History of women’s education – From the Vedas to the Independence
Women in India have experienced various statuses since the birth of civilization. Over the past millennium, Indian women have been struggling for equal rights, opportunities and importance as men. The millennium long battle for equality makes India’s history all the more eventful and intriguing, as women weren’t always at the bottom of the totem pole.
The Vedic Period
In ancient India, during the Early Vedic period, women were equal to men. They used to make pivotal decisions and were allowed educate themselves. Women would also choose their own husbands through the ancient system of “Swayamvara”. A woman was respected and given due importance in society in ancient India.
Women’s education was also vital during this period. The Vedas stressed on the importance of female intellectuals and importance. This made access to education easy for the women. The prevalence of Women’s education in ancient India gave rise to brilliant seers and thinkers such as Gargi and Maitreyi. These intellectuals raised the reputation of women by participating in educational debates and discussions among other intellectuals.
Gargi was a prominenent figure in ancient society beside men such as Uddalaka Arni. In the Vedic period, the educational system was very developed and the main subject taught was the Veda. The Veda, or the sic Vedangas, were taught including the performance of sacrifice, correct pronunciation, knowledge of prosody, etymology, grammar, and jyotisha or the science of calendar.
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The education of women in ancient India produced several women with significant authority. Ancient Indian texts describe the influence of women in society. For instance, Mahabharata by Veda Vyasa shows the persuasion of Draupadi on the husbands to throw the Kauravas. Also, Ramayana by Valmiki depicts the influence of Sita that resulted in Ravana’s defeat. Regardless of whether or not these Ancient Indian texts depict what happened in reality, they show the superiority of women over men at the time.
The Medieval Period
Women flourished during the Vedic period. However, their status gradually declined during the post Vedic period. The medieval period saw the influence on India mostly by foreign invasions. Various traders and rulers brought their own culture, tradition and learning process. India imbibed this knowledge and introduced it among the people of the country. The foreign influence resulted in the decline of women’s status in this period. The female literacy rate plummeted and was lower than the male literacy rate. Thus began the “dark age” of women in India. Child wives without education became the norm. Women were introduced to “Purdah”, a veil system introduced by the arrival of the Muslims. Social evil practices like Sati and Jauhar prevailed.
The arrival of the Muslims aggravated the troubles of the women in India. The women were forced to practice “zenana”. Moreover, Muslim women were forbidden equal access to education, due to their religion. During the Muslim rule, women’s education was constrained because Muslim men were also minimally educated. There were a few exceptions, like in the case of Razia Sultan being the only female monarch to rule the throne of Delhi at the time. Also, the Gond queen Durgavati ruled for fifteen years before she lost the battle to Mughal emperor Akbar’s general Asaf Ali.
The Colonial Period
The plight of women escalated further until the colonization of India by the British. As said by a scholar, “The lives of Indian women began to change significantly in the late nineteenth century when the colonial government, critical of the treatment of both Hindu and Muslim women, found allies among Indian reformers. Keen to reform their own society, these men agree that women should be educated and play some role in public life.”
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The British government – eager to prove their liberal, ethical and pro-modernity attitude – resorted to the “women question”, the fundamental feminist question concerned with the rights and progress of women. The British denounced the existing insignificance of Indian womanhood, and tried to initiate some feminist welfare activities to show their socio-cultural advancement and Western nobility. They took help of the native indigenous modern minds like Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and other eminent Indians. “What began as a more or less contest for moral supremacy among the oriental tradition and the Western civilization, was turned into a beneficial move by the benevolent priests of humanism, like Raja Rammohan Roy.”*
The Modern Age
After Independence, the scope for women increased and women’s education in India became more widespread. Highest priority was given to women’s education, as it was a major concern for both the government and the civil society, because educated women can play a vital role in the development of the country. Thus, there was a significant upsurge in awareness regarding women’s rights among all sections of society. Various developmental programmes and policies were introduced in order to improve the social status of women.
At present, women’s education has soared new heights. Entrances into engineering and medical colleges have overwhelmingly elevated. Most professional colleges in the country keep thirty percent of the seats reserved for females. social reform movements are still ongoing to keep the equality of women on track.
Social Reform Movements
Select socio-religious reform bodies like Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and Ramakrishna mission did the pioneering work of women’s education in India during British Raj. Sir Thomas Babington Macaulay’s minute was also a pivotal milestone in the plight of women.
Brahmo Samaj is the societal component of the Brahmo religion that is mainly practiced today as the Adi Dharm after its eclipse in Bengal. It was one of the most influential religious movements responsible for the making of modern India. It was conceived at Kolkata in 1830 by Dwarkanath Tagore and Rammohun Roy as reformation of the prevailing Brahmanism of the time and began the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century pioneering all religious, social and educational advance of the Hindu community in the 19th century. The Brahmo Samaj literally denotes communities of men who worship Brahman. From the Brahmo Samaj springs Brahmoism, the most recent of India’s faiths recognized in law as distinct religions and Bangladesh, reflecting its non-syncretic “foundation of Rammohun Roy’s reformed spiritual Hinduism and inclusion of root Hebraic – Islamic creed and practice.”
