Chronicling Indian women’s tryst with tradition and modernity

‘The Women of India: Tradition and Modernity,’ written by an eminent Russian Indologist, is based on almost half a century of research and is devoted to changes in the status of women from ancient times to the present day.
The Snow Maiden
‘The Women of India: Tradition and Modernity’. Source: Press Photo

Author Yevgenia Yurlova has always found the status of women in India a compelling subject of study and analysis. Her new book ‘The Women of India: Tradition and Modernity’ (published by the Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow) revisits the theme and traces the evolution of the status of women from ancient times to the present.

The new book marks continuity as well as an advance over her earlier work like ‘Social Status of Women and the Women's Movement in India,’ which she wrote in 1982. What inspired the author to write a new book on the same theme? “I didn't pick the topic by accident,” says Yurlova. “Above all, it was inspired by the work I've done in India since the 1960s and my numerous meetings with men and women in India from different social groups and classes -- from the lower castes and tribes to heads of state agencies in the regions and in the capital. I was particularly interested in the lives of ordinary women in towns and villages who, along with the men, are ‘the salt of the earth.’”

In her new book, Yurlova focuses on the cultural and historical evolution of the women’s place in the family and society due to the conflicting demands of tradition and modernity and locates their choices within framework of religious and ethnic practices. The author points out that the rise of women to new levels in social and economic spheres that has been seen in India in recent decades has faced resistance from conservative forces. This leads to violence against women, justified by some as defending the honour and foundations of the family, argues the book.

The first part of the book gives a historical perspective on Indian women's issues up to the present day and discusses the contributions of social reformers in the struggle against traditions stemming from religion and the caste system that are deeply rooted in the public consciousness and the variety of gender relations in contemporary India.

The second part contains portraits of outstanding Indian politicians, cultural activists, and artists such as Pandita Ramabai, Ramabai Ranade, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Pratibha Patil, Devika Rani, Mother Teresa, and Captain Lakshmi.

Yevgenia Yurlova, Devika Rani and Svyatoslav Roerich in 1975. Source: Press Photo

The book focuses primarily on women from the Hindu community. But it also has stories of women from other religions. It is important to keep in mind that as Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and many other groups have coexisted for many centuries, they have adapted to each other to some extent.

Romance and Reality

The author notes that Russians have a romanticised view of India and its women that has formed mainly due to interactions with representatives from the higher social groups in Indian society and due to India's film industry. However, in recent years people have begun to see India more objectively.

In Russia and Europe, men have created a stereotype of women as the “better half” of the human race and as the “weaker sex.” In India however, the author notes that they believe in the mystical power of Shakti, a divine force that is personified in woman. But studies on the status of Indian women show that, compared with men, their share of responsibility for the education and health of children, care for the sick and elderly in the family, and their work in the fields and factories often exceeds that of men. In real life, the levels of education, health, and employment of women significantly lag behind men. This negatively affects not only the quality of life of women themselves, but also their children.

The problems of women in the family, society, and politics and their solutions in today's India, despite being unique to the country, also include universal problems that are found in places like Russia. This has given rise to the mounting interest in gender relations and the ensuing worldwide debate of women's equality in many countries.

In recent decades, these issues have come onto the forefront in socio-economic, political and other areas.  In today's India, one of the most striking indications of the unequal status of women in the country is the fact that currently there are 38 million more men than women.

Yurlova believes that disturbing the population equilibrium in India to the detriment of women has given rise to a slew of problems related to family relations and violence against women. On the other hand, the promotion of women's rights in the family and society has led them to continually raise the issue of gaining their legitimate rights, including those regarding property and real estate. This has been greatly aided by the democratisation of society, the growth of literacy and education of women, the participation of women in elections, and the number of women that have been promoted to significant social, cultural and political positions. But in a deeply hierarchic, patriarchal society this creates new social conflicts, despite the fact that the constitution and the country's laws guarantee equal rights for women.

The struggle to obtain these rights comes into conflict with the centuries-long tradition of granting an inferior status to women. This, in particular, leads to an increase in violence against women, including by those who claim to be upholding family honour. However, a new trend in gender relations has been that the so-called domestic conflicts have become the subject of public debate, leading to the condemnation of reprisals against women.

The Snow Maiden
Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (l), Yevgenia Yurlova and Aruna Asaf Ali, leader of the National Federation of Indian Women, 1973. Source: Press Photo

Of course, the author notes, one should be very careful and considerate regarding these issues. “Light and Shadow” exist in all societies. Today in some Western countries the concept of family is under attack, which is threatening the very existence of mankind. Therefore, appealing to true family values that respect the dignity of women and men is essential in both the East and West.

As India has developed, large swathes of women have made significant progress in areas such as education, science, business, administration, and journalism. However, this has not touched a huge segment of women, especially the poor, who have not been able to completely escape from the bondage of unyielding traditions. Among illiterate families, caste and religious restrictions still hold sway and limit the emancipation of women and their participation in public life. Against this backdrop, the author has contended that the key to emancipation of women in the modern Indian society lies in their fuller participation in all spheres, including economics, society and culture.

Women of India. Tradition and Modernity’ was published by the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Science, Moscow.

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