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Major Issues and Debates Concerning Indian Women of the 19th Century

Last Updated : 20 Sep, 2022
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Women’s condition was deplorable during the colonial era. British realized that Indian women’s condition was inferior to that of British society. The practices of Child marriage, Forced marriage, Sati, Devadasi, Purdah, Dowry, Female Foeticide, and Polygamy were prevalent in Indian society. The literacy rate was so low and they did not contribute towards the country’s GDP. Bad social practices, dogmatic religious beliefs, inhuman superstitions, and sinister practices caused the most significant decline.

However, after the social collapse, eternal depression, terrible suffering, and social collapse of the nineteenth century, the social reformers made zealous efforts to remove the social evil and awaken the people against the injustice done to Indian women. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and other social reformers emphasized women’s education, prevention of early marriage, abolition of polygamy, and remarriage of widows.

1. Sati

The practice of Sati was widely prevalent in the 19th century. Traditionally, the widow sacrificed herself willingly, and the fire seemed cold to him. After the burning, a memorial stone was placed, and a sanctuary was often built for her and worshipped as a goddess. The actions of Sati were considered inhuman, and scholars discussed them from a different approach. A strong movement against this practice was led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the 19th century, which resulted in Lord William Bentinck passing a law against it in the year 1829.

2. Patriarchal Society

The society during the British era was very patriarchal. Women were considered inferior to men and were deprived of many activities. It strengthened the foundation of the patriarchal society and deprived women of property rights, adoption, marriage, and divorce. Women were not allowed to inherit the property of their ancestors. They were considered as a wealth of some other family.

3. Purdah System

The Purdah system was highly prevalent in our society. The women’s had to cover their faces before the opposite sex. Such a system was highly prevalent in some parts of the country and it extended the distancing between opposite sexes and promoted social isolation, and mental numbness. This was why women’s participation in the mass movement was missing at that time. Previously, the restriction of women on the issue of marriage, movement, freedom, liberty, decisions were not that rampant, but in the 19th century, it became a part of the society.

4. Women’s Education

The era of the 19th century witnessed a low stand in the case of woman’s education. Women were not allowed to acquire higher education. In order to ameliorate the situation, different reformers have taken steps to open girls’ schools at different places. Recognized as the primary means of uplifting the status of women, education began in the British period. After the Bhakti movement, Christian missionaries started interested in educating girls. For the first time, a girls’ school was opened in Bombay in 1824. Before 1875, the universities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras did not allow the admission of girls for higher education. In 1881 the hunting committee also stressed the need to educate women.

5. Social Practices

Social customs such as polygamy, child marriage were widely prevalent at that time. Polygamy is the custom where a person marries two or more people. Sections 494 and 495 of the 1860 Indian Penal Code prohibit polygamy for Christians. In 1955, the Hindu Marriage Act was drafted, which prohibited the marriage of a Hindu whose spouse was still alive. Thus, polygamy became illegal in India in 1956, for all citizens except Muslims, who have four wives, and for Hindus in Goa.

6. Child marriage

Child marriage was a major issue during the British era. At an early age, the girls were married and asked to give birth to a child. There were many reformers who fought for child marriage. In 1929, the Child Marriage Prohibition Act was passed. The law required girls below the age of fourteen and boys below the age of eighteen. However, the government failed to implement it properly.

7. Female Labour participation rate and Unequal Pay

The participation of women in the workforce has been found to be very low.  The female members of the society were subjected to unequal pay as compared to the male counterpart. They were confined to the four walls of their houses and were not allowed to contribute to the country’s GDP. Subsequently, after independence, a series of measures were taken to improve the rate of participation of women at work.

8. Widow Remarriage

Society women were not allowed to marry once their husbands died. In 1854, Vidyasagar started his campaign for the remarriage of widows. The 19th century was particularly scary for women, especially girls from low-income families forced into older men. After the death of her husband, she had to spend the rest of her life in a white sari, sacrificing all economic comforts, living a stigmatized and isolated life, and seeing this non-progressive exercise happening before his own eyes, Vidyasagar decided to end it. After the abolition of the practice of Sati, the British recognized the status of Hindu widows and passed the Remarriage Act for Hindu Widows in 1856. The Right to Property Act for Hindu Women was passed in 1937. It aimed to improve the property condition of widows.


Thus, during British rule, several social laws were used to balance the status of the ambiguous Indian woman. The national movement and the various movements of women have paved the way for their release of social sins and religious taboos. People have become aware of their social disabilities and have tried to remove all kinds of inequalities.

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