“Sexism is the root oppression, the one which, until and unless we uproot it, will continue to put forth the branch of racism, class, hatred, ageism, competition, ecological disaster, and economic exploitation. No other human differentiation can be similarly powerful in reproducing oppressions, and so, women are the real left.”

-Robin Morgan in Sisterhood is Powerful

Inequalities and diversities define Indian society. In spite of various laws that protect women’s rights, Indian women face some of the biggest gender inequalities in the world. Over the course of Indian history, women’s rights and position in society has been subject to many changes. How did their rights change over time? And what are issues Indian women struggle with nowadays?

History of feminism in India

Indian women did not always face inequalities. In the Vedic period of Hindu culture (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE), they held the same position as men. Women enjoyed high standards of education, and female scholars like Gargi, Godha, Maitrayi were well-known for their intellectual and literacy abilities. Women also had complete control over gifts and property received at the time of marriage. 

Women’s status quickly declined after, when they were no longer allowed to study religious texts or to receive an education. Instead, they were expected to get married and manage their marriage and domestic lives. Child marriages were not uncommon. Restrictions were also placed on women’s appearance towards men outside of their family – they had to wear a veil to cover their face or whole body when leaving the house.

Women’s position in society further declined during the medieval period when widow immolation, child marriages and a ban on widow remarriage became part of social life in some communities in India. In some areas, groups of women would even immolate themselves together to avoid being turned into sex slaves of enemies after the death of their husbands in war, a practice called Jauhar. Moreover, in many Muslim families women were restricted to inner areas of the house to avoid direct contact with strangers.

When British colonisers arrived in India, several laws aiming to improve the position of women were introduced, such as a prohibition of widow immolation, the Hindu widow remarriage act allowing widow Hindu women to get married again, and the child marriage act which raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 for women and 21 for men.

In the 1920s, various local independent women’s organisations emerged. Among them was the All India Women’s Conference, which was founded in 1927 and aimed to improve literacy levels of women and children. Later, women’s movements became part of Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement, which demanded an end to British rule in India. This opened the door for the spread of women’s organisations1 and legitimised and expanded women’s public activities. 

Although women’s rights groups continued their work after India gained independence in 1947, their advocacy was initially silenced as nationalist agendas on nation-building took precedence over feminism topic2. After, the feminist movement mainly focused on the reasonable treatment of women at home and in the workforce, and on the right to join a political party1. In 1954, the National Federation of Indian Women was established to fight for the empowerment of women and their rights. In the 1970s, the focus of the feminist movement shifted to inequalities such as unequal wages and the relegation of women to unskilled and underpaid spheres of work. 

Over the years, new laws came into force to protect women. Among them were laws to protect women from domestic violence and sexual harassment, and a prohibition of dowry. Feminists helped increase the extent to which women were allowed to engage in the workforce and women gained the right to vote and be elected into the Parliament. This led to the election of India’s first, and so far only, female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Gandhi, who was elected in 1966 and then again in 1980, spoke out for women’s right to political participation in decision-making processes and political activism. She was killed because of political motives in 1984. Gandhi’s legacy is an unforgettable one. She sought to set an example for women leaders across the country to seek positions of (political) influence and served as an inspiration for many of them. 

Today, in the early 21st century, the aim of the Indian feminist movement has gone beyond treating women as useful members of the society to also ensuring women have the power to decide the course of their personal lives and that they have the right of self-determination1.

Modern-day challenges

Despite ‘on-paper’ advancements, Indian women still face many challenges that prevent them from taking full advantage of their rights and opportunities. Many traditions and customs that are enshrined in the Indian culture still restrict women’s right to self-determination. For instance, in spite of the Dowry Prohibition Act, families in many parts of the country are still expected to pay a dowry when their daughter enters marriage3. This tradition makes daughters be perceived as a financial burden on families. As a woman’s status in her husband’s house is determined by the dowry she brought upon marriage, a family’s ability to afford a big dowry determines whether a woman has a good married life or not. This, along with the expectation that a new wife will move away from her family to be with her husband and family in law and will thus not be able to take care of her parents, makes that families generally prefer having sons over having daughters. 

Moreover, in India’s male-dominated society, women’s main role is still to have children and to take care of them and all household activities. These social norms imposed on women often conflict with the Indian constitution, as they prevent women from have equal opportunities in life. Even though they are considered illegal, the Indian government chooses not to interfere with religion and personal norms4 to avoid controversy. Authorities only act when women or girls file complaints against discriminating activities, something that only rarely happens as women experience pressure or do not feel safe to do so.

