Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The passage of four separate parliamentary acts between 1955 and 1956 sought to give women formal legal rights. Tradition has made the full realization of these rights slow and even nonexistent in some parts of India, even into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

Indian society historically has been patriarchal. Males enjoyed prerogatives and prestige generally denied girls and women, although a few regions in India preserved some important matriarchal traditions. In some places, property and the family name passed from mother to daughter, but these were isolated exceptions to the rule. The Manu smirti Laws of Manu, The (ancient text) (comp. fourth century c.e.; The Laws of Manu, 1886), an ancient Indian legal text compiled in the fourth century c.e., asserts that a woman should always be controlled by men. In her youth, a father must guard her. As an adult, she must serve her husband. In her old age, her sons must protect her. In practical terms, this meant that a woman had few rights to real property. When her husband or parents died, she had no claim on their estates. Male relatives disposed of any wealth as they saw fit. India;women’s rights[womens rights] Women;political and legal rights Hindu Code (1955-1956) [kw]Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation (1955-1956) [kw]Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation, Indian (1955-1956)[Parliament Approves Womens Rights Legislation, Indian] [kw]Women’s Rights Legislation, Indian Parliament Approves (1955-1956)[Womens Rights Legislation, Indian Parliament Approves] [kw]Rights Legislation, Indian Parliament Approves Women’s (1955-1956) India;women’s rights[womens rights] Women;political and legal rights Hindu Code (1955-1956) [g]South Asia;1955-1956: Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation[04740] [g]India;1955-1956: Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation[04740] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1955-1956: Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation[04740] [c]Women’s issues;1955-1956: Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation[04740] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1955-1956: Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation[04740] [c]Social issues and reform;1955-1956: Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation[04740] Nehru, Jawaharlal Gandhi, Mahatma

Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

(Library of Congress)

Marriages were arranged, so women had little to say about the choice of a mate. Marriages often took place while the partners were still infants or toddlers. Although these couples did not live together as husband and wife until they attained puberty, child brides were subject to all the constraints of married women. Most dramatically, if their child husbands happened to die, girls were classified as widows.

Among upper-caste Indians, widow remarriage was forbidden. Child widows were doomed to miserable lives as little more than slaves in the homes of their in-laws or as burdens for their parents and brothers. Even if widowhood came while she was an adult, a woman faced a bleak future if she did not have sons willing to support her. For that reason, especially in higher castes, widows were encouraged to become satis. A sati is literally a virtuous woman, but in this instance it meant that a new widow should volunteer to be immolated on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre, a practice called suttee Suttee . Relatives used suttee to get rid of unwanted female dependents. They went as far as drugging women and placing them on the pyre against their will.

Beginning in the eleventh century c.e., Muslims began to arrive in India in considerable numbers. In the thirteenth century the first of many independent Muslim kingdoms was established. Until the breakup of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century, Muslims ruled much of the subcontinent. Especially in North India, Hindus were influenced by many Muslim customs, including the tendency to isolate women from society at large. A woman was supposed to enter her husband’s home in the bridal carriage and leave it only on her funeral bier (coffin with stand). This custom, known as purdah, meant that Indian women of the upper classes had to face sexual apartheid as well as the other disabilities mentioned above.

In the early nineteenth century, many Indian and British social reformers took up women’s issues such as marriage, divorce, and education. Ram Mohan Ray Ray, Ram Mohan , the Bengali social critic, agitated for an end to the burning of widows and for the education of women. In 1828, the government did ban suttee, and small attempts to found women’s schools began. Other legislative reforms occurred later in the nineteenth century. For example, the British raised the age at which girls would be considered the victims of statutory rape from age ten to age twelve. This meant that girls were not forced to consummate their marriages when they were still children.

In the twentieth century, women took a very active role in the freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, Kasturbai, Gandhi, Kasturbai frequently led demonstrations. The Mahatma himself gave women a prominent place in the Indian National Congress Indian National Congress (also known as the Congress Party). While the Indian independence movement was under way, few attempts were made to address women’s concerns. After 1947, however, politicians eager to make India a truly modern, democratic state gave considerable emphasis to women’s health, education, and legal rights. Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India, took the lead in legislating rights for Hindu women. Between 1955 and 1956, the Indian parliament, which had at the time only twenty-five female members, passed four pieces of legislation: the Hindu Marriage Act Hindu Marriage Act (1955) , Hindu Succession Act Hindu Succession Act (1956) , Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (1956) , and Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956) , which taken together as the so-called Hindu Code constituted a statement of Hindu personal law.

