Friday, 4 March 2016

21 February 1880 - 'Hindu Women'

In no part of the world, says Dr Williams Knighton, are nobler specimens of female humanity to be found than in India. The history of the country abounds with instances of the noblest devotion, unswerving fidelity, high principle, and sublime self-renunciation on the part of its women. Nor can anyone have been long resident in India without witnessing such. I have lived in Ceylon, in Bengal and in Oudh, and I have seen something of many districts and provinces lying between these distant regions, and everywhere I have witnessed the noblest instances of devotion and self-denial on the part of the women.

And yet the lot of the Hindu woman is unspeakably sad. She is married at so early an age that choice on her part is impossible. She accepts her destiny. She looks up to her husband as a sort of deity - she has been so taught from her earliest years - and a very debased, earthly, selfish and altogether contemptible sort of deity he too often proves himself to be. But for her there is no hope, however vile and contemptible he may prove. In life and death she is his. And if death takes him and she is left to widowhood, sad indeed is her lot. She may not immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, a stern English Government forbids that, and she is doomed in consequence to gloom and sadness, and if childless to, to one meal a day, one garment, a total deprivation of all ornament, a d all that in her eyes makes life worth living. Her existence is bound up in his, and her affections are called forth powerfully, first for her husband and secondly for her children. And for the childless widow a far more miserable life remains.

The principal duties of the Hindu woman of the middle class at home are grinding the corn with a little hand-mill, similar to that so often referred to in the Bible, washing the floor where they cook and eat, drawing water, scouring the metal vessels, the cooking utensils, the jugs and plates; of course many of the more wealthy are exempt from these duties, but the vast majority perform them. The kitchen must be washed every day; when I say the kitchen, I mean that part of the house in which cooking and eating are carried on, for a large part of the religion of the Hindus consists in cooking and eating in a proper and religious manner. The shadow of a low-caste man falling o food of a high-caste Brahmin, whilst that food is in preparation, will be sufficient to defile it, and the whole will be thrown out in consequence.

The well at which water is drawn is a frequent resort for gossip. It is usually early in the morning and in the afternoon, from four to six, that water is drawn. Friends meet there, and interesting little details of household management and village life are exchanged. Some of the women will carry as many as three water-pots on their heads, one over the other, and sometimes one or two on the head and one under the arm. Women of different castes must not touch each other's vessels. This is a matter of great importance. Deadly feuds may be the result of thoughtless imprudence in this respect. Families of the higher classes who are wealthy often engage men or women of the fisherman's caste to carry water for them. But the young women usually like the duty, if the well be not too distant, and, in towns, the wells are usually in the gardens or yards of their own houses, rendering any journeys to a distance  for the purpose unnecessary.

Few people in the world are more religious than the women of India, but theirs is a zeal for religion without knowledge. They perform their service to the gods and goddesses of their faith unremittingly, particularly to the goddesses, and fail not to bathe in the sacred Ganges, or any other accessible river, on days of festivals, at the changes of the moon, and such like. From this service they expect good in this life rather than happiness in another. They are full of superstitious terrors; in fact they are amongst the most timid and fearful people on the face of the earth. The evils against which they contend by their religious services are their own, or their husband's or their children's illness. Being full of affection and concern for their children, they will go to any inconvenience or expense possible for their welfare. If sickness visits them it is attributed to some angry god or goddess, who must be propitiated by religious offerings, by prayers, by devotion, or human mortification. They will use medicines, but too often, alas! the physicians whom they are able to consult are little able to help them, and not unfrequently but experimentalise in their endeavours to do good. If the sickness be long continued or dangerous, they will promise a young kid as an offering to some goddess in expiation, hoping thereby that the sick loved one may be restored to health. Should the child recover they believe their prayers have been heard, and the vow is performed. Priests often work upon their credulity, and the credulous women will believe any story they may tell them. In this matter they will often act in opposition to their husband's wishes, although in other respects attentive and dutiful.

A Hindu wife never mentions the name of her husband. It would be esteemed an indelicacy or an insult if she were to do so. If he have a son then he is spoken of as that son's father. Gopal's father, the wife will say, ordered it, not my husband ordered it - our man, or some equivalent expression, if he have no sons is the nearest approach to indicating him distinctively. Nor does the husband mention his wife's name - he will call to her O, mother of Gopal, or if there be no child, O housewife, but never by her name.

Although distinctly regarded as an inferior by the husband, with whom she does not even take her meals, always waiting till he has finished, yet the treatment she experiences is not usually bad. There are of course tyrants and cruel husbands in all countries, but so far as my experience went in India, I do not believe that the average treatment of women by their husbands in that country is worse than that in England, rather better I think amongst the lower orders; but in the upper ranks of life the husband has a power and an authority which are quite unknown in Europe, and which of course will often be abused by unfeeling and tyrannical men, particularly amongst the uneducated, and it is unfortunately too often the case that, in remote districts especially, even the wealthy are uneducated. I have heard it remarked that those who have had the advantages of European culture amongst the upper classes make better husbands and better sons than others.

The chief education of a girl in India has for centuries consisted in learning how to dress the dishes most prized, to do rough needlework, to behave seemly in company, and sometimes a little singing and instrumental music. Mental nurture and training is the great want. Reading and writing have been for centuries denied to her, and considered unnecessary. Young men have been laughed at over and over again, both in Calcutta and in the Upper Provinces, for having had the boldness to teach their wives to read and write. And this they have been obliged to do stealthily - not openly in the light of the day, but in a clandestine manner, after dinner at night. Nor is it uncommon still to hear such exclamations as these: "What nonsense! for a woman to read and write! What's the use of it? A foolish proceeding! Something new and mad and senseless!" and such like. But a better day is dawning for women in India.

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