Being worth less

Indian society is largely composed of hierarchical systems which can be broken down into age, gender, kinship relationships, caste, occupations, and relationship to the ruling power. For women this hierarchy means that, from birth onwards, they are entitled to less; from playtime to food to education. Girls in poor families suffer most from this vulnerability and are more likely to become child brides. When poverty is acute, marrying off a daughter allows parents to reduce their expenses. It means one person less to feed, clothe and educate. Although child marriage is illegal by Indian law, yearly 1.5 million under-aged girls are forced to enter marriage, making India home to the largest number of child brides in the world. In 2016, 7 per cent of girls under 15 and 27 per cent of girls under 18 years old were married. To make matters worse, girls who enter into marriage at a young age are less likely to receive education after, increasing the likelihood of lifelong poverty.

Moreover, in India’s patriarchal society, men predominate in roles of political power, social privilege, and control of the property. Fathers or husbands are presumed to be in charge of what happens within their family and function as the official head of the household. All household resources are under the husband’s control and are passed on to his sons when he dies, leaving wives and daughters in poverty.

The male-to-female ratio

While a natural sex ratio is roughly 105 men and boys for every 100 women and girls, in 2015 India had 108 males for every 100 females. That means that there are roughly 2.8 per cent fewer girls and women alive than the natural ratio predicts, another manifestation of their lower worth. 

One reason for India’s uneven gender balance is the occurrence of female infanticide, the murder of baby girls. It has been estimated that, of the 12 million Indian girls born each year, 1 million does not make it to the age of 1 and that an Indian girl between ages 1 and 5 is 75 per cent more likely to die than a boy. Parents make the difficult decision to end their daughter’s life mainly because daughters are often seen as a financial burden to families or because parents may want to spare their daughters the hard life poor girls and women in India often face.

While the murder of baby girls is mainly an issue in lower-educated communities, this does not mean higher-educated families have not found ways to have boys instead of girls. Although foetal sex determination is banned in India, it is secretly practised to determine whether a pregnant couple is having a boy or a girl, often leading to a number of sex-selective abortions until the couple has a son. 

Another issue contributing to an uneven gender-ratio is that women might face barriers in accessing health care services. The World Economic Forum found that Indian women enjoyed only 94.4 per cent of access to healthcare that men do, meaning that millions of Indian women face preventable health issues due to gender-based healthcare barriers. 

Violence

The violence that girls face as infants continues throughout life. In 2018 the Thomas Reuters Foundation found that India was the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman. Reasons were the high risk for women to face sexual violence and harassment or to become a victim of human trafficking, and dangers for women due to cultural, tribal and traditional practices. In 2018, 43 crimes against women were reported every hour in India, most of which (32 per cent) fell in the category “cruelty by husband or his relatives”. This corresponds to UNICEF’s finding that 22 per cent of girls and women were subjected to physical, sexual or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner during the previous twelve months. 

Sexual violence is a daily threat to women in India. In 2018, 33,356 women reported being raped, and 294 women and girls became the victim of murder with rape. Of 8,538 female murder victims, 7,166 were killed because of dowry, either by their own family or by their in-laws. Moreover, women were also overrepresented as victims of other crimes. For example, in 105,000 kidnapping cases, 77 per cent of victims were female (46 per cent women, 31 per cent girls).

While laws such as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act from 2005 and mitigations to the Criminal law aim to ensure women’s safety, they seem to do little to actually protect women from violence. Court cases for crimes against women only led to a conviction in 23 per cent of court cases in 2018. Many reported cases never make it to court because victims face pressure from family to drop the case. To make matters worse, many cases never even get reported because victims do not feel safe or face tremendous pressure not to, leading to an underestimation of violence against women in India and perpetrators going unpunished. All of these different levels of violence against women have left India as a country in which there are 37 million more men than women and women have to fear for their lives on a daily basis.

Marriage, children and household responsibilities

Traditional and social pressure on Indian women to enter marriage is significant. Marriages are considered to be between two families rather than two individuals, and in many families women are not allowed to decide whether or to whom to get married. Instead, when a woman’s relatives decide it is time, they choose a suitable partner for her. This generally happens at a young age too. In fact, over a fourth of Indian women is married by the time they are 18, and it is unusual for a woman not to enter into marriage at all. 

