Women’s Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change

During the period 1925-1935, the status of women in traditional Indian society underwent substantial change as a result of specific legislative measures as well as growing social consciousness.

Summary of Event

Before the twentieth century, the status of women in India traditionally had been defined by the patrilineal structure of society. Religion and custom provided the guidelines for restricting women’s rights and prescribing their conduct. Hindu and Muslim women were equally affected by these factors, although in somewhat different ways. Muslim women were subject to many strictures, the most visible being segregation of female children and adults and the practice of purdah (curtain), which required Muslim women to be veiled when in public. This custom eventually spread to upper-class Hindu women in northern India. Hindu women were governed by the tenets of their religion, which restricted their rights regarding inheritance, possession of property, and divorce, among others. [kw]Women’s Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change (1925-1935)[Womens Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change (1925 1935)]
[kw]Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change, Women’s (1925-1935)
[kw]India Undergo a Decade of Change, Women’s Rights in (1925-1935)
India;women’s rights[womens rights]
[g]India;1925-1935: Women’s Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change[06310]
[g]South Asia;1925-1935: Women’s Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change[06310]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1925-1935: Women’s Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change[06310]
[c]Social issues and reform;1925-1935: Women’s Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change[06310]
[c]Human rights;1925-1935: Women’s Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change[06310]
[c]Women’s issues;1925-1935: Women’s Rights in India Undergo a Decade of Change[06310]
Roy, Ram Mohun
Bentinck, William
Gandhi, Mahatma

By the nineteenth century, the cruel suppression of women’s fundamental rights was accepted as a norm of society in India rather than a cause for concern. The vast majority of women had no control over their destinies. Women had no choice in selecting their husbands; this was done by their families or their communities, often at birth. Child marriage was widely practiced, and polygamy was prevalent among several groups. Marriages were governed by caste and community restrictions, and intercaste marriages were not recognized. A particularly abused custom was that of dowry and its attendant assumption that the bride’s family would pay for a lavish wedding. The birth of several daughters was a financial liability, and female infanticide was not unknown. Many tragic incidents resulted from the inability of some families to meet these often unreasonable expenses. The practices of dowry payment and extravagant weddings drew public attention and protest when the press reported an incident in 1914 in which a young Bengali girl committed suicide. Upon learning that her father had mortgaged his home in order to provide for her dowry, the young woman set fire to herself. The popular indignation aroused by this story led to a short-lived trend of refusing dowries; however, in the absence of specific legislation to outlaw the practice, the custom continued as before.

The practice of sati (widow burning) continued in many northern communities despite the 1829 legislation declaring it to be illegal. The condition of widows in society reflected the inhumanity of custom. Even if a widow was allowed to survive her husband’s death, she was treated as a menial in the household and denied adequate food and simple pleasures such as new clothing, ornaments, and entertainment. The practice of shaving off a widow’s hair was part of this denial of life. A widow thus had the choice of literally dying with her spouse or enduring a living death. This was the logical outcome of a system in which the wife’s dependence on her husband was so complete that his death left her no alternative means of survival.

Efforts to change this state of affairs intensified during the nineteenth century, when the spirit of social reform gained momentum along with a rise in public consciousness. During this period, the energies of several individuals and organizations were directed toward the improvement of conditions of society in general and the lot of women in particular. Many significant changes occurred during this period, partly as a result of the promotion of social causes by various reform organizations and partly as a result of the passage of specific legislation that made some of the inhumane practices illegal and punishable. The change in public opinion toward women’s rights far outpaced the actual legislation that was passed. The growing involvement of women of all social classes in the freedom struggle also gave impetus to the forces of reform in Indian society.

Many of the legislative measures that were proposed failed to pass or were postponed for later consideration, but enough legislation did pass to set a trend in equalizing the status of women with that of men. Even the unsuccessful measures reflected a variety and scope that ranged from Viththalbhai Patel’s bill to recognize intercaste marriage (1918) to the civil marriage legislation (1911, 1922) that was eventually passed in modified form in 1923. Monogamy and divorce bills introduced at this time also failed initially, with opposition to reform coming from conservative elements of society. The cause of women’s education had been greatly enhanced by the government’s resolution on educational policy in 1904. Commenting on the lack of encouragement and limited opportunities for educational and professional training of girls, the report cited the noticeably small proportion of females—less than 10 percent of enrollment—in public schools. The pace of change in this area was slow. The percentage of girls attending educational institutions had risen only slightly, from 1.58 percent in 1886 to 2.49 percent in 1901. The founding of Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi and the Women’s University in Poona in 1916 initiated a new phase in the opportunities available to women.

A number of other progressive measures contributed to the currents of change. These included a law restricting dowries (1916), the establishment of several children’s homes following the lead taken by the Indian Women’s Association Indian Women’s Association[Indian Womens Association] (1923), and the founding of the Birth Control League Birth Control League (1924) to address issues of population control. Equally important was a 1925 measure aimed at curbing the prostitution that flourished under the shelter of Devadasi, the traditional institution of temple service. Muslim women took a decisive step when they decided to abolish purdah by a resolution adopted at the All India Women’s Congress All India Women’s Congress[All India Womens Congress] in 1928.

