Ideally, the Hindu wife should honor her husband as if he were her personal god. Through her marriage, a woman becomes an auspicious wife (suhagan ), adorned with bangles and amulets designed to protect her husband's life and imbued with ritual powers to influence prosperity and procreation. At her wedding, the Hindu bride is likened to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, in symbolic recognition of the fact that the groom's patrilineage can increase and prosper only through her fertility and labors. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Married Women in India

A “suhaag” is the red mark on a woman's forehead wear the hair parts. It is a symbol of marriage and is made with red sindoor powder. A married woman is expected to treat her husband as if he were a god and bow to him and touch his feet as sign of respect and subservience.

When a girl leaves her village and moves to her husband's home, she belongs to her husband's village not her parent's. When she moves in with the family of her husband she is expected to do much of the housework. The first thing she has traditionally done when she enter the house of her husband's family is kiss the feet of her in-laws. “Bahu” is a word that describes the dutiful daughter in law. According to one survey, 90 percent of the men interviewed said they were happy with their marriage while 90 of the women said they weren't."

Professional urban women often live a double life. In New Delhi she is a modern career women dressed in smart clothes. On the weekends she visit her husband's family dressed in a veil, with bangles and rings on hands, wrists, ankles and feet.

In the difficult early days of a marriage, and later on throughout her life, a woman looks to her natal kin for moral and often economic support. Although she has become part of another household and lineage, she depends on her natal relatives — especially her brothers — to back her up in a variety of circumstances. A wide range of long visits home, ritual obligations, gifts, folklore, and songs reflect the significance of a woman's lifelong ties to her blood relatives.*

Married Woman’s Position in the Family

The young wife is pressed into service as the most subordinate member of her husband's family. New brides often must sit apart from the family in deference to her mother-in-law. If any misfortunes happen to befall her affinal family after her arrival, the new wife may be blamed as the bearer of bad luck. Not surprisingly, some young women find adjusting to these new circumstances extremely upsetting. A small percentage experience psychological distress so severe that they seem to be possessed by outspoken ghosts and spirits.*

By producing children, especially highly valued sons, and, ultimately, becoming a mother-in-law herself, a woman gradually improves her position within the conjugal household. In motherhood the married woman finds social approval, economic security, and emotional satisfaction.*

In a traditional Indian household women are expected to serve their husbands. All a man has to say is "get some water," seeming to speak to no one in particular and one of the veiled women in his household will get it. The water can not give it directly to the man—as this violates Hindu customs about pollution—it must laid down in a place where he can fetch it. Men can not ask other men about their wives or enter a courtyard unannounced out of fear of surprising an unveiled woman. [Source: Doranne Wilson Jacobson, National Geographic August 1977 ♢]

The worst years for a woman are when she is a new bride. As she gets older and her position in the household is improved she gains more freedom and privileges and can order the younger people in the household around. It is not surprising that young brides look forward to trips back home. Sometimes they stay away for three or four months. ♢

Classes for Dutiful Housewives

Some women in India take classes on how to be a dutiful housewife before they get married. Women are taught to think of the husbands as gods and given tips on performing household chores and getting along with their mother -in-laws by doing everything they say. Sex, they are told, should kept to a minimum. [Source: John Lancaster. Washington Post, November 11, 2004]

Women are told not to pursue careers or even view themselves as partners with their husbands (they should be subservient). One student told the Washington Post that she was taught one of the worst sins was sticking up for herself in an argument with her husband or members of his family. She said: “Even if they say something mean to us, our first instinct should be not to retort back , but to stay silent....I have learned that were are newcomers in that family and we have to adjust. We have to reduce the ego.”

The textbook used by students at the Manjju Institute of Values in Bhopal reads: “After marriage, the bride should not think she’s going to her in-law family to throw her weight around. Instead, she’s going there to serve the family and perform her duties, in order to turn that home into heaven...The mother-in-law and father-in-law are never wrong...The bride should do everything according to the wishes and orders of the mother-in-law and father-in-law.”

On getting along with her husband the textbook advises: “The wife should sleep after her husband and wake up before him....When he returns home welcome him with a smile, help him in taking off his shoes and socks, and ask him to sit down. Bring him water and biscuits, and with a smile, ask him about his day. A husband’s happiness alone is your life’s goal...Do not go out without your husband’s permission anywhere.”

Rural Women in India

The status of rural women in many places is just a notch above a farm animal and is only that high because she does housework and fieldwork and raises children. Women traditionally remained at a low status level until they gave birth to a boy.

Village women have a hard life. They are generally uneducated and have few options in life. Their worth is measured by how hard they work and how many sons they produce. At birth, they are often regarded as disappointments by families who want a son. After that they are regarded as property of their fathers, brothers or husbands and can't go anywhere without their permission.

