Rights of Women (स्त्रीत्वाधिकारः)

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Rights of Women (Samskrit: स्त्रीत्वाधिकारः) discusses respect to womanhood, the responsibility of protection of women and the various provisions designed for the welfare of women in the Bharatiya Parampara.

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

The Bharatiya Parampara enumerates various virtues as fundamentals or characteristics of dharma that should to be practiced by all. Among them, 'respect for women' is one of the most cherished values of life. Women were considered as divine treasures for family life. For, they are entrusted with the responsibility of motherhood by nature. An understanding of the intense love and affection of a mother for her children, and her readiness to make tremendous sacrifices for the sake of her children led to the evolution of a cultural value of regarding mother as a devata (divinity). Furthermore, as every woman is a potential mother, even small girls came to be addressed with respect as Ma, Amma etc., that mean mother. Once the value that 'every woman is motherly' is ingrained in the heart of an individual, immoral thoughts of committing any offence against woman gets destroyed. In fact, despite the declining moral values in recent years, this value, cultivated and inculcated diligently in the hearts of individuals, is acting by and large, as the greatest protection for women against the immoralities prevalent in the society. Thus, creating and maintaining this value has been one of the most valuable contribution of the ancestors of Bharata.[1][2]

स्त्रीत्वमानः ॥ Respect for Womanhood

Manusmrti, in the following verse, mandates that highest respect and regard must be extended to women. It says,

यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः । यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः । । ३.५६ । ।[3]

yatra nāryastu pūjyante ramante tatra devatāḥ । yatraitāstu na pūjyante sarvāstatrāphalāḥ kriyāḥ । । 3.56 । ।

Meaning : Deities are pleased with the house in which women are respected. In that house in which women are insulted and are made to suffer, every thing done is sure to go waste. The importance given to this value of 'respect for womanhood' was ably exemplified by Shivaji Maharaj in his lifetime. It is said that having won the Kalyan province, Shivaji Maharaj acquired a lot of wealth. At that time, Abajipanth, who was the commander of the army that won the war, told him that a beautiful girl who was a member of the family of the Mughal Subhedar of Kalyan defeated in the war, had also been captured. And as he offered to present her to Maharaj, he said,

"You say she is so beautiful, she is equal to my mother. So, I love and respect her. Moreover, affording protection to women is Raja Dharma."

Having said so he got her decorated with jewels and rich dress, and she was restored to the defeated Subhedhar who was overwhelmed and realized the importance given to the value of 'respect for womanhood' in Bharata.

Furthermore, it is said that,

शोचन्ति जामयो यत्र विनश्यत्याशु तत्कुलम् । न शोचन्ति तु यत्रैता वर्धते तद्धि सर्वदा । । ३.५७ । ।

जामयो यानि गेहानि शपन्त्यप्रतिपूजिताः । तानि कृत्याहतानीव विनश्यन्ति समन्ततः । । ३.५८ । ।[3]

śocanti jāmayo yatra vinaśyatyāśu tatkulam । na śocanti tu yatraitā vardhate taddhi sarvadā । । 3.57 । ।

jāmayo yāni gehāni śapantyapratipūjitāḥ । tāni kr̥tyāhatānīva vinaśyanti samantataḥ । । 3.58 । ।

Meaning: If, in a house, the daughter, daughter-in-law, sisters and other women suffer, then that house is sure to be destroyed. The house in which such women live happily is the one that secures wealth and happiness. The family in which the wife, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, etc. are not respected and in which they suffer from insult, is sure to be destroyed.

Hence, it is said that, men who seek (their own) welfare should always honour women with gifts, good attire and dainty food.

स्त्रियां तु रोचमानायां सर्वं तद्रोचते कुलम् । तस्यां त्वरोचमानायां सर्वमेव न रोचते । । ३.६२ । ।[3]

striyāṁ tu rocamānāyāṁ sarvaṁ tadrocate kulam । tasyāṁ tvarocamānāyāṁ sarvameva na rocate । । 3.62 । ।

Meaning : The house in which women folk are decorated with dress and jewellery shines. Otherwise, the house is sure to suffer. In fact, the Manusmrti goes ahead to say,

सुवासिनीः कुमारीश्च रोगिणो गर्भिणीः स्त्रियः । अतिथिभ्योऽग्र एवैतान् भोजयेदविचारयन् । । ३.११४ । ।[3]

suvāsinīḥ kumārīśca rogiṇo garbhiṇīḥ striyaḥ । atithibhyo'gra evaitān bhojayedavicārayan । । 3.114 । ।

Meaning: Recently married daughters, as well as daughters-in-law, young girls as also pregnant women should be served with meals even before the guests.

