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No. 32 (September 1960)
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(by courtesy of Unesco)

The remarkable thing about the emancipation of women in India is that it has been a smooth, gradual process, unmarked by violence and hate. But perhaps that is not so very remarkable after all, since this smooth evolution is very much in keeping with the Indian tradition.

Women have alreadys been held in high esteem in our country. During the Vedic period, about 1500 B.C., they occupied important positions in social and religious life. without women, a religious ceremony was considered invalid (and the Upanishads bear witness to the fact that this tradition was long maintained). Prayers and sacrifices were offered jointly by husband and wife, but this high privilege was allowed to the wife alone in her husband's absence; he, in her absence, could only perform a sacrifice by placing her image beside him. Women seers composed hymns in the Vedas.

Buddhism established an order of nuns—Bhikshuni-Sangha—which opened to women opportunities for learning and social service. The Buddha made special mention in his sermons of thirteen of these nuns—theris—for their spiritual attaitnments and public service.

“Where women are honoured, there the Gods are pleased. Where they are not honoured, all works are fruitless,” declared Manu about 300 B.C., though by his time the position of women had deteriorated. Already by 600 B.C. the marriageable age of girls has been lowered to fourteen and sixteen years, and they could no longer complete their Vedic studies, which lasted twelve years. They fell behind men in education and their status was impaired. By 300 B.C. the marirage age was again reduced, this time to twelve and fourteen years; marriage, moreover, became compulsory and spiritual initiation was more or less symbolic. Soon except in some leading families where girls still received a literary education, all spiritual initiation was suppressed and girls were no longer allowed to study the Vedas.


The position of women continued to deteriorate steadily and their rigorous exclusion became the rule, especially in mediaeval times marked by invasions and resultant insecurity.

But though their freedom was lost and their social status lowered, women retained their influence in the home, where they were regarded with respect and veneration.

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Mrs Hansa Mehta, Vice-Chancellor of Baroda University, is a member of Unesco's Executive Board. (Unesco Photograph).

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A girl student in a University Laboratory. (Unesco Photograph).

“Centuries of tradition have made the Indian women, the most unselfish, the most self-denying, the most patient in the world, whose pride is suffering”, says Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

The tide began to turn decisively in the midnineteenth century, when such practices as polygamy, child marriage, enforced widowhood and “sati” (self-immolation on the husband's funeral pyre) were vigorously attacked by reformists. The twentieth century saw the birth of a strong women's movement which became a spearhead in the struggle against irrational orthodoxy and discrimination.

But it was the movement for freedom in India which made the Indian women really free—a movement into which they threw themselves heart and soul, leaving the shelter of their homes. Describing their role, Nehru has written: “Most of us menfolk were in prison; our women took charge of the struggle. Here were these women. women of the upper or middle classes, leading sheltered lives, peasant women, working women. rich women, poor women, pouring out in their tens of thousands in defiance of government law and police lathis. Never can I forget the thrill that came to us, the enormous pride in the women of India that filled us.”

With independence came complete equality (Indian women had already been granted limited voting rights in 1935). The Constitution guaranteed to all citizens, irrespective of sex, “equality before the law”, and “equality of opportunity in matters of public employment”.

During recent years, Parliament has adopted three major bills which mark a significant break with the past. One outlaws polygamy and grants equal rights of divorce to men and women. The second act recognises the right of daughters to inherit property from either parent on the same basis as sons; the third grants women the right, in certain circumstances, to adopt a son or a daughter. Other communities—Muslims, Christians and Parsis—are governed by their own laws.


Having secured political emancipation, social equality, economic independence and opportunities for education, Indian women are playing their part today in almost every sphere of national activity.

There are at present more than 10 million working women in India, nearly half of whom are self-supporting. About 9,000 are engaged in legal work or in business, some of them in important executive jobs: the chairman of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, for instance, is a woman.

Social work in another field in which women are very active. The Social Welfare Board (75 per cent of whose members are women) is headed by Durgabai Deshmukh, and women run most of India's 10,000 voluntary welfare agencies. There are now 87,000 of them in the medical and health services. 21 per cent of the country's teachers are women, all primary schools are now being placed under lady teachers. Literacy among women has increased fourfold since 1951. The latest statistics available put girl students at 11 million, including 200,000 in vocational training institutions. In higher education, there are two women Vice-Chancellors—Hansa Mehta of Baroda University, and Sarda Mehta of the Indian Women's University in Poona.

Indian women have also distinguished themselves in the arts, letters and journalism. The National Academy of Music, Dancing and Theatre is headed by Nirmala Joshi, and the Theatre Centre, which is affiliated to the International Theatre Institute, by Kamladevi Chattopadhaya. The first professional theatre in India, the Hindustani Theatre, is run by Monika Misra, and every Indian language has its women poets, novelists and short story writers.

There are also women scientists, engineers, economists and research scholars, while Prema Mathur, India's first woman commercial pilot, has won many races and has received an award of an American trophy.


In politics, women wield considerable influence.

The Congress Party, which controls the Central Government and 13 out of 14 State Governments, has as its President Indira Gandhi. One of its General Secretaries is Sucheta Kriplaani. The Praja Socialist Party has several women leaders: Mrs Alemeluamma is on the party's National Executive. There is no women on the Communist Party Central Executive, but there are five women in its National Council.

During the 1957 elections, 60 women were returned to Parliament and 195 to State assemblies. At present there are three women Deputy-Ministers in the Central Government, and 13 women Ministers in the States. Until 1957, Raj

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kumari Amrit Kaur was a full Cabinet Minister. She is now Chairman of the Indian Red Cross Society.

There are many women in the country's administrative, armed and foreign services, dozens of them holding very senior jobs. West Bengal's Governor, for instance, is Padmaja Naidu. And women form the backbone of the community development projects which will soon cover the entire country.

Indian women have also made a mark in the international field. They have been included in delegations to various international conferences. Vijayalakshmi Pandit has been the first, and so far the only woman to preside over the United Nations General Assembly. Hansa Mehta now represents India on the Unesco Executive Board.

Thus women's horizon, onece limited exclusively to household tasks, has expanded considerably. In the villages, she is man's partner, sharing his arduous life and often working harder and longer hours. In the towns, she is generally well educated. And the progress made by women of the middle-income group toward gaining economic independence is a new and encouraging factor. But in spite of these changes, the Indian women's abiding interest is her home and family.