Here to return to
“WOMAN’S Rights” is the unabashed demand of the New Woman in the West; “Woman’s Wrongs” is the whispered appeal of the few who dare ventilate the subject in the East, where native social reformers have been outcasted and excommunicated for striving to improve the domestic position of the weaker sex. Those two cries crystallise the contrast between the women of the two worlds. Up to now, we have been contemplating woman’s life in India from its best point of view — the virtuous wife not discontented with her lot, the accomplished courtesan queening it in society. Each in her lights and in her sphere is to be reckoned fortunate and happy. We now pass to the consideration of darker pictures.
There are four hideous horrors in the treatment accorded to the female sex in India — child-marriage, enforced widowhood, compulsory prostitution, fostered by religion, and infanticide confined to female infants. In comparison with the three former, the latter may almost be said to be humane.
Infanticide is daughter-slaughter, and is chiefly practised by the rajpoots, who have a reputation for chivalry towards women! It is a direct outcome of caste and custom, and an act of callous selfishness. The Hindu religion makes the marriage of a daughter obligatory, and threatens the parents with the most dire punishment if it is postponed after the year of puberty — punishment on a par with other Hindu religious penalties, which ordinarily include disgrace in this life and several million years in hell in the next. In the case of the rajpoot, the social rule requires him to procure as a husband for his daughter a man of a higher clan than his own. This is often difficult, and always expensive. The payment of a large dowry can be avoided only by incurring the stigma of an inferior alliance, against which the abnormal rajpoot pride revolts. He cuts the Gordian knot by the simple process of killing his infant daughter, either by strangling at birth, giving her an opium pill, covering the mother’s nipple with poison to be taken in with the first sustenance, or by neglect and starvation. Under native rule the practice was universal; under the British Government it has been greatly reduced, but has not disappeared altogether. A writer in 1818 mentions that amongst the offspring of eight thousand rajpoots in a particular district there were probably not more than thirty females living of the same caste or clan as the men. When the Infanticide Act of 1890 was passed, the worst case quoted, as proving its necessity, was that of a tribe where the proportion of girls to boys alive was eight to eighty. In one district several hundred children were returned as “carried off by wolves,” all of whom were girls! The difficulty of the detection, and through it the prevention, of this crime lies in the fact that the murderer undoubtedly possesses the sympathy of his fellow-caste men. The death of a daughter, before the expense of marrying her has to be incurred, is a matter for devout thankfulness and cordial congratulation in many cases.
Thus we see that woman’s wrongs in India begin with her birth, when she is sometimes killed, and assuredly never welcomed. The next injustice is the disposal of her person in childhood, which does not always take the form of marrying her to a husband. The Hindu religion requires brides for the idols who represent its deities. They are called Devidasis, Muralis, and other names, and their duties are to dance at the shrines, sing obscene hymns, and generally delight the gods, and pander to the lusts or avarice of the priests of the temples. They are a recognised religious institution.
These temple girls are obtained when quite young by purchase or gift. In the former case, the parents sell their daughters when they are children; in the latter, the girl is a thank-offering made by Hindus of certain castes for recovery from illness or relief from misfortune. Occasionally a man presents his own offspring, but if he is rich, it is considered more respectable to buy a poor person’s daughter and present her. But in neither case is there any sense of shame attached to the sacrifice, and in the contorted morality of the Hindus, the profession to which the girl is consigned is a most honourable one, and carnal intercourse with the temple girls “an act of faith and worship, and, according to some writers, it effaces all sins”! There are thousands of these poor girl-slaves in the temples of India, who are the common property of the priests, and were consigned to their infamous lives in the name of religion whilst they were yet, what we should call, “in the nursery.” If they give birth to daughters, the latter are always brought up in the mother’s profession. There is no lack of recruits, who are accepted from all castes. Sometimes there is an initiatory ceremony, when the girl is formally married to a dagger, the wedding being conducted with all the pomp and circumstance that would be observed in her marriage to a husband.