Once married, a wife’s life is ruled by her husband and his parents5 and her main responsibility becomes having and raising children and managing household tasks. According to the OECD, Indian women on average spend roughly six hours a day on unpaid work such as household tasks and taking care of children and relatives. This is six times more than Indian men, and more than women in any other OECD country. Women’s unpaid work is often overlooked as the results are often-times invisible or just not given any importance and it does not bring in any money. However, unpaid work plays a crucial role in keeping the country’s economic activity going and is estimated to be worth roughly 3.1 per cent of India’s GDP, not to mention it plays a big role in ensuring the wellbeing of children and the elderly. 

However, India’s fertility rate has been steadily declining for roughly 60 years from approximately 6 children to just over 2 children per woman in 2017. Contraceptives and education have enabled women who have access to them to take control of their reproductive function and to build lives outside of the home. For women who do not have access, however, little has changed.

Education

Indian women’s unequal careers opportunities start very early in life, as girls have fewer opportunities to receive education. In 2018, 4.1 per cent of girls between the ages 11 and 14  and 13.5 per cent of girls aged 15 and 16 still were not enrolled in school. The popular belief that girls should enter marriage early in life to produce healthy offspring is one of the things standing in the way of girls receiving a proper education. And as daughters will just get married and have children, families often do not see a reason to invest in their education. Another reason for girls’ lower enrolment rates is the expectation that girls stay at home and help their mothers in domestic activities after a certain age, instead of going to school. This allows them to learn to do household activities such as cooking, stitching and cleaning, which will be expected from them once they are married. Because their mothers often did not receive a lot of education either, this is where many girls’ education stops. 

However, things have improved over the last decades. The 1986 National Policy on Education aimed to empower women by creating a learning environment that enabled them to realise their potential and take charge of their own lives. The policy expanded scholarships and adult education, provided housing and incentives to poor families to send their children to school and set out the development of new educational institutions. It also expanded the open university system, which has an open-door academic policy with minimal or no entry requirements. This policy was later followed-up by the 2009 Right to Education Act, which made education free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14, and thereby made it more acceptable for girls to receive an education.

Employment and positions of power

As girl are more likely to receive less education, they are overrepresented among illiterate Indians. According to the latest data, India’s adult literacy rate is 73.2 per cent – of 313 million illiterate Indians, 59 per cent are women. Once they enter the job market, low education and literacy levels confine women to low paying and low skilled jobs.

However, like in virtually any country in the world, women are still paid less than men for doing the same jobs. The World Economic Forum found that Indian women earn only 55.5 cents for every dollar Indian men earn and enjoy only 35.4 per cent of economic participation and opportunities that men do. Women are also grossly underrepresented as legislators, senior officials and managers, as they are 84.2 per cent less likely to hold such a position. On top of that, only 11.5 per cent of members of Parliament are women. 

The Indian government has made efforts to eliminate inequality in the workforce. Indian constitution guarantees the right to equality, the freedom to carry out any profession and the right to liberty. Moreover, the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976 grants equal employment rights to men and women and aimed to increase equal pay and decrease gender discrimination in the workplace. These guarantees can empower women to make their own choices and can decrease gender disparity. It is clear that Indian laws have created a framework in which women and girls can enjoy equal opportunities and treatment. At this point, it is mostly weak enforcement of such laws and the traditional role models that are projected onto girls and women that keep them from reaching their potential.

The Swayam Sidha scheme, which was launched by the Ministry for Women and Child Development in 2001, tried to break through such role patterns. The scheme aims to empower women and make them financially independent with the support of 650 women’s self-help groups, voluntary associations of women in vulnerable situations. These groups help women have better access to all kinds of resources such as microcredit, in addition to increasing awareness of women’s rights and improving skills. The scheme resulted in improvements in the socioeconomic status of rural poor women and to improved skills of women to generate an income. 

Women in cinema

Finally, when it comes to women’s empowerment India, Bollywood films have proven to be a groundbreaking factor. With its huge popularity, Bollywood cinema is a major point of reference for Indian culture and has played a big role in promoting the empowerment of women in India. In conventional Indian movies, the role of female characters was usually restricted to being a good homemaker and a good mother. More recently, we see a significant improvement in the roles played by women in Indian films, with profound characters that have unconventional roles in life. Popular movies and female characters leave a mark on society and are an inspiration for women all over India.