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The Brahmo Samaj put a lot of emphasis on female education. The Brahmo School was started in 1859 where weekly lectures in theology were given to young men and women. This was greatly popular and several branches were opened in and around Calcutta, with Debendranath and Ayodhyanath Pakrashi delivering regular lectures in Bengali. The Society of Theistic Friends or Brahmo Bandhu Sabha was set up in 1863, which took an active interest in spreading education to women. A special Bengali monthly journal for women called Bamabodhini made its appearance under the editorship of Umeshchandra Dutta. The establishment of the Brahmika Samaj or Brahmo Ladies’ Prayer Meeting in 1865 gave a great impetus to the cause of female education in the Brahmo Samaj. The Indian Reform Association established in 1870 also took up the cause of providing female education and general and technical education.
Arya Samaj is a Hindu reform movement founded by Swami Dayananda on 10th April, 1875. He was a sannyasi (ascetic) who believed in the infallible authority of the Vedas. Dayananda emphasized the ideals of brahmacharya (chastity).
There are 3–4 million followers of Arya Samaj worldwide.
On the 10th of April, 1875, the MUMBAI Arya Samaj was officially established. The membership amounted to 100 persons, including Swami Dayanand. The members appealed to the Swami that he should serve as either the President or the Guru of the Samaj, but he kindly refused, and instead requested that he be listed as a regular member.
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Thomas Babington Macaulay was born in England on 25th October, 1800. After attending a private school during his earlier years, in 1818 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he held a fellowship until 1831 and where he gained a reputation for inexhaustible talk and genial companionship in a circle of brilliant young men. In 1825 the first of his essays, that on , published in The Edinburgh Review, brought him immediate fame and the chance to display his social gifts on a wider stage; he was courted and admired by the most distinguished personages of the day.
In 1834 Macaulay accepted an invitation to serve on the recently created Supreme Council of India, foreseeing that he could save from his salary enough to give him a competence for life. He took his sister Hannah with him and reached India at a vital moment when the effective government by the East India Company was being superseded by that of the British crown. In this he was able to play an important part, throwing his weight in favour of the liberty of the press and of the equality of Europeans and Indians before the law. He inaugurated a national system of education, Western in outlook, and as president of a commission on Indian jurisprudence he drafted a system that later became the basis of Indian education. Meanwhile, he suffered two personal blows: his sister Margaret died in England, and in 1835 his sister Hannah left him to marry a promising young servant of the East India Company, Charles Trevelyan.
Lord Macaulay was a central figure in the language debate over which languages should be used as the medium of education in India. The Committee on Public Instruction was hopelessly divided between the “Anglicists” and the “Orientalists.” The Orientalists were in the favour of use of classical languages of Indian tradition, such as Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, which were not spoken as native languages. The Anglicists, on the other hand, supported English. Neither of these groups wanted to suppress the local vernaculars, mother tongues of the people. Both the groups agreed that education would be conducted in the vernacular during the first years of education.
The Anglicist group’s views were expressed in Macaulay’s Minute, which is said to mark “the real beginnings of bilingualism in India”. According to the document, which had been prepared for the governor general William Bentinck, after listening to the argument of the two sides, a class should be formed in India, a group of people who would act as interpreters between the British and Indians, “a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect”. Macaulay’s proposal was a success; and the following year Lord Bentinck expressed his full support for the minute, declaring that the funds “administered on Public Instruction should be henceforth employed in imparting to the native population a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language”.
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According to Bailey, in Macaulay’s thinking Indian languages would be enriched by English, so that they could become vehicles for European scientific, historical and literary expression. English gradually became the language of government, education, advancement, “a symbol of imperial rule and of self-improvement”.
Macaulay justified the imposition of British power on the country by simply arguing that although this policy in India might seem controversial and strange sometimes, it can be so, for the Empire is itself the strangest of all political anomalies…that we should govern a territory ten thousand miles from us, a territory larger and more populous than France, Spain, Italy and Germany put together…a territory inhabited by men differing from us in race, colour, language, manners, morals, religion; these are prodigies to which the world has seen nothing similar. Reason is confounded…General rules are useless where the whole is one vast exception. The Company is anomaly, but it is part of a system where everything is anomaly. It is strangest of all governments; but it is designed for the strangest of all Empires.
The Orientalists expressed their disagreement in a note dated 15th February 1835, but they could not stop it from passing and had to give way. On 7th March 1835, the Minute received a Seal of Approval from Lord William Bentinck (1774-1839), and an official resolution on Macaulay’s resolution was passed. This resolution “formed the cornerstone of the implementation of a language policy in India and ultimately resulted in the diffusion of bilingualism in English”.
