Here to return to
“LADIES first,” we say in the West; in the East it is “Ladies last.” That sums up succinctly the difference in the domestic ideas of the two civilisations.
There are one hundred and forty millions of women in India, and their sphere is the backyard. This is literally correct of about ten millions, and metaphorically so of the rest. They are not even accorded a back seat in society, for in the presence of men they are not permitted to be seated. The whole duly of woman is to worship and wait upon her husband (who is her lord and master in its most exacting sense), and to bear him sons. In some classes, she had better be barren than bear only daughters. And if she is a high-caste Hindu, the very wisest thing she can do is to die when her husband does, for after that she becomes a cursed superfluity in the community. This again is literal.
Five sixths of the upper ten millions of Indian women live secluded in hareem or zenana; the terms are synonymous for the “women’s quarters,” but the former is only applied to Mahomedan households. No male, except the woman’s husband, father-in-law, and brothers-in-law, ever passes the threshold of this privacy, therefore no European, except a woman, can write about it, except from second-hand. An Englishman may spend twenty years in India and not see the faces of twenty zenana women, and then only by accident. The most he will be able to observe is their be-ringed toes in transit, as when they are smuggled, with prodigious caution, out of a litter into a railway-carriage, veiled almost to suffocation, or with curtains held up round about them like little perambulating bathing-tents. In some Mahomedan cities, streets have been cleared for the passage of dames of high degree, and there are authentic cases of high-class Mahomedans having killed their wives because their faces were accidentally exposed to a fellow-man. Some Blue-beard Hindus have done as much to theirs by way of precaution.
There are races that do not seclude their womenfolk, and castes who allow theirs more or less freedom; the masses have a great deal too much work for their wives to do to permit them the luxury of seclusion. But whether free or confined in hareem or zenana, it is always “ladies last.”
The custom of secluding women is of Mahomedan origin, and its adoption was forced on the Hindus after the conquest of India by the followers of the Prophet, who were sad rakes. The system is now firmly rooted amongst the higher castes, and some, in particular, are insanely jealous about the privacy of their wives. There is no chivalry in India, and a dastard want of confidence in the chastity of his womankind is the most contemptible national trait of the average native. Every right-minded Englishman would itch to kick the Hindu or Mahomedan who put into language his views about the weaker sex.
The inferiority and infirmity of woman is a part of the Mahomedan’s creed. He has no respect for her, and the heaven he hopes to win is peopled with mythical houris, who are young and beautiful damsels. The white-bearded patriarch looks forward to meeting these, not the wife who may have been his faithful partner for a lifetime. The indulgence of an unbounded sensuality is the Mahomedan’s highest reward in a future state. In his present existence, self-gratification is tempered by circumstances. The Koran allows him four wives at a time, and divorce at pleasure. But the economics of population and the expense of matrimony make general polygamy impracticable, and only about five per cent. of the Mahomedans of India have more than one wife. But whether one or four, she or they are mere chattels and instruments of their husband’s pleasure. In his treatment and assessment of the sex, you may measure the standard of his moral conceptions.
The sexual status of the Hindu woman is even worse than that of her Mahomedan sister. The Institutes of Manu, the great lawgiver of Hinduism, define her position very clearly. The wife is the marital property of the husband, and is classified with cows, mares, she-camels, buffalo cows, she-goats, and ewes. She is not accounted worthy of separate holy rites, fasts, or ceremonies in a religion which is compounded of them. All she has to do is literally to worship her husband, who is repeatedly described as a virtuous woman’s god. The husband, on the other hand, is enjoined “not to love his wife too much,” but only to let her have that degree of affection which is necessary. “The fulness of affection must be reserved for brothers and other similar connections.”
It redounds to the credit of the Hindu woman that in the face of these demoralising and degrading limitations she should be affectionate, faithful, chaste, industrious, obedient, patient, forgiving, long-suffering, and cheerful. I cull this list of domestic virtues from the mouths of her own mankind, who praise and imprison her in the same breath. From other sources I gather that, in the upper classes, she is often vain, frivolous, idle, gluttonous, jealous, intriguing, and malicious. These detractions may probably be ascribed as much to the system as to the woman.