Two acts of legislative reform stand out in the decade of change from 1925 to 1935. The first was the Sarda Act of 1929, Sarda Act (1929) which tackled the issue of child marriage. It applied equally to all religious and caste groups and expressly forbade the marriage of girls under the age of fourteen and boys under the age of eighteen. Child marriage was made an offense punishable by imprisonment, a substantial fine, or sometimes both. Anyone identified as performing, directing, or in any way encouraging child marriage was subject to severe penalties. This included parents and any male over the age of twenty-one who was a party to the marriage. This represented a tremendous achievement in the struggle for women’s emancipation.

The Government of India Act of 1935 Government of India Act (1935) was the second measure that resulted in significant gains for Indian women. Several provisions of the act served to extend the political rights of women. A number of seats were allocated specifically for women in the federal and provincial assemblies and the Federal Council of State. A total of forty-one seats were set aside in the assemblies of eleven provinces. In addition, nine seats were allocated for women in the Federal Assembly and six seats in the Federal Council of State. These numbers may not appear to be large, but their symbolic value was substantial, as an acknowledgment of women’s right to represent others and to be represented in government. Women could at last participate in the decision-making process themselves rather than rely on the efforts of male legislators. A further gain was achieved through the amendment of qualifications for exercising the franchise. This enabled more than six million women to exercise their political prerogatives.


The immediate impact of these changes was to free women from the confines of religious codes and traditional custom. Through a process of steady consolidation, some of the objectives of the social reformers of the nineteenth century were finally realized. The decade of change represented one significant phase in an ongoing process of social change. The most valuable gain was a recognition that a new social order could not be established while a large proportion of the population continued to occupy a subordinate status. The value of women as a human resource was being acknowledged by enlightened individuals, both British and Indian. Women themselves, through their organizations and through their active participation in the civil disobedience movement for independence, demonstrated their ability to help their own cause. Women of all social classes and religious persuasions set aside their traditional roles to participate in the freedom struggle alongside men, endured imprisonment, and simultaneously continued to organize themselves to deal with women’s issues. The role of women in the freedom struggle was both a consequence of and an impetus for social change.

In order to achieve equality, women had to challenge some of the fundamental assumptions underlying the social order as it had functioned for centuries. The patrilineal structure and caste system had drawn their legitimacy from ascribed status. This created closed groups that were ranked in a specific hierarchy and maintained through rules for permissible marriages. Most of these assumptions were challenged by the reforms relating to the position of women in society, as these reforms introduced the validity of achieved status in a traditional culture. This, in turn, presaged the weakening of the caste system over time. Even the “untouchables” could look to the position taken by women as precedent for change.

The groups that benefited the most were the educated, the urban dwellers, and the upper classes. The poor, the rural inhabitants, and the uneducated continued to lag behind. The success of the reforms cannot therefore be stated in easily measurable terms. Public attitudes and practices far outweighed the specific acts of legislation that were passed. This explains the persistence of some customs despite statutes declaring them to be illegal, and it also explains why women could play an active role in the freedom struggle despite the presence of traditional barriers. Attitudes varied according to social class and education. While the upper and middle classes pressed ahead with reforms, many of the less advantaged required the inspired leadership of individuals such as Mahatma Gandhi. The seeds had already been sown by earlier reformers such as Ram Mohun Roy, founder of the reformist organization the Brahmo Samaj, and Sir William Bentinck, whose anguish at the practice of customs such as sati set them apart from their contemporaries. The decade of change saw the realization of their efforts. As a result, some Indian women could aspire to be educators, physicians, scientists, and even prime ministers. Women could reasonably aspire to equal rights in society, but an occasional instance of sati was still possible. Social reforms continued to be an important concern. Women;India
India;women’s rights[womens rights]

Further Reading

  • Brown, Judith M. Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy. 2d ed. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1994. Astute analysis of the foundations of Indian society is helpful in illuminating the background of social reform. Valuable general source.
  • Forbes, Geraldine. Women in Modern India. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Examines the history of women in India from the nineteenth century to after Indian independence. Shows the effects of changes through the accounts of Indian women. Includes illustrations, bibliographic essay, and index.
  • Majumdar, R. C., ed. Struggle for Freedom. Vol. 11 in The History and Culture of the Indian People. Mumbai, India: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978. One of the most detailed sources available on the history of the freedom struggle from the Indian perspective. Provides comprehensive coverage of social reform in general and women’s issues in particular. An invaluable resource for the specialist as well as the general reader.
  • Majumdar, R. C., H. C. Raychaudhuri, and Kalikinkar Datta. An Advanced History of India. London: Macmillan, 1951. One of the best general histories of India, with a level of detail not often found in works of this breadth. Written from the indigenous perspective.
  • Panikkar, K. M. The Foundations of New India. London: Allen & Unwin, 1963. An eminently readable account of the course of modernization in India. Written for the general reader.
  • Philips, C. H., ed. The Evolution of India and Pakistan, 1858 to 1947. Vol. 4 in Select Documents on the History of India and Pakistan. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. A well-chosen collection of source materials relating to the formative period in the history of the modern nations of India and Pakistan. A useful reference source for both specialists and interested general readers.
  • Sarkar, Sumit. Modern India, 1885-1947. 8th ed. New York: Macmillan, 2002. History of India includes coverage of changes in women’s status.
  • Spear, Percival. The Oxford History of Modern India, 1740-1947. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1978. A fully revised and rewritten version of part 3 of the third edition of the Oxford History of India (1958). Concentrates on the process of social change in a modernizing nation. Brilliantly traces the interaction of Western influences and Indian forces as they transformed Indian society.

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