In many places women are considered unclean after they give birth and are sent to live in a barn for 30 days or until their husbands pay for a purification ritual. Only then are the women—and their babies—allowed back into the house.

Wives often live with their in-laws and have traditionally been ordered around by their mothers-in-law. From their mothers women learn how to pickle mangos, make quilts from old saris and a perform prayer rituals, called “vrata”. Women traditionally have socialized with each other while doing things like washing laundry and grinding grain.

Chores By Rural Women

Village women have traditionally worked in the fields and taken care of the house. Today they spend much of their day performing those duties as well collecting water or doing chores such as washing clothes and preparing meals. Sari-clad village women walk several miles to search for fodder and firewood. They carry huge brass pots and massive bundles of cut grass or wheat stalks on their head. They also pound rice or grain in wooden mortars and spin clothe in wooden wheels called charkas. Women in the fields perform the same duties as men. They weed muddy river paddies, sow grain, harvest wheat and barley with sickles.

Collecting water has traditionally been one of the primary duties of women. In many places they collected water in “ihota”, a round-bottomed, short-necked jars with a wide lip that kept the water from spilling. These containers are carried, often for long distances off a kilometer or more, on a cloth ring that cushions the head. One man in Jaisalmer told National Geographic, "Our women spend half their lives going for water."

In many cases, collecting water is one activity that women are allowed to leave their house to do. Many women liked to collect water because it gives them a chance to leave the house and socialize with other women. It is no surprise then wells have traditionally been a place where women gathered.

See Rural Life

Women's and Girl’s Health and Childbirth in India

Women in India are more undernourished and female babies have higher rates of low birth weight than their male counterparts. More than half of Indian women are anemic. According to a UNICEF report "girls and women in South Asia seem to be generally less well cared for by there families, their partners and their societies...Demands made by patriarchal South societies on the time and energy of women are visibly more excessive and unfair than in other regions of the world."

Young girls are generally breast feed two months less than young boys (25.3 months versus 23.6 months). One of the reasons for this is that mothers of girls are sometimes anxious to get pregnant against in hopes of having a son.

The lifetime risk of a mother’s death related to childbirth in India: 1 in 37 (compared to 1 in 10 in Nepal and 1 in 230 in Sri Lanka). Every five minutes an Indian woman dies in childbirth. This works out to 100,000 deaths a year. Many of the deaths are the result of women giving birth at home and not receiving adequate care for hemorrhages, eclampsia and obstructed labor. In an efforts to reduce these numbers the Indian government is paying midwives to bring pregnant women to the hospital rather than delivering the children themselves. Midwives are paid $28 for the birth of a girl and $14 for boy and $5 for prenatal care.

Education and Women

The female illiteracy rate in India is about 50 percent (compared to 25 percent for men). In some places it is higher than 80 percent. When asked, many illiterate women say they would like to read and write. Low education and low status for women usually translates to more babies.

Education has traditionally been a low priority for girls and lower castes. The idea of educating women wasn’t even really considered something that was possible until the early 20th century and even then there were those who opposed it because they thought education would prevent women from having babies and making their breasts unable to produce milk. In 1901 there were only1,170 female students in all of Bengal, which included all of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

Middle class Indian women have attributed their advances to greater access to education. Women in Kerala are the most literate in India; they have the longest life expectancy and the lowest birthrate.

Poor Indian women have blamed their lack of ability to do the simplest things on a lack of education. When one village woman was asked why she didn't take care of money, she said, "Women can't handle money because they don't go to school." When asked why women can't go to school, she said, "There's too much work for them to do. There's not time for girl's to go to school."

Lack of Education for Indian Girls

In India in the late 1990s, boys were three times more likely to have access to education than girls. In many villages girls rarely advanced beyond the fifth grade. In Rajasthan 59 percent of girls were out of school before the finishing the fifth grade. A study in the 1980s, revealed that three quarters of girls between 12 and 14 in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh didn't attend school. Even now, in grades six through 12, girls make up only 40 percent of the students.

Poor families with boys and girls often use their limited funds to educate their sons not their daughters. Boys are often encouraged to stay in school even if they do poorly while girl are pulled out even if they have good grades. Parents have traditionally thought there was little reason to educate girls because they would leave home early in an arranged marriages. Families would benefit more economically if they were put to work early rather than being educated. Some believe it is a sin to spend money on a girl's education and too much education can ruin a marriage.

Girls are put to work in the fields and are needed to take care of younger siblings. One girl told the Washington Post, “My father and mother do labor jobs on distant farmland and construction sites all day. I had to stay at home and take care of the younger ones.

