Texts of the Hindu religion support proper treatment of women by men. However, they may contribute to male domination of women by requiring women to be under the care of men. The Hindu tradition also contributes to the lower status given to women. This discussion focuses on showing that women have a lower status in religious societies using Hinduism as a reference, and it will also include how women in the secular sphere live for a concise comparison.
Based on the fact that there are many female gods worshiped by Hindus in the positions of male gods’ companions and Mother Goddesses, respect for women is valued in Hinduism (Jayaram). According to the law books, men should not harass or abandon women in the households of thieves (Mitter 83). A husband therefore has an obligatory duty to take care of his wife and protect her always. He should never abandon her because she is a gift given to him by the Gods under a promise (83). The only situation where he may be allowed to compromise this is where sufficient evidence of barrenness, mental illness, and adultery is available (83). The man is also required to take care of his young daughters and his old mother. Hindu law instructs that a woman should also be given an equal share to her brothers when ancestral property is being divided (this rarely happens in families with sons) (Jayaram). The law books also require that women should be seen as the embodiment of Shakti, the universal mother. Shakti is glorified as the mother Goddess, Mata, or as Devi, the promising one (Jayaram).
When it comes to tradition however, Hindu women have limited freedom. They are a dependent group in a male dominated household. When she is a young child, a Hindu female is under her father’s protection (Mitter 84). She then moves to the protection of her husband where she also functions as his helper, partner, and advisor (84). This requirement of women being under the protection of men is provided in the Manusmriti Hindu text (84).
The status of Hindu women was historically equivocal. In theory, women had a high status and multiple privileges, being considered as goddesses (Jayaram). However in practice, the lives of most women were miserable having to serve as their husbands’ servants (Jayaram). Before independence, men in the Hindu culture were free to keep mistresses or even have more than one wife (Jayaram). Men of higher social status like ministers, landlords, poets, merchants, and scribes freely visited prostitutes and felt no guilt about it (Jayaram). On the other hand, women of the family lived confined lives based on instructions given in the law books. The law books specified that a woman had to be in the company of a family member when going to meet men that were not from her family (Jayaram).
Women in the Hindu tradition play various roles in marriage and have a different status from men. According to the Vedas (ancient Hindu writings written in Sanskrit), the core responsibility of a wife is to assist her husband by doing obligatory tasks and facilitate him to perpetuate his family tradition (Jayaram). The woman’s main duty is therefore to bear her husband’s children and raise them. In marriage, a Hindu woman has four major roles which are: being a servant, being an advisor, being a mother, and being a lover (Jayaram). Marriage was not always what modern society would approve since many young girls were forced to marry men that were relatively older (Jayaram). This made the lives of such women to be miserable by the time they reached puberty (Jayaram). Marriage of young girls is however banned by Indian law today. Marriage has its challenges even today in the Hindu tradition since love marriages are not allowed outside the community or caste (Basu 113). Men and Women who do this may be excommunicated by family or community elders. Such couples may even be killed (113).
Widows in some Hindu communities in the past encountered great suffering when their husbands died. One thing that caused them suffering after losing their husbands was the performance of sati whereby they would self-immolate on their husbands’ funeral pyres (Jayaram). This self destructive activity is however banned currently (Basu 112). Some of the widows spent their later years in seclusion or with their sons or other close relatives who took care of them (Jayaram). A widow’s life was therefore full of hardship. Younger widows suffered the more in this tradition. This is because the wife was the one who carried the blame in case her husband died prematurely (Jayaram). In this case, the relatives of the man blamed the widow as having brought misfortune upon her husband’s family.
Hindu law books are biased, openly supporting male dominance (Jayaram). They do instruct that there should be no harassment of women, and that there will be no peace or happiness in the homes where women suffer. On the other hand they provide many restrictions for women, curtailing their freedom (Jayaram). It is certain that modern Hindu women would be enraged were the instructions of the Manusmriti to be applied on them since it is harsh and discriminatory against women (Jayaram). Many castes also did not follow law books because their enforcement was mainly exclusive to local rulers and kings, who had authority as well as influence. In Hindu tradition therefore, women from lower caste households had more freedom compared to women from higher caste households (Jayaram).
There are various elements associated with menstruation in Hinduism. It calls for celebration in the Hindu tradition when a girl menstruates for the first time and special gifts are given to her (Coward, Julius, and Katherine 20). Conversely, menstrual blood has always been perceived as a form of pollution in this tradition (20). Menstrual blood is not only considered as mere pollution but is also associated with impressions of conception in India. Many texts in India give the injunction that a woman’s monthly periods should not be misused and that the menstruation of a woman should lead to a fertile result (20). Fathers who fail to provide husbands for their daughters after puberty are therefore considered to kill embryos for every menstruation (20). Husbands are also expected to impregnate their wives at the right time to ensure that the blood that would otherwise be lost in menstruation is used in the production of a child (20). However, there are texts that support the belief of many women in the Hindu tradition that menstruation is a process of purification (20). One text claims that women have an unmatched form of purification hence there is no way they can become totally foul (20). The texts explain that the temporary uncleanness they have monthly takes away their sins. However, menstruation is predominantly viewed as a form of pollution in the Hindu tradition (20). Therefore, some families of the Hindu tradition do not allow a menstruating woman to worship, cook, or even touch things that others may later come into contact with (20). This woman has to spend about four to five days at particular section of the house performing little duties like washing clothes. She should also not enter the temple due to her “uncleanness” (20).