The temple girl is the only Hindu woman who has any place or share in the rites and observances of religion, and in the same way that her professional sister, the nautch-girl, holds a most esteemed place in Hindu society, so the Devidasi stands next in importance to the holy priests who sacrifice at the shrine. In some of the temples, the religious establishments are enormous, as for instance at that of Juggernauth at Puree, where about six hundred persons are employed. The idol is treated as if it were a human being; there are officiating priests to perform such offices for it as taking it to bed, awakening it, giving it water, washing its face, offering it a toothbrush, counting its robes, feeding it with rice, carrying its umbrella, and telling it the time. And to delight the idol, but more particularly the priests, there are a hundred and twenty temple girls, who exercise a religious ministry, and are termed brides of the gods.
Perhaps the most inhuman wrong practised on the women of India is child-marriage. As I have mentioned, every Hindu girl is a wife or widow at fourteen, and in many parts of India much younger. Girls have actually been married before they were a year old, and when from four to six years of age, they very commonly cease to be “single.” Eight is a marriageable age, and twelve is the maximum, except in a few districts. Consummation of marriage takes place at the earliest possible date nature allows, and it is here that revolting abuse has long established itself.
The surrender of a child-wife to her husband at a totally immature age has been the custom in India for all ages. It is one of those iniquitous institutions with which the British Government has ever been chary of dealing, for it stops short of actual murder. But about ten years ago, the publication of the terrible and tragic details in connection with the death of a child-bride raised such a storm of indignation that it compelled legislation in the name of civilisation, and the “age of consent” was raised to twelve years by enactment. Prior to this, many marriages had been consummated at ten. But to legislate and to carry legislation into effect in the zenana are two very different things, and when legislation goes against old-established custom and religion, it often becomes inoperative. Nearly fifty years ago, Lord Canning legalised the remarriage of widows, but the statistics of to-day show that out of approximately twenty-three millions of Hindu widows only about twenty-five are remarried annually! The Hindu considers it wrong to withhold a wife from her husband when she has reached the age of puberty, and no legislation can prevent it when the parents of the bride and the husband’s household are in agreement.
Of course, the physical development in a tropical country explains in a measure what would be impossible in our own. Instances are on record of Hindu women being great-grandmothers at forty-eight, each generation having given birth to daughters at the age of twelve. Wives have been sent to their husbands’ houses at the age of eight. Nor does the inhumanity of it end here, for although child-wives are more frequently married to child-husbands, there are hundreds of thousands of cases where the husband is a man of forty, fifty, or even sixty, and the child-wife may be his fourth or fifth. The State of Mysore, which in this respect is considerably in advance of the rest of India, passed a law in 1894 prohibiting the marriage of girls under eight years of age, and absolutely forbidding the marriage of men of fifty and upwards with girls under fourteen. A similar Marriage Bill introduced into the Madras Legislative Council was rejected, and the British Government, with its peculiar sensitiveness to interfering with the social customs of the natives, has done nothing.
It would be impossible to exaggerate the evils of child-marriage. Physically, it leads to torture, deformity, constitutional ill-health, and, as has been indicated, even to death by violence. It produces weak and sickly offspring, and nips the sentiment of maternal love. I have heard of a child-mother who was accustomed slyly to pinch her infant to make it cry, so as to induce her elders to take it, and release her to play. Happy for the child-wife if she has the spirit to play! When she goes to her husband’s house, it is to an utterly strange place, where, under the patriarchal system of the Hindus, she has to subordinate herself not only to her mother-in-law, but to all the elder generation of women in the house. It is pitiable for the child-wife, torn from a home that contained all she knew of happiness, to be obliged to submit herself to the temper, caprice, and often tyranny of her husband, but when to this is added the despotism and cruelty of several elderly women, who often avail themselves of her helplessness, and if she fails to find favour in her husband’s eyes, almost invariably take their cue of unkind conduct from him, her lot may be better imagined than described. She has absolutely no place to go to for comfort and sympathy if it is not to be found in her new home. There is no escape, and no matter what her sufferings, her parents’ home is closed to her. An appeal to them meets with a rigid command to submit herself to her husband.
