India’s Women: Problems, Prospects, and Progress

Tinaz Pavri. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


This essay examines India’s women and their political participation and representation in politics, economics, and society in the post-independence era. It also examines the limits to their participation in the form of historical and traditional hurdles in different aspects of their lives. In particular, it scrutinizes political involvement by women at the national political level—that is, in the national parliament, particularly the lower house (Lok Sabha, or the House of the People) and in the major national political parties—with a particular focus on the 2004 election, the most recent national election, the next one being slated for 2009. Women’s roles in the economy and society and the growth of women’s organizations and representation of women in civil society over time are also discussed. The essay concludes with some trends that are important for the future of women in India.

Historical Context

India gained independence from the British in 1947, after a formal colonial rule that lasted about a century and a colonial administrative and trade presence that preceded that rule by an additional two and a half centuries (the East India Company established a trade presence in India in 1599 and formal British rule over India commenced in 1858). When the British left, India was left an overwhelmingly poor and rural country: most of its people were illiterate and many were unskilled. Successive governments of independent India faced the challenges of strengthening the industrial base of the country, tackling widespread poverty and illiteracy, and improving the status of women. One positive remnant of British rule was a thriving political party system, where Indians, albeit elite and educated Indians, including Indian women, had been integrated into the political process and the extant political parties beginning in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since that time, India has been able to maintain a lively parliamentary democracy. (One exception to democratic rule occurred from 1975 to 1977, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and suspended basic constitutional rights and guarantees.) Independent India also expanded on the limited industrial base left after British rule and used to maximum benefit the network of railways and roadways created during British rule. Immediately after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, adopted a system of five-year plans for India’s economy, featuring a large public-sector role in key industries and protection from foreign markets through a market-socialist approach. This model was only finally abandoned in the early 1990s, when the government of the Congress (I) Party, which was in power at that time, undertook a revolutionary restructuring of India’s economy with market reforms and privatization.

The famed Indus Valley civilization flourished in northern India between 4000 and 2500 BCE. A succession of Indo-Aryans from the Caucasus region settled in the northern and central parts of India, pushing the Dravidians, the original inhabitants, to the southern regions (McCormick 2001). The Vedas, ancient texts dating from around 1500 BCE, laid the foundation for the creation of Hinduism, India’s majority religion today. In about 1000 BCE, Muslim invaders from the north occupied many areas, establishing the Mughal dynasty by the 16th century and laying the foundation for what is today India’s largest minority (McCormick 2001). Through the centuries, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Jews, Parsis, and other religions have coexisted, sometimes peacefully and sometimes in conflict. Today, about 80 percent of the population is Hindu, 12 percent is Muslim, and adherents of other faiths make up the rest. Certainly the greatest tensions, both historically and in recent times, have been between the Hindu and Muslim communities, where old grievances often form a flashpoint for violent outbursts and riots in which many lives have been lost. In 1947, when British India became independent, two separate countries came into being: India, with a majority Hindu population and a constitution that emphasizes secularism; and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority and a theocratic government. The partition into two countries resulted in a legacy of conflict and bitterness between the two communities; millions of Hindus made their way across the border from Pakistan into India, and conversely, millions of Muslims left India to settle in Pakistan. Refugees in both directions brought in their wake stories of untold horror of massacres, purges, and the rape of women, which occurred in trains and buses that crossed the borders.

Within months of independence on August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan were at war with each other over the status of Kashmir, a state that shared borders with both India and Pakistan. Kashmir had been ruled by a Hindu king, or rajah, but had a Muslim-majority population and was claimed by both countries as their own. A cease-fire was declared in December 1947 with the assistance of the United Nations, and the state was divided into an Indian-controlled part and a Pakistan-controlled part, but the issue remains unresolved to this day. For the past 15 years, groups claiming allegiance to Pakistan and seeking Kashmir’s integration into Pakistan or independence from both countries have engaged in acts of terrorism in Kashmir and India. As a result, relations between Muslims and Hindus in India have been rocky.

