Women have elongated different attributes, changes and challenges in society since the beginning of time. Be it Joan of Arc who led the French army towards the victory against the English empire, breaking the stereotypical image of women by defying to settle upon the conventional portrait of women, or be it Mary I, who’s wrath knew no bounds and caused persecution of almost three hundred Protestants who refused to convert into Catholicism. Women have always influenced and impacted the pattern of human history.
Granting the fact that women have not always been powerful and privileged, they have overshadowed the immeasurable cavity of oppression and tyranny forced upon them. Despite the long battle of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, women are still fighting for various rights, equalities and justice in today’s world.
Women in Ancient World
From the dawn of history, society has always continued to work in progress with the help of both men and women. Women have been subjected not only as house makers but as goddess and powerful rulers.
Women in ancient Egypt were equal to men in almost all areas except for occupation, where men fought, ran the government, and managed farms; women cooked, sewed, and managed the house. In spite of the patriarchal system, Egyptian women were considered independent enough to own and dispose of property on their own and partner up in legal contracts and wills.
At the same time, ancient Greek women enjoyed much less rights and freedom as compared to the men in Greece. The role of women in Greece had been limited to rearing children. They were unable to vote, own or inherit land and less authoritative despite of their strong projection in Greek mythology which mentioned strong and wise goddess like Athena and Aphrodite, what is also known by the texts and other documentations is that Spartan women were treated differently, they owned land, physically trained with men and were given much more liberty.
Another evidence of the status of women in the ancient world can be witnessed through the women in China, where they were just another subordinate of their father and then husbands. Women’s contribution to society was theorised as to the principle of yin and yang. The men (yang) were considered superior to women, predominant and authoritative as to the women (ying) who were considered soft, submissive, and powerless.
Even with such stark prejudice of women being intellectually inferior and secondary to men, it has been attested from time to time that women have stood as fierce leaders, providers and monarchs. When at one aspect women were assumed to be weak and submissive, it was also set that in the various civilization’s women were educated and trained fighters.
The Sumer civilization (now in Iraq) saw women in the roles of powerful priestess, scribes and doctors. Similarly, the old testament mentions that women could own property (31:16), sell clothes to merchants and even if sons got double the share of property, females knew the skill of spinning, weaving and baking and could earn a living for themselves.
There were great roles of women in the ancient world. They were a stark combination of domesticated yet dominant, powerless yet independent and educated yet oppressed. Their status varied in different demeanours of the time throughout history.
Women in Modern World
With the changing spell of time, the position of women has relatively altered in the social order. Upliftment and growth of women were possible because of several reasons such as education, economic stability, political awareness, and nonetheless the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The 19th Century feminist movement gave a severe push towards women empowerment and women’s rights.
Today women are walking as par with men in every field and breaking all biases and stereotypes held against them. Women around the world have moved forward and have represented themselves in politics, landmark personalities like Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Michelle Obama have reflected that women can lead the world of politics just like men.
Education has been another field where women have proved their capability, Marie Curie, Malala Yusufzai, Susan B. Anthony have broken all the social norms, similarly, females in the athletic world have broken all the gender barriers.
Although it is to be considered that even in the fast-pacing world where men and women are proven to be equal socially, economically and politically, women much like the yesteryears still face discrimination. With the advancement of society, new challenges have been thrown towards women.
It has been estimated that almost 35% of women have been a victim of harassment and assault. Women also continue to face discrimination in workplace. U.S.A has observed 61%  women to report for workplace harassment.
There has also been an unrest on many laws and rights related to abortion and child birth in various countries. These facts and figures prove that with the constant positive change in our society, there are still many threats and problems for women that need to be solved and ironed out.
Women in Ancient India
India has always been known as a land which worships women. In the early Vedic period women observed freedom and equality. They didn’t practice purdah system; they could choose their own significant other although divorce was not permitted neither to the men nor to the women.