This indicates the utmost consideration given to women in Manusmrti. For, the normal duty of Grhasthashrami (Householder) is to feed guests first and only thereafter, the owner of the house, his wife and other members of the family have food. However, the above provision shows that a young daughter or daughter-in-law who has been recently married, as also young girls and pregnant women were given such an importance and priority that they were to be provided with meals even before the guests. This indicates the highest concern shown to women and the acknowledgement of their great importance to the happiness of the family. On the whole, the above verses impress that any person who wants happiness at home and who desires that his family should prosper and secure enjoyment of life, must respect women always.[1]

स्त्रीरक्षणम् ॥ Protection of Women

Manusmrti says,

पिता रक्षति कौमारे भर्ता रक्षति यौवने । रक्षन्ति स्थविरे पुत्रा न स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यं अर्हति । । ९.३ । ।[4]

pitā rakṣati kaumāre bhartā rakṣati yauvane । rakṣanti sthavire putrā na strī svātantryaṁ arhati । । 9.3 । ।

Meaning: Father protects the girl in her childhood, husband protects her after marriage and her sons protect her in old age. At no stage should a woman be left free.

The last part of the above verse has become the basis for the criticism levelled against Manusmrti that it necessitates women to live like slaves of men throughout their life. However, by nature womanhood is tender. There are many situations in which women/girls require greater care, protection and security.[2] They are vulnerable to various kinds of onslaughts when left unprotected. Even now, when civilization has advanced greatly and women's performance in every field of activity is excellent, they require protection against onslaught. And that is the basis for the above verse of Manusmrti. It does not mean that woman must be kept without freedom. Such an interpretation runs counter to the verse, which says that the house in which women are insulted and shed tears gets destroyed.

In fact, in the earlier section of the article, the respect and regard extended to women in Manusmrti, that precede the above mentioned verse in the text of Manusmrti, has already been referenced. Therefore, it is imperative to revisit the meaning and purpose of the above verse which rather seems to be 'a woman requires and is entitled to protection in every stage of life'. Correspondingly, it is the duty of the father, the husband and the sons to look after the daughter, the wife and the mother respectively.

It is the duty of the father to look after his daughter with all care, educate her by giving due regard to her aptitude in arts, crafts and music and celebrate her marriage. Thereafter, the fundamental duty and responsibility to maintain and protect her stands shifted to her husband. And when her sons come of age that duty gets shifted to them. In fact, protection and care is essential to male children and aged fathers as well. Just, a special provision is made for women. Therefore, the real intention of the verse is to declare the obligation of the father, the husband and the sons to maintain and protect their daughter, their wife and their mother respectively. It is not a directive to subjugate or dominate them. Therefore, to interpret the verse to the effect that a woman must be treated as a slave by her father during her childhood, by her husband after her marriage and by her sons in old age, that she should be deprived of freedom throughout her life and thereby, criticize and condemn Mausmrti as being against women is wholly erroneous.[2] More so because, it is being quoted and interpreted without reference to the earlier parts and other verses in Manusmrti.[1]

The meaning of the verse becomes clearer when it is read with another provision in Manu wherein the highest respect is accorded to women. It says,

उपाध्यायान्दशाचार्य आचार्याणां शतं पिता । सहस्रं तु पितॄन्माता गौरवेणातिरिच्यते । । २.१४५ । ।[5]

upādhyāyāndaśācārya ācāryāṇāṁ śataṁ pitā । sahasraṁ tu pitr̥̄nmātā gauraveṇātiricyate । । 2.145 । ।

Meaning : The acharya is more venerable than an Upadhyaya (teacher); the father is more venerable than an acharya. But the mother is more venerable than the father.