Inequality – more than gender alone

When looking into the inequalities faced by women in India, it is hard to ignore all the other factors that create inequality for large sections of Indian society, including men. For one, the caste system, which stratifies the Indian population into hierarchical groups based on their karma and dharma, creates huge inequality by giving privileges to some and repressing lower castes. For instance, while the less caste’s average income is 34 per cent under the national household income, the highest caste’s average income lies 48 per cent above. Moreover, castes seem to have a significant effect on one’s health outcomes, with the lowest caste having a 7.1 years lower life expectancy, a lower likelihood of receiving healthcare, and more likelihood of being in poor health. 

Another factor that significantly affects one’s chances in life is the location in which they live. One-third of the Indian population lives in rural areas, where extreme poverty is rampant, education is poor and 15 per cent fewer people know how to read. Gender differences are also bigger in rural areas. For instance, women are 16 per cent less likely to be able to read in rural areas, compared to 9 per cent in urban areas. Child marriage is also more common in rural areas, with at least a quarter of girls age 10 to 17 married in some regions.

Life is also far from easy for India’s LGBT+ community. According to the government’s estimations, there are 2.5 million gay people in India, although LGBT+ rights activists say the real figure is likely to be higher. Sadly, no data is available on the number of trans or non-binary people or other members of the community. Besides a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that decriminalised same-sex relationships and a 2014 ruling that recognised transgender people as a third gender, Indian law does not include many protections for LGBT+ people. People from the community are more likely to face gender-based violence and harassment, including from police as well. They are often discriminated against when looking for housing and are more likely to experience homelessness as they are forced to leave their family homes. They are also more often denied education and are more likely to face discrimination when looking for a job and to end up in jobs that offer less security and worse working conditions. 

As Hindu nationalism is becoming more prominent, India is also becoming more and more a dangerous place to be a Muslim. While 14.2 per cent of the Indian population is Muslim, Muslims are increasingly being treated as foreigners, invaders. Prime Minister Modi, who was first elected in 2014, has played a big role in this increased violence, as his strategy relies on polarisation between Hindus and Muslims, and framing Muslims as a common enemy. Ever since, they have been the targets of lynchings and other forms of violence and discrimination. Most prominently, Modi’s government promised a so-called National Register of Citizens that will require Indians to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship, something that Muslims are less likely to be able to deliver. To illustrate, when a version of this exercise was conducted in the state of Assam, 1.9 million Muslims were declared non-citizens

Conclusion

How well a society treats women is a robust indicator of the success of that society. Equal participation of women at all stages is not just a matter of social justice, it is also an important factor for economic growth and sustainable development.

There is no denying the fact that Indian women have made considerable progress in the past years, but they still have to overcome many obstacles that prevent them from fully participating in India’s male-dominated society. For women’s empowerment to gain momentum, laws meant to protect women should not remain on paper only. Substantial steps should be taken to implement the laws which were meant to facilitate detention, prevention, and punishment of crimes against women. Moreover, efforts to ensure girls and women’s education should be increased, and society, specifically women, should be made aware of the various laws, policies and funding schemes that are meant to protect women and provide them with opportunities. Popular media also plays a big role in breaking gender roles, and with that, the expectations laid upon women, by showing women in non-traditional roles. 

However, the underlying problem to women’s unequal position is a society that is built on class and inequality. Women and girls are just one of many groups whose life is made more difficult by a conservative society in which Hindu heterosexual men from the highest castes and who live in urban settings hold power. Ultimately, progress made by women will remain meager unless the underlying system of inequality is resolved. 

Foot notes

  1. Kumar R. The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990. Zubaan; 1997. 
  2. Neely CL. Book Review: Gangoli, G. (2007). Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies, and Violence in India. London: Ashgate Publishing. das Dasgupta, S. (Ed.). (2007). Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Violence Women 2008;14(4):496–501. 
  3. Chaudhuri M. Feminism in India. 1 edition. London: Zed Books; 2005. 
  4. Narain V. Reclaiming the Nation: Muslim Women and the Law in India. University of Toronto Press; 2008. 
  5. Sharma I, Pandit B, Pathak A, Sharma R. Hinduism, marriage and mental illness. Indian J Psychiatry     2013;55(Suppl 2):S243–9.