The women who are immured in hareems and zenanas are known as purdah-nashin. To be a purdah-woman carries a certain distinction with it. It is an inference of wealth and respectability, and a man’s social standing in his own class depends a good deal on whether he can afford to keep his womenfolk secluded or not. In some castes, where it is not enforced by custom, there is a tendency to “affect zenana seclusion.” The women themselves are said to take a pride in it, as the Chinese ladies do in contracted feet, and where, through a reverse of fortune, zenana ladies have been compelled to abandon the purdah to seek their livelihood, it has been as a parting from respectability. And yet, in our Western view of things, zenana life may be likened to imprisonment in the second class. It is confinement of the most rigorous description, coupled with segregation of sex, and deprivation of air, exercise, society, occupation, and scene. But in India, it is certainly genteel, not to say obligatory, for most who adopt it.
And we have a consensus of men’s opinion in declaring that these poor captives are not unhappy. Even lady-missionaries have admitted as much. The stale, stock simile of the caged canary is quoted, and we are told that absolute ignorance of what they lose by confinement prevents any hardship in it. Perhaps it is so; there are worse fates than that of the well-to-do zenana wife, as we shall come to see.
Of course we hear of unhappiness in the zenana, but it is nearly always attributable to causes other than the misery of physical confinement. At the same tune, we are told the life develops and stimulates the worst passions, and gives rise to intrigue, jealousy, envy, and murderous hate. Mrs. Bishop, the well-known traveller, relates how she had been asked more than a hundred times by inmates of zenanas for drugs to be used for disfiguring rival wives or killing their offspring. Crime is safe and easy in the zenana, for even the law halts on the threshold, and where the husband’s favour comprehends the entire creed of the wife, polygamy cannot fail to be fruitful of envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.
Enforced or voluntary idleness, absence of occupation, and want of education are greater factors for evil than deprivation of physical freedom. In the higher ranks of life, the zenana lady lives a stagnant existence, and dress and jewels absorb most of her time and attention. It is a curious thing that, although she may never be seen in public, and has no opportunities to display her charms, she takes an engrossing interest in her personal appearance. Rouge, menddhal, collyrium, and other cosmetics are common in a hareem, and the examination of garments and ornaments is the first and almost the sole form of entertainment when visiting or receiving women friends.
That life, under such circumstances, becomes demoralising goes without saying. The zenana woman is mentally and physically stunted and crippled. From year’s end to year’s end a small sun-baked court in the day is the only place in which she can obtain any exercise, and in city life her promenade is often confined to the flat roof of the house. No chance of physical development is hers, and the Indian lady is always weakly, and often sickly. Consumption is a common disease. To be required to walk any distance is an actual hardship; when it is possible most ladies are carried in litters, and if compelled to use their own feet have a peculiar shuffling walk that betokens incapacity. Their mental development is equally restricted, and there is no ignorance so profound, no inexperience of the alphabet of practical life so pitiful, as theirs. At the age of thirty, their intellectual attainments are less than those of children. They cannot read, their range of observation is limited to their prison boundaries, and the outer world is absolutely unknown to them. Their conversation is inane and frivolous, and reflects the emptiness of their minds. Their husbands confine their discourse with them to domestic affairs, carefully avoiding every topic that requires the exertion of reason, and the result, in the words of one such husband, is “a supine vacuity of thought.”
The hareem has often been called a gilded cage; here is a description of one, and the fine lady who inhabited it. It was sumptuously furnished with the richest and costliest rugs and pillows; the divans were draped in different coloured silks to suit the season; the vessels for eating and drinking were of gold and silver, and the bathroom lined with full-length mirrors. The lady was bathed four or five times a day, and used the most expensive soaps and perfumes to preserve her beauty. Her powder boxes were of silver, and those for her eyebrow powder of gold; her toilet table was covered with silver slabs. Her collection of jewels contained every known gem. She spent her time in devising new ornaments, and in rich eating. Au reste, she did not know her letters, and was utterly incapable of attending to her commonest wants.
This, of course, was a grande dame. In the less favoured ranks, the apartments are more often than not squalid, the walls and floors merely smeared with cow-dung plaster, and dirt and the olfactory evidence of bad sanitation everywhere present. The courtyard, into which the rooms open out, is filled with the sheds wherein the cattle are kept, and the “cage” is a dark, drear, unwholesome place to pass a lifetime in. There are zenana wives who have never left their husbands’ houses from the time they entered them as brides, until they were grandmothers. Conceive what that means — a life without a walk in the open air! Where the system is obligatory and the husband poor, the zenana is a prison too terrible to contemplate.
