It is no secret that the modern society, while having made many advancements and progress, still does not offer the same opportunities to men and women. The invisible divide that staggers the society into various categorical hierarchies lead to the oppression of women, in nearly all spheres of life. Through the exclusion of women from important spaces, society tends to ignore the concerns and needs of nearly half of its population. However, this has not always been the case in Indian society. What needs to change then? How can we ensure that not only are women given a platform, but actively heard?
In Ancient India, that is the Vedic period, women were not only an important part of the social sphere of the society, but also participated in the intellectual sphere. Female scholars were divided into two distinct groups. The first group was known as the Brahmavadinis, they were involved in learning the Vedas throughout their lives and never married. The other group was known as the Sadyodvahas, who were allowed to study the Vedas till they got married. Female students were not discouraged from learning and studying the Vedas.
The presence of various female scholars, mentioned throughout the Vedas, namely Sulabhā Maitreyī, Gārgī Vāchaknavī, Lopāmudra, Ghōṣa, Visvavārā, Vadavā Prāchiteyī, and Sikatā Nivāvarī, implies that the inferior position that women have been relegated to is a construct of the times. As there were developments within the Indian subcontinent, the female population was tied down with multiple restraints and restrictions. Most famously, the Manusmriti was detrimental to the participation of women in the public sphere, as it placed women in a subservient position and denied them any agency. The way forward is to acknowledge the capabilities of women and to nurture their potential, so that they can become stakeholders in the society.
It would be wrong to assume that patriarchy has been the default setting for Indian society. Plenty of examples borrowed from the past prove the fact that women were involved in educational matters, affair of the states, and within the domestic arena. Moreover, some societies in the Indian subcontinent, to this date, follow matrilineal systems of inheritance and identification. The Khasi tribe in the northeast part of India is an example of this matrilineal and matrilocal culture. It leads to greater economic independence for the women and girl child and also destigmatizes the notions of blood purity.
By investing in the family through matrilineal descent, women become the centre of the family dynamic. Since, children take the name of the mother, rather than the father, each child is accepted in the society and is provided a wholesome environment to grow in. While the men are still the figureheads in the family, a greater importance on the role of women in decision making is helpful in addressing the concerns of the females in the family. Though, this is not a perfect system, it still allows for a greater dialogue to open up in the family, and the society at large.
Culturally, we need to provide a platform to women, so that we can address their grievances. The system of patriarchy is an artificial construct that hinders the progress of the nation because it limits the functioning of a prominent section of the society. An old adage says that educating a man leads to education of an individual, but educating a woman leads to the education of the whole nation. The Vedic society in India was more egalitarian in the matter of female participation in politics, education and society. Though it was not perfect by any stretch of imagination, there was still a broader scope for women to assert their presence and showcase their potential.
Today, while women are free to pursue professional and education feats, there social position has remained stagnant. They are still ruled by the diktats of their social conditions. We must realize that they have the agency to pursue the life they want and try to work against harmful socio-cultural practices that hinders their emancipation. Looking back to the past can help us move forward towards a more inclusive space that helps us to consider all sections of the society and unite them.
Monya has done her graduation from University of Delhi. She is pursuing her Masters in International relations from Jamia Millia Islamia University. She has a keen interest in Feminist Literature, Geo-Politics and Foreign Policy.
The article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the Organisation.