Other fault lines in India’s diverse society today are divisions in the areas of caste, the continued adherence to ancient societal positions on the social/employment ladder, which leads to the mistreatment of lower-caste Hindus by upper-caste Hindus; class, with great gaps between the masses of the poor, the rapidly increasing middle class, and the miniscule upper class; region and language divisions, which ensure that there is great cultural diversity from one geographic region in India to the next; and, of course gender, where females often bear the brunt of divisions in all of these areas. All of these issues continue to pose challenges to modern India’s progress and are certainly reflected in the evolution of women’s positions and rights in the country over centuries and decades.

Values and Women’s Place in Society

Indian society has exhibited a paradox with regard to the ways women are viewed. On the one hand, women are revered as goddesses in India’s predominantly Hindu culture, where goddesses such as Parvati, a benevolent goddess, Laxmi, goddess of wealth, and others are almost universally adored. In the Mahabharata, the famous epic Indian poem, parts of which date back to 500 BCE, and which describes a historic battle for the rule of the country, one of the central characters is a woman, the mother Kunti. Kunti’s sons, the five great Pandavas, are devoted to her and seek to fulfill her every wish. In addition, India’s longest-serving prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was a woman, and women have been successful and prominent at all levels of society. Women freedom fighters, such as Sarojini Naidu, were at the forefront of the independence struggle against the British. Women have actively participated in the voting process since independence, and all the major parties acknowledge the importance of gaining women’s votes (Devraj 1998).

On the other hand, another reality for India’s women has also persisted since ancient times. Manu, an Indian sage, wrote in about 200 CE that “by a young girl, by a young woman or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.” The laws of Manu contain many strictures for women, such as the following: “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent” (Buhler 1969). Women have had to battle discrimination and oppression at many levels. The ancient Hindu practice of sati, for instance, which called for a widow to be burned on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, although illegal and not widespread, today is still sometimes practiced in the villages of India. “Dowry deaths,” which are suspicious deaths of brides who failed to bring an “acceptable” dowry to the marriage, have lessened but have not ceased, and occur across all social classes. Although the legal age of marriage is 18, younger girls continue to be married off by their parents and are often exploited by their in-laws. Class and caste factors impinge most strongly on women, making the lives of lower-class and lower-caste women particularly hard because of the triple intersecting barriers to be crossed—gender, class, and caste. There are numerous instances of lower-caste women in remote villages who have been raped by the upper-caste men who rule the village government.

Not surprisingly, the marginalization of women has also had an effect on the political arena. Women’s achievements in national elections since independence have been quite dismal. In 1952, in the first elections after independence, women represented about 4.4 percent of the elected members of Parliament in the lower house. In the third elections in 1962, they represented around 7 percent of the lower house. In the sixth elections in 1977, the number dropped to around 3.4 percent. In more recent elections, representation has remained steady at around 8 percent. For instance, in the tenth elections of 1991, the number of women in the lower house reached around 7 percent, and in the election of 2004, the figure was 8.3 percent (Hindustan Times 2004).

Participation in Parliamentary Politics in India: An Overview

After independence, India retained the British parliamentary structure: a two-house legislature (the Lok Sabha is the lower house and the Rajya Sabha is the upper house), a prime minister and cabinet that were collectively responsible to parliament and could be removed from office through a vote of no-confidence by the parliament, and a president who served as the executive but had fewer actual powers than the prime minister, except in situations of constitutional emergency. As in most parliamentary systems, the lower house is the legislative body with the real power; members are directly elected by the people from single-member districts (constituencies) for five-year terms.

India uses the first-past-the-post system, which means any candidate winning a plurality in the constituency is declared the winner (McCormick 2001). Some women scholars and activists have lamented that this kind of system raises barriers against women standing for election in greater numbers in the Lok Sabha. Competition is fierce and the party’s support often goes to established, traditional candidates with long histories in the party or other kinds of visibility (the “winnability factor”), and such candidates are often men.

In the post-independence era, the Congress Party of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, dominated the political scene, winning national elections from 1947 to 1977. The Congress Party, which changed over time into the Congress (I) Party after it was split by Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, remained a powerful force for secularism and minority rights in the country. Today it offers a balance to the growing clout of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the past 15 years. Since the 1990s, coalition governments have been the norm in India, and the government currently in power is a coalition government led by the Congress (I) Party along with a host of regional (but with national presence) and left-leaning parties; the BJP sits in opposition. The rise of the BJP has also exacerbated Hindu-Muslim relations in the country and India’s worst communal (religious) riots since independence have occurred since the party’s ascendance to power.

