The status or condition of women in India has undergone a lot of transformation over time. Before the medieval age, there was the Vedic period, period of the epics, and period of Jainism and Buddhism among others. To fully explore the condition of Hindu women in the medieval age, it is necessary to understand their status during the previous age in order to know whether or not they were more constrained.
In the Vedic Period for example, women were more liberal: they could take part in most activities of religion, they could choose marriage partners, the girls could participate in education etc (Module-V 3). There was almost some sense of equality between both genders at this time.
The wives of Mahabharata and Ramayana, Sita and Draupadi respectively, are the other two greatly emulated women in India (Module-V 3). Jainism and Buddhism brought significant constraints with it. For instance: confinement of women, domination of the male’s in home responsibility and now family lineage was specifically traced to them, education for girls decreased, marriage age was lowered (Module-V 4).
The age of Dharmashastras saw the exclusion of women in the social circles, the idea that they were inferior became much more popular and codes of conduct were introduced for women which led to severe punishment if any was broken (Module-V 5). During these periods, women’s freedom was almost negligible. With the coming of the Islam, some presumed there would be some sort of relief in vain.
This period is hugely associated with the introduction of Islam in India (Module-V 6). The major effect that was felt widely was the introduction of the “purdah” (Notes 1). Other effects in summary include: early marriage of the girls, introduction of the dowry system, sati (which refers to self-immolation of a widow), and the purdah also referring to “remaining indoors” (NATRSS 1).
The political involvement of both Hindu and Muslim women is a common feature they shared in the medieval period. Examples of Muslim women who took leadership roles include: Raziyyah, who although was assassinated, “she appeared in public without a veil and wore a man’s robe”, Nur Jahan; she was a controversial yet powerful image, who acted on behalf of her husband (Notes 6). As for Hindu women, Queen Rudrama Devi and Queen Rani Lakshmi are some examples (Notes 7).
Another similarity lies in purdah. Purdah had two meanings to both women: one was wearing of veils as attires and two “physical seclusion in a house” (Notes 2). The Hindu adapted this culture with the sole purpose of wanting to protect their women from the Muslim men who had their women covered (Notes 1).
In the physical seclusions women got engaged in different activities which included: “sexual relationships, reproduction of the family, socialization of children and daughters-in-law and management of the household” (Notes 3). It was an avenue for them to “exercise power” and for the Muslim women especially would also contribute ideas in making policies (Notes 4).
Religious practices offer another common ground for the Hindu and Muslim women. The Hindu women found solace in the “Bhakti” movement also referred to as “devotional Hinduism” (Notes 9). Lord Krishna emphasised “the approach to God through pure love” (Notes 9).
The Muslim women on the other hand had their own movement called “Sufism”- which emphasised “the need for direct union with God” (Notes 11). Women from both divides would make pilgrimages to “dargahs” to get help concerning “infertility or family disputes” (Notes 12).
One of the major differences was in the physical seclusion. Hindu – The women had to keep their physical distance from the males, those they were related to or not i.e. fathers-in-law, older brothers-in-law. They were also secluded from older females. This practice was more common to the higher class in the society, but in the medieval period, it was extended even to the loser classes (Module-V 6).
Muslim: Physical distance was maintained towards the “non-related males” (Notes 2). Another difference was concerning the marriage of widows. Muslim did not oppose the marriage of widows or look down on them. This was clearly illustrated by Emperor Jahangir who married Nur Jahan, who was also his “political adviser” (Notes 5). Hindu: The widow would even self-immolate on their husband’s pyre a practice which was referred to as sati (NASTRR 1).
Divorce was also a distinguishing factor between the two groups. Muslim: The women could also divorce their husbands in accordance with the “Sharia law” (Module-V 7). Hindu: Only the man is allowed to divorce their wife.
The Hindu women are said to have undergone even worse treatment during the medieval time. The only positive aspect which was associated with the way the Indians women were treated was that they were allowed to participate in politics. However, in general the Indian women were generally secluded and this made even their participation in political affairs difficult.
Module-V. Status of Women in Indian Society. Course, n.d. Web. April 21, 2011n
NATRSS. National Academy for Training and Research in Social Security. Status of Women in India, n.d. Web. April 21, 2011
Notes. Spread of Islam in South Asia, 1000-1700. Class Notes, n.d. Print