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The approval of Macaulay’s Minute was the first step in Colonial India to rectifying the imbalance of women’s education. This resolution inspired many reformists to set up girls’ schools or co-ed schools.
A heap of educators and reformers have contributed to the progressive evolution of women’s education. During what was called the “dark age” of India, these educators defied the norms to make India a better place for generations to come.
Pandita Ramabai was one of those first learned women of the 19th century India who dedicated her life for the upliftment of women, especially widows, deserted and destitute women, and strove hard for their all round development. She was born on 23rd April in a forest in Western Maharashtra. Her father, Ananta Shastri, was also educated and a social reformer. He, too, believed in the equality of women, and so he educated his wife and daughter about the Veda. He also defied the norms of marrying off daughters at the age of nine, and was condemnd for doing so.
After the death of her parents, Ramabai reached Kolkata with her elder brothers. She had learned Sanskrit grammar and literature from her parents, especially from her mother. Due to her proficiency in Sanskrit, the titles Pandita and Saraswati were bestowed upon her at the Senate Hall in Kolkata. She was also proficient in many Indian languages like Marathi, Kannad, Gujarati, Bengali, Hindi and Tulu as well as English and Hebrew. Ramabai was the sole woman to have the honour of being given the title Pandita in those times.
In 1880, Ramabai got married to Bipin Biharidas Medhavi, a lawyer in Kolkata. This marriage was considered revolutionary in that period, because Pandita Ramabai was a Brahmin whereas Bipin was from the untouchable class. But Ramabai had resolved to disregard incorrect traditions. Unfortunately, Bipin Medhavi met with an untimely death in 1882. She then shifted to Pune with her only daughter Manorama. In order to free the Indian society from destructive customs and traditions like child marriage and prohibition of widow-remarriages, she established the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune, and subsequently, in Ahmednagar, Solapur, Thane, Mumbai, Pandharpur and Barshi. To propagate her ideologies, she wrote the book Stree Dharma Niti (code of values towards women).
She shifted to England in 1883 and taught Sanskrit at the Cheltenham Ladies College. During her stay there, she was attracted towards Christianity and she became a Christian. In 1886 she moved to America to seek support for her mission for women’s education. There, she wrote the book titled The High-caste Hindu Woman, discussing the issue of Hindu child widows. She gave lectures at many places to present the problems faced by Indian society before the Americans. Some citizens came forward to establish the Ramabai Association in Boston, to extend aid to her mission of helping Indian child widows. Later on, she wrote another book, United States chi Lokasthiti ani Pravasvrutta (Status of Society of United States and a Travelogue).
On 11th March, 1889, she formed the Sharada Sadan, an institute for widows in Mumbai. She campaigned against the ritual of making widows bald (a custom of the time to make women unattractive and dissuade remarriage) and backed the movement for marriage at consent age (marriage with the consent of groom and bride when they become adults rather than child marriage arranged by the parents, which was a custom prevalent then).
In November 1890, Sharada Sadan was brought to Pune. On 24th September, 1898, she established Mukti Sadan at Kedgaon. Muktisadan became a shelter for many women during the famine in 1897 in Madhya Pradesh and in 1900 in Gujarat. Ramabai also established some more helping homes like Preeti Sadan, Sharada Sadan and Shanti Sadan for the needy and afflicted women. These homes not only provided free lodging and boarding, but also attempted to make the women self-sufficient by providing them with scholastic education along with training in farming, knitting and printing.
Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule
Mahatma Jotirao Phule was born on 11th April, 1827 in Pune. He was about a year old when his mother died. His father chose not to remarry so he could raise his children with his undivided attention. Jotirao started attending a Marathi school when he was seven years old. His father’s first preference was to send him to a private school, but he was denied admission because the schools were run by high caste Hindus, and Jotirao came from a family that was considered lowly during that period. Jotirao was then sent to a missionary school. Friends of his father highly discouraged him from this decision for fear that attending a missionary school might convert his son to Christianity. Afraid of his son’s potential conversion, Jotirao’s father stopped Jotirao’s education and made him work as a helper in his own gardening work. He then rejoined the school after having lost three years of schooling, because his father had a change of heart about education.
By the time Jotirao was twenty-one, he had completed his education, with a deep insight into the lives of Christ, Buddha and Jain Thirthankaras, and the works of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Geeta. This resulted in his understanding and awareness of the various problems in India as a nation faced at the time. He was convinced that truth and love towards fellowmen are the true hallmarks of religion. He wanted everyone to believe it, too; that all men were God’s children and were born equal, regardless of their caste. A factor that perhaps contributed to this conviction was his own caste, which was perceived as a lowly caste by other ‘high caste’ communities. He once experienced this when he was attending a friend’s wedding that was attended by other high-caste guests. When they found out about his roots, they forced him to leave the wedding place.