Political Participation and Representation

It is a depressing fact that women in the Lok Sabha have never exceeded 9-10 percent of the body at any time since independence, and this is true of all states and political parties. In fact, states that are considered relatively urban, progressive, and developed, such as Maharashtra (in which the city of Mumbai is located), Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, have done slightly worse in terms of nominating and electing women candidates in the last four elections than have states that are considered underdeveloped and traditional, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh (Hindustan Times 2004). Further, large national parties such as the Congress (I) Party and the BJP do not appear in general to have done much better in terms of fielding women candidates than have smaller or regional parties. Even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has not fielded significantly more women candidates (Ghosh 1999). Table 1 offers a snapshot of women in the lower house of parliament since the early post-independence era (Shah and Gandhi 1997).

However, a sea of change has occurred at the local levels of government. In 1993, Parliament passed two constitutional amendments (the 73rd and 74th) that called for the creation of a three-tiered system of government (federal, state, and local) and for no less than one-third of all seats on the panchayats and municipalities (local self-government bodies) to be held by women. Hence today, more than 1 million of the more than 3 million members elected to these bodies all over the country are women (Mathew 2004 ). Chhibber (2002) is less sanguine about the effects of the 73rd Amendment on women’s political lives. He argues that even after its adoption, women still participate less than men at the local and panchayat levels: more women than men state that they have never participated in a panchayat meeting and many women are not even aware of the amendment and its significance on their lives.

Table 1. Women Elected to the Lower House of Parliament in India in the Post-independence Era
Year Total Seats Contested by Women Won by Women
Source: Shah and Gandhi (1997) .
1952 489 51 23
1957 494 70 27
1962 494 65 33
1967 520 66 28
1971 518 86 21
1977 542 70 19
1980 542 173 43
1989 543 189 28

A similar constitutional amendment reserving one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha for women was introduced in 1996 by the I. K. Gujral government and in 1997 by A. B. Vajpayee’s BJP-led coalition government. Despite repeated efforts, the amendment has failed to muster the necessary votes. This is despite assurances of support for the amendment by all major national parties, including the Congress (I) Party and BJP. Many reasons have been given for the amendment’s failure to pass, including the patriarchal hold over national party organizations. Opposition has also come from surprising quarters, including minorities and lower-caste political parties such as the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal Party, and organizations that fear such a reservation would result in the election of primarily upper-class, upper-caste women, further marginalizing the lower-caste constituency at the national level (Pavri 2002). Nevertheless, the passage of this amendment remains a possibility in the future, as every government in power since it was introduced has pledged to support it.

It becomes doubly important, then, to gain an understanding of the women who have broken through the existing barriers to be elected to the Lok Sabha over the years. One of the arguments given by those opposed to the seat reservation amendment at the national level is that women lack the “winnability” factor—that is, they are not likely to be competitive when running against male opponents and would therefore hurt the party’s chances of winning elections. However, results from past elections have proved that when they do run, women are elected at comparable and better rates than their male counterparts (Pavri 2002). Hence, when given the chance, women have proved “winnable”; whether they win because of what they are able to offer to the electorate or some other reason becomes a question for study. Consider the results from the 1996 election where 3.7 percent of the male candidates were elected (504 of 13,353) versus 6.5 percent of the female candidates (39 of 599), and 91.0 percent of the male candidates’ deposits (token amounts of money that candidates must put forward as a sign of the seriousness of their commitment) were forfeited versus 86.4 percent of the female candidates’ deposits (The Pioneer 1998).

Another study by the New Delhi-based Centre for Scientific Research found that state polls in Delhi in 1998 showed 8 percent of male candidates from all parties won their seats, whereas 16 percent of all women won their seats (Taipei Times 2003). In a similar vein, a study by Clots-Figueras (2005) found that women candidates in India have been elected in similar constituencies and under the same kinds of conditions as men, particularly in constituencies where the election is close.

Who Are They?

