In India, women play a very important role in society. Women in India get a prominent role in all walks of life. Now women are shining in every field and are doing as well as men.

Just as an example, Mizoram (one of the Seven Sister States in North Eastern) has higher proportion of women in its population than men. However, most of the states in India have fewer women than men in their population. New colleges for women are being opened India all the time. Even male colleges are changing to co-educational faculties. Women are working on night shifts in their employment, just as men do. But that is just one side of the story. On the other hand, you should look at the other side of these optimistic statements.

Mizoram did not have a woman MLA until 2003, and there were just four women candidates in the last electoral ballot. St Joseph's College in Bangalore is being accused of a gender bias in its admission policy after the college raised the cut-off percentage marks for girls to qualify for a course.

The Government introduced an AIDS-awareness campaign for the telemarketing and call center industry. Since these workers are working at night, they are easily discriminated against by men. While women are guaranteed equality under the constitution, legal protection has little effect in this society. Legal loopholes are used to discriminate against women in India. Now let me explain when such discrimination against women began in India.

Firstly, let us examine the status of women in ancient and medieval India.

Status of Women in Ancient India
At that time women had equal status to men. Women were educated just as men were. Hindu books such as the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, and Mahabharata mention the names of many women who were some of the greatest scholars, poets and philosophers of the time. The following are just some of the women achievers in ancient India.

Leelavati, who in 6000 BC, established mathematical lore in India, leading eventually to formulation of the decimal system in later centuries.

Dhanawantri, who along with her husband Sage Dhanawantar, was the foremost physician in 5000 BC, and established a comprehensive system of medicine and surgery.

Devi Leilama, who was the first to establish Guilds in India, and was the Chief of the Clan in 5333 BC

Mailalladevi, a senior queen of Someshwara who I ruled the important province of Banavasi comprising 12,000 villages.

Jakkiabbe ably administered seventy villages after the premature death of her husband.

Piriyaketaladevi, a queen of Chalukya Vikramaditya VI, ruled three villages.

Such examples go some way to demonstrate the high status and image of women in ancient India. If there was discrimination in these periods, it was perhaps against men; for instance, men were to retire as hermits at the age of 60, while a woman was free from such requirements.

Most of the discrimination against women came during the grim centuries of the Muslim rule. During the Muslim period of history, women were deprived of their rights of equality with men. They were compelled to keep themselves within the four walls of their houses with a long veil on their faces. Even today in some Islamic countries women are not allowed to go out freely, whilst in India the Muslim women are far more backward than their Hindu, Christian and Sikh counterparts.

How were the discriminations such as child marriage, Sati and Dowry started in India?

This is the practice of widows killing themselves by jumping into the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. There is not even a scriptural statement in thousands of Hindu scriptures concerning Sati. On the contrary, according to the funeral hymns in RIGVEDA, there is a ceremony of a widow sleeping next to the corpse of the dead husband and then being allowed to marry anyone she pleases. Sati has its roots in Greece. The practice of Sati came to India through the tribe known as KUSHANS in 1 A.D. RAJPUTS, which was a warrior tribe descending from KUSHANS, and who were very fanatical Hindus with an extremely monogamous culture. They among the first to practise Sati.

Dowry refers to a marriage practice in Hindu society where gifts of cash or other valuable items are exchanged between the families of the bride and groom. Although its ancient meaning was to show respect, dowry has taken on a harmful form and meaning in recent times.

In Ancient India, women were treated well. There were no incidents of rape. It all came after the influence of Muslims. During a war known as the "Third Battle of Panipat," according to historical accounts more than 10,000 women were raped. Many were alleged to have committed suicide because of constant rapes perpetrated on them, whilst all of them were exchanged or sold as sex slaves to Afghanistan.

Likewise, every discrimination against women has its own story.

Status of women at the time of Independence Discriminatory practices started in medieval times and is being continued right now. The reason why I have chosen this independence period is that it was only during this period that the status of women changed drastically because of Gandhi's work.

Reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule and Savitri Bai Phule played a pivotal role in addressing the issues such as sati, child marriage, widow remarriage, and women ducation.

However, it was only under the enlightened leadership of Mahatma Gandhi that women re-asserted their equality with men. In response to the call of Gandhi, women discarded their veil and came out of the four walls of their houses to fight the battle of freedom, shoulder to shoulder with their brothers. He called upon the young to marry the widows and also to boycott child arriages.

