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Women through History: Subjugation, Emancipation and Social Movements

Women through History: Subjugation, Emancipation and Social Movements

By Shreya Deora

Edited by Namitha Sadanand

Women have faced discrimination and biasness in social, political, familial and economic life since time immemorial. The struggle for rights and freedom from societal norms has been a long and enduring one. It dates as back as ancient Rome, where women had few social and legal rights. Though initially in ancient Rome women, especially those belonging to upper classes, retained some legal rights and hence had a social standing, once the first Roman emperor, Augustus came to power things significantly changed. He attempted to control the conduct of woman based on ‘moral grounds’. Adultery was made a criminal offence, but only when a married woman committed such adultery. A married man was free to commit any illicit sexual act. Childbearing was encouraged and the role of women was significantly confined by the norms of the society.

In China, the status of women was also low, mostly due to the norm of foot binding. It became a popular culture in the upper classes, where women’s feet were bound tightly to prevent further growth. It was seen as a sign of beauty and was referred to as the ‘lotus feet’. The perception was that this practice would make the movements of women more feminine and dainty. But it caused severe disabilities and lifelong problems for them. An attribute of a woman with bound feet was the limitation of her mobility, and therefore, her inability to take part in politics, social life and the world. Bound feet rendered women dependent on their families, particularly their men, and became an alluring symbol of chastity and male ownership, since a woman was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without an escort or the help of watchful servants. [1]

In India, women enjoyed equal status as men in the early Vedic period.  But in the later stages their situation started deteriorating. Child marriages and the ban on remarriage of widows became prevalent in Indian communities. Among Rajputs in Rajasthan, the Jauhar tradition became popular. Under this, the female royals and upper class women were voluntarily burned to death after defeat in a war to ‘save their honor from invaders’. Another custom was that of Sati, where the widow was burned alive on the pyre of her husband. Even though it was said that this custom was voluntary, it was more due to societal compulsion and norms that this practice was carried out. The list doesn’t stop there. The Purdah system requiring women to conceal themselves from men placed severe restrictions on the mobility of women and their freedom to interact and participate socially. Apart from this, cases of rape and sexual harassment, sex selective abortion and female infanticide, dowry, etc. are still prevalent.

Even in the religious context, woman has been given a subordinated place relative to the man.  According to the Bible, Eve’s weakness is cited as the reason for Adam’s fall and ergo the fall of humanity in sin.  The institutions of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have been accused of gender apartheid by not accepting women into the clergy and religious leadership roles.

The Qur’an dictates various rights and duties to women which they must abide by.Muslim men can engage in polygyny while any such activity is banned to women.  Conviction by the Islamic criminal code further discriminates against women, as it relies heavily on witness testimony. Female testimonies alone are considered insufficient to convict a murderer, requiring a male testimony for validation. [2]

 In Hinduism the role of women depends on the ancient text being referred to. In the Manu Smriti, women’s rights are severely restricted and they are not allowed any educational and political enlightenment. Standards for adultery also differed for men and women, where the woman was highly punished and shamed while the man barely faced any consequences. Even in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, though there have been attempts to portray women in good light, the ideas behind such portrayal have been subordination itself. For example, in the Ramayana, Sita is shown to be the obedient and courageous wife of Lord Rama who leaves the luxuries of being a queen to accompany her husband for the exile. But as the story unfolds, one can see the societal expectations that are placed on Sita by her own husband, reinforcing the plight of women and the lack of freedom. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi is married off to five brothers who later go on to gamble her away in a game, after which she was humiliated by the attempts of the Kauravas to disrobe her in the court.

Over the years, depending on the country, culture and the period, different feminists have had different goals and causes. Feminism as a term was coined by Charles Fourier in 1837. A lot of times the term has been reserved for modern movements and any preceding movements have been termed as ‘protofeminist’.  The entire feminist movement has been characterized in three waves.