To gain a better understanding of and create a profile of women politicians in the Lok Sabha, a study was conducted of 23 women running in the 2004 election (Pavri 2005 ) to see if there were trends in their socialization, education, family background, and area of expertise. The 23 women crossed the spectrum of political parties and states; some went on to win their seats and others lost their seats. The focus was on women who overcame hurdles to run for office rather than solely on those who actually won their seats. In light of the hurdles political parties have traditionally placed in front of women’s access to party tickets, being offered a place on a ticket was considered evidence of a certain level of success on the part of these women. Issues of the Hindustan Times, a leading Indian national newspaper, were perused for each day of the three months leading up to the 2004 election for information to create profiles of the women candidates.

Participation: Common Threads and Trends

Overall, the women candidates were younger than their male counterparts and more highly educated; a majority had a bachelor’s degree and 37.8 percent had a graduate degree (Paul and Vivekananda 2004). The study found that the women candidates had five common points of entry to political power. The first is dynastic. This subset of women came from political families whose histories were and are intertwined with the history of independent India. Under this category, for instance, would fall Sonia Gandhi, who entered politics after the death of her spouse Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the former prime minister and member of the preeminent political dynasty in India, the venerable Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Mehbooba Mufti, leader of Jammu and Kashmir’s People’s Democratic Party, is the daughter of a prominent Kashmiri family. Her father was embroiled in Kashmiri politics for much of the post-independence era. Vasundhara Raje Scindia, daughter of the royal Gwalior family, defended her Rajasthan seat for the fifth time in 1999, standing for election under a BJP ticket and winning a seat in the 13th session of the Lok Sabha. Her family’s history is certainly a part of the history of Rajasthan.

The second point of entry could be termed spousal. This path is related to the dynastic point of entry, but distinct from it because in these cases there is no apparent historical family involvement in politics. Instead, the woman gains entry into the political system through her marriage to a politician who either loses his seat through scandal or some other loss or who makes room for her at the top. Under this category must be included women such as Hema Gamang, who was elected from an Orissa constituency in 1999, the same year that her husband became chief minister of the state. Maneka Gandhi also discovered a taste for politics through her now-deceased spouse Sanjay Gandhi and the formidable Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. However, she has rejected the Gandhi mantle in a series of high-profile disagreements with the family, preferring only to keep her link to her husband alive. Since she has made explicit and public her problems with the Gandhi family and prefers only her connection to her late husband, she is categorized under the “spousal” label. Finally, Rabri Devi was installed as chief minister of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, after her husband, Laloo Prasad Yadav, the former chief minister, took a political beating. This is a trend seen in previous elections, where women like Abha Mahto and Rupi Soren, whose husbands both faced political scandal, chose to run for election themselves, and others, such as Champa Verma, who ran upon the death of their husbands, all with varying outcomes (Hindustan Times 2004).

Another point of entry appears to be that of higher education. A coterie of women with no historical or familial ties to Indian politics have made their way into politics through a combination of qualification and interest. They are primarily daughters of middle class, upper-middle class, and wealthy families. Each of these women is highly educated, holding master’s and law degrees in a country where a majority of the women are illiterate. Sushma Swaraj has ascended from state-level politics in Haryana to the highest rungs of the BJP. Bijoya Chakravarty has similarly risen in the ranks of Assamese politics to hold cabinet positions in successive BJP governments. She has a master’s degree in English and is an author and former journalist. Jaskaur Meena is an agrarian economist who was first elected on a BJP ticket from a Rajasthan constituency in 1999.

A degree of celebrity is yet another entry point for women politicians. Well-known actresses such as Jayaprada and Hema Malini have sought and won elections, the former on a Samajwadi Party ticket and the latter as a BJP candidate. Nafisa Ali, a former model and socialite, stood for election under a Congress (I) Party banner from South Kolkotta in West Bengal, but lost. Apart from their celebrity status, these women did not appear to have many other skills to offer. However, in a country where Bollywood is a formidable industry and films an important part of the average Indian’s life, an association to the industry is sometimes enough to propel a candidate forward.

Finally, a last entry point must be recognized for activists, women who may not be formally educated (or are less well-educated) or connected, but who parlay their passion and charisma into political success. Mamata Bannerji, the Trinamool Congress leader from West Bengal, falls under this category. Mayawati has been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and has gained popularity through her willingness to embrace Dalit causes (Dalits are a lower-caste segment of the population) through her Bahujan Samaj Party. Uma Bharati, the BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, comes from an impoverished rural background and falls under this category (Devraj 2003).