Mrs. Fuller, in her book on the Wrongs of Indian Womanhood, gives a very pitiful illustration of an unhappy child-marriage, which may be taken as typical of thousands of others. A young Brahmin lad of sixteen was married to a girl of nine, who went to reside with him a year later. “The girl’s appearance did not suit the young husband, and if she went near him to serve him with food, he would hit her on the crown of her head with his knuckles. Though she was but ten, yet they expected her to do every kind of work. She did the household work, brought water for all, cleaned the utensils and floor, did the washing, milked the cow, and kept its stable clean. If the cow did not yield the proper quantity of milk, she was punished. . . . Her father-in-law would hang her up to the beam of the roof and beat her pitilessly. He would sometimes suspend her to the same place by her ankles, and under her head, thus suspended, place a vessel with red-hot coals, on which he sprinkled red pepper to almost suffocate her. Sometimes, when he had hung her to the rope, for fear she should be tempted to break the rope, and fall, he would lay branches of prickly pear on the floor beneath her. Once or twice, this man inflicted on her punishments which decency forbids us to relate. . . . When her father heard of all this cruelty, he exhorted her not to run away, but to stay and die.” In those last three words, you may sum up the life sentence that Hinduism passes on the Indian wife. The father would have been disgraced had his daughter left her brutal husband’s home, and the woman’s wrongs did not count in the balance when his own interests were threatened.
You might think that under such conditions widowhood would become a compensation, instead of which it is the crowning curse of Indian womanhood. For twenty centuries, the custom of suttee or the self-immolation of widows, existed in India, and presents the best commentary on the state of widowhood. Even within the last twenty years, cases have occurred in the native State of Nepaul. It is true that the act of suttee was held to be most meritorious, and supposed to secure the widow three hundred and fifty million years of connubial felicity, and assure salvation to her family for seven generations; but such visionary rewards probably had less influence in inducing widows to face the frightful ordeal than the knowledge of what their future lot would be. The lot of the Hindu widow has not changed, and, in the words of one of the social reformers of the race, it is described as “Cold Suttee.”
Briefly speaking, the Hindu widow is condemned to perpetual mourning, mortification, and degradation. Her first sacrifice is her hair, which is shaved off, the popular belief being that it binds her husband’s soul in hell until she parts with it. In which connection, I may mention the case of an old man and his wife who caught the plague; he predeceased her by four hours, and yet, in the interim, although she was senseless and moribund, her head was shaved. To return to the widow’s lot. She is compelled to dress in the commonest and coarsest garments, to relinquish all her ornaments and jewels, and to display no emblem and enjoy no privilege of the married state. She may eat only one meal a day and has to fast twice a month. She is precluded from attending any festivity, must never presume to feast or try to enjoy herself, and be careful not to allow her shadow to fall on food or water that is about to be eaten or drunk. She is regarded as carrying ill-luck with her wherever she goes, and her appearance is inauspicious. A man starting on a journey will postpone it if he catches sight of a widow as he sets out, and the good widow will shrink back when she meets or crosses a man’s path for fear of being the harbinger of evil to him. If she has borne no children to her husband, she is burned without the rites of religion. It is, perhaps, necessary to explain specifically that all these things tend to her spiritual exaltation.
A middle-aged widow who has borne children can manage to support this degraded existence. If she is the mother of a son, a sort of clemency is extended to her, for she has performed the first, and immeasurably the greatest, duty of Indian womanhood. Only by his son, begotten in lawful wedlock, performing certain exequial rites and ceremonies can a father be delivered from one of the Hindu hells; failure to bear a son is a first cause for introducing a second wife into the husband’s house. A widow who has borne only daughters may find comfort in them. But the child-widow, whose husband has died when she was, perhaps, only six or seven years old, and to whom it was impossible to fulfil the prime duty of a wife — for her is reserved the cruelest and most unjust treatment of any. She is peculiarly repugnant to the community, one to whom no consideration or pardon can be extended, but only the unreasonable and unremitting hatred and abuse of her husband’s people. For widowhood is regarded as a punishment for the sins committed by the woman, and the failure to bear a son is the Sin Unpardonable.
