Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/November 1888/Every-Day Life of Indian Women

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ONE of the chief characteristics of Indian domestic polity is extreme subdivision, and the tendency among all classes of the natives of India is toward the social isolation of groups with contracted interests, and the consequent accentuation of minute differences in habits of life. The results of this are what is generally known as "caste," and it is caste that underlies and controls all social matters that are peculiarly Indian. At first sight, therefore, under these circumstances, there can be no such thing as a common method of life among the women of a population which is an ill-assorted compost of wild and savage tribes of diverse origin; of Brahmans and orthodox Hindoos; of heterodox Hindoos and Brahmanists by conviction and birth; of Buddhists, and Jains, and Parsees; of Mohammedans, and Jews, and Christians of long standing; of Aryan and Dravidian races; of aboriginal clans of Aryan and non-Aryan descent; of highly cultivated communities and completely ignorant tribes; of whole peoples within and without the pale of Oriental civilization. But, nevertheless, there exists a standard of life which is Indian, and to which all the varieties of the natives of India are drawn—just as there is a life which is Oriental in the usually restricted sense of that term, habits that are Indo-Chinese, and manners that are European. No one supposes that Norwegian and Italian ladies live exactly in the same way, or that English and Spanish women adopt precisely the same mode of life; but that there is a general line of conduct which is common to all European countries is apparent to every one who observes mankind. So it is in India. And the overshadowing influence to which every true native of the great peninsula unknowingly submits is that wielded by the modern Brahmans through their stanch henchmen, the high-caste Hindoos. In describing, therefore, in very general terms, the aims and habits of an ordinary Brahmani, one can give a fair notion of a life which every Indian woman, however antagonistic her creed and race, is unconsciously led on by instinct, as it were, to imitate, and which is her invariable model.

Habits of life are enormously, if not mainly, influenced by religion, and this leads me to say a few words here regarding Brahmanism as a living and active faith, though it has been the fashion in certain authoritative quarters to look on it as dying, if not already dead. Granting that it is not a proselytizing, in the sense of being a missionary, religion, and granting that its fundamental theory—it is only a theory and not a practice, be it remembered—is, to parody a well-known saying, that Hindoo nascitur non fit, still there can be no doubt that it manages to make more converts by mere assimilation than can any other religion in India by direct missionary effort. This absorption into Brahmanism is becoming, under the pax Britannica, day by day, a more important feature in Indian social economy. As surely as the English bring fresh uncultured tribes under their civilizing influence, so surely do they add to the number of the Hindoos; as surely as the iron hand of Anglo-Indian law, by refusing to recognize any difference between man and man, causes the upward rise in the social scale of those that labor to good purpose, so surely is the cause of Brahmanic orthodoxy advanced and its influence widened. I have watched the first process myself in the case of the recruits to our little army of Gurkhas; the wild mountain boy, on joining his regiment, is taught not only his drill, but also the Hindustani language as understood in military circles, and with it his religion, i.e., a smattering of current Hindooism. The second can be seen in progress any day all over India, by any one who will take the trouble to observe the career of a successful handicraftsman or small trader. At first an "outcaste," dealing only in matters of religion with his tribal soothsayer; as he gathers money, he sets up a Brahman priest, and minds the orthodox gods, and at last, when respectable and wealthy, he develops into a full-blown Hindoo; and then, since in all Hindooism ceremonial orthodoxy is synonymous with social respectability, he adopts Hindoo manners to the full; isolates his women, prohibits the remarriage of widows, marries off his infant children in the proper quarters, and practices the thousand-and-one customs peculiar to his adopted religion. Of course, in order to be able to thus attract to itself so many antagonistic principles of custom and belief, the modern Brahmanism can have no hard and fast creed. It has, in fact, no creed at all, properly so called. Nothing in the shape of "I believe in God the Father Almighty"; nothing like the strict Mohammedan formula—lá iláha ill' illáhu, Muhammadi-'r-Rasúlu'-lláhu (there is no God but God, Mohammed is the prophet of God). It consists rather of a leading principle, viz., to gather together whatever items of belief may come to hand, in order to develop them in a certain definite direction, under the control of its own priests, and for their benefit; and while the process of development is going on, it naturally ingrafts its own customs on to those it already finds in existence. Herein lies its wonderful vitality and strength, its capacity for digesting anything that it gets into its maw, and its power of resisting internal disruption. The apparently elastic network of caste and family customs that it invariably twines round its victims is marvelously cruel, and so unendurable that revolt after revolt has been made against it; but the result, so far, has been only to loosen the meshes for a time. Slowly and surely the intangible threads have tightened again, as by degrees the very customs created by the schismatics are adopted by its priests, and made to conform to the general theory—all the harder to resist because it is never formulated. The bulk of the Mohammedans of India, being descendants of tribes converted wholesale in various ways to Islam in days gone by, are still Hindoos in many matters of thought and custom. In fact, if we extract the profession of faith and a few formulæ, it is not at all easy to say, as regards them, where Islam begins and Hindooism ends; in any case Brahmanism overshadows their lives. The Jains, at least that important section of them known as the Saraogis, are separated from Hindoos proper rather in sentiment than in fact; and though the Parsees, Jews, and Christians have greater powers of resistance yet it would not be difficult to show how greatly the all-pervading faith of Hindoostan has influenced them too. Many a missionary could tell a tale of more or less ineffectual battle against the notion of existence of a Christian "caste." Of course, I am not now speaking of the tenets deliberately held by the authorized exponents of the several rival creeds, but of the religious ideas of the unintelligent masses, which are to my mind the outcome of an unthinking reverence for things usually held to be holy, i.e., hagiolatry, whatever be the outward expression of faith. Of such a state of things Brahmanism is pre-eminently adapted to take full advantage, for it presents no bold front to prejudices, and bends no man to its will, but rather puts forth its tender tentacles, gradually draws to itself, and quietly absorbs all things.

