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Women in Hindu civil Society.

Though in Hinduism laws discriminated against women, women had their rights. But there was no uniform legal system in operation. This meant that the sacred lawbooks, the Dharmashastras and the Puranas and the epics give only a general picture of what prevailed. We cannot confidently conclude that they were applicable to every community or even to every family in the community. Also the laws changed from age to age, so that what one lawmaker had said was nullified by a later lawmaker. Above all, there were always differences between codified and customary law. The first is more patriarchal, but in Hinduism usage and local customs have the right to over-ride scriptural law.

Right to property.

Women and finances.

Women and Politics and Viranganas.

Right to Property:

In the Vedic age, we do not learn much about the property rights of females. From one verse, we learn that an unmarried girl has a share in her father's property even if she has brothers. But it is vague. However as society flourished and became more complex, inheritance and transmission of private property became of paramount importance. Hence from the earliest ages various laws were set down. But we do not learn much about the position of daughters. It was agreed that just as a son had the first claim on his father's property, so too daughter/s shall inherit her mother's Stridhan. The order of preference was unmarried daughters, married but poor daughters, married and well-off daughters. A son can claim it only if there were no daughters or if the mother in her lifetime had made it over to him. Similarly the consensus was that if there were no sons, then the daughter shall inherit all her father's property. It was explained that both the son and daughter come from the father's body and therefore there is no essential difference between them. Hence "No one else can be a heir when a daughter is present. If there is no son, then the daughters or the only daughter shall inherit everything. There is nothing more to be said about this". The question of course then rises that if there is no essential difference between a son and daughter, then why sons have the first preference. Possibly it was because many communities and clans preferred to have males inherit property, particularly since when a girl married she along with her property became members of another family. Hence there was a special ceremony by which an only daughter was formally designated as a son. Such a daughter was called Putrika. She would be be regarded as a son, perform funeral rites of the father and even if she married she would not be considered part of her husband's family but as belonging to her father's lineage still, for the purposes of inheritance and religious sacrifices. Therefore many sages forbid men to marry only daughters, because the sons of this daughter might not belong to the husband; instead of performing the all important funeral rites of the father, they would perform the funeral rites of their grandfather. But the situation becomes unclear when it comes to daughters with brothers. In these cases, a married daughter was clearly out of the running. She had already received a dowry and it was felt unneccessary to give her more, unless the father had specifically indicated so in his will or more importantly, the brothers were willing to give her something. Unmarried daughters had to be given a share in their fatherís property equal to one-fourth from every brother's share. But it is not made clear if it is a law or merely a moral obligation. Moreoever, it seems that this was not so much a daughter's property as her dowry. Also some lawgivers of southern regions discard the idea of a Putrika altogether.

When we come to wives, we are on much surer ground. The all-important term here is Stridhan, (literally meaning, property of wife). There had been many disputes about what should be included in this category and instigated a mass of courtcases throughout the British rule. Both bride-price and dowry was common. But many sages disapproved of bride-price calling it nothing other than selling of a daughter. "Parents who give up their sons for adoption in exchange for money, and who give their daughters in marriage in return of money, are alike guilty of selling their offspring". Why they should say this was easy to see, with no doubt the results of such marriages evident before their eyes. Unfortunately, they did not prohibit the giving of dowry in a similar manner. Obviously, the custom was not as pernicious before as it is today. The wordings about dowry also makes it clear that originally the amount of dowry was upto the father, not the groom. Finally, in all types of marriages, even where the father gives a dowry the groom's party routinely gave money to the bride's parents in the bride's name: this was not the same as brideprice, since it was given as a mark of affection for the bride and the parents held it for the daughters in trust, rather than taking it for themselves. Dowry therefore did not seem to the sages to be a very serious matter. Unfortunately, as the practice of brideprice disappeared from the uppercaste society, demands for dowry became stronger. High status parents became obssessed with buying suitable grooms and inevitably bidding wars ensued. Also, daughters in such households concerned with pollution and public prestige no longer contributed economically as they had done in the past (one of the synonyms for a daughter is duhita, one who milks the cows. There is no such equivalent for a son. Naturally, a Brahmin or a Kshatriya or even a rich Vaishya would not allow his child to work as a manual labourer). Therefore huge dowries became the norm. As subcastes of Sudras became socially mobile through the force of arms or acquiring sufficient money, they imitated the higher castes in their social behaviour. Many lower castes declared they belonged to the higher castes and bribed or armtwisted Brahmins to agree. Then they started giving and taking dowry since this is what the higher castes do. Thus dowry and concommittant pressure on parents increased and became widespread. Though today dowry is prohibited social attitudes is slow to change and so it continues. Moreover many women regard her dowry as her rightful share in ancestral property. However, among the lower castes bride-price is practised even today. But it must be emphasized, that neither brideprice nor dowry really enhances a woman's status as a human being.