Conway et al. (2005) discuss three categories of women in politics that were originally identified by Rita Mae Kelly and Mary Boutilier in their seminal work, The Making of Political Women: A Study (1978): private women, who tend to be more traditional and passive; public women, who are more willing to strike out on their own and more activist; and achieving women, for whom politics is integral to their life. Most of the women profiled in this chapter would be categorized as “activist” or “achieving,” as they had already taken those first decisive steps out of the private realm before landing in the world of politics. Only those catapulted into the political realm through their spouses might have, at one time, been private women, but their exposure to politics through their spouses would have ensured that by the time they stood for office and were elected, they were already well out of that category.

An Analysis of the Matrix: Some Preliminary Trends

Of the 23 women profiled, those with a wealth of higher education seem to be represented in the two main national parties, the Congress and the BJP, while other, smaller parties may have been hospitable to grassroots activists. Because seats for women at the national level are so competitive, the major parties have appeared to play safe, as it were, by offering tickets to women with lineage or higher education, traits that are often overlapping; or perhaps, being the largest national parties, they could afford to pick candidates that were among “the best and brightest” in terms of prospects and qualifications. For smaller, regional, or caste-based parties, other factors appear to have been of greatest import—the passion and activism represented by the women candidates, for instance. Celebrity candidates are featured in both the prominent national parties as well as other parties, perhaps because they provide media attention. In contrast, data suggest that women entering elected office at the local, panchayat levels represent a much wider range, including poor, minority, and largely uneducated women who have had no previous links with political life (Mathew 2004).

Of the 23 women profiled for the study, most have at one time or another held a high political office such as chief minister (Rabri Devi), cabinet minister (Renuka Choudhary in a Congress government) or party leader (Sonia Gandhi for Congress; Mehbooba Mufti for the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party). Hence it appears that once women gain a foothold within the party, are allocated party tickets, and win for the party, they are also selected (or their selection is facilitated) in high percentages to high-profile positions within government, serving as the party’s “female face” in government. In fact, both the Congress (I) Party and the BJP have stated publicly that their nomination of women for top positions, such as chief minister, is an indication of their commitment to giving women a higher profile in politics and a higher consideration for women’s issues (Taipei Times 2003). This is consistent with leadership trends for women elected officials in such countries as the United States, where the overall percentages of elected women in Congress are low but many women have a prominent profile within the party (Conway et al. 2005).

There is a significant contrast presented by this profile in comparison with women candidates at the local, panchayat levels in India, who are being elected to office in robust numbers and from all walks of life, thanks to constitutional amendments that dictate that one-third of all seats at these local levels must be reserved for women.

Economic Participation

Before independence, India’s traditional and paternalistic economic structure, reinforced by colonialism, meant women’s participation in the economy was mostly limited to the informal (e.g., jobs such as domestic servant, small trader) or nonpaying economic sectors and to labor within the household. Economic participation was further complicated by religion and caste; some Muslim women, for instance, followed the tradition of veiling or purdah, which meant their lives were led in relative seclusion and well outside the mainstream of economic and political life. Brahmanic and Sanskrit values also put great store by Indian women first fulfilling their duty as housewives and putting household above all else (Olsen and Mehta 2006). In addition, women’s literacy and education rates trailed men’s, thereby further limiting their participation in areas of employment that required a formal education. This was a natural consequence of families’ reluctance to educate girls because they believed them destined for marriage and not to be productive members of the economy. Even so, there are stories of remarkable women who achieved visibility and attention in the man’s world that was colonial India, including Anandibai Joshi and Sarla Devi, who participated in the independence movement (Sen 2000), and Madame Bhikaji Cama, who spoke out on India’s freedom at venues around the world. Predictably, many of these women tended to be from exceptional, upper-class, educated families where women’s participation in all facets of the economy was encouraged. Of course in rural India, women were the mainstay of agricultural families, often working in the fields and the home.