I would not have it inferred, from what has been just said, that I hold all the women of India to lead practically identical lives; that the secluded banker's daughter has much in common with the scavenger's wife, free to go where she pleases and to speak to whom she will; or that the worthy spouse of the village Maulavi would not at once flare up and feel highly insulted if told that her life was conducted on much the same lines as that of the Panditani over the way. It would be more than erroneous, moreover, to state that a woman of Kumaun has exactly the same views of propriety as she of Mahabaleshwar, or that the grimy Panjabi has manners similar to the oiled and carefully bathed inhabitant of Madras. All I wish to assert is, that a special way of living underlies all those differences which appear so great to the casual observer, and that beneath the chance-tossed waves on the surface there lie hidden depths of female life which are distinctly Indian, and which can be best sounded by a study of the highcaste Hindoo women.

I can not enter into the details of the life of orthodox Hindoo women. Nothing more, indeed, can be done now than to indicate its merest outlines, in order to show of what it mainly consists, whither it tends, and how it affects those that lead it. Hindoo exclusiveness absolutely prohibits outsiders from personally observing what I am about to describe, and all that can possibly be done by persons such as I, is to procure our facts as nearly at first hand as practicable. Hence the necessity of explaining briefly what the sources of my information are. Chiefly, then, I have drawn upon matters which have come to me as the first hearer of the tale; partly because I am quite sure that all the facts thus learned are straight from the mouths of trustworthy natives of India, and partly because I should be sorry to be, by any mishap, a misinterpreter of other people's writings. Although I shall not be wittingly guided by any one of them, there are several works of original information, more or less directly bearing on my subject, which all who are interested in it would do well to study. Among these are "Hindoos as they are," written, indeed, by a Christian convert with something of the convert's proverbial asperity toward the followers of the religion he has discarded, but containing much that is valuable to the student; "The Hindoo Family" of Balram Malik, a far superior work to the last, by the wellknown Judge of the Calcutta Small Cause Court, who has treated his subject as only he can, that is, in full sympathy with it, and, of course, with complete knowledge; and "The Life of a Hindoo Woman," by the celebrated Brahmani Ramabai, who was driven to Christianity at last by the persecution of her co-religionists. For Mohammedans, there are Dr. Herklot's "Quanoon-e-Islam" and "Notes on the Indian Musalmans," by the wife of Mir Ali Hasan, who was an Englishwoman. And then there are several collections of folk-songs—notably Gover's from southern India, and Grierson's from the north—which, between the lines, contain facts about Indian women that none can gainsay. However, I shall now confine myself to statements based, firstly, on notes supplied me by natives for "Panjab Notes and Queries," which I have edited from the commencement; secondly, to the late Dr. Fallon's splendid collection of "Hindustani Proverbs," 12,500 in number, which I commenced editing and translating in 1883; and, thirdly, to the various collections of folk-songs that I have made and published at different times within the last eight years.