This verse indicates that while the teacher is to be placed at a higher level, the father is to be respected more than the teacher and no place, no status which is higher than that of the mother is given to any one. A combined reading of the verses quoted above indicate that women were placed at a high pedestal. Read along with the verses quoted in the earlier sections of the article, it is revealed that any meaning given to the verse to the effect that women should be denied freedom at every stage would be inconsistent with the other verses. For, if women are denied freedom and kept under subjugation, they are bound to be in grief and tears. And as a consequence, the happiness of the family disappears. Hence, a meaning consistent with the verses quoted alone is appropriate. And that is, 'women should be honoured and protected'. It is a humane and a duty-oriented provision, the mandate to provide security and should not be misunderstood as making her life insecure.[1]

दायभागे स्त्रीणाम् अधिकाराः ॥ Property Rights of Women

An analysis of the provisions concerning women in the Smrtis indicate that on account of the social system, a daughter, after marriage, was to become a member of her husband's family. And therefore, no share in the ancestral property of the father was provided for her by birth. However, in every other respect, special provisions had been made in favour of women.

For example, it is well known that when the original owner of a property leaves his property unattended for a specific period of time (10 years), Manusmrti establishes that a person can claim his/her right over such a property by the doctrine of adverse possession. And this provision of the law regarding perfecting title to immoveable property by adverse possession was very strict. Only after three generations could adverse possessions be pleaded, but in respect of property belonging to women no adverse possession could be pleaded at all at any time.[1] The Katyayana Smrti says,

न भोगं कल्पयेत्स्त्रीषु देवराजधनेषु च ।। ३३० ।।[6] na bhogaṁ kalpayetstrīṣu devarājadhaneṣu ca ।। 330 ।।

Meaning: No plea of adverse possession is tenable in respect of property belonging to women, State and Temple.[2]

Some of the other provisions[1] made in favour of women in Property matters are as follows:

स्त्रीधनम् ॥ Stridhana

Every property movable or immoveable, given to a woman by anyone constitutes her own absolute property. Manusmrti clearly indicates that those relations who, in their folly, live on the properties of women, their conveyances and clothes (stridhana), are committing papa (पापम्) and thus, suffer downfall.[1][7]

स्त्रीधनानि तु ये मोहादुपजीवन्ति बान्धवाः । नारी यानानि वस्त्रं वा ते पापा यान्त्यधोगतिम् । । ३.५२ । ।[3]

strīdhanāni tu yē mōhādupajīvanti bāndhavāḥ । nārī yānāni vastraṁ vā tē pāpā yāntyadhōgatim । । 3.52 । ।

In fact, the rule of succession to Stridhana was that it would go to daughters, to the exclusion of the sons and, to the sons only in the event of there being no daughters.

संयुक्तकुटुम्बेषु स्त्रीणाम् अधिकाराः ॥ Rights of Women in Joint Family

Within the joint family, male members upto three lineal descendants form a coparcenary. Though women were not admitted to the membership of this coparcenary, they were members of the joint family. And thus, the law gave them the right to a share equal to 'one fourth of the share of the brothers' at partition though they were not given the right to compel partition.

पत्नीनाम् अधिकारः ॥ Right of Wives

Yajnavalkya Smrti states that wives are entitled to a share 'equal to that of sons' at a partition. But the share is liable to be reduced by the amount of stridhana given by the husband or the father-in-law, if any, in their possession. It says,

यदि कुर्यात्समानंशान्पत्न्यः कार्याः समांशिकाः । न दत्तं स्त्रीधनं यासां भर्त्रा वा श्वशुरेण वा । । २.११५ । ।[8]

yadi kuryātsamānaṁśānpatnyaḥ kāryāḥ samāṁśikāḥ । na dattaṁ strīdhanaṁ yāsāṁ bhartrā vā śvaśurēṇa vā । । 2.115 । ।

This rule recognized the right to share in favour of a wife and if there was more than one wife, all the wives were entitled to equal shares. Also, the amount of Stridhana to be taken into account for the purpose of reducing the share was only that which was given by the husband or the father-in-law.

जननीनाम् अधिकारः ॥ Right of Mothers

समांशहारिणी माता | samāṁśahāriṇī mātā |

Meaning : Mother is an Equal Sharer.

समांशहारिणी मातेति वचनात् मातृपदस्य जननीपरत्वात् न | सपत्नीमातृपरत्वमपि सकृत् श्रुतस्य मुख्यगौणत्वानुपपत्तेः || (Smriti Chandrika)

samāṁśahāriṇī mātēti vacanāt mātr̥padasya jananīparatvāt na | sapatnīmātr̥paratvamapi sakr̥t śrutasya mukhyagauṇatvānupapatteḥ ||

Meaning: The expression 'mother' includes the step-mother, i.e., the other wives, if any, of the father. Their share was, however, liable to be reduced to the extent of stridhana in their possession.