There are elaborate laws regarding stridhan. Basically it is of two types: maintenance (in money or land given by the husband), and anything else like ornaments given to her by her family, husband, in-laws and the friends of her husband. The maximum amount of first type might or might not be fixed by law, depending on the laws of the kingdom. But there was no limit to the second type, since these are gifts. Pre-nuptial contracts are mentioned where the groom would agree to give a set amount of brideprice to both parents and the bride. Stridhan is divided into various types --- the property given by parents at marriage, given by the parental family when she is going to her husbandís house, given by her husband out of affection { not maintenance which the husband is bound to give} in the course of their married life, given by the groom's family and friends on occasion of the wedding (what we would call wedding-gifts today), and that property given separately by brother, mother, father, in-laws anytime after marriage; if the groom gave brideprice in excess of what was originally agreed on, then the excess belongs to the bride alone and is stridhan as well. But this description of stridhan was adhered to by more orthodox communitites, because others have widened the scope of stridhan. Such property belonged to the wife alone and was not to be touched by the husband or her parents. However the husband could use it in emergencies like sickness, famine, threated by robbers, or for performing holy deeds. Otherwise a wife had the right to complain in a court of law. It is obvious therefore, the wife is not left totally dependant on her husband's goodwill. She had money of her own. Of course the problem was how closely this right was honoured. Peculiarly enough in traditional rural communitites the concept of stridhan being the wife/widow's property alone is honoured even now, while among the educated modern upperclasses the concept had disappeared (replaced proabably by separate bankaccounts, which effectually comes to the same thing, though better protected by law) --- whether this is a good or bad thing is something yet to be seen.

The categories of stridhan varied from region to region and age to age. Manu who is regarded as the supreme lawgiver by the Brahmins mentions only six types. In fact Manu seems to be in favour of the idea that blood is more important in inheritance: he allows daughters to inherit sonless father's whole property, insists that daughters be given a share even if sons are present, does not include property given from the husband's family and friends as stridhan, allows sons and daughters to inherit equally the mother's property, allows a dead wife's property to go to her children and not the husband, and is silent about the rights of widows. However other lawcodes declared that mothers have equal share with the sons and that a childless widow shall succeed to the whole of her husband's property. Most communities had more liberal interpretations. A great many lawmakers agreed that stridhan includes whatever property a woman gains by inheritance, partition, purchase, finding a hidden treasure, acceptance of gifts, and some said by her own work. Some simply declared that whatever property belongs to a wife including maintainance is stridhan. The money given by a husband to a first wife if he marries a second time without just cause was also her property. However there was dispute whether a woman had absolute control over stridhan. Some said that a woman can dispose and use stridhan independantly, while most argued that immovable property cannot be disposed by the wife. Many of the later lawmakers distinguished between the property a woman can enjoy independantly and that which she is entitled to use but not dispose of, but the definitions are vague. On the other hand, among mercantile castes, women frequently became managers of businesses since their husbands would be absent on long trading trips, but this did not mean they actually had independant right to it. Arthashastra states that a remarried widow can retain her claim on stridhan given to her by her husband and husband's kin only if she marries with the permission of her elder in-laws, otherwise it must be handed over to her sons. In records there are references to rich widows who donated land to temples, while in literature there are men who tried to marry rich widows; while in Arthashastra itself the king is advised to employ spies in the guise of rich widows. So obviously, all widows did not lose their stridhan by remarriage and many were left comfortably off. However it behoved a widow surrounded by unfriendly relations to be on the alert because many Pundits in lawcourts tried to narrow down the definition of stridhan, sometimes even subsuming the claims of a sonless daughter under the heading of ancestral parental property and convincing the courts to grant a widow nothing but maintainance.

At the same time however communities in Megahalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka , and Kerala was committed to a matriarchal system. Though some are tribals many are orthodox hindus in other respects. Among them, property belongs wholly to the mother and is passed on through the female line. Sometimes it passes through ultrageniture, that is, the youngest duaghter inherits all property. Naturally in all such cases the husband comes to live with his wife, and the children inherit the mother's surname. Any earnings, including those earned by the husbands or sons belong to the whole family. In South India the property rights were more broad based. Land was often given to the daughter by the father as a source of indedpendant income which then devolved on female heirs. All over India there are thus scattered communitites where women control the finances independantly. In South Tamil Nadu, a community of muslims have the custom of providing each daughter on marriage with a house and neccessities from her mother. The duaghter in turn provides these same things to her daughter. Such arrangement of women controlling property and alone forming the line of inheritance is at variance with Islamic law.