An Indian woman's life in its ordinary course is divided into two clearly defined parts, which are quite distinct, though separated from each other only by the fateful day on which she first goes to take up her abode within her father-in-law's family. Note that it is not called in the Indian languages her husband's family, for that, under the Indian family system, it can seldom be in the case of a bride. Childhood rather than girlhood is the heyday of the Indian woman. Free to play as she pleases, with plenty of companions, for children galore can hardly ever be wanting in a family which all live together, from oldest to youngest; free to run in and out of the houses of friends, never bothered to learn anything except what she can pick up from the women about her, never worried with caste restrictions, never asked to do more in the way of labor than to help in the house-work, petted by her parents, spoiled by her aunts and uncles, and beloved by her brothers, an Indian girl-child is indeed happy—as children count happiness. And then suddenly the curtain falls. At about ten years of age—earlier in some parts and later in others—our spoiled child is old enough to work in earnest, and so she is packed off, sorely against her will, to join her husband's family, entering it not as our brides enter their future homes, at the head of the female community, but at the bottom. Child though she still is, her childhood is now forever past, and she is turned into a young woman, only too often into by no means a happy one.

At this stage it is necessary to consider two matters, so far as they affect an Indian bride, viz., the practice of infant marriage, and what is known as the joint-family. I need hardly state that the so-called "marriage" of infants is practiced among all classes in every part of India, though of course there are many exceptions to the rule. The term "marriage," as applied to this ceremony by us, is, however, rather misleading. It is in reality an irrevocable betrothal—a bargain not between the infants who are "married," but between those who control them, being often nothing else than a purely commercial contract. It arises out of the theory that a woman is for life under tutelage, and her "marriage" is, therefore, merely a transfer of the right over her to another party, a transfer naturally very frequently made in return for a pecuniary consideration. After this marriage or betrothal, the girl usually remains with her parents, in trust for those to whom she is to be transferred, until the home-coming or going to her husband's house, which may be looked upon as the real marriage, as we Europeans use the word. Until the second ceremony takes place the child-wife is still a child to all intents and purposes, and treated as such, and it is only after it that she in any sense enters on the duties of female life. The family she joins is exactly like that she has left, only it is that of another; to her a vast difference, and one which she never forgets—indeed, it is not unfrequently made painfully apparent to her at every step. What I may call the regulation Indian joint-family is one composed of the paterfamilias, all his sons and brothers, and various extraneous relatives, such as nephews, cousins, and wife's kindred, for the male part; and all their wives, in addition to his own wife and daughters, together with a sprinkling of the family widows, for the female part. In this patriarchy there are grades upon grades, both male and female, dependent chiefly upon age and distance by blood from the head of the family; and as everybody is married in India as soon as the time for it comes, the chances are that the last-made bride is, in the nature of things, in the very lowest place.