Females of many stable and privileged families got their education like the males in the family, there was economic freedom to women as they engaged in teaching, weaving, spinning and agricultural work. Even when women in the Vedic period enjoyed so much liberty and freedom, they did enjoy property rights. There was no share given to women under her father’s property and as a woman as wives had very less share in their husband’s property but they were entitled to a quarter of their husband’s wealth. Regardless of the lack of power in the inheritance of property, women in Vedic time enjoyed honourable status. They had religious rights and were mentioned, in epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana.
It wasn’t until the rise of Dharmashastras and Puranas that women slowly lost their freedom. Girls got deprived from education and their other freedoms. Practices like sati and purdah became more prevalent. Substantially by the medieval period the status of women further detoriated, exercising purdah and sati became more relevant, women slowly got labelled as ‘liability’ and thus did not enjoy the freedom they had in the Vedic period.
With the emergence of Bhakti movement in the 14th and 15th century, women got a better grasp of their social status. Many religious leaders and saints like Guru Nanak, Kabir Das and Chaitanya fought for the rights of women. This gave more liberty to the women and hence legends like Mira Bai were marked as important figures.
Women however also ruled empires from time to time, whether it was Razia Sultan or Devi Ahilya, females in ancient India never backed out to save their empire.
It has been observed that over the period of time the status of women has drastically changed over the course of time. From being as independent as men to being suppressed and deprived of their rights Indian women have been all phases of struggles. It is remarkable, that despite the lack of immunity and opportunities given to them, women of the past have created milestones and examples that manifest their power and capability.
Women in Modern India
There is no doubt that the quality of women’s lives in modern India is much more reformatory than their lives in the ancient world. A part of the credit goes to the law institutions and government over the years that chose to be flexible and adopt pragmatic laws and practices for the betterment of women.
Practices such as Sati (prohibited under Sati Prohibition Act), dowry (prohibited under Dowry Prohibition Act), domestic violence ( prohibited under Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act) have been announced illegal in the Indian judicial system. Apart from these acts and provisions, the government has taken initiatives to ensure protection of women against abuse and exploitation.
Some of the landmark decisions that have changed the shape Indian society in reference to women include:
1) Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan
After Bhanwari Devi was brutally raped by 5 men for attempting to terminate a child marriage in rural Rajasthan, a petition was filed by the organisation ‘Vishaka’ soughting the guidelines for the elimination of sexual abuse at workplace, a broad interpretation of the Constitution under article 14,19 and 21 was done and the court further laid down Vishaka guidelines for better workplace environment.
Permission of termination of 24-week-old pregnancy
The petitioner who was a rape survivor requested to abort her 24-week fetus. This challenged the Maternal Termination of Pregnancy Act that denied abortion after 20 weeks. The supreme court ruled in the favour of the petitioner
2) Dattatrya v State
Held that if a State establishes any educational institution for women or reserves seats for women then it will not offend article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution
3) Sabarimala Case
This judgment ruled out that women of all ages can enter the temple and by restricting the entry of women outside the temple is violating the fundamental rights of the citizen of India.
4) Shayara Bano v Union of India
Popularly known as the triple Talaq case, it was ruled out that instant triple Talaq i.e. Talaq-e-bid’ah is unconstitutional and it was abolished.
The Indian society is gradually working forward and is opening itself to new avenues, in this course of action Indian women are also trying and putting their foot forward in all new sectors. Women are part of politics, sports, education, administration and military. The socio-economic status of women has improved massively and they have become much more self-reliant.
However, this fruitful progress in the Indian society also has a dark side. Crime against women has been increasing every year. There has been a rise in 7% of rape cases in India since 2019. A WHO study shows that due to the ongoing pandemic every 1 in 3 women has faced violence in her household. Crimes like acid attacks, cyber bullying, pornography against women have touched heights of extremity and there is an immediate requirement for much stricter laws and vigilance to stop these crimes. It is unfair to put all the charge and duty on the law, as a community it is necessary to ensure to make the society a better place to live.
Modern women have come a long way, from just being the child bearer to proving herself to be as worthy of man, women have evolved their presence into being socially, politically and economically aware. Therefore, the status of women has changed drastically from ancient world to the modern world and thus a conscious effort should be made to ensure more security, power and opportunity to women.
This article has been authored by Amna Ali, 2nd year B.A L.L.B (H) student at Amity Law School .