In the post-independence period, the prospects for women in the economy have progressively brightened, yet women’s economic value continues to be underestimated. Women are represented in all sectors of the economy, although they tend to be overrepresented in traditional employment that has tended to be regarded as “female,” such as secretarial work and teaching. In rural areas, the agricultural sector is responsible for almost 90 percent of female labor. In general, the labor force participation rate for women at 23 percent is less than half that of men. Certainly, women’s illiteracy rate of 62 percent, almost double that for men at 34 percent, further complicates the employment situation. The illiteracy overall rate is substantially higher in rural rather than urban areas (Sustainable Development Department [SD], Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, n.d.).

Further, as in the West, women in India tend to face wage discrimination, earning about 80 percent of what their male counterparts do even when they hold equal qualifications; female agricultural workers earn only 40-60 percent of their male counterparts (Dunlop and Velkoff 1999). Research also suggests that women do not control the money they earn, handing it over to the family at higher rates than men (Dunlop and Velkoff 1999 ). Interestingly, Chhibber (2002) makes the argument that woman’s economic relegation to the household and her position of subservience, even within the household structure, has a direct effect on her level of political participation. If a woman is able to hold her own within her household and is able to carve out a position of significance for herself (what Chhibber refers to as “negotiating space”), then she is more likely to also be a more active participant in politics.

Women’s Mobilization and Civil Society

Civil society can be defined as encompassing numerous voluntary associations that lie between the boundaries of the family and that of the state. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), grassroots organizations, voluntary organizations, and advocacy organizations would all fall under the rubric of civil society. As such, women’s NGOs and organizations are an integral and critical component of India’s civil society, and civil society in general has a long and flourishing tradition in India with a rich diversity of groups represented in such areas as the arts, culture, politics, economics, and special interests.

Women’s rights were on the agenda in India as early as the 17th century. Colonial India passed two important pieces of pro-woman legislation as early as 1829 (abolition of sati) and 1856 (allowing widows to remarry), even though cases of sati still occur in rural India and the plight of widows continues to be bleak in many parts of the country. During this time, organizations that championed women’s rights and challenged prevailing customs that restricted women’s roles such as the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, and the Theosophical Society were set up (Sen 2000).

In the early 20th century, the causes of nationalism and women’s rights appeared to grow together. Specific women’s organizations were formed, such as the Arya Mahila Samaj (Arya Women’s Association) and the Bharat Mahila Parishad (Indian Women’s Association). The All-India Women’s Conference was held in 1927. All of these organizations were headed by men and women from prominent and upper-class families, even though they claimed to exist for all women (Forbes 1996). Muslim women also participated in the preindependence freedom movement and growth of women’s organizations (Bhatty 2003). As Mahatma Gandhi’s movement for independence from the British gained ground, Gandhi specifically created places for women at the helm of the movement. In post-independence India, Indira Gandhi, India’s longest-serving prime minister, became one of the beneficiaries of India’s long experience with promoting women’s rights, and women quickly became visible and established actors in all walks of life. But much of this success remains limited to upper-caste and upper-class women.

In fact, religion, caste, and class remain fault lines around which the organization of women falters even today. As noted earlier, when the Indian legislature was debating whether to amend the constitution to reserve one-third of the total seats in the lower house of the national parliament for women, opposition came not just from patriarchal interests but also from lower-caste and minority women’s groups who feared domination by upper-caste and upper-class women if the seat reservation amendment passed. Further, family law or “personal law” in India continues to be based on four separate religious traditions—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Parsi. As such, laws governing marriage, inheritance, and family differ depending on which religion one is a part of; thus, women are denied uniform treatment in such matters. Attempts to create a uniform civil code that would address personal law matters regardless of religious tradition have now become enmeshed in issues of religious freedom and rights and will be very difficult to successfully accomplish. Some women’s groups have advocated a focus on women’s rights rather than religious tradition, but this is a difficult argument to make, given the charged atmosphere of religious coexistence in India. Other women’s groups have simply decided to support the status quo by supporting the existing personal law tradition rather than risk what some see as the co-opting of personal law by Hindu fundamentalists to mirror Hindu law (Sen 2000). The rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP in the late 1980s fueled this concern on the part of India’s minorities. It has been argued that many Muslim women’s organizations, in forming around religious lines and working within the parameters of Islam, have unintentionally lost the interest and support of non-Muslim feminists, support that would have bolstered their causes over the years (Bhatty 2003).