In the average Indian family the strictest domestic economy is the rule of life, and the household work is done by the women of the household, not, as with us, by paid servants. Servants there are, of course, in all Indian families, but they are, as a rule, on a totally different footing from the European domestic, being for the most part independent persons with a clientèle, for whom they perform certain customary services for a customary wage. The distribution of the daily work, down to that of the most menial kind, lies with the materfamilias, who may be best described as the oldest woman in the family proper under coverture, for widows can have no authority. The cooking, as the work of honor, she keeps to herself, but the house-cleaning, the washing, the care of the children, the drawing of the water, the making of the beds, and so on, is done by the less dignified members of the household, as she directs; and whatever is most menial, most disagreeable, and the hardest work, is thrust upon the bride. She is the servant of the very servants, and must obey everybody. It is hardly, therefore, to be wondered at that, after her previous training, it is by no means an uncommon occurrence that she has to be forcibly broken into her new way of life, that she is for ever sighing after the flesh-pots of her father's house, that there are various "customs" which enable her to revisit it at stated times after the marriage, and that the law is often invoked to oblige brides to return to their husbands' families after the customary term of such visits has expired.

Not only is our bride thus turned into a drudge, often unmercifully overworked, but from the day she gives up her childhood to the day of her death—it may be for sixty years—she is secluded, and sees nothing of the world outside the walls of her family inclosure. It should always, therefore, be borne in mind, when trying to realize Indian female life, what a very important thing the domestic economy is to a woman; how largely the petty affairs of the household loom upon her horizon. Her happiness or misery, indeed, entirely depend on the manner in which the affairs of the family are conducted. Now, considering that the female mind has for centuries been mainly directed to this all-important matter, it is not astonishing to find that such questions as the proper method of eating and drinking, and of domestic propriety generally—the intercourse, that is, which is permissible and right between the various members of the household, male and female—have long been regulated with the utmost minuteness. To us who roam the world at will, and whose interests are often fixed far more outside than inside our homes, it may seem remarkable that such infinitesimal restrictions and numberless customs as are found in full swing in an orthodox Hindoo household should be remembered and carried out with the exactitude demanded of the womenkind; but if we consider that these make up their whole life, and that they are called upon to pay attention to nothing else, their capacity for recollecting when to veil and unveil, whom to address and avoid, when they must run away, and when they may speak, ceases to be extraordinary. And regarding these customs of social propriety, I must say that the more one studies them the more one is impressed with their perverted ingenuity. They seem purposely invented to make the unfortunate victim of them as uncomfortable as possible. The Indian woman, isolated from the outer world by custom, is again by custom isolated as far as practicable from all the male members of that little inner world to which she is confined. Free intercourse, even with her own husband, is not permitted her while yet her youthful capabilities for joyousness exist. No wonder, then, that absence of jollity is a characteristic of the Indians generally, for the happy laughter of a home is denied them by custom in the most persistent manner.

Every person belonging to the European races, an Englishman especially, well knows how much common meals tend to social sympathy; how powerful a factor they are in promoting pleasurable family existence, and in educating the young to good manners. There is nothing of this sort in Indian upper-class society. There the men and women dine strictly apart, the women greatly on the leavings of the men, and that, too, in messes of degree, very like those in a royal naval ship. Paterfamilias dines by himself, then the other men together in groups, according to standing, waited on by the women under fixed rules; and lastly the women, when the men have done, our poor young bride coming last of all, obliged often to be content with the roughest of the fare.

No imported woman may have any relations with those males who are her seniors. Every bride is such an imported woman, and all the household which she enters, who are the seniors of her husband, are her seniors. This at first generally includes nearly the whole family, and must necessarily for a long while include the major part of it. In all her life she never speaks to her husband's father, uncles, or elder brothers, though dwelling under the same roof, or, to speak more correctly, within the same inclosure, for an Indian house is what we should call a courtyard surrounded by sets of apartments. On the other hand, paterfamilias has not only never been spoken to, but technically never even seen, by any of the younger women of his varied household, except those born within it, though they all dwell under his protection and at his expense. You will perceive, therefore, that the women's lives are contracted to within even a smaller sphere than that limited by the boundaries of the common family dwelling.

