Two hundred years ago, the situation of women was altogether different compared to in the modern times. The practice of child marriage was rampant. Both Hindu and Muslim men could marry more than one wife. Burning of a widow on her husband’s pyre was a gory practice in many parts of India. This was called the sati system. A widow who died in this manner was praised as a woman of high virtues. Women did not have the right to property. Most of the women had no access to education.
People were divided along the caste lines. Brahmans and Kshatriyas were considered as the upper castes. Traders and moneylenders were placed after them. Peasants and artisans came at the third level. People who did the so called “dirty” jobs were called the shudras. People at the bottom of this hierarchy were treated as “untouchable”. They could not enter temples, nor take water from wells (used by upper castes), bathe in ponds which were meant for the upper castes.
Effect of Print Technology: From the early nineteenth century, books, newspapers, magazines, leaflets and pamphlets began to be printed in India. Printing enhanced the access of knowledge to the masses because printed material was much cheaper than manuscripts. Ordinary people could now read various texts and many of them could write to express their ideas in their own languages. People could debate all kinds of issues; like social, political, economic and religious. Such discussions could reach out to a wider public and could bring social change.
Raja Rammohun Roy was a pioneer social reformer. He founded the Brahmo Sabha in Calcutta. Later, it came to be known as the Brahmo Samaj. He thought that unjust practices should be done away with and the society should be changed for a better future. He promoted women’s education. He began a campaign against the practice of sati. He quoted ancient texts to develop his arguments so that people could listen. It was because of Rammohun Roy’s efforts that the British banned the practice of sati in 1829.
Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was also from Bengal. He also used ancient texts to convince people against social evils. He worked towards widow remarriage. Based on his suggestions, the British officials passed the widow remarriage law in 1856.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the widow remarriage movement spread to other parts of the country. Veerasalingam Pantulu was a reformer in the Telugu-speaking areas of the Madras Presidency. He formed an association for widow remarriage. Many young intellectuals in Bombay also worked for the same cause. Swami Dayanand Saraswati also supported widow remarriage. He founded the Arya Samaj.
In spite of all these efforts the number of widow remarriage was quite low. Those; who married often faced problems as they were not accepted by the society.
Law against child marriage: Child marriage was rampant in the society. Many Indian legislators in the Central Legislative Assembly worked towards making a law to prevent this practice. The Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in 1929. The minimum age for marriage was fixed at 18 for men and 16 for women. This was subsequently amended to 21 for men and 18 for women.
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