Women in India



Indian culture has created various images of the role of women in Indian society – on the one hand, women are perceived as guardians of the hearth, obedient daughters and wives and on the other hand, Hinduism, as no other religion in the world, has numerous goddesses of war whose actions often decide about the fate of the world. It is valuable to present the most typical women in Indian culture to understand attitudes of today’s women in India and stereotypes they have to face. Thus, in the first part of the article, two heroines of collective images of the role of women in India are presented. In the second part, the ideal types are confronted with the contemporary Indian heroines: Indira Gandhi, Mahasweta Devi, Ahilya Rangnekar and Mother Teresa from Calcutta. We will also look at similarities between Polish and Indian images of the roles of women in society and the way these images changed in the 20th century.

Undoubtedly, the most important woman in Indian culture is Sita, the main character of the great epic - Ramayana. Sita was found on a field by Janaka, who was plowing the land. Born from soil, Sita became the symbol of nature and beauty. When she grew up, she married Rama. Shortly afterwards, as a result of a plot in the palace, the prince was sent to exile for 12 years. He settled in a forest together with his wife and brother. While living in the forest, Sita was deceitfully kidnapped by a demon called Ravana, who took her to the Lanka island. Ramayana is to a large extent depiction of Rama’s heroic struggle to get his wife back. However, when Sita was rescued, Rama together with the whole community started questioning her fidelity to her husband while in captivity. Despite her assurances, she was forced to undergo the test of fire. If she stands in the flames and is not burnt, she said the truth. Sita victoriously passed the test and the story has a happy ending. Rama and Sita had two sons.

In Indian tradition, Rama is the symbol of an honest and brave king and ideal husband. Similarly, for centuries, Sita has set an ideal example for other women. She is characterized by attributes that are highly valued in Indian society, which is in line with her spirit. Today, the feature of Sita that distinguishes the heroine of Ramayana is her passivity. Sita was dependent first on her father’s, and later, on her husband’s will. When her husband had to leave the palace, she was with him. Kidnapped by a demon, she waited to be rescued hoping her husband will come to help her. Moreover, she obediently accepts and undergoes the test of fire. Sita has a role that is assigned to her by society. Doing something against the role would be equal with breaking the ideal order which is symbolized by Rama and Sita. Similarly to Ramayana, also in other Indian texts depicting the life of Indian people, mainly kings and wars that they were fighting, these were men who completely dominated the public sphere. They ruled the world and women could only support them by being next to them or by praying to their gods.

An attribute that Sita together with various other heroines in Indian culture represent is fertility, understood as the fecundity of soil and offspring. A woman represents life and the role of a mother is the most important role that she has to play in her life. This is the very offspring that Indian women pray for to their Hindu goddesses. A woman who is neither a wife nor a mother is not full; she is often treated as dangerous for society (since she can seduce men with her beauty and thus, bring misfortune).

Some Hindu goddesses have different roles than the earthly Sita. A goddess that is especially popular among the goddesses of war is Durga, who is known as an eight-arm goddess who defeated the Mahishasura demon, which allowed her to restore the balance in the world. Durga, as a divine creature, differs significantly from other female characters in Indian culture, in which a woman is a good daughter, a wife or a dancer – a dangerous seductress with demonic forces.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the way of thinking about women’s place in Indian society changed. These were the women themselves who fought against the stereotypes since they joined the Indian independence movement and later, actively participated in the public life of democratic India. Thus, the image of a woman gradually stopped being associated with the home and family. Women entered both the socio-economic life (they started working and obtained the right to possess and inherit property) and civic and public life.

