By Dr Jyotsna Bhattacharjee
From the time Eve ate the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden, the world-process started with a bang and the progeny of Adam and Eve have swamped the earth. Man and woman form the eternal pair, without either of whom, the humanity will expire. They both are equally essential to keep the world-process going. One is incomplete without the other, and both of them are required to make a complete whole—yet both of them display such opposite characteristics that poet Tennyson was inspired to write his immortal lines—
“Man for the field and woman for the hearth,
Man for the sword and for a needle she,
Man with the head and woman with the heart,
Man to command and woman to obey,
All else confusion.”
A modern woman naturally would be infuriated if somebody quoted Tennyson’s lines to her. But there is no doubt that till a few decades back, there was this traditional division of labour between man and woman—and the poet merely described the actual situation.
Women have come a long way from the ancient age. Women all over the world complain that they have not secured due recognition from the men folk. Their position may be far worse in our country and some other regions. Actually the birth of a girl has never been treated as a joyous event in India. The son is always more precious to the family than the girl. The reason for this may have been that the son is the one to perpetuate the name of the family and he is considered as an asset to the financial security of the parents. In ancient times as well, the birth of a female baby was not welcome in the patriarchal societies. This fact can be ascertained from the available evidence. Atharva Veda contains some charms and rituals to prevent the birth of a girl and to ensure the birth of a son. But girls were not excessively unpopular in the Vedic period, as they had become in the later age. At that time the girls and the boys were treated in the same way by the rich and the cultured parents. They were allowed to study the Vedas and offer sacrifices to the gods. Marriage of the girls presented no problem, since the girl herself usually solved the problem by choosing her own bridegroom. Or, the eligible expectant suitors had to prove themselves to be worthy of the girl by performing some difficult task specified by the father of the bride. But the sons were regarded as indispensable in that age, though the girls were also given due respect.
But gradually certain social changes occurred and some important tasks, like offering oblation to the departed ancestors, were exclusively reserved for the sons, and the daughters were not allowed to perform this all-important task. In the earlier times, the custom of widow-remarriage and inter-cast marriages were prevalent. But gradually they came to be frowned upon by the society. Then the ‘sati’ system came into existence by about the fifth century A.D. The parents had to bear the agony of seeing their daughter burning on the funeral pyre along with the body of her dead husband. All these factors added to the misery of the parents and naturally they dreaded the birth of a girl.
So the daughters became more and more unwelcome in Indian society. In the Brahmana literature it is observed that son is the hope of the family and the daughter brings trouble into it. No wonder that the daughters became a kind of liability in the Indian homes. The birth of a daughter brought gloom and despondency to the family, while the birth of a son was a matter of joy and hope for a happy life.
No one has yet ascertained the extent of female education in Vedic age. But it can be inferred from the scriptures that most of the girls from the well-to-do families were given a fair amount of education. They were also taught music, dancing and painting. Some could swim as well. They were allowed to play out-door games—though only before marriage.
But afterwards the course of female education suffered a setback, because the custom of child marriage became increasingly popular in the post Vedic period. Girls were encouraged by society to cultivate dancing and music, both vocal and instrumental. The other arts like painting, gardening, toy-making, garland-making etc. were recommended for the girls. The heroines of Sanskrit dramas, like Priyadarshika, Kadambari and Sakuntala were expert in those arts. The girls from the ruling families received some military training. Rajput princesses were expert in the use of swords and they often led armies to the battle field. In the Maratha families as well the girls received military training. The Marathas were very powerful in a considerable portion of India during the 17th and 18th century. The names of Tara Bai and Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi are well-known.
The female education declined further during the Muslim rule and by the end of the 19th century there was hardly an educated woman in India. Female education had died an ignoble death by the time the British came to rule over India. But the British government tried to revive the female education and gradually many social reformers started to support the cause of female education. In this age of inflation man alone can no longer maintain his family. Therefore a working bride is preferred by most of the prospective bridegrooms.
