Misogynist India: what the ancient forts in Rajasthan tell us about the status of women in Indian society

History has been cruel to women everywhere. I write about India because I know it better than other countries, and because the legacy of cruelty continues here until today, more so than in many countries.

Fort 1: Amer Fort

On our first day in Jaipur, we went to the stunning huge Amer fort (pronounced Amber by western tourists). Amer fort has a 12 km wall surrounding it and encasing the old Amer city. There are watch-posts along the wall where guards stood in olden times. It was built by Raja Man Singh I in 1592. For those of us who watch Bollywood movies, this might mean something to you if I say Raja Man Singh I is Princess Jodhaa’s dad.

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Watch tower on the 12km wall around Amer city

 

And by the way, the Bollywood epic Jodhaa-Akhbar romanticizes things extremely and actually glosses over very important facts:

  • Jodhaa was Akbhar’s third wife. He also had many concubines and was a total womanizer like most Indian Kings. The movie makes out like they’re both falling in love for the very first time.
  • Jodhaa was converted to Islam before marrying Akhbar. Her muslim name was Marium. The movie incorrectly makes out that Akbhar accepts her as a hindu bride. Though we have to credit the Mughals for being a bit more accepting of other religions as they created another religion called ‘Din-e-ilahi’ which allows its members to be basically hindus or muslims and marry.

I found all this out from our cheerful Kazakh-descendant driver from elefamily.

In a previous post, I called Jodhpur the city designed around caste. I call Amer fort the fort designed around oppression of women. Though that’s probably not how the architects thought of it, constrained by the cultural views of their time and unable to hold a mirror to themselves and take a deep first-principles-based look at their thinking.

The fort has four main quarters: Diwan-e-Aam or the “Hall of Public Audience”, the Diwan-e-Khas or the “Hall of Private Audience”, the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace) or Jai Mandir, and the Sukh Niwas which is a courtyard designed to be cool even against the hot Rajasthani summers. The beauty of the fort is undeniable. The cruelty to a modern feminist shocking.

Women had their own quarters where they lived. There were 12 wives and many other concubines. They could only go in women-only areas so that they never came into contact with any men other than their shared husband. Wonderful.

They never ventured outside the palace. Their only contact with the outside world was through female servants. Female servants would carry merchandise into the female quarters and here women would look at clothes, art, jewellery, furniture and decide what to purchase. They each had their own ‘apartment’ in the palace, which they tried to decorate in the most elaborate ways possible, vying for the attentions of the King – “Please do come visit, I love you so much I’ve had your face embroidered in this hanging carpet and I worship it every day”.

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Under this parapet, women servants would bring merchandise for the queens to inspect
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Blushing, our guide was like ‘And this is the hot-tub in which the King and other royal men sat with their concubines’

Twelve “Queens” competing desperately for the attentions of one King who rarely visited and also had multiple concubines. Pains me to see how these women were forced to be pathetic. Poorly educated, unable to rise up to their oppressors, unable to even realise they were being oppressed…and worst of all, contributing to the oppression of each successive generation of women. Women oppress women in India, sometimes more than men do. Look at cases of dowry deaths: in the majority of cases, mother-in-laws burn daughter-in-laws for dowry money.

Another symbol of patheticism was a wheelchair for women. Women wore heavy dresses and jewellery and would sit on the wheel chair and be wheeled from one place to another by eunuchs. It’s funny how different mindsets can be. Some women would have thought of this as a luxury. To me, it’s sickening to be so heavily laden with jewels and cloths that you cannot move independently and have to be wheeled around.

They watched any event, any ceremony through blinds on the top floors of the palace. They could see out but no one could see them. The poor women were better off in some ways, they were out in the open at least, only their faces veiled with scarves.

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Imagine looking through this your whole life

Fort 2: Jaisalmer fort

‘Sati’ is the ancient Indian practice of forcing widows to jump into the fire that their husbands are being cremated in. This is now ILLEGAL, and the last recorded case happened in 1987 in Rajasthan (way too recently for my liking). The ‘logic’ is that women are property of their husbands and their life revolves around their husbands. Once their husbands are gone, there is no point in their life and they better go with him.

In Jaisalmer and in Mehrangarh fort, we saw the handprints of the women who’d been forced into the fire.

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Sati handprints

Fort 3: Mehrangarh fort

On the entrance of Mehrangarh fort is a painting that tells it all. It shows a wedding happening, with the members of the man’s family on one side and the woman’s family on another side. The woman’s family have their hands folded and are hunched over in humility. The painting is too faded and fine to make this out via a photo, but you get my point.

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And these are three forts I’ve featured in this article. The others were similar, designed to keep women away from the outside world and from advancement.

Faces unseen, voices unheard and worst of all, their own minds undeveloped. These are the ancestors of modern Indian women. The women who we must NOT be like.

