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State of Indian Women during Colonial Times

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

The place of women in our society has been a topic of concern from time immemorial. Be it the right to exercise basic human rights or yearning for equality in myriad spheres, women got it the hard way. Different Aeons have seen the struggles and growth of women which can be talked about at great lengths.


(Image source - Internet, unknown source)

Women in India have had their fair share of tussles and augmentations. East India Company ruled India for a long period of time (1858-1947), and they made a ubiquitous and prominent impact on Indian culture, work norms, and the PEOPLE.

The British Raj’s social and economical effects are talked about and cited numerous times, but the lives of women during these times are scarcely discussed. I will try to cite a few examples and anecdotes that may shed light on this uncharted topic.


During the advent of British rule, the position of women in India was in a sorry state. They were ghettoized in their little households. Very few of them knew to read and write. Women have always been considered inferior to the other gender, and their capability to do work, other than providing and taking care of the family, was always undermined. Indian values inevitably surged this notion through their practices. Females were given metate, stone instruments used to grind maize. The discrimination started right from the time when they were born. Women did not have the right to education and were assigned the feminine typecast roles.

Before Indian colonization, various practices such as sati, marrying them off at young age and the worst-female infanticide was practiced.


Sati was a Hindu practice, now redundant, in which a widow had to sacrifice her life by sitting on her deceased husband’s pyre. It symbolized that if a woman has lost her husband, she has lost all her significant rights to live. Her live body was burnt to ashes. Every woman had to obligate, or better to say they had no other options. It was entrenched in their pious minds that it was a moral obligation and it shows their love towards their husbands- the superior gender. Women who denied following the practice were forcefully dragged into the fire. What a sorry state that could have been, we can not even imagine it in our wildest imaginations. The evil practice was finally terminated on December 4, 1829, by the then Governor-General William Bentinck.

Raja Rammohan Roy is known as the pioneer of women’s rights in India, specifically because he came out in support of the abolition of Sati.

Many such practices were prevalent at that time, which finally came to an end in the British era. After centuries of oppression, suffering, and degradation, Raja Ram Mohan Ray, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, and various other social reformers laid stress on women’s liberation from these social constraints. They opposed female infanticide and promoted the idea of education for all.

Their contribution to putting an end to Sati, Child marriage, and other evil practices must be acknowledged but, another side of the story reveals heart-wrenching and horrendous facts about the hypocrisy of the Britishers.

On one hand, they propagated their progressive thoughts and abolished discriminatory practices and on the other hand, they used Indian women as their sexual slaves.



“The Queen’s Daughters in India” written by Elizabeth W. Andrew & Katharine C. Bushnell in 1898 reveals a tragic truth of the British rule in India. The book highlights the dark truths about the British’s exploitation of Indian women who were used as sex slaves for the soldiers of the British Military. The British “Cantonments” built to guard against rebellions were used for prostitution. They perpetuated to give Indian women financial independence for which they established brothels where around 12-15 women served 1000s of soldiers. They also practiced sodomy on young boys when women weren’t available. To get themselves protected from STDs that may have been lurking in women, they forcefully got the women tested but exempted themselves from the same, as they considered it degrading for their manly virtues. They raped attractive women and then confined them to prostitution.

They tweaked the laws accordingly, and it was really tough for justice to prevail.

It is better to make judgments after hearing both sides of the story. Women have been exploited in the past and even today. Providing women with needful rights is not ‘glorious’ as to say, but is necessary. Britishers should not be put on a pedestal for the entire liberation of women, for providing women with 10 out of 100 rights and in turn, atrociously using them for their own good.

Now, looking at both sides of the stories we are in a better place to judge the Impact that Brits had on women during their rule.

So to say, there are instances that show that the Whites, in a way, contributed to breaking the shackles of orthodox oppression of women is not the whole truth rather the Indians were exploited be it men or women. Tragedy is that colonization is glorified by the education system and as per western beliefs as the ‘golden era’. We still describe the viceroy and governor general of India during colonial times and East India companies times with suffix 'Lord' but lord doesn't ill treats the people rather keep sympathy and manages the affairs of state honestly and humanly manner. Which wasn't the case with all of them.

To be fair, the British did establish schools, and the railways and even tried to mitigate inequality amongst the ‘natives’ they so abhorred. The ill practices of Britishers, the blood spills of Indians, and the lost lives due to their rule in India are not compensated by their ‘developments’, but there is no harm in accepting them.


By our Member - Sophia Kundu (Get membership today and get a chance to feature. Check here)

 



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