When you get to those classes which permit their womenfolk freedom, the physical improvement is at once apparent. The Indian woman who is not confined is renowned for her grace; she is supple, elegant, erect, and, where she is called upon to exercise her physical powers, strong. In the labouring ranks of life her powers of endurance are marvellous. In the rice-growing districts, you may see the peasant women toiling from sunrise to sunset, knee-deep in the noisome slush, weeding their crops. Their primitive standard of civilisation includes many duties assigned to women, such as husking rice, carrying loads, using the hoe, and chopping wood, which entail terribly hard labour. As carriers, they are able to bear extraordinary burdens, and amongst the hill women of the Himalayas are individuals capable of phenomenal feats. I have frequently seen them toiling along under a load of a hundredweight and a half, and there is a record of one Thibetan woman who carried a cottage piano on her back up a steep ascent of three thousand feet, to deliver it at a house in the sanatorium of Darjeeling. In agricultural and kindred pursuits, the women take their share, and often more than their share, of the labour of men. What his wife can do, that the native husband will always make her do.
Maternity comes easy to the peasant’s wife. I remember the case of a woman starting off, as she believed, the day before her confinement was due, to go to her parents’ home. The distance was twenty miles, and she carried her baggage with her, though that does not ordinarily comprehend more than a blanket and a water-vessel. Halfway on the road to her home she was taken with the pangs of labour, gave birth to a child, and then, thinking it not worth while to pursue her journey, returned to where she had started from. She was the wife of one of my grooms, and I can vouch for this story as absolutely correct.
Notwithstanding the comparative freedom they enjoy, the instinct of reserve remains very marked, even in the lowest grades of women. I never remember to have been addressed first by one, though I employed many hundreds on my plantation. On pay days, when they had to come up for their wages, the veriest old harridan would veil her face with her sari and take her money quite coyly. Although amazing chatterboxes amongst themselves, they are silent, or at most monosyllabic, in men’s company. In meeting men on the road, they instinctively turn their heads from view; but what is a gentle, well-bred timidity in the high-caste woman, assumes a sort of foolish shamefacedness in her humbler sister, the result of conscious sexual inferiority.
A woman may not walk by the side of her husband, but only follow respectfully behind him; she may not eat with him, but must content herself with his leavings after he has finished. If he fasts, the good wife ought to fast too. She must not speak with him in the society of others, nor may he notice her. In mixed company, the man’s wife is the last female you would take to be such, if you regarded their mutual relations. She must never presume to pronounce his name; he is always “my lord,” or “my master.” She has absolutely no part in society; she may not make herself heard; she has no opinion; she may not seat herself in the company of men. It is a gross breach of etiquette to ask a husband how his wife is. “How is your house?” is the limit of courtesy even amongst old friends. Abject submission at home has created in the woman a sense of helplessness and bewilderment abroad. She is as “lost” as a nun might be. The custom which prescribes her conduct towards her husband is far stricter in its regulation of her behaviour towards others of his sex. “Whether a woman be old or young,” lays down Manu, the lawgiver, “she must ever be dependent. In her childhood, she must be in subjection to her parents; in her youth, to her husband; and in her old age, to her children.” And from highest to lowest, from purdah-nashin to peasant wench, this rule of life is inflexibly adhered to. It is ladies last and ladies least in every grade of society.
The patriarchal system obtains in India, and the sons when they marry bring their wives home to the paternal roof, whilst the daughters go forth to live in their husbands’ homes. You may often see three or four generations under one roof, and no Indian wife is mistress of her home till all her elders have died off. All Indian girls are married when they are quite children, and are either wives or widows before they are fourteen. Their marriage is a complete dissolution of their home ties, and opens the door to an absolutely new life.
In the higher castes, the father may not visit his daughter’s home, especially where he has dowered her. I have heard a man assert with satisfaction that he had not even drunk water from the well of the village in which his daughter had gone to make her home.
A native wedding is a tremendous affair. It often means years of debt and difficulty, for the native is nothing if he is not prodigal on these occasions. All his thrifty qualities go by the board in one hurricane of extravagance, and it is a case of in for a penny, in for a pound, for this is an occasion when no one dare be niggardly. Here, again, the curse of “custom” creeps in, for these lavish displays cannot be defended by any rational argument.
