Woman, by no means is inferior to man in any respect and can perform all functions equally well or perhaps even better. She might be lacking brute force of the savage kind but is better endowed with gifts of civilization.
In the Vedic period, women participated in every sphere of human life and enjoyed a fair amount of freedom and equality with men. They studied in gurukuls and enjoyed equality in learning the Vedas. They even fought battles. Purdah system was unknown. Women were free to choose their life partners and polygamy was rare. A widow had the right to re-marry. There was no discrimination between a boy and a girl. Men used to regard women with respect and as partners in managing the affairs of the household.
In the post-Vedic period between 1500 BC to 500 AD various restrictions were put on women’s rights and privileges by Manu and the status of women suffered a setback and their role got restricted to the four walls of their home. During the time of epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the male law givers bound the freedom of women both in deed and speech. Society become polygamous and polyandry was abolished. There was reduction in the marriageable age of girls.
With the invasion of India by Alexander and Huns the position of women was reduced almost to that of war prisoners. Muslim invasions of India brought complete subordination of women.
The Mughal period and the subsequent advent of the British period were marked with general practice of killing baby girls, condemnation of widow and system of Devdasis.
But due to education and western impact on the socio-cultural life the behaviour and living pattern changed drastically during the British regime. Injustice on women was highlighted by Dada Bhai Naoroji, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Lokmanya Tilak. Widow re-marriage was advocated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Brahmo Samaj. Outstanding role was played by some great women in the 18th century like Annie Besant, Kasturba Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit which throws light on the improved position of women.
With the dawn of independence of India the picture turned brighter. Our Constitution makers and law framers showed concern for the basic rights of women. On an international level also the concern of women had risen. The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1967 and the subsequent Convention in 1979 are some of the measures recognized at the international level.
Article 14 of the Constitution contains the equality clause. Article 15(1) forbids discrimination on the grounds of sex. Indian Penal Code deals very strictly with the offences against women such as rape.
Section 498A of IPC deals with cruelty by husband or relatives of the husband and punishes it with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with fine or with both.
Section 304B of IPC deals with dowry death and states that where the death of a woman is caused by burns or bodily injury under abnormal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband, in connection with dowry demand, such death will be called dowry death and whosoever commits dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment of not less than seven years and it may extend to imprisonment for life.
Sections 375 to 376D of the Indian Penal Code deals with the offence of rape.
Section 494 deals with offence of bigamy and lays down that whosoever having a living spouse marries again shall be punished with imprisonment of seven years and with fine.
Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961; Sati Prevention Act, 1987; Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 and Equal Remuneration Act, 1916 are other such Acts which empower women against apathy to them and provide them with equal rights as men. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 prohibits advertisements relating to sex determination of unborn foetus and punishes its contravention in any and every form.
The National Commission for Women Act was enacted in 1990 and under this Act the National Commission for Women was formed. It investigates and examines matters relating to safeguarding of women. It makes reports and recommendations to the Central Government on the working of these safeguards and improving the condition of women. It reviews from time to time the existing laws and suggests legislative measures for improvement of the position of women. It looks into complaints and takes notice of matters relating to deprivation of women’s rights, etc.
The judiciary of our country also now does not just sit in an ivory tower. It has come forward in many ways and passed many landmark judgments in favour of women. Discrimination relating to education has been dealt in Anjali Roy v. State of West Bengal1. In Muthamma v. Union of India2 the question raised was related to rule 8(2) of the Indian Foreign Services which required the women members to obtain permission in writing to the government before solemnization of marriage. The rule was struck down as violative of Article 16 (2) of the Constitution. In Air India v. Nargesh Mirza3 a rule, where an air hostess had to retire at the age of 35 years or on marriage if it took place within four years or on first pregnancy, was held to be ‘an open insult to womanhood’. Inspite of all these efforts the question today arises whether the status of women today is as good as it was in Vedic times. Are all these legal provisions, judicial decisions as good as they seem? Have modernization, globalization and liberalization actually uplifted the status of women or are they mere tall claims? In fact, the statistics are not at all encouraging.
In India, a crime is committed against a woman every seven minutes. Every 54 minutes somewhere in India a woman is raped. Every 26 minutes molestation takes place. Every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped and every 102 minutes a dowry death occurs. This shows that the fairer sex is still the weaker sex. Child marriage is still prevalent, widow re-marriage is still looked down upon and dowry is still there. All these laws are still confined to statutory books. What is needed is a change in the mindset of both men and women. Unless and until we teach every member of our society to respect women and womanhood no number of laws will be able to actually give ‘women power’. If each one of us vow to ensure dignity and honour for all women we might help to envisage women empowerment in our own small way.