The first wave was seen in the nineteenth and early twentieth century which mainly comprised of women’s suffrage movements and the right to vote. This movement was most prominent in the UK, Canada, USA and the Netherlands. It comprised of the right to vote and stand for electoral office for women. Even in this movement there were two ideologies about a ‘woman’s place’.  Some who were campaigning for women’s suffrage were of the view that women have a gentler and kinder outlook, especially about the weaker sections of the society. They believed that women will have a civilizing effect on politics and will help make better social laws. Such sections of the society continued to believe that a woman’s place was at home, but also believed that women can help affect policies which would have ramifications at home, while others denied any so-called “natural” role for women and fought for equal rights and standing for both men and women. The iconic English political leader Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 and they were known for their militant ways to fight for equality and suffrage.

In India, the demands for votes and electoral rights for women were sought by the Women’s Indian Association set up in 1907. In 1921 Madras granted votes to wealthy and educated women at the same par as men. Success in the Bengal province was dependent on the influence of the middle class women who were acquiring European tastes and ideas. In Punjab, the Sikhs granted all women voting rights irrespective of their class and education in 1925. After independence, the Congress enacted equal voting rights to both women and men in 1947.

The second wave of the feminist movement fought for social and legal equality for women and ending discrimination. It was a movement that predominantly started in the United States and then spread through parts of Europe and Asia. While the first wave concentrated on the amendment of legal rights (right to vote, electoral office, property rights, etc.), the second wave tried to restructure the society away from the male dominated sphere. It sought to liberate women from social stereotypes and break gender roles, and concentrated on areas such as family, workplace, reproductive rights, etc.  Simone de Beauvoir published her book ‘The Second Sex’ in 1949 which expressed feminists’ viewpoint on injustice.

 Second wave feminists observe that cultural inequalities are heavily linked with political inequalities. The discrimination in personal lives starts getting reflected in the political and social life because of the sexist power structure. Feminists also started working for the abolition of marital exemption in rape laws. But even in the mid 20th century, women still lacked voting rights and continued to fight for more political power along with social freedom. The women’s liberation movement started in the late 1960s and was still strong in the 1970s. The first Women Liberation Conference took place in Britain in 1970. A sort of radical feminist emerged with ideologies like ‘the personal is political’ and tried to create a consciousness about the power and strength of the sisterhood. Radical feminists were of the belief that patriarchy was the reason why social relationships were based on male supremacy over women. They wanted to break gender roles and believed that it itself will go on to fix the legal and political biases that existed.

On September 7, 1968 the Miss America Pageant in the USA saw about 400 women and other civil rights activists gathered in protest. They symbolically threw feminine products in a ‘Freedom Trash Can’ which were viewed as means of oppression against women. They were against idealizing and emphasizing a socially accepted standard of beauty.

In the 1990s, mainly due to the perceived failures and limitations of the second wave of feminism, a third wave started in the USA. It was observed that the second wave concentrated more on the upper class white women and took their essential ideas to further the movement. The third wave of feminism which still persists today tries to push these boundaries that have been wrongly defined. They understand that women comprise of those from all classes, religions, ethnicities, race and cultural backgrounds.  As political and economic equality has become more of a realistic idea and has been granted in most parts of the world, third wave feminists have broadened the goals to include those of non-white and queer women, abolishing stereotypes and defending sex work, reproductive rights, higher level and standards of education for women, policies against sexual harassment and domestic abuse, etc. More and more colored feminists started putting forth their views. Even in the contemporary world, as patriarchal views still stand, women from different races still face oppression. Anthe Butler says that without a position of privilege to call on, it is even harder as a woman of color to fight for issues that are important for every woman, but especially for women of color [6].

In the 1990s, the Riot Grrrl Movement started in Washington D.C. It was an underground feminist punk rock movement which gave women the platform to raise their voices and gave them artistic freedom at par with men. [3] Riot grrrl bands often took up issues like rape, domestic abuse, female empowerment, racism and sexuality. They used this platform to make political statements and create awareness on these issues socially. This emerged as a means to communicate in the patriarchal society with young women and encourage them to break away from stereotypes imposed on them.

More recently, in 2011, the ‘Slut walk movement’ was initiated in Toronto and spread like wildfire across the globe. The movement started when a Toronto police official remarked that ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts’ [4] to avoid being harassed and raped. The movement aims to get rid of avoiding or explaining rape and sexual harassment on the basis of women’s appearance and dressing. In India, slut walks in Bhopal [5], New Delhi and Kolkata were carried out with women showing up for marches to protest against the rape culture. It was carried under the banner ‘Besharmi Morcha’ where women had the word ‘Slut’ painted across their bodies.