In the Hindu Code, women were guaranteed several legal rights. In the event that a husband took a second wife, the first was entitled to sue for divorce. Several other grounds on which wives could divorce their husbands were also laid down. The Marriage Act was further amended in 1976 to allow for “no fault” divorce. The Succession Act gave widows rights to real property. It also abolished the joint family system, which favored male heirs over females. Instead of small cash settlements or nothing at all, women now had the opportunity to hold agricultural land as well as houses in their own name.


Taken by themselves, each of the four acts of the Hindu Code is an impressive piece of legislation that appears to give women a considerable number of legal rights. Many obstacles, however, existed to the full implementation of those laws. In the early twenty-first century, the great majority of women still live as they traditionally had in the countryside in villages. The numbers of women in school increased impressively in the years after 1947, but the rate of literacy among women remained far below that of men. In this situation, women often did not know what legal prerogatives they had.

In the restricted world of the villages, women had few opportunities to learn about the law and fewer still to consult with a lawyer. The law of inheritance supposedly eliminated the economic restrictions imposed on women by the joint family system, but in the countryside females had few chances to acquire the necessary cash to hire a lawyer. Males remained in control of most of a family’s wealth. Marriages were still arranged, and women had very little say about when they married or whom they would marry. The society still disapproved of divorce. A divorced woman was often thought to be unlucky, so her chances of remarriage were slight. Only in the best-educated and wealthiest circles was divorce or remarriage tolerated. Even there, the incidence of divorce was very low when compared to Europe or the United States.

A new crime, bride burning, appeared in the 1980’s, indicating that in India the physical abuse, including murder, of women was still tolerated. The crime was most common among middle-class families in the cities of North India. It involved a husband demanding gifts, such as motorbikes, televisions, or videocassette recorders, from his wife’s parents or brothers. If these “presents” were not forthcoming, the bride met with a horrible death. For example, because cooking was often done on kerosene stoves, even in middle-class homes, husbands found it fairly easy to fake an accidental death by throwing the flammable liquid over their wives, setting the liquid on fire, and then claiming that the stove exploded. A bride’s death freed her husband to seek another wife and, perhaps, repeat the crime. At first, police were reluctant to pursue criminal investigations of such deaths, but an outcry from women’s groups led to a number of arrests and convictions, so the incidence of the crime diminished.

Women’s rights to property became the most hotly contested of the reforms made by the Hindu Code. Many court suits have been filed by family members seeking to reduce or eliminate a woman’s share of her husband’s estate. The courts often ruled against women. Even when a woman succeeded in maintaining her inheritance rights, the financial and time costs of a lawsuit left her financially and emotionally exhausted.

In the 1980’s, an increasingly vocal feminist movement began making headway, especially among women in the cities. Women’s groups devoted themselves to the educational and economic welfare of their poorer, less-privileged sisters. In the future, the true test of the rights guaranteed by the Hindu Code will be their extension to women in the countryside and among the poorer segments of the populace. India;women’s rights[womens rights] Women;political and legal rights Hindu Code (1955-1956)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Desai, Neera, and Maithreyi Khrishnaraj. Women and Society in India. Delhi, India: Ajanta, 1987. An introductory textbook written from an interdisciplinary feminist perspective. Provides a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence about the lives of women in modern India.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Souza, Eunice, ed. Purdah: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Comprehensive, 552-page collection of writings on the custom of purdah in India. Includes first-person accounts and literary accounts of purdah.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dhruvarajan, Vanaja. Hindu Women and the Power of Ideology. Granby, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey, 1989. Study of women’s lives in a South Indian village. The author treats such important issues as work, health, and education. Provides some sense of how women’s lives have and have not changed in the contemporary countryside.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khrishnamurty, J., ed. Women in Colonial India. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1989. Considers many different aspects of women’s lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several articles are detailed studies of women’s economic activities, while other articles deal with women’s legal rights and wrongs as well as with general cultural attitudes toward women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The Laws of Manu. Translated by Georg Buhler. New York: Dover, 1969. The Laws of Manu, an Indian legal text dating from the fourth century, emphasizes that women are weaker and less intelligent by nature than males. It also stresses that women’s chastity must be closely protected because, left on their own, women quickly will go astray.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mandelbaum, David G. Women’s Seclusion and Men’s Honor. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988. A brief study of several areas of the Indian subcontinent where purdah, the seclusion of women, is practiced. Highlights the ambiguity of the place of women in such systems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preston, Laurence V. The Devs of Cincvad: A Lineage and the State in Maharashtra. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A detailed historical study of the material base of a particular lineage of holy men from the first half of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth. By indicating how important women were within the kin group and how powerful they could become through their control of adoptions, the book provides a somewhat different perspective on women in “traditional India.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramu, G. N. Women, Work, and Marriage in Urban India. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1989. A sociological study that deals with some of the new problems that arise for women in modern cities. Studies women who work outside the home as well as those who do not.

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