India – Women in Culture
General View and Position in Society
With India being an incredibly diverse country comprised of numerous linguistic,
ethnic and religious groups, the position of Indian women within each of these
groups varies greatly. The participation of Indian women in all spheres of society
has seen a tremendous increase ever since the economy was liberalized. A
majority of the Indian women are primarily looked upon as wives and mothers,
though that attitude no longer holds true in the urban areas.
India is a strongly male-dominated society.
Various forms of domestic violence against women in India continue to be a
major problem, with statistics indicating that one in every five married women
suffers from abuse. Women are expected to be subordinate to the men, with
obedience and a servile attitude considered virtues. However, an increasing
number of educated women play major roles in decision making at home and are
provided with the necessary freedom to take up careers and participate in other
areas of public life.
Social and economic factors, along with the caste system, play a major role in
determining the position of Indian women. The position of women belonging to
the upper social and economic strata of society tends to be on par with the men.
They are very visible and represent the new face of the “modern” Indian woman.
On the other hand, women from the lower classes are governed by traditional
male-dominated attitudes that limit their freedom and make them dependant on
the men for all their needs.
The position of Indian women has been undergoing change for a long time, with
the pace of that change increasing dramatically during recent times. The
government has initiated a number of laws and measures to protect women’s
rights and encourage their participation in public life. This change has been more
visible in the urban regions as compared to the rural areas. Traditional practices
that were highly damaging to women, such as child marriage, temple prostitution
and Sati (the practice of burning a widow alive on her husband’s funeral pyre),
have been all but completely eliminated.
In politics, women hold 46 of the 552 seats in the Lok Sabha, which is the lower
House and 28 of the 242 seats in the upper House, the Rajya Sabha, are held by
women. This translates to a share of 8.3 and 11.6 percent respectively. One of
the Supreme Court’s 25 judges and 25 of the 514 High Court judges are women.
In the medical field, women comprise almost the entire Indian nursing workforce.
The population of India’s trained female doctors, surgeons, scientists and
professors exceeds even that of the United States. The business sector has seen
a steady growth in the number of women entrepreneurs and current estimates
indicate that 10 percent of entrepreneurs in India are women.
Rural Indian women work extensively in the fields and make up a large portion of
the workforce in the agricultural sector. Their access to various educational and
employment opportunities and facilities such as healthcare is limited. Many rural
women are subject to violence and discriminatory practices. Urban women are
educated, “modern” and make up a large part of the workforce in the country’s
various industrialized sectors. The gap between urban and rural women in India
is quite large.
India has an amazing number of ethnic groups, making it one of the most
heterogeneous countries in the world. The position of women in various ethnic
sub-cultures varies widely. The tribals, who are indigenous people, live lives of
chronic poverty and lack access to even the most basic of amenities. This results
in tribal women living harsh lives comprised entirely of working and taking care of
the family. On the other hand, certain ethnic tribal groups in the North-Eastern
region of India, like the Khasis of Meghalaya for example, live in matriarchal
societies where women are heads of the household.
Though most Indian women dress conservatively, Western fashion is prevalent in
Indian women have equal legal rights as the men in all respects.
India granted it’s women the right to vote in 1950. Women can drive cars and
have rights to own and inherit property.
According to Indian laws, abortions are legal when performed to save the life,
physical or mental health of the mother, if the fetus is severely impaired, when
the baby is the result of illegal sexual acts such as rape or incest or for other
reasons such as contraceptive failure.
Women have the rights to initiate divorce. They also have the right to lay claim to
custody of the children.
India’s laws guarantee women equal access as the men to all educational
facilities in the country.
The literacy rate for Indian women is about 66 percent, compared to the 76
percent for the men. This statistic, however, hides enormous disparities in the
levels of women’s literacy in various parts of the country. For example, the state
of Mizoram has a female literacy rate of 95 percent while that of Bihar, India’s
poorest state, is about 34 percent.
A majority of Indian girls complete their primary schooling. In the urban areas, a
most of them go on to complete their higher education as well.
Schools in India follow a co-educational system of schooling, with boys and girls
sharing the same classroom space.
Educated women have equal access to job opportunities as the men. Though the
higher levels of management are dominated by men, women are increasingly
establishing a presence at top decision-making levels of companies.
Dating, Marriage, and Family
Arranged marriages, fixed by parents, relatives, friends or professional
matchmakers, are the norm in most parts of India except for the North-Eastern
states. However, most urban youth these days choose their own spouses.
Dating is practiced in urban areas, with women meeting men at educational
institutions, schools, and social events such as weddings and festivals. Dating
usually begins during the late teens.
The mean marrying age of Indian women is about 17 years for rural women and
the early twenties for urban women.
Polygamy is legally and socially unacceptable in most parts of India. However,
Islamic laws allow Indian Muslims to have multiple wives.
Women have the rights to hold assets separately from their husbands.
Indian women take their husband’s names after marriage. In the event of a
divorce, most women revert back to their maiden names.
Women in India take care of the household, with urban wives playing major roles
in decision making. An increasing number of women are beginning to lead
households in the absence of the men.
Childless women in India, especially those from rural areas, are heavily
stigmatized and face social scorn. In some areas, the fertility rate of a woman
determines her social status.
In the event of a divorce, maintenance and alimony laws are governed by various
religious laws, apart from civil laws. Women, however, are entitled to claim
support and the men are obliged to provide it until she remarries. The same
religious laws apply regarding granting custody of children. Though women have
the right to claim custody of the children, fathers are considered to be the primary
guardians of minor children and courts usually appoint another guardian only if
the father is found unfit. However, most courts keep the wellbeing of the child
foremost in mind when granting custody.
Women are guaranteed equal rights as the men in accessing healthcare and
medical facilities. However, rural women in many parts of India have limited
access to healthcare.
As of 2005, maternal mortality death rates for Indian women stood at 407 deaths
per 100,000 live births, the third highest in the world. Infant mortality rates for the
same year stood at 62 fatalities per 1,000 live births.
Most healthcare decisions are made by women only after consultation with their
families and often after obtaining the permission of their husbands.
Indian women have easy access to birth control measures, though contraceptive
prevalence is quite low. Studies indicate that less than half of India’s married
couples use any form of birth control, with almost two-thirds of women opting for
Interesting or Unusual Social Customs
Rural Indian girls who attain puberty are confined to their homes for a month.
They are prohibited from leaving the house and visiting temples. According to
Hindu customs, women are also prohibited from visiting temples and other places
of Hindu religious worship during their menstrual cycles.
Indian brides almost always decorate their hands with intricate designs using
henna or mehandi, a reddish colored paste made from the leaves of the mehandi