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5 thoughts on “Misogynist India: what the ancient forts in Rajasthan tell us about the status of women in Indian society”

  1. One thing that i have noticed in your blog and so many others such as these where people who do NOT really live in India but travel there and form opinions: tone of sweeping generalization (see the title).
    India is too complicated to generalize based on one trip/several to one part. Its a nation where everything co-exits. While i do not dispute your observations in this one instance, let me bring some balance to this blog by sharing something that i have grown up with

    Yatra Naryastu Pujyante Ramante Tatra Devata ।
    Yatraitaastu Na Pujyante Sarvaastatrafalaah Kriyaah ।।

    Meaning: “Where Women Are Honored , Divinity Blossoms There; And Where They Are Dishonored , All Action Remains Unfruitful.”
    Source: Manusmriti, around 5th Century BC

    To illustrate what i mean by everything co-exists, Manusmriti also says some horrible things about women that i completely disagree. But India encourages us to reason with our intellect and pick the good and discard the bad. One of the key takeaways of reading the BhagvadGita where Lord Krishna tells Arjuna NOT to accept everything blindly that Krishna is saying BUT reason it out and only accept it if it makes sense to him.

    I heard the above quote from my parents when i was a child. The way i had internalized its essence: Do NOT ever hurt the feelings of women whoever it may be (mother, sister, wife or friend). Because their grief is not good for entire humanity.

    As an Indian man in his 20s that moved to Cambridge to study and currently working in London, it would be quite misleading if i started a blog and attributed my observations of a weekend in Soho to that of whole England or even the West.

    Happy blogging!

  2. I wish this was a sweeping generalisation, but it is closer to a sweeping truth, if you are referring to the title ‘Misogynist India’.

    It’s a bad country for women today. The statistics speak for themselves. One metric is rape: “According to 2012, a total of 1,01,041 rape cases were reported of which only 3,563 resulted in the accused getting convicted, 11,446 cases were withdrawn and these are only 10% of total rape cases as the rest go unreported” (Source: Satyamev Jayate). MOST women in India have been sexually harassed in some way – be it assault to ‘milder’ ‘eve-teasing’. I can search the stat to back this up but any girl who has been to or lived in India for any significant time without being guarded can cite you a bunch of incidents, I’m 100% confident of that. I’ve been eve-teased a bunch of times myself on various trips to India – followed by a gang of boys in a shopping mall when my cousins and I had to run away, cat-called at a water theme park. So most guys in India do not seem to have that mentality of “Where Women Are Honored , Divinity Blossoms There; And Where They Are Dishonored , All Action Remains Unfruitful.” I would never get on a public bus in India by myself. I would in London all the time, and you can generalise that to all of India and all of England pretty accurately (agree nothing is 100%).

    Now, not all Indians are misogynists – absolutely I don’t believe that! There are many people who believe and fight for women’s rights, men and women. Just one example is the man who is in a committed relationship with an acid attack victim. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-25773382) But if I were to describe the prevailing set-up towards women, the IMPLEMENTATION of the laws and justice system, I would say it is misogynistic. And historically has been – sati, shaving the heads of widows, widows wearing white for the rest of their lives, women not being able to go anywhere by themselves. I bet there are a ton more texts with nice things written, but show me some actual implementation.

  3. We see a lot of manifestations of double standards in today’s “modern” society as well, you’ll see it in wedding traditions and customs, in the different treatment given by parents to their sons and daughters in terms of support for education, flexibility to make decisions for themselves etc. I did an “Unconsciousness bias” workshop at my company recently, and all of us participants noticed how we, despite all being well educated and progressive-minded, have these biases. I was sadly surprised to know that at a subconscious level even I associate certain stereotypes with women, not to mention that often women hold themselves back because of stereotypes.

  4. Well written!

    One thing I will mention in reference to a number of these blogs is that you write about the past in the eyes of the present. The past is the past for a reason – it created many great things, but it is NOT as evolved as the current day. So why dwell on how bad things were when we are lucky to live in the time we do? A present lens on the past is detrimental to seeing anything positive, or taking pride in the accomplishments of our ancestors. There are obviously things that people try to forget, but it’s better just to move on and look forward, taking our mistakes from the past and turning them into building blocks and life-lessons.

    And it can’t be done overnight. The state of women today is the result of generations of fighting and major setbacks along the way. Men, especially stupid men, hate the idea of surrendering power, as much as women would if they were in power for 5000 years. It’ll come, things will change – just give it a few more decades. Things have come so far, and if history was to look forward at us, they’d be shocked, possibly appalled, but in all likelihood impressed.

  5. Brilliant job done, so important to keep on raising awareness about current issues and situation in society. The last recorded case of Sati is shockingly recent. It is heart breaking to know the stats around sexual assaults. Some brave women have come forward, we still don’t know so many unrecorded cases. Hardly we hear about punishments being given and implemented. I just hope the mind set of people , both sexes, changes. A woman has to respect other women first. Then only they can command respect from men.
    Keep up the good work.

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