Girls often get married at an early age. Many husbands feel that it is pointless of their wives to continue their education. They are expected to be having babies instead. Some girls that attend school make a great effort to wake up early to do their chores before school and finished them when they get home.

Free Lunches and Improved Education for Women

Literacy levels and education levels are improving for girls. Although 55 percent of all adult Indian women are illiterate, fewer than one third of all girls are. A great effort has been made o get more girls in schools. The number of girls aged six to 14 in school, increased from 59 percent in 1993 to 74 percent in 1999. Some schools allow primary-school-age children to study with their three-year-old brothers in their arms. Other provide middle-school and high-school girls with bicycle so they can make the long trudge to schools that are several kilometers away.

Free School Lunches for Girls

The state of Kerala in India dramatically increased the number of girls in school by offering them free lunch in school. Families found it was more in their interests to send their girls to get some nutritious food, and possibly bring some home, than for the girls to stay home and take care of their younger siblings. A similar program was started in some areas of Rajasthan. In one district school attendance jumped 23 percent after free lunches were offered.

Many of the schools in Rajasthan gave out an “India mix” (ground soybeans, wheat, gram, barely, sugar and glucose) when they went home so the kids would stay in school all day after providing a lunch of “ghoori” (a mix of boiled wheat and unrefined sugar). The mother of a child attending one of these schools told the Washington Post, “they only gave free food to the children who went to school, not those who were at home, so I sent [my daughter] back to school.” Her daughter was allowed to take her younger siblings with her and they were also given food. A program in which six pounds of wheat was given to students was cancelled because children only showed up on the day the food was distributed.

In 2001, an effort was made to offer free lunches at schools nationwide. The move was prompted in part by reports of starvation while warehouses were overstocked with grain. In January 2005, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that schools across India should offer such programs and the Finance Ministry raised the budget for school lunch programs from $38 million a year o $67 million for 110 million primary school students.

Women’s Rights in India

The Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to women. By law women have equal inheritance rights and property rights and are entitled to a share of her husband’s estate. In cities like Bombay, women are much freer than they are in the countryside. They can hold jobs, marry who they please and drive a car. Women are generally freer in southern India, where worship of the Mother-Goddess is strong, than in northern India.

Amit Pasricha wrote in The Times, “Women in urban India are smart and feisty, know their own minds, have careers, wear tailored suit, compete with men and sip Chardonnay in funky bars...Gone are the docile, submissive women making sacrifices...Economic independence has altered girls’ attitudes hugely.” One graphics designer in Bombay told The Times, modern women “are harder to please now, their expectations are higher. they want equality with their husbands and expect the boy to adapt too. Before, the girl had to adapt to her husband and family.”

Tribal women and Muslim women sometimes fare better than Hindu women because there is a strong emphasis on egalitarianism in their religions. Lower caste women often have more freedom than higher caste women because less is expected of them, and there are few concerns about pollution and honor. The concepts of purdah (Hindu veiling) were traditionally applied more to upper caste women than lower caste ones partly out of a belief that they should be pampered and sequestered from the harsh outside world. In many cases, higher caste women are more likely to become involved in a child marriages and suffer as widows.

Special training programs have been launched to help lower caste women. In some places, illiterate, lower caste women have been trained to fix pumps, which villagers relay on for their water supples. These jobs were formally held only by upper caste men. In some cases the women are praised for fixing pumps that traditionally lower castes have not even been allowed to use.

Feminism and Advances by Women in India

Indian women have held high positions as legislators, diplomats, journalists and writers. In the early 2000s about 15 percent of the Congress Party's members were women and 20 percent of the nations's doctors were women. Peasant women often dominate programs for food distribution. In 1994, six Indian women became the first of their sex to qualify as pilots for the Indian Air Force. The first woman to climb Mount Everest twice was Santosh Yadav, an Indian woman who grew up in a village where most girls didn't study beyond the fifth grade. She learned mountain climbing while serving in the army as a military commando.

Feminist groups in India such as the Women's Rights Union are relatively weak but they are getting stronger and are gaining support and strength in more areas. They are supported by more general civil rights groups. Issues being addressed by feminist groups include improving education and health care for girls, helping rape victims and dowry violence targets and encouraging women to become more involved in politics.

Indian feminists lead protests against the 1996 Miss World contest and the 1992 gang rape of an activist opposed to child marriage. Feminists have problems seeking justice in the courts. The pioneering feminist Bhanwari Devi was victim of the gang rape mentioned above. She led a campaign against child marriages in Rajasthan and was gang raped by a group of men who were acquitted by court in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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