Women and finances:

Upperclass and uppercaste women naturally did not work or earn an income for themselves, though poor uppercaste women were sometimes allowed to earn money by spinning. However lowercaste women enjoyed considerable freedom in this regard. They worked in the fields as labourers, as spinners and weavers, as makers of alcoholic beverages and as servants in rich houses and in the temples. There were also singers, dancers, actresses. According to lawbooks, these women need not observe the strict restrictions imposed on women of uppercastes, since by custom they had greater freedom. Some lawbooks obligingly explain that since among such communities the women earn the livelihood for the family, they were not so much under the authority of the husband. On the same grounds adultery with them carried lesser penalty. There are some references to guilds of women workers, but the nature and function of the guilds is not clear. Also women workers in households and temples, it seems, excercised ownership rights over their income. From the records we see that some women became temple managers and trustees, but that applies only to educated women of noble families or to those whose families had contributed heavily to temple funds. The connection is obvious but it demonstrates that religious law did not bar women from high positions.

Women from the royal and landowning families were naturally in a more advantegeous position. From inscriptions we learn that many wealthy women donated personal property in the form of gifts and land to the temples. Wives and daughters and mothers of kings, and women of noble families were actively involved in construction of temples, in fixing the salary of temple workers, funding the daily activities of temples and seeing to their regular maintainance. Often we see that though the kings followed the orthodox Bramhanic way, their consorts built Buddhist monastries and Jaina temples. They also granted lands and villages for temple upkeep. All these prove that they had independant sources of income which were completely theirs. In absence of other kinds of records we do not know what else they did.

However much depended on the customs of a particular region. Also while the highest classes and lower classes seem to be less restrictive, among middle-classes female property rights did not seem to have been well protected. In urban areas there are records of several cases of dispute about women's property which were settled by each caste council.

Women and political power and the heroic women:

There was no formal granting of political power to women in Hindu tradition, though religion has nothing to say about this. Women as wives, and as queen mothers excercised influence and enjoyed informal power. But the preference was always for male heirs. Sometimes if there were none, a son was adopted. Otherwise the throne was claimed by the strongest noble or the strongest son-in-law, and it was the husband of the princess who ruled. Arthashastra states that in absence of a male prince, the eldest princess can be put on the throne but it is the councillor who would rule and the princess must be married off as soon as she is capable of bearing children. Thus though there was no official salic law it seems that women were not preferred as rulers. On the other hand, the prejudice seems actually confined to daughters. There are plenty of examples of queens who served as regents for their sons or ruled directly. Thus political power was weilded officially by women not as daughters, but as widows and mothers.

The more famous queens were good adminstrators. They created laws and maintianed order in the kingdom. There are mentions of provincial administrators like Mailadevi. Royal women often held adminstrative posts. There are references to women as justices of peace. They were also sometimes officers in royal households and poets in royal courts. There were also some village headwoman. But of course, political power mostly lay in the hands of men.

Of greater popularity are the warrior-queens known as virangana. Vedas mention a few warrior queens. The majority of the Viranganas are known only in their own regions, but some gained India-wide fame. Rani Chennamanna of Karnataka is such a one. Kurma Devi of Chitor (Rajasthan) ruled the kingdom in her son's name and gave battle in person to Muslim invaders. Rani Durgabati of Gondwana, (Madya Pradesh) successfully repulsed Muslims but later was defeated in battle with Akbar. She stabbed herself. Queen Tarabai of Rajashtan killed the Afghan chief who had taken her father's kingdom herself. She later committed sati. Ahalyabai Holkar of Maharashtra had decided to committ sati but was stopped by her father-in-law. She created a regiment of women and commanded troops from her elephant. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi is the most famous example: she was a leader in the Sepoy Mutiny and died fighting. However it was not only queens who got to fight. Takkadevi was a general of a Calukya king who won a number of victories and was called 'rana-bhairavi'. Guards in the woman's section of the palace and royal bodyguards were women. Obviously, this was not the general run of things. But these are positive images of female identity. The woman is not honoured as a wife or mother, and therefore her sexual behaviour is not regarded as important. She excercises what Western discourses identify as 'masculine' virtues, both physically and intellectually. But in Hindu history they are not regarded as unwomanly or masculine. Nor are their heroism thought to detract them from having family life. They are simply viranganas (warrior heroines), women who have shown valour in every sphere of life: they are to be emulated. Obviously the virangana and cults of the warrior-goddesses were linked. Worship of warrior-goddesses made accepting such women easier; the presence of female warriors in turn fed back to the cults, strengthening their worship. Thus Hindu women does not have to look to Western models for salvation. Examples are right in front of them.


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