Hinduism recognizes sex as an integral part of human life. However, it recognizes sex as sacred only if done within the confines of marriage. Hinduism therefore prohibits both men and women from engaging in both premarital and extramarital sex. These requirements may change depending on the Hindu teacher (guru) one follows. For instance, those who follow the teachings of Hare Krishna have strict rules which even prohibit engagement without the purpose of recreation even within marriage. Currently, widows are only allowed to have sex after they remarry even though Orthodox Hindus still disapprove it (Pintchman 81). They believe that her priorities should be topped by her family and children.
When it comes to female attire, the Hindu tradition is unique in its own ways. The traditional attire for a Hindu woman is the sari (37). It is usually a material of about 7 yards that Hindu women wrap around their body, while the cloth that is left over is thrown over the shoulder. The women also wear a slip and a bodice beneath the sari. An attire known as salvar kameez is also popular today and is usually a long top worn with pants (37). Many Hindu women may also wear a small colored spot on their foreheads called a bindi. A red bindi means that the woman is married while a black one is worn before marriage (38). Generally, clothes that cover most of the body are considered appropriate for Hindu women (38).
Childlessness is considered bad lack by orthodox Hindus (Bose 62). Childless women have a lower social status which is accompanied by stigmatization. Barren women cannot perform certain rituals and their attendance to some events is considered a sign of bad luck (62). The birth of a son is preferred to ensure continuity of the generation. A family without a son is considered to be cursed. Guatama Suntra advises that a man without a son may request his daughter to raise him one (63). The birth of many daughters in some families is not welcome since they signify a financial burden during dowry payment (63).
In comparison with women following traditions of Hinduism, women in the secular sphere have a relatively different experience, even though they also have not yet obtained an equal status with men. Women in the secular sphere, including Hindu women who do not heed to religion, are more autonomous in their decisions and may live independently without needing the protection of a husband during adulthood (Zuckerman). Secular women generally have greater status and control over their lives compared to religious ones. For instance, secular women can get a divorce more easily compared to the ones that are deeply held by a religion like Hinduism. Secular women also have greater control when it comes to matters like child birth whereby they make their own decisions on with whom or when to have a child (Zuckerman). Secular women may raise children without the help of a husband without being seen as odd. These women may even have love relationships or even remarry after being widowed without being stigmatized in secular societies (Zuckerman). To most secular women, it is not of major concern whether sex is done within marriage as long as it is based on a mutual understanding between two adults (Zuckerman).
Unlike the Hindu woman who is made to believe that her major role in life is to become a wife and a mother, the secular woman has other goals and ambitions in life (Zuckerman). Many women in the secular sphere are pursuing careers and venturing into business (Zuckerman). It is therefore not surprising that women constitute about 47% of the workforce in America (Zuckerman). It is also common today to see women in top positions in corporate, social, and political spheres. This trend is contrary to most religious tenets where women are only seen as helpers of men (Zuckerman). Women in the secular world have broken such boundaries and are working to ensure it is no longer a man’s world in the future.
In contrast to women who follow staunch religious guidelines which determine how they dress, secular women decide independently on what to wear. Whether at work or not, most are fashion conscious and may wear clothes that do not necessarily cover most of their body like religious women (Zuckerman). Secular women believe that it boosts their confidence to wear what they want (Zuckerman). They even have designer clothes which are customized according to their tastes.
In conclusion, Hindu scripture requires women to be protected by men. However, it curtails the freedom of women by requiring them to always be under the care of men. Hindu tradition also accords women a unique status based on their condition. Widows, women without sons, and barren women are given a lower status compared to married women who have sons. Secular women on the other hand have more control over their lives and make most decisions on their own. Therefore, religion seems to play a major role in putting women in a lower status than men by encouraging the domination of men.
Basu, Monmayee. Hindu Women And Marriage Law. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
Bose, Mandakranta. Women In The Hindu Tradition. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Coward, Harold G, Julius, Lipner, and Katherine K Young. Hindu Ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Print.
Jayaram, V. 'Traditional Status Of Women In Hinduism'. Hinduwebsite.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
Mitter, Sara S. Dharma's Daughters: Contemporary Indian Women and Hindu Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1991. Print.
Zuckerman, Phil. 'Secularism And The Status Of Women'. Psychology Today. N.p., 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
Pintchman, Tracy. Women's Lives, Women's Rituals In The Hindu Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.