It is difficult to imagine anything more tragical or pathetic than the unfolding of this fate to the child-widow. She is too young to know what has happened, or only comprehends it very vaguely. She continues to play with her companions, for she is not called upon to enter the state of widowhood until she reaches the age of puberty. As a child, it makes little difference in her life, saving for a bitter word cast at her now and then, the reason for which she does not understand, or her hasty ejectment as a bad omen what time she may have unconsciously wandered into the proximity of a wedding-feast or some other festivity. But at length there comes a day when womanhood overtakes her, and she who never committed any sin has to suffer. The barber is called in, and her hair is shaved off; her bright clothes are taken away from her, and she is told that henceforth she must wear the sackcloth of mourning; her jewels, if she has any, are distributed amongst others; and she enters into a life of social ostracism. For what reason? For being the relict of a husband whose face she saw but once. More probably than not of a child-husband, and when you come to consider the statistics of mortality amongst children, you may gather some idea of the risk encountered by the Hindu bride when she enters into the state of matrimony!
Such a system and such treatment naturally lead to terrible results. Life becomes hopeless and intolerable, and frequently ends in suicide or enters into shame. In most cases, the child-widow has become the slave and drudge of the household; no work is too hard to impose upon her, and she is a stranger to any kindness or consideration. Probably she has a little more freedom than the wife is allowed, and there come to her temptations which may not be resisted. And if she succumbs to them, who can blame her?
Very frequently she falls into the clutches of the Brahmins, and is enjoined to make a pilgrimage to one of the holy cities to pray for her husband. The men of the temples are amorous, and the idols do not disdain young and pretty widows. It is natural for Hindu as for English widows to seek the solace of their religion. Bindraban is one of the holiest places of pilgrimage; there Krishna is worshipped, and to his shrine flock countless hosts of pilgrims, amongst them a vast number of widows. Here are the experiences and observations of one which have been recorded from her own lips.
“When we arrived at Bindraban, the priests of the place met us at the railway station, and got us a house, which was so filthy we could not endure it. We sought another, and found a good one belonging to a holy man. When he saw us women, he was very anxious for us to stay, but we knew what it meant, and left immediately. . . . The Brahmins’ agents tell the widows, whom they seek in the villages and towns, that they will go to heaven if they proceed to these sacred places, and live there, and serve the priests, and worship the god Krishna. The poor ignorant women are easily persuaded to leave their homes, as many of then are very unhappy, and think it is far better to go and live and die in sanctuary, serving Krishna. Thus thousands of widows, young and old, go to Mathura or Bindraban, and fall into the snares of the priests. They soon expend the little they have in giving alms and presents to priests, and when all is spent, cannot return to their native land. Then, if they are tolerably young and good-looking, the holy men, saints, and religious mendicants are all after them, and get them to live in their houses, first as servants, then as mistresses. Or they hire them out to other men in the towns and villages. If the women are unwilling to lead immoral lives, they are told it is no sin to live thus in the service of Krishna. When they get old and displeasing to the men, they are turned out to shift for themselves, ragged, helpless, seemingly forsaken by all, and left to die like dogs. . . . We went round the town, and saw the condition of these women. There were thousands of widows, mostly from Bengal, and the heartless cruelty of man to woman, which we saw on every side, is almost beyond description.”
Woman’s wrongs are everywhere man’s rights in India; the right to kill in infancy; the right to ruin; the right to coerce; the right to ill-treat. England has emancipated the African slave; her laws have protected the brute creation from cruelty. What is wanted in the twentieth century is a Wilberforce to rescue Indian womankind from her slavery, and a legislation to teach her lord and master the instincts of common humanity.