In Gandhi's salt march, hundreds of women joined and eventually the salt protest was made successful by the many women who not only made salt, but also sat openly in marketplaces selling, and indeed, buying it. Gandhi never had a specific program for women, but women had an integral role to play in all his programs.

In 1920, the All India Women's Conference was set up. It was involved in the struggle for independence and addressed issues of female education and the right to vote. At that time many women's groups were formed, and they took up issues ranging from rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, impact of health policies, hazardous contraceptive technologies, impact of structural adjustment policies, rise of right wing politics, sexuality as well as many other issues.

One of the first issues to receive countrywide attention from women's groups was violence against women, such as rape and dowry. Most protests were directed at the State. Because women were able to mobilise support, the State responded, seemingly positively, by changing the law on rape and dowry, making both more stringent. This seemed, at the time, like a great victory.

These women's groups fought for the creation of new women-sensitive laws or amendments to existing laws. Due to the pressure of such groups the following changes took place:

  • In 1950, Women in India received the right to vote. India was one of the first countries in the world to give women the right to vote.
  • In 1983 an amendment was made to laws pertaining to rape. Among the provisions was a minimum of seven years' imprisonment for this crime.
  • For Sati, in 1988 the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act was passed. It clearly states that burning or burying alive of widows is revolting to the feelings of human nature and is not enjoined in the religion.
  • For domestic violence, a legal provision was introduced under Section 498 of the criminal code. Under this provision violence inflicted on a woman by her husband or his family was declared a non-bailable, non-cognizable offence.
  • The Dowry Prohibition Act was introduced in 1961 and was amended in the 1980's partly in response to the demands of the women's movement. One significant amendment stated that an official inquiry would be conducted if the wife died within seven years of marriage. If found guilty of dowry harassment the husband (and co-accused) faced seven years in jail as well as fines.

Some of the other important decisions taken were those surrounding stree dhan (the gifts given to the bride by her parents, husband and in-laws).

Similarly, many laws are being changed even now for the betterment of women.

Status of Women in 2005
At the time of Independence, only 2% of the women had any kind of education and women did not have an identity of their own. Women could not go out of the house unless accompanied by men and their face was covered with cloth. But today, women are getting education equal to men and are even working on night shifts. Indian women have their identity at the international level. I would like to
mention some of the Indian women at the international level as of 2005.

Sonia Gandhi was named the third most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine, next to Condoleezza Rice and Wu Yi.

Arundhanti Roy was the first Indian citizen to win the prestigious Booker prize. She was also one of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World 1998."

Deb Agarwal, a top scientist at a national laboratory and Radha Ramaswami Basu, a high-tech entrepreneur, are the two Indian women among the top 25 women on Web award winners for year 2005.

Aishwarya Rai is Miss world 1994.

Kalpana Chawla , NASA Astronaut, who died on February 1, 2003 over the southern United States when Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew perished during entry, 16 minutes prior to scheduled landing.

Now women are proving themselves in every field. However, I could not say that discrimination has been eliminated completely from Indian society. Some types of discrimination have been reduced in recent times and have also taken other forms such as:

  • Mistreatment. Women are mistreated at the workplace. They are facing work harassment of different sorts.
  • Under-Representation. They are under-represented in governance and decision-making positions. At present, women occupy fewer than 8% of Parliamentary seats, fewer than 6% of Cabinet positions, fewer than 4% of positions on the benches of the High Courts and Supreme Court. Fewer than 3% of administrators and managers are women.
  • Molestation. Police records show that a woman is molested in the country every 26 minutes. A rape occurs every 34 minutes. Every 42 minutes, an incident of sexual harassment takes place. Every 43 minutes, a woman is kidnapped. Every 93 minutes, a woman is killed.

The women's groups in India today are vibrant, and are linked together through networks on different issues and campaigns. But they are moving without a good leadership like Gandhi's. Moreover some groups are raising their own finances for their publicity and activities. Furthermore, violence against women has proved to be an effective weapon for the political parties to silence their adversaries. For an opposition party, it became a law and order issue which could be used to denigrate the ruling party. As I mentioned at the start of this article, legal loopholes are used to discriminate against women in India.

Before closing this article, I wish to emphasise two things. Firstly, women's groups should pressure the government to change the existing loopholes in laws. Secondly, such changes should be done by the lawmakers for their intrinsic benefit and not for any political purposes.

Once the laws are changed, we will hopefully see some drastical changes.

This articles was first published back in 2005.