In the present world we see more and more women coming out to take up various professions for themselves. They have demonstrated time and again that they are no less than men. In every sphere they have been displaying their ability—and they are doing a great job. Each year the examination results are proving beyond any doubt that the girls are performing as well as the boys, if not better. They appear to be more sincere and serious in their studies. And they have also to do household chores beside studies. Usually in our society the boys are the pampered ones. From the very childhood the girls seem to know by instinct that the boys are the privileged ones. Yet they appear to be more dedicated and sensitive. They have successfully invaded the domain, which exclusively belonged to the men till some years back. In earlier times the women were supposed to be suitable only for the profession of teaching, typing and nursing. They were also regarded as the decorative pieces in the reception counters in hotels and other places. But now there are women doctors, engineers, lawyers, police officers, administrators, army officers, pilots and even astronauts. Who can forget Kalpana Chowla? The women have proved their worth and calibre by sheer dedication and determination.
Yet despite all that achievement, women feel that they are not given a fair deal in this male-dominated society. There is indignation all around and hence all over the world they are crying themselves hoarse in defence of women’s lib. They feel that in spite of their brilliant success in every field, they are in no better position than their counterparts in earlier times—and were and are still treated as second class citizens. If we go by the epics and other ancient literature it can be clearly noticed that women were taught to treat their husbands as gods and it was considered a sin to disobey the husband. A wife was not supposed to question her husband on any issue. Her duty was merely to obey him to the letter, even if his command was irrational. Sita Devi had to through the ordeal of fire in order to prove her chastity. Even that did not satisfy her husband Lord Ramchandra. He banished his pregnant wife to the forest simply because some petty washerman had cast aspersions on her character. Draupadi of Mahabharata was shared by five husbands as if she was a mere commodity without a will of her own. She was used as a stake in that infamous game of dice by her husband Dharmaraj Yudhisthira.
The women of this modern era do not think that they are in a better position than those women of the past. They agree that they are no longer treated as a sub-human species—but still their position is fundamentally same as before. They were door mats then and door mats now. They are still to take oath at the time of marriage, to love, cherish and obey the husband.
Women of today are mostly working women. They go to various establishments to earn some money to help in the household expenses. Every rupee counts in these difficult times. But her life is not easy. Her earning goes a long way in making life easier. But primarily a woman’s job is at home. She may be a busy executive—but for that she cannot neglect her family and home. She is the housekeeper, cook, sympathizer, shock absorber—all rolled into one. She also cannot neglect the home work of her children. She is the person, who works to the bone, to give a happy and comfortable life to her family. She is the person on whom the responsibility of a well-planned home depends.
She has to do multifarious activities. An unexpected guest may arrive suddenly, throwing her whole routine into a chaos. But she cannot ignore the thoughtless guest, who had arrived at a very inconvenient time. She has to play the role of an attentive and gracious hostess despite her annoyance and irritation. So she has to be the perfect home-maker as well as the skilled professional.
In the evening she reaches home, tired and exhausted. But she has no respite. She has to prepare tea and snacks for the family. The husband arrives at home after his day’s work and after a quick wash relaxes in his armchair and watches the news or other programmes on the TV screen. His wife, who possibly worked as hard as he did, if not harder, thoughtfully offers him tea and some of his favourite refreshments. Then she has to cook dinner for the family. But there is no one to bother about her needs. After doing all that work she goes to bed late at night and has to get up at the crack of dawn the next day. As usual she has to do her routine jobs like preparing breakfast, getting the children ready for school, give them their lunch packets and things like that. Before rushing out to her office, she may have just a little time to gulp down a cup of tea. And if she has a baby at her hand, then God help her! That is the usual life of a working woman.
It is very true that girls do get a raw deal in our society. Given half the chance, the man still wants to be the decision-maker and master in his household. That is what many women resent. But there need not be all these clashes, if both the man and the woman understand the fact that they are like two sides of a coin. Both are necessary for continuing the process of creation. By nature they are different—but that should not be an obstacle in the path of harmony. They are equal in every respect and should work together to make a happy home. They have to share all the work and the question of domination should not arise. They are partners of equal status. God created man and woman with a definite purpose—and endowed them with all the necessary qualities. The role of a woman in this process of creation is very important, and the major responsibility of keeping peace at home depends on her. She is soft by nature—but should never he timid and submissive to wrong commands. She has to be firm in her views and should have the determination to pursue her goal, so that nobody ever takes her for granted.