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The Early Indian Women Writers series reviews a few remarkable books by Indian women from the 1900 – 1950 period.
Written over a hundred years ago, Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati’s The High Caste Hindu Woman feels relevant even today.
Review by Anjana Basu
What is right is that the ‘silence of a thousand years’ was broken with the writing of this book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman in 1888. Originally written in Marathi, it was translated into English and sold in America. Profits from it were used to help destitute women in India. Before the book was published very few in America were aware of what conditions for women were like in India – though the knowledge was of course available in England.
Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati who lived a remarkable life for a woman in her time – wandering with her parents through India educated solely by her Brahmin father who believed that women deserved education, married in Calcutta after losing her entire family, widowed with a daughter and forced to fend for herself – set out to explain the laws of Manu and Hindu tradition and their effects on women.
In the course of her life, she had converted to Christianity feeling that it allowed for more freedom and been awarded scholarships to study in England. This added emancipation and scholarship gave her greater freedom to comment on the condition of women in India, though she confined herself to high caste women since she was familiar with their problems.
The book covers every stage of a high caste woman’s life, beginning with childhood, stating a woman’s place in religion and society so that Ramabai’s comments can be given a clear context and ending with an appeal for the betterment of women’s lives through the creation of an institution where high caste widows could be educated and cared for and taught to be independent – this she points out in an earlier chapter is against Manu’s laws, since women ‘are never fit for independence’.
Women, Ramabai writes, are chattels, as much part of the household as livestock. They are forbidden access to any kind of learning and are kept happy with ornaments and ‘dainty food together with an occasional bow’. Girl children are happy to get married young because they mistake their wedding finery and food for sudden welcome ‘cosseting’. And then of course there is ‘the worst and most dreaded period of a high caste woman’s life. Throughout India, widowhood is regarded as the punishment for a horrible crime or crimes committed by the woman in her former existence upon earth.’ And Sati, according to Ramabai, was introduced by a callous changing of a Vedic verse by the Brahmins.
Ramabai does not launch into any kind of rant against society. Very logically she points out that women by being unwilling to learn and giving in to slavery will in no way be capable of producing children who will do the nation proud. The sons of such mothers will only learn ‘fault-finding with neighbors, bitter feelings towards tyrant relatives expressed in words and actions, selfish interest in personal and family affairs’ since that is the only thing that high caste women confined to purdah are allowed to dabble in.
If society is to progress, women must be allowed to progress since pre natal influences on a unborn child are strong and a mother deprived of fresh air by being confined to purdah will not be able to produce a strong healthy child, whether male or female. ‘Moreover the Hindu woman’s ignorance prevents liberal-minded and progressive men from making necessary and important changes in the manners and habits of the household’.
Her solution to the problems she had enumerated is education, self reliance and ‘native women teachers’ – because American and English missionaries, while dedicated, are only capable of communicating in English.
All in all, given the age in which it was written, this is an admirable treatise and many of the things that Ramabai writes still hold good today. Child marriage, women’s education and the rights of widows, not to mention female foeticide, which she also touches upon, continue to be burning issues. Perhaps the book, which has been reissued, should be more widely circulated.
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