Because of this rule, the rights of paternal grandmother or step-grandmother were also similar.

पुत्रीणाम् अधिकारः ॥ Right of Daughters

Daughters, whose marriages had taken place before partition, were given no right in the coparcenary property of their parents' joint family. As regards unmarried daughters, a share in the coparcenary property was recognised.

स्वेभ्योऽंशेभ्यस्तु कन्याभ्यः प्रदद्युर्भ्रातरः पृथक् । स्वात्स्वादंशाच्चतुर्भागं पतिताः स्युरदित्सवः । । ९.११८ । ।[4]

svēbhyō'ṁśēbhyastu kanyābhyaḥ pradadyurbhrātaraḥ pr̥thak । svātsvādaṁśāccaturbhāgaṁ patitāḥ syuraditsavaḥ । । 9.118 । ।

Meaning : To maiden sisters, each of the brothers shall give out of his share, one-fourth part. Those who fail to give shall become patita (पतितः). However, while repeating the rule, Katyayana Smrti provides that in cases where the property is small, sons and unmarried daughters should share equally.

कन्यकानां त्वदत्तानां चतुर्थो भाग इष्यते । पुत्राणां तु त्रयो भागाः साम्यं त्वल्पधने स्मृतम् ।। ८५८ ।।[9]

kanyakānāṁ tvadattānāṁ caturtho bhāga iṣyate । putrāṇāṁ tu trayo bhāgāḥ sāmyaṁ tvalpadhane smr̥tam ।। 858 ।।

The Hindu law governing inheritance and partition of joint family property continues to be in force subject to the modifications brought about by legislations. And as per the Hindu succession Act, 1955 a daughter is an equal sharer along with the son in the property of the father.

दण्डविधिः ॥ Quantum of Penalty

Katyayana Smrti says that in case of all offences, only half of the punishment prescribed for a man should be imposed on a woman.[1]

सर्वेषु चापराधेषु पुंसो योऽर्थदमः स्मृतः । तदर्धं योषितो दद्युर्वधे पुंसोऽङ्ग कर्तनम् ।। ४८७ ।।[10]

sarveṣu cāparādheṣu puṁso yo'rthadamaḥ smr̥taḥ । tadardhaṁ yoṣito dadyurvadhe puṁso'ṅga kartanam ।। 487 ।।

संहृतिः ॥ Synopsis

The provisions in the smrtis enlisted above dispel the doubts, criticisms and arguments that, according to Manusmrti, women were not entitled to freedom. On the other hand, they show that greater protection was given to women in the ancient laws. In fact, by placing the entire burden of maintaining the women on the father, the husband, and the son, the law totally freed her from earning and from contributing to the maintenance of the family, leaving her free to dedicate her entire time and energy to the upbringing of children, which was by itself an onerous responsibility.

This exposition can be completed best by quoting what Kerry Brown has stated in his book, "The Essential Teachings of Hinduism", having explored the meaning of the verses in Manusmrti. He says,

"In Hinduism a woman is looked after not because she is inferior or incapable but, on the contrary, because she is treasured. She is the pride and power of the society. Just as the crown jewels should not be left unguarded, neither should a woman be left unprotected. No extra burden of earning a living should be placed on women who already bear huge responsibilities in society; childbirth; child care, domestic well being and adhyatmik growth. She is the transmitter of culture to her children."

Today, it is no doubt true that times have changed. We have women who are competent in various professions, avocations, competent in business, who are competent political rulers, bureaucrats, technocrats, advocates, judges and so on. But that is no reason to lose sight of the onerous responsibility on women of looking after the health and education of children or to forget the noble value of looking upon every woman as one's mother as that is the only powerful antidote for atrocities against women. Thus, the important role played by women in the society is aptly acknowledged then and now.[1][2]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Justice Mandagadde Rama Jois (1997), Dharma: The Global Ethic, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 M.Rama Jois (2004), Trivarga, Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Manusmrti, Adhyaya 3.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Manusmrti, Adhyaya 9.
  5. Manusmrti, Adhyaya 2
  6. Katyayana Smrti, Bhukti
  7. Ganganath Jha (1920-39), Manusmrti (Vol.4), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.
  8. Yajnavalkya Smrti, Vyavaharadhyaya, Dayavibhaga Prakaranam.
  9. Katyayana Smrti, Daya Vibhaga.
  10. Katyayana Smrti, Danda Vidhi.