What would seem to us to be intolerable restrictions by no means end here. In many places it is not proper for a young father to fondle his own children in the presence of his parents, and highly improper for a wife to be seen holding converse, or appearing unveiled, or sitting down before her own husband, until she has become a mother.

There is another custom regarding which it is useless to pretend that it does not lead to endless misery and family squabbling—the absolute subjugation of the women to the materfamilias. The mother-in-law is indeed an awful personage in the eyes of her sons' wives, one against whose will and caprice it is hopeless to rebel. I can hardly describe her power better than by noticing a daily ceremony which symbolizes it. It really amounts to wishing "good-morning," is called in upper India máthá tekná, and consists of bowing down to the ground and touching it with the forehead. All the women, except her own daughters, perform it daily to the materfamilias when they first see her, and a bride must do it practically to everybody.

An Indian woman's happiness in life immensely depends on her becoming the mother of a son. This at once raises her in the family estimation, which is all in all to her; insures her against the greatest bitterness of widowhood, in case that befall her; and procures her domestic authority should she survive to mature years under coverture. Materfamilias is a veritable queen in her own little world, often coercing her husband, commanding her sons, and ruling the rest as she pleases. From what has come under my observation, I have long felt assured that, speak contemptuously of the opposite sex as they choose, lock them up as they may, and treat them as mere breeders of sons as they will, the natives of India are far more henpecked than they care to admit. Outside of their homes the men live a life of their own, untrammeled by considerations of the fair sex; within them they have little control, and it must be borne in mind that it is the women that have come to be such sticklers for the continuance of the state of things I have above endeavored to describe. The remarks just made apply, as above said, to the mothers of sons only. Should a woman be so unfortunate as not merely to be barren, but to be simply the mother of daughters, life goes much harder with her, especially as this is so liable to bring upon her that which (if their songs and sayings are to be trusted) the Indian women dread more than all things except widowhood—the advent of the cowife. There are proverbs innumerable to show how very badly co-wives get on, but "a fairy for a co-wife is a devil" exhibits the mutual relation forcibly and clearly as it usually is. And when the rival wife brings forth the long-desired son, the barren woman's cup of bitterness is full, and all her hatred towards him is, to those who know the circumstances, well expressed in that most sarcastic of sayings in any language, "The son of the co-wife." No more words are wanting to the Indians to convey the expression of all uncharitableness.

As to the hard lot of the childless widow, so much has been said elsewhere, and so often, that I do not feel inclined to enlarge upon it, especially as enforced widowhood is not nearly so general as is usually made out by those who would deduce a moral from Indian manners to the glorification of the habits of Christians. It is often not prevalent among classes who conform generally to the customs I have been mentioning, and circumstances make it impossible among many that are not comparatively wealthy; but where it is the rule nothing can be more cruel, and, I feel justified in using the strong term, more revolting. Take the case of the widow from infancy: shorn of all that women value anywhere in the world, dressed in coarse clothing, deprived of her ornamenst, compelled to fast till health breaks down, made to subsist on the coarsest of food, kept out of what amusements come in the way of the rest of the household, forced into being the unpaid drudge of the family, held to be the legitimate butt of the ill-nature of all, considered fit only to amuse the children, openly called and taught to think herself a creature of ill-omen—this being the cause of all the rest of her sorrows—superstition has indeed nowhere else shown more clearly its power to pervert the reason of man. How much the women dread widowhood is exhibited to the full in the fact that to call a woman a widow is to offer her a dire insult, and from her earliest childhood a girl is taught to pray that she may die while yet the red spot of coverture remains on her forehead. In any case the fear of widowhood overshadows the Hindoo lady's life, even though she hate her lord.