Health Policy and Women

Until the 1990s, the life expectancy for women in India was less than that for men. Since the 1990s, and perhaps mirroring a global trend, women now live slightly longer than men. However, particular health issues are more relevant for Indian women. In the reproductive arena, since independence the government has engaged in campaigns urging people to limit the growth of the population by limiting family size. In the 1970s and 1980s, a government-sponsored campaign urged families to follow the maxim hum do hamara do meaning, “we are two, we have two,” thereby attempting to limit the size of the family to four members. The government has also made abortions legal and freely available over the years through government-funded and private clinics. Signs advertising abortion are common on trains, buses, and billboards in big cities. This government campaign has been somewhat successful in limiting birthrates; birthrates for India have steadily fallen in the last few decades. However, a by-product of this concerted campaign has been that as ultrasound technology has become widely accessible, allowing parents to discover the sex of the fetus, many Indian families who traditionally value a boy child over a girl have chosen to abort female fetuses in alarming numbers. In fact, the female to male sex ratio fell from 972 per 1,000 males in 1901 to 927 in 1991 (National Commission on Population Report 2000). This practice became such a problem that the government passed a law in 1994 that made it illegal for doctors to reveal the sex of the fetus to parents (Baldauf 2006). However, back-alley clinics that perform ultrasounds for this purpose continue to do so in large numbers.

Another growing crisis in India is the steady rise in the number of HIV-positive persons. Currently, India ranks second in the world in the total number of HIV cases, and many experts fear that number will explode in the near future. Many women have borne the brunt of this crisis: female sex workers have been infected in great numbers and many women who have traditionally allowed men to make decisions regarding birth control risk being infected by male partners (by the HIV virus and other sexually transmitted diseases) who refuse to allow the use of protective condoms.

time, the issues championed by the transnational feminist movement—women’s health and human, political, sexual, and economic rights in the context of a globalizing capitalist world system that is believed to place undue burdens on women—have found their way into the agendas of some women’s groups in India. Examples include the movement to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS within the female population in India, particularly female sex workers who only a few years ago would have been hard-pressed to have any champions. Some women’s groups in India recognize the particular burdens globalization places on women. One issue that has gained recent visibility is that of the growth of call centers that have outsourced American consumer relations to India. There has been some discussion about how these call centers for Western multinational companies are compromising traditional Indian values and practices, demanding for instance, American accents by Indians answering calls at the centers. Because many women work in these call centers, the issue of the dislocations to the indigenous culture has been touched on by transnational feminism.

On the whole, however, women’s organizations in India tend to prioritize issues that are central to women’s lives in the Indian context—sati, child marriage, widows’ rights, reproductive rights, small business concerns—rather than those that make their starting point elsewhere. Indeed, some feminists of Indian descent have explicitly rejected the utility of the transnational feminist model for Indian women, claiming that although transnational feminists seek to include women and women’s issues from all parts of the world, the movement still remains Western-centric and thus has limited relevance in the South Asian context and the lives of Indian women (Kunjakkan 2002).


Despite the many hurdles India’s women have had to face, from ancient times until the current day, they have come into their own in the 21st century. Although women still face very real roadblocks at every point—from familial oppression to lower levels of education and literacy, sexual harassment, economic inequality, and political marginalization—the future of India’s women is optimistic. Their strength as a voting bloc is real and growing. They are active participants in the civic life of the country and are vocal and visible in so many arenas of society. Every job in the country has representation by women, and women are present in every walk of life. Women are obtaining graduate and professional degrees in increasing numbers, and many are earning on a par with their male counterparts.

In their march forward, it is important to remember that the women of India are assisted by the strength of existing laws that since independence have upheld equal rights in all aspects of civil law if not personal (religiously proscribed) law. Even in the personal law arena, the debate is ongoing for equal treatment of women. The challenge remains in making the intent of these laws a greater reality for women.

In this millennium, the women of India will continue the fight for their rights and will continue to make great strides. Many obstacles remain, and regional, class, caste, and religious differences will continue to be fault lines around which women’s progress may falter. However, this is not a country that is going backward, but rather forward in terms of women’s future.