Jotirao’s humiliation further fueled his interest in understanding different customs and religions. He was moved by the Dalit practices of denying women the right to education and to remarry if widowed. The prevailing norm in the society was that ‘the caste system was ordained by religion and that it was true Dharma of a person to accept the hierarchal order of the society.’
Jotirao wanted to break these superstitious beliefs, and his first step towards achieving this goal was to set up a girls’ school in Poona in 1848. This was the first school in the whole of India for women started by an Indian. In spite of great resistance from the orthodox Brahmins in Poona, Jotirao stood his ground.
Jotirao was on his way to making a difference to Indian education but he couldn’t do so adequately without the help of his wife, Savitribai Phule. Due to the lack of formal training, though, Jotirao himself educated her, until she was qualified to be a teacher. Under his influence Savitribai had taken women’s education and their liberation from the cultural patterns of the male-dominated society as mission of her life. She worked towards tackling some of the then major social problems including women’s liberation, widow remarriages and removal of untouchability. Life of Savitribai Phule as a teacher in the school at the time when upper caste orthodox people used to look down wasn’t easy and many a times they used to pelt stones and throw dung on her. The young couple faced severe opposition from almost all sections. Savitribai was subject to intense harassment everyday as she walked to the school. Stones, mud and dirt were flung at her as she passed. But Savitribai Phule faced everything peacefully and with courageously.
Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade and Ramabai Ranade
Mahadeo Govind Ranade was born at Niphad in Nashik district. He completed his Masters in History. He also passed the Law exam in 1866. He was the first Indian to be selected a Fellow of the Bombay University. He worked for a while as a teacher, secretary of organizations, district judge, in various places. He was appointed as a judge in the Bombay High Court in 1893.
He was instrumental in establishing and increasing the scope of such social organizations like Prarthana Samaj (Prayer Community), Sarwajanik Sabha (Community meeting) and Bharatiya Samajik Parishad (Indian Social Council).
It was aptly said about him the he was a major force in developing the institutional environment in India by forming organizations in various sectors. Ranade always advocated the use of constitutional and legal ways of attaining freedom and making social reforms. He brought an economic perspective to the Indian political scenario. He gave the ideal of Swadeshi a scientific and practical base. He had made a detailed analysis of the root cause of poverty in India and had also suggested some well-researched means for uprooting it.
He felt that some of the flaws that were detrimental to the progress of society were the narrow-minded attitude of the Indian society, its caste system, gender bias and the prevalent misconceptions about physical comforts, professionalism and business sense. He felt the need to concentrate all efforts on bringing about social reforms in these areas, only then the society could begin to achieve economic and political progress. He was also of the firm opinion that one cannot separate politics from social reforms just like one cannot separate the beauty of a rose from its scent.
Ranade was a founder of the Social Conference movement, which he supported till his death, directing his social reform efforts against child marriage, the shaving of widows’ heads, the heavy cost of marriages and other social functions, and the caste restrictions on traveling abroad, and he strenuously advocated widow remarriage and female education. He was one of the founders of the Widow Marriage Association in 1861. Ranade attempted to work with the structure of weakened traditions, reforming, but not destroying the social atmosphere that was India’s heritage. Ranade valued India’s history, having had a great interest in Shivaji and the Bhakti movement, but he also recognized the influence that British rule over India had on its development. Ranade encouraged the acceptance of change, believing traditional social structures, like the caste system, should accommodate change, thereby preserving India’s ancient heritage. An overall sense of national regeneration was what Ranade desired.
Upon the death of his first wife, his reform-minded friends expected him to marry (and thereby rescue) a widow. However, he adhered to his family’s wishes and married a child bride, Ramabai Ranade, whom he subsequently provided with an education. After his death, she continued his social and educational reform work. He had no children. Ramabai Ranade in her memoirs has stated that when one equally prominent Pune personality, Vishnupant Pandit, married a widow, Ranade entertained him and a few guests at his home. This did not appeal to his orthodox father who decided to leave Ranade’s home in Pune and go to Kolhapur. It was only after he (i.e. Mahadev G. Ranade) told the father that he would resign from his government job that the father relented and canceled his plans to go to Kolhapur. Ranade decided never to do any such thing in future. He however was insistent that his young wife i.e Ramabai Ranade should do his bidding in the matters of social reforms.
Inspired by her husband, Ramabai started ‘Hindu Ladies Social Club’ in Mumbai to develop public speaking among women. She was also the president of Seva Sadan in Pune, which was later set up in South Bombay in the beginning of the 20th century. Ramabai devoted her life for the improvement of womens’ lives. She wrote her memoirs in a book ‘Amachya Ayushyatil Athavani’.