Tuesday, March 09, 2010

"On the state of female society in India"

On the occasion of Women’s Day (ok, I am a day late), here is an extract from the chapter titled ‘the state of female society in India” in the book “Essays relative to the habits, character and moral improvement of the Hindoos” published in the year 1823. It discusses the practice, prevalent then,  of getting girls married at the age of six or seven.

The natives contemplate the birth of a daughter with far less satisfaction than the birth of a son, more care and attention being requisite to secure her early settlement in life, and more disgrace being attached to delay. Hence her parents are occupied with solicitude on this subject from the moment of her birth; and at the time when in civilized countries her education would commence, arrangements are in progress in India for her marriage. The young female is therefore not only deprived of every opportunity for mental cultivation, but is snatched at an early period from all the benefit of paternal instruction. Long before her intellectual faculties are matured, she is buried in domestic avocations, to the loss of all future hope of improvement. Subjected to no course of rigid discipline, and, except in the unimportant vagaries of childhood, to no parental direction, she is dismissed into life, and becomes mistress of her own actions with all those evil propensities in full vigour which inevitably entail misery; for though she continues at home for some time after her marriage, her parents have parted with the power, and perhaps with the wish, of correcting her follies. Thus she takes her station in life years before she is fitted for it, and is elevated to the state of a wife amidst the follies of infancy.

It is melancholy to reflect on the early extinction of happiness which this system occasions. In the life of a female, what season is more calculated for enjoyment than that which elapses between the period when her mind begins to expand, and that of her entering upon the severer duties of life? At this season every thing wears an aspect of gaiety and loveliness; the absence of care induces the highest cheerfulness, and gives free scope for the enjoyment of that unalloyed felicity, which comes but at one season of life. The pleasure which a married state affords from a conscientious performance of its duties, however serene in its nature, is still tempered with the burden of its cares. In India, this season of youthful enjoyment comes not for the female: scarcely has she time to look abroad, and inhale the sweetness of life, ere she is plunged into the rigid duties and severities connected with Indian wedlock. At the early age of six or seven, her happiness is often sacrificed at the shrine of family honour, while she herself is an unconscious spectator of the transaction.
Later, in the same chapter, the writer observes that this horrible practice had not existed in India in ancient times.

From the early records of Hindoost'han there is strong reason to conclude that in ancient times many of the odious peculiarities in the present system of educating and marrying females had no existence; that women, at least the daughters of kings and the wives of heroes, were taught to read; and that their own inclination, not that of their parents, influenced the selection of husbands. In the historical records of the Ramaywna, the Mtthabharwta, and the Pooranas, we meet with no heroine in the disgraceful situation of modern females. They are generally represented as deeply skilled in learning, often willing to display their attainments, and not averse to a combat of skin with the other sex. Nay, in many cases, they enjoin a literary victory over themselves, as  the only price at which the suitor can expect success.

The spirit of that age must have been much more liberal than that of modern times; since few writers who courted the attention of their fellow-countrymen, would have ventured on so bold a departure from popular practice. And though the heroines of the song were the daughters and relatives of rnonarchs, no one who estimates the power of influence which irresistibly draws the lower orders into a servile imitation of their superiors, will conclude that a knowledge of letters was then confined to palaces, or that a practice which received the praise of poets and the sanction of princes, was not in some degree of general application. A different spirit must have animated the ancestors of the Hindoos, to have produced such splendid results of the cultivation of female intellect as exist on record. The contempt with which they are at present treated, could scarcely have existed in an age which owed some of its literary splendour to their compositions. Nor can we suppose, that the female authors of that period were the only individuals of their sex to whom a knowledge of letters was communicated ; the beneficial result of granting them an education, must have contributed to render the practice more general.

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