Every one is invited, and there are dinners for all; nay, in some cases, seven dinners all round. The Brahmins have to be fed and fee’d, musicians and dancing-girls hired, fireworks to be exploded, rich gifts to be provided, dowries to be scraped together, trousseaux to be given which shall bear the test of woman’s criticism, and litters or horses hired to carry the bride and bridegroom.
This is the one supreme day in the life of an Indian woman. Ever since she could understand, she has been taught to look forward to it. It is associated in her mind with all that is glorious and grand. She is arrayed in the splendour of vivid colours and tinsel; attention is paid to her; for once in her life she is “somebody.”
And her marriage vows? Listen to what the sacred Hindu books say: “There is no other god on earth for a woman except her husband. Be he deformed, aged, infirm, diseased, offensive in manners, choleric, debauched, immoral, a drunkard, a gambler, a lunatic, blind, deaf, dumb, or crippled; in a word, let his defects and wickedness be what they may, a wife should lavish on him all her attention.” That is the risk every Hindu girl has to accept with a stranger before she is twelve years old. After her wedding, she returns to her father’s house until she is physically old enough to go to her husband’s.
The Mahomedan girl’s life is somewhat better, for she is not married until she is of an age to join her husband. Moreover, she has certain “rights,” one of which is the power to divorce her husband. Also, she may marry again. But neither Hindu nor Mahomedan brides have the slightest voice in the selection of their spouses.
In all India, there is only one class of women which emerges from the fetters of ignorance, reserve, and abject submission. This is the nautch-girl, or dancing-girl. She is a professional prostitute and public entertainer. It is necessary to educate her to fit her for her profession and duties, and so it conies to pass that she can read. She is early instructed in this, and also in singing and dancing, and all the accomplishments. She begins to chant lewd songs as soon as she has finished prattling, and for centuries has enjoyed the sole monopoly of education amongst Indian womankind. And — can it be believed? — the nautch-girl has not only a recognised, but an exalted, place in the religious and social life of the Hindus. No discredit attaches to her calling, but, on the contrary, a great deal of éclat. She is considered a necessary adjunct in the temple and the home. Her presence at weddings is auspicious, and she it is who fastens the wedding-necklace round the bride’s neck, an act which corresponds to the placing of the wedding-ring with us. In her professional capacity, she is invited to all native festivals, and to entertainments given in honour of guests. To patronise her is considered meritorious, and she fills a place in the Hindu religion corresponding to that which the nun holds in Christianity, for she is consecrated to one or other of the impure Hindu deities. A proverbial saying declares that without the jingling of the nautch-girl’s anklets a dwelling-place does not become pure!
She is a beautiful abomination who has lured thousands, and will lure thousands more, to ruin. Attractive, pleasing, and witty in conversation, she is the most accomplished of courtesans, and specially educated to play havoc with men’s morals and money. She is treated by all castes with the utmost deference, and even allowed to sit in the assemblies of the great by men who would not permit their own wives and daughters a similar honour. She moves more freely in society than public women in civilised countries are allowed to do, and greater attention and respect are shown to her than to married women. In some parts of India, she is treated with the distinction of a princess.
The earnings of these dancing-girls are enormous. In Bombay the “star” nautch-girls command a fee of fifty pounds for a single night’s performance. Aristocratic families lavish their wealth on them, and a British viceroy, who was memorialised by the Hindu Social Reform Association to discountenance them on the grounds that they were “professional prostitutes, lowered the tone of society, tended to destroy family life, and brought ruin to property and character” — a British viceroy answered that “he had seen nothing objectionable in the nautches he had witnessed; they were in accordance with the custom of the country, and he declined to take any action.” Truly, great is “custom,” and it will prevail!
To these educated courtesans, the Hindu gentleman habitually turns when he desires the companionship his own home cannot supply, And, be it noted, without any stigma or suspicion of wrong-doing. The nautch-girls are the only women who move freely in men’s society in India; they are the women who are honoured and courted most; for them alone is education decreed. They are the queens of native society. It is a salient commentary on the domestic life of the Indian Empire that the woman who comes last in the British estimate of the sex comes first in theirs.