It is pertinent to draw an analogy with the political discourse vis-à-vis status of women in so-called liberal Western world to understand if Manu’s idea about women sticks out like a sore thumb. Susan Moller Okin informs us that in the ancient era, Plato approved the institution of private wives. To him, nature has ascribed different roles to men and women in society and women are only suitable for household works. He emphasized on supposedly feminine purity and considered women as the private property of men. Aristotle believed that all things derive their character from their functions. He also believed that women are naturally inferior and incapable of ruling the state and they are meant for procreation. He believed in the subordination of wife, children and slaves as natural in Greek families. Don’t they sound similar?
Even Rousseau portrayed women as silly and frivolous creators born to be subordinate to men. His views were similar to the Greek philosophers devaluing the status of women. Basically, he considered women as the source of evil. He tried to sanctify marriage as a training ground for a good son, husband, or father – ensuring patriarchal rule. It was only in the 19th century, with the emergence of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill that gender equality in political philosophy took the center stage.
Throughout European history, public sphere was reserved for male folks while women were primarily confined to the domestic arena. There is no recorded instance of organised feminist movement in Europe in the ancient era. During medieval times, European women did not have the privilege to own property or receive education. Even at the end of the 19th century, head scarfs were compulsory for French women in public and German husbands could sell their wives!
The story of the US is no different. It became independent in 1776 but women got voting rights only in 1920 after a prolonged struggle. Abigail Adams, future First Lady, had written to her husband John Adams not to forget about the nation’s women while fighting for independence. He conveniently did. Interestingly, the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) to the US Constitution gave voting rights to the blacks and slaves but not women. In fact, in 1872, Susan Anthony, women’s rights activist, was detained for unlawfully voting in New York and convicted as she had refused to pay the fine! Isn’t that regressive?
Despite the Vedic texts and parts of Manusmriti respecting the status of women and instances of Hindu women excelling in various fields from intellectual and spiritual attainments to statecraft and warfare (Gargi, Maitryee, Meerabai, Rani Laxmi Bai, Ahalya Bai – examples galore), many feminists ignore them as exceptions and keep blaming Manusmriti for many miseries for women even today. However, Monmayee Basu argues that the condition actually deteriorated with frequent foreign invasions during the medieval period. The consequent political and economic unrest arrested the development of Indian society as a whole and women in particular. The fear of insecurity crept in resulting in the emergence of many undesirable customs like sati, early marriage, purdah system leading to the seclusion and degradation of the status of women.
Agnes blames the British rule for consolidating and legitimising such degraded status for both Hindu and Muslim women. The much-vaunted Sati Regulation Act,1829 followed by the Widow Remarriage Act, 1856, Prohibition of Female Infanticide Act, 1872, gives us an impression that the English were uplifting the women folks of this country from barbaric native customs. However, a closer analysis of the jurisprudence developed by the English courts actually tells a different tale. Although the lower courts upheld the women’s rights following local customs in many cases, the higher judiciary reversed those decisions and thus engineered dubious judicial precedents for the future. In effect, the rights that the Indian women enjoyed under the smritis were jeopardized as the courts imposed Victorian morals on the native citizens. It served as a double blow: it distorted the smriti law and then applied such distorted law to a wide range of communities following diverse customs. In a case involving an unsuccessful claim of inheritance by daughters, the comments of Lord Erskine Perry sum up the matter: “A custom for females to take no share in the inheritance is not unreasonable in the eyes of the English law”.
Had the British not rejuvenated Manusmriti for the purpose of ruling the Hindus, the text would have been lost in oblivion. Therefore, in a malicious attempt to discredit and belittle ancient culture of India, those feminists/pseudo-feminists have mounted vicious attacks on Manusmriti whose origin and content are extremely doubtful. Moreover, if they are expecting Manusmriti dispensation akin to modern liberal women right’s discourse, then they should have better expected Alexander the Great to have rocket launchers in his arsenal. We have to judge all those notions of Manu from the viewpoint of contemporary human wisdom of that era. Through their irrational act, they have only succeeded in keeping it alive for political games. At times, instead of actively engaging with some politicians over stray comments on the issue through meaningless and endless dialogues, they should simply disregard them. Manusmriti actually doesn’t deserve the kind of pre-eminence it has received so far. If Manu is being continuously cited and blamed, then we have not evolved over the centuries. We should have taken a cue from the West which broke the shackles of their controversial and orthodox past and spearheaded liberal feminist discourse. Through Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagar, to the women activists of yesteryears like Kamini Roy, Savitribai Phule, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani to our generation activists – we have had those liberal winds in our sails too. If we are genuinely concerned about the protection and promotion of women’s rights in India, we should rather unlearn Manusmriti as a whole or at least, those parts that are inconsistent with the modern-day feminist discourse and surge ahead. It is fallacious to refer to the Manusmriti while arguing about women’s rights in the 21st century. After all, the growth of law is organic with place (sthan), time (kala) and participants (patra).
Read part I
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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