However, it is no part of my business to tell a sensational tale, nor do I wish to convey an impression that an Indian woman's life is necessarily all unhappiness. Human nature in her case is as capable of adapting itself to circumstances as elsewhere, and since the ultimate gauge of permanent individual happiness is suitability of temperament to immediate surroundings, many a woman in India must be so constituted as to be quite content with the life she is called upon to lead, and in fact to enjoy it. When a girl is naturally sedate, yielding, and good-natured, of blunt susceptibilities, limited aspirations, and strong religious emotions, she will give in to her mother-in-law, avoid quarelling without effort, follow the course of life laid down for her without demur, thoroughly believe it to be the only desirable life to lead, find the innumerable restrictions imposed upon her not unwelcome, and become contented with her contracted sphere; and, if those about her happen to be kind, be quite as happy as any girl in the world. But the potentialities for misery involved in her surroundings are enormous, and, where such is the case, to argue that misery is not the frequent result would be to argue against human nature. At all events, the purview of her life is limited to a degree which it is difficult for us to realize. It resolves itself daily into this: the strict performance of petty religious ceremonies, feeding, bathing, dressing, cooking, and household drudgery, all so hedged round with minute regulations as to make each a special occupation, and to these must be added visiting and gossip during her afternoon leisure. How petty that gossip must be can be inferred from the facts already laid before you. Remember that the great majority of these ladies are altogether uneducated, that ever since they have been old enough to observe and think they have been shut out from the world, that they have no knowledge of any person or thing beyond those immediately around them except what they can pick up from their menials, and then you will have no difficulty in understanding that their interests are centered in their jewels and ornaments, their food, their personal concerns and troubles, the peculiarities of the members of their households, and, lastly and chiefly, in what social ceremonies and feasts happen to come their way, the widows being shut out from even these. If a marriage, a death, or a birth among their kindred were the only landmarks in English ladies' lives, we should soon have these occasions erected into as lengthy family ceremonies as they are in India. If the observance of Ash-Wednesday, Shrove-Tuesday, Candlemas, Michaelmas, Lady-day, May-day, and what not of our standard religious and secular feasts were the main opportunities for breaking the monotony of an imprisoned life, how carefully they would be kept, and how anxiously looked forward to! This is why all the innumerable shankrdáts, ekádshís, aslithamís, náumís, and other queer fasts and feasts are so regularly attended to in India. Indeed, female ingenuity has there long ago seized upon the many other opportunities for diversion afforded by occurrences incidental to human existence, and there are ceremonies to be gone through on every possible excuse. No phase of life escapes—childhood, puberty, pregnancy, maternity, widowhood, all come in for a share. The first tying of a rag round a boy's loins occasions a family feast, and so does the first time his hair is cut the first time he puts on the janéu, or sign of caste; and so on all through life. Before he is a man he has gone through sixteen sacraments, each a notable occasion in the eyes of his women-folk. Babies are put through all sorts of ceremonies, on the first, the fifth, the seventh, the fortieth, and other days after birth. They can not even see the sun for the first time, and, of course, can not be given a name, without a feast being held over the fact. As to the women's special ceremonies, they are just as numerous.

With reference to the rough sketch I have given of what I may term the normal state of things in India, I would again draw attention to the fact that I am far from saying that such is the invariable rule, or from denying that there are whole castes whose women are not secluded, and that many are educated. I feel compelled to repeat that minute and endless variation is the chief characteristic of Indian society, in case it may still be thought that my analysis of a high-caste Hindoo woman's life is exactly applicable to that of every woman one meets in the roads and fields. The fact is, there is no subject on which it is easier to speak to generalities from isolated facts, and it is so wide and complicated that one can hardly make a broad assertion without with perfect truth being contradicted as to the specific custom at any given spot, I merely say that the above description is, as fairly as I can make it, applicable to the life actually led by millions of Indian women, and it is the style of life toward which nearly all of them unconsciously gravitate.—Journal of the Society of Arts.