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Indian Renaissance and Women


The reformers faced formidable obstacles. Women were historically granted a low standing and were viewed as inferior to men, lacking their own identity. They were living a life-of suppression owing to traditions such as purdah, early marriage, the prohibition of widow marriage, and sati. Women in both Hinduism and Islam were economically and socially dependent on male relatives and were often denied education. Hindu women lacked the right to inherit property. Muslim women could inherit property, but only half as much as men, and there was no equality between men and women in cases of divorce. Polygamy was widespread among both Hindus and Muslims. 

Their glorification as wives and mothers was the only way for society to acknowledge women's contributions as members. The advancement of women's status in society was seen as critical, and social reformers worked to achieve it, It was well acknowledged that this shift would result in reforming homes and reforming men and that no country with ignorant females could ever achieve major civilisational development.

The reformers primarily appealed to individualism and equality, arguing that true religion did not justify women's inferior status. They spoke against customs such as polygamy, purdah, child marriage, and restrictions on widow marriage, and worked tirelessly to establish educational facilities for women, to persuade the government to enact pro-women legislation, and to spread the word about the futility of archaic, feudal attitudes that needed to be abandoned.

Measures Taken to Improve Women's Position

Due to the reformers' unflinching efforts, the government enacted a variety of administrative measures to ameliorate women's conditions. 

Abolition of Sati: reformers led by Raja Rammohan Roy, the government under Governor-General William Bentinck declared the practice of sati illegal and punishable by criminal courts as culpable homicide. The rule of 1829 (Regulation XVII, A.D. 1829 of the Bengal Code) was initially applicable only to the Bengal Presidency but was later extended to the Madras and Bombay Presidency in somewhat modified forms in 1830.

(Historians have noted that the practice of sati was attempted to be prohibited in the early 16th century in the regions ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch, and French. In 1582, Akbar, the Mughal emperor, is reported to have issued a decree prohibiting the coercion of sati and appointing inspectors to ensure that no widow was pushed to follow the ritual.) 

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.[To Hindu priests complaining to him about the prohibition of Sati religious funeral practice of burning widows alive on her husband’s funeral pyre.]” -Charles James Napier

Taking Action to Prevent Female Infanticide:  Female infanticide was a frequent practice among upper-class Bengalis and Rajputs who viewed females as an economic burden. Infanticide was considered criminal and comparable to murder by the Bengal ordinances of 1795 and 1804. In 1870, a law required parents to register the birth of all children and to verify female children for several years after birth, particularly in areas where the habit was practised in complete secrecy. 

Widow Remarriage: The Brahmo Samaj prioritised widow remarriage and did much to popularise it. However, it was largely due to the efforts of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820–91), principal of Calcutta's Sanskrit College, that the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act was enacted.The Act of 1856 legalised widows' remarriage and deemed the children of such marriages to be legitimate. Vidyasagar referred to Vedic writings to demonstrate that the Hindu faith permitted widow remarriage.

Child Marriage: The 1872 Native Marriage Act (or Civil Marriage Act) established a legal framework for barring child marriage. It had a limited impact due to the act's exclusion of Hindus, Muslims, and other recognised religions. The unwavering efforts of a Parsi reformer, B.M. Malabari resulted in the passage of the Age of Consent Act (1891), which prohibited the marriage of females under the age of 12. The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, also known as the Sarda Act, was enacted in 1930 and increased the marriage age for boys and girls to 18 and 14, respectively. (In independent India, the 1978 Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act increased the marriage age for girls from 15 to 18 and for boys from 18 to 21.

Education of Women: In 1819, Christian missionaries founded the Calcutta Female Juvenile Society. The Bethune School, created in 1849 by J.E.D. Bethune, president of the Council of Education in Calcutta, was the first fruit of the 1840s and 1850s vigorous campaign for women's education. Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar founded no fewer than 35 girls' schools in Bengal and is widely regarded as a pioneer of women's education.

Following Lord Dalhousie's declaration that female education should have "open and cordial encouragement," Charles Wood's Despatch on Education (1854) emphasised the importance of female education. The Women's Medical Service was instrumental in training nurses and midwives in 1914.

The Indian Women's University, founded in 1916 by Professor D.K. Karve, was one of the foremost schools for the education of women. In the same year, Delhi's Lady Hardinge Medical College opened. Women began to receive health care in the 1880s with the establishment of Dufferin hospitals.

Women Organisation: These organisations were set up by women for women to provide a platform that would further enable the women cause. This helped in creating political and social consciousness. Sarla Devi Chaudhurani held the Bharat Stree Mahamandal's first meeting in Allahabad in 1910. In 1904, Ramabai Ranade created the Ladies Social Conference (Bharat Mahila Parishad) in Bombay as a subsidiary of the parent organisation National Social Conference. To further the cause of women, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati formed the Arya Mahila Samaj. Margaret Cousins created the All India Women's Conference (AIWC) in 1927. It was perhaps the first women's organisation to take an equitable stance.


The Renaissance period made a significant contribution to the cause of women. It enlightened them and enabled them to construct their own identity, or at the very least realise the need and value of doing so. The new concepts centred on individuality and equality pushed for an egalitartan society, beginning with women, who formed half of the community and were long overlooked. It was realised that India cannot advance until we eradicate the ills that have contaminated and impeded our progress. Men like Ishwarchand Vidyasagar and Rajaram Mohan Roy who spearheaded movement were joined by women with vigour and courage in the path forward.


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