Modern day feminism has received a backlash especially on social media. Recently a Tumblr page called ‘women against feminism’ got a lot of attention where women posted pictures with messages stating why they do not need feminism. But these ideas have been counter criticized as not in cohesion with the ideology of feminism. In the contemporary world, feminism is often seen to be anti-men or to victimize women further. But in my opinion this is a misconstrued ideology that needs to be rectified with more awareness. The public opinion needs to recognize the fact that women are still oppressed. Equal pay for equal work is still not universal; the most obvious instance can be seen in the entertainment industry in India, which in itself is highly sexist. Sexual and verbal abuse is still prevalent, cases of rapes are still on a steep rise and the social superstructure still needs to be worked on.

The need of the hour is to recognize that even though some developed countries may have given their women more political and social freedom, women from different parts of the world are still lacking basic civil rights. The atrocities on women in the Middle East are common knowledge. The recent Boko Haram abduction of Nigerian women to convert them into Islam and to prevent them from adopting the ‘westernized’ education and ideologies is one of many such recent instances. In India, cases of rape and abuse are just increasing by the hour. Even social ideas about marriage and child bearing, working women and the ‘moral and social’ conduct of women are still highly debated. Women still feel suppressed and subjugated in the male dominated society. Even in the so called ‘modern’ families and sections of society, there is always a double standard in the expected conduct of women. Sati and treatment of widows may be practices that have been weeded out of rural society, but honor killing and dowry cases are not so sparse, in both rural and urban India.

A part of the problem of misconceptions of the term ‘feminism’ may also be the media. Sensationalized versions of ideas and anti-men sentiments are put forth which depict women and men who claim to be feminists in a wrong light. A feminist is, by definition, anyone who agrees that men and women should have equal standing politically, socially, and economically. The other misconception is that feminists victimize women further and reinforce the idea that women are weak. This is also unfounded because feminist ideas simply state that they know that women are strong, and they’d like the society to understand that too.

In conclusion, the history of the social oppression of women is vast and diverse and unfortunately still persists. The inclusive movements have been of various kinds and have evolved through time. But unfortunately this seems like a problem which will still take time to be weeded out. In India, the women’s reservation bill is still to be passed after years of wait and debate. Society in India has to stop misconstruing culture with religion and enforcing ancient ideas on modern day women. Men and women alike, need to understand what equal rights stand for, not just politically or economically; there is a need to socially brain wash patriarchal ideas away. We may have given our women the right to vote and own property, but those were the building blocks for something more monumental, which is now not just a gender right anymore. This issue was always a humanitarian issue, not one of a gender fighting for rights against the other. Now, more men have finally realized this and have become active feminists themselves, to break gender roles for men and women alike. This needs to be taken more seriously and needs to be redefined into a possible fourth wave of feminism to take up this issue of providing basic human rights and needs to half of the world’s population.


[1]   Fairbank, John King (1986). The Great Chinese Revolution, 1800 – 1985. New York: Harper & Row. p. 70.

[2] Kazemi, Farhad (2000). “Gender, Islam, and Politics”.Social Research 67 (2): 453–474.

[3] Rowe-Finkbeiner, Kristin (2004). The F-Word

[4] “homepage” SlutWalk Toronto

[5] Nambissan, Anjali. (July 16, 2011). “Besharmi Morcha hits Bhopal streets today”. Hindustan Times.

[6] Anthea Butler (July28,2013). “Women of Color and Feminism: A History Lesson and Way Forward”.  RH Reality Check- Reproductive and Sexual Health and Justice.

Shreya is a graduate in B.A. Economic Honors from Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University. She is an avid debater and a passionate reader. She proclaims to be completely tune deaf, while being a jazz, blues and alternative music fan with equal conviction. She hopes to study Economics further and is particularly interested in Behavioral Economics, Micro Economics and International Economics. She plans to take a year off just to travel, hopefully without being constantly motion sick.

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