In the modern era, girls go to school and study with boys. After they've grown up, they go to universities and colleges and they take up jobs after that. Until they get legally married, they have to be adults. Today they can marry anybody they want, regardless of their caste and community, and widows can get remarried too. All women have the right to vote and run for election.
However, before the reformation of India, around two hundred years ago, things were different. At an early age, most of the children were married. In certain parts of the country, women have been forced to follow Sati. Women's rights to property have been limited and there was no education. As per the caste system, Brahmin and Kshatriya were deemed as the "upper castes." Everyone else, such as merchants and money lenders were put after them. Then came farmers and artisans such as weavers and potters known as Shudras. The lowest rank were those who worked to keep cities and villages clean or worked under the upper class. The upper castes viewed these groups as "untouchable."
Working towards Change
In the early 1900s, Bhopal Begums played an important role in the promotion of women's education. In Aligarh, they established a primary school for girls. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain began schooling Muslim girls in Patna and Calcutta. Indian women started going to university in the late 19th century, where they were trained as doctors, and some had become teachers. Pandita Ramabai published a book about the desperate lives of the Hindu upper-caste women.
Many Hindu nationalists began to feel that Hindu women were taking Western paths and that it would corrupt Hindu culture and jeopardize family values. By the late nineteenth century, women had written books, edited magazines, established schools and training centres, and established women's associations. They also established political groups to challenge through the laws on women's suffrage and improved education and healthcare for women. In the 20th century, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose stretched their support to demands for greater freedom and equality for women.
Changing the Lives of Widows
Rammohun Roy had launched a campaign against the practice of Sati. He wanted to show through his writings that the concept of burning a widow had no approval in ancient texts. Sati was at last banned in 1829. Later on, the reformers adopted the Rammohan strategy to challenge a practice that seemed harmful and tried to find a verse or a sentence in ancient sacred texts that supported their viewpoint.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, through religious literature, indicated that widows should be allowed to remarry. A law allowing widows to remarry was passed in 1856. By the second half of the 19th century, the widow's remarriage movement had spread to other regions of the country. Swami Dayanand Saraswati also founded Arya Samaj to support the remarriage of widows.
Girls begin going to School
Education for women was required to improve their situation. The first schools were opened in the mid-19th century. Many feared that schools would take girls away from their family and prevent them from doing their household chores. Young women had to commute through public spaces to reach schools. Most of the people felt that girls must stay away from public spaces. As a result, many educated women were homeschooled by liberal fathers or husbands.
In the latter half of the century, Arya Samaj set up schools for women in Punjab, and Jyotirao Phule established schools in Maharashtra. In upper-class Muslim families, women had also learned to read the Qur'an in Arabic, taught by women who came home to instruct. The very first Urdu novels started to be written in the late 19th century.
Women write about Women
In the early 1920s, Bhopal Begums played an important role in the promotion of female education. In Aligarh, they established a primary school for girls. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain began schooling for Muslim girls in Patna and Calcutta. Indian women started attending college in the 1880s, where they were groomed as doctors, and some became teachers. Pandita Ramabai published a book about the desperate lives of the Hindu upper-caste women.
Several Hindu nationalists started to feel that Hindu women were taking Western paths and that this would corrupt the Hindu religion and undermine family values. By the late 19th century, women had published books, edited magazines, established schools and training centres, and established women's associations. They also established political groups to push through the laws on women's suffrage and better education and healthcare for women. In the 20th century, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose broadened their support to calls for greater equality and freedom for women.
Caste and Social Reform
Prarthana Samaj abided by the culture of Bhakti, who believed in the spiritual equality of all castes. The Paramhans Mandali, established in Bombay in 1840, started working to abolish caste. During the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries started setting up schools for tribal communities and "lower-caste" kids.
At about the same time, the impoverished from villages and small towns, people of lower castes, started to migrate to cities where there was a new demand for labour. Many also went to plantations in Assam, Mauritius, Trinidad and Indonesia. For the underprivileged and the low-caste, it was a chance to get away from the autocratic hold of the upper-caste landowners over their lives and the daily indignity they endured.
Demands for Equality and Justice
In the second half of the 19th century, non-Brahman communities began organizing movements towards caste discrimination and called for social justice and equality. The Satnami movement was launched by Ghasidas, who worked as leather workers and organized a movement to develop their social status. In eastern Bengal, Haridas Thakur questioned Brahmanic texts which promoted the caste system. Shri Narayana Guru had accepted the ideals of unity for his people. He argued against the unequal treatment of people based on caste differences.
Jyotirao Phule was an Indian social reformer born in 1827 and developed his theories about the injustices of caste society. As per him, the Brahmans were considered Aryans, who came from outside of the subcontinent, and defeated and enslaved those who had lived here before them. Phule further said that therefore upper castes had no right to their land and power.
As one of the first social reformer of India, he stated that there was a golden age before the rule of Aryans when the warrior-peasants tilled the land and ruled the Maratha countryside justly. He suggested that Shudras and Ati Shudras must unite to confront caste discrimination. The Satyashodhak Samaj, founded by Phule, spread the equality of the caste.
In 1873, Phule published a book Gulamgiri, a word which means slavery. Ten years before that, the American Civil War brought about the end of slavery in America. He devoted his book to all the Americans who struggled to free the slaves. Phule was particularly worried about the sufferings of the women of the upper castes, the misery of the workers and the humiliation of the lower castes.
Who could Enter Temples?
Ambedkar initiated a temple entrance movement in 1927, supported by the Mahar caste. The priests of Brahman were enraged when the Dalits used the water from the temple tank. Between 1927 and 1935, Ambedkar had led three such movements for the entrance in the temple. He intended to make others see the control of caste prejudice within our community.
The Non-Brahman Movement
The non-Brahman movement began with those non-Brahmin castes who had managed to get education, wealth and influence. They tried to argue that Brahmans were the descendants of northern Aryan invaders who had captured southern lands from the natives – the indigenous Dravidian races.
Indian social reformer, E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, or Periyar, entered the Congress and left it when he discovered that the lower castes were required to sit at a distance from the upper castes. Periyar established the Self-Respect Movement and stated that the untouchables were the true supporters of the native Tamil and Dravid heritage that had been oppressed by the Brahmans.
Periyar was a big critic of the Hindu scriptures, particularly the Manu Codes, the ancient lawgiver, and the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. As one of the first social reformer of India, he claimed that these scriptures were used to assert the control of Brahman over lower castes and the oppression of men over women.
These statements did not go unchallenged, leading to reassessing and some self-criticism among some of the nationalist leaders of the upper caste. But the Orthodox Hindu community responded by starting the Sanatan Dharma Sabhas and the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal in the north, as well as groups like the Brahman Sabha in Bengal. These groups aimed to preserve caste divisions as the central pillar of Hinduism and to demonstrate how it was legitimated by the scriptures.