A turning point for women in India came when the attitudes towards working women changed and it became acceptable for women to have various jobs. In the 1960’s and 1970’s it was, in fact, not allowed for women to have a different job than that of teacher, nurse and clerk. Poor women worked, but only in shops or workshops that belonged either to their fathers or husbands. Moreover, in the long-term, women’s presence in the public sphere, especially in urban spaces, weakened the initial atmosphere of distrust against women, especially young women who were exposed to the temptations of the city. Women’s presence in urban areas also became normal. Thus, women can now use public transportation freely. Yet this change did not happen without a reason. It happened because of women who pushed the limits and set an example for other women. A special role in changing public awareness was played by such women as Mahasweta Devi. After Devi graduated from university, she had to work as a teacher and soon became interested in understanding restrictions that are imposed on women by traditional society. Many of her works, since she eventually worked as a writer, are devoted to depicting irrationality behind the conservative way of thinking. In her books, she has also often criticized the fact that women are locked (not literally) in the home, cannot be ambitious and are confined to the role of a daughter – and a candidate for a wife who had to be a virgin - and later, a wife and mother. In the 1970’s, Devi shocked everybody because she talked about taboos that till then had belonged to the private sphere. Her books aroused similar reactions to those in Poland after Danuta Wałęsa published her autobiography, which is not only a book, but also a widely discussed event. Wałęsa tells her own history of Poland observed through the prism of the home and the role that has been assigned to her as a woman. Both the autobiography of the former First Lady of Poland and Mahasweta Devi’s works have pushed the limits as to what can be said in public and what should be left in the home. They have both shown that the private and public worlds are always interwoven and presenting history only by men does not represent it fully.

The heroines allow us to better understand the attitudes of contemporary women towards the role of a mother, which is imposed on them by society. Indira Gandhi, Ahilya Rangnekar and Danuta Wałęsa were all mothers. Henryka Krzywonos was a foster mother, who established her own family orphanage after she found out that she could not have her own children. Finally, Hanka Ordonówna saved children during World War II. Each of them chose a different way of living, which shows that there is no one model of a real woman or one way of fulfilling oneself as a woman.

Women have entered not only the socio-economic world, but also the world of power and politics. In 1950, under the constitution, women in India obtained voting rights. This was a big change for India, where the image of a woman as obedient and unable to decide about herself was still omnipresent. All stereotypes were destroyed by Indira Gandhi, who was at first perceived as a weak and submissive heiress of the throne who could help the party win elections. With time, she became the most imperious prime minister in independent India. Despite her privileged family background, Indira was still a woman, a mother and a widow (since 1960), who traditionally had a very low social position in India. Undoubtedly, her victory consisted in the fact that after she came to power, she was seldom viewed through the prism of her sex. Indira belonged to a group of women who decided to hold positions reserved for men only.

The fact that women both in India and Poland participated in the political life was connected not only with executing state power, but also with participating in civic life, watching authorities and raising democratic standards. As an example may serve here Ahilya Rangnekar, who fought for workers and working women’s rights and later, for women’s rights in general. She was a woman in a world dominated by men, where women, including working women, were invisible. Thus, she reminds Hernyka Krzywonos, who stood next to striking shipyard workers. After 1989, Krzywonos has withdrawn from politics, but has defended women’s rights in Poland on a regular basis, arguing that solidarity is a virtue that is important in a daily struggle. The fact that both heroines took part in shaping democracy and images of the role of women is important due to the fact that they have proven that in democracy power is not confined to posts only, but it is also about having an impact on authorities for the common good. They have brought new quality to politics by treating politics as a tool to meet social needs and challenges, not just a power struggle.

It is worth mentioning that women in India and in Poland have also pointed at the presence of problems that have been ignored by men or treated as irrelevant. Women have become involved in such socio-economic problems as poverty, social seclusion and a widely defined right to dignity. In India, it was Mother Teresa, who was involved in fighting against such problems. In Poland, it is Małgorzata Chmielewska. It could be claimed that this domain is connected with the traditional role of women as carers. However, it is worth noting that today women are, on the one hand, focused on organizing assistance, joint action, at the same time, going out of the home and family and having a creative impact on the surrounding reality. On the other hand, they are aware of their social and economic rights and are ready to insist on respecting their employment or social rights, which they can influence themselves.

The position and images of women in India and Poland have a lot in common. In both countries, women were traditionally assigned the roles of wives and mothers and ascribed such features as modesty, patience, composure and resourcefulness. Even the latest research demonstrates that women are evaluated on the basis of their personality and their traditional virtues far more often than on the basis of their efficiency. In the 20th century, women had a significant impact on the change of the stereotypical way of thinking. Their attitudes have proved that there are neither features nor tasks that can only be assigned to women and the fact that women participate in the public sphere and socio-political life only improves their quality.



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