Many people today probably work, have had a decent education, have an equal say in matters of relationships or marriage issues, and have almost full control of their own lives. Yet, just over a hundred years ago things were a lot more different. Not just in less developed and colonised places, but even within nations that enjoyed great power status and economic prosperity. Social standing was a great obstacle to job opportunities and political involvement. Poverty and lack of social position could, and did, reduce marriage prospects. Even the well-to-do had certain social norms that limited the control they had on their life choices. Although this can still apply today in certain circumstances and cultures, in general social rights have advanced to such a stage, opening opportunities to all regardless of social status, birth, nationality, gender and even race.
Looking at the picture of empire’s subalterns gives us an idea of just how many freedoms and social rights were gained within the last two centuries, as these were people that not only lived under the social constraints of their own cultures, but also under the constraints of a foreign authority. As well as colonial status, gender was one factor that had high implications on the social interactions and liberties many of us today take for granted. Imperialism itself was highly gendered and these gendered ideologies facilitated and legitimised imperial conquest and rule, as well as transmitting these gender ideologies to the indigenous peoples.
Within colonial societies, women had to deal not only with the power relations between colonisers and colonised, but also the power relations and structures within their own societies. The indigenous people of colonial India lived in a highly patriarchal society, as did most other cultures of the time. Women had literally no social position and lacked the basic rights to control their own lives. The education of girls was seen as unimportant and most were never educated beyond the elementary level, due to restrictions of purdah and sexual segregation. Issues such as child marriage, freedom in choice of marriage, widow burning, and widowhood itself were prominent and common throughout most of India, with only slight regional variations. These issues were religiously authorised, mostly by Hindu scriptures, yet many Muslims also indulged in such practices. Even purdah, seen as an Islamic practice, was practiced by many Hindus, as living in such communities meant they adapted the social customs prominent within these communities.
This meant that along with Hindu women, Muslim women were denied the social rights their own religion bestowed upon them. Muslim women could own and inherit property, were encouraged to educate themselves, had a say in the choice of their marriage partner, and could remarry upon widowhood. Yet due to living in a highly patriarchal society and the integration of cultures, Muslim women were denied their God-given rights. This was seen by most social reformers to be a result of the ignorance of women themselves, due to the lack of an appropriate education.
Social reforms for women grew on the political agenda in the early twentieth century as part of the women’s movement in India. This however was not unique to the country. Women’s movements were taking place around the world, due to the spread of feminist ideologies and news of the social gains of women abroad. However, it was not the women in India who paved the way for reform themselves. Men had to be at the forefront to communicate these demands and prepare this patriarchal society for future reforms and the appearance of women in public. The colonial government itself contributed to these reforms through legislations that granted these reforms by law. However, enforcement of such laws was useless without the cooperation and support of the Indian people. Reformers campaigned nationally, relaying their arguments for the need of these reforms and support for government legislation. This preparation allowed the next generation of female reformers to take a more active role in public, and campaign for the real issues closest to their hearts.
Hindu and Muslim alike, women from both religious backgrounds came together to air out their grievances and fight for social freedoms and recognition. It was due to the efforts of these women that gradually, women’s roles began to change. The education of women at universities began to be accepted, women were taking on public and political roles, reforms as a result of legislation meant women had more rights in relation to property and marriage, creating more opportunities for them.
Wherever we live in the world today, we need not go that far back in time to see the changes in social gender norms. Gender has been the primary binary on which all societies were organised and based their relations. Sexual difference dictated the roles of males and females within these societies. To some level this can still be true today. Women are still seen as the more domesticated sex, and certain jobs are still stereotypically gender assigned. Yet ambiguities within these roles are becoming more common. Men are and have become more domesticated, and women have taken on roles that were traditionally seen as masculine. We as humans tend to take these social liberties for granted, as it is the accepted social norm of our day. These men and women around the world fought for social reforms so that future generations could have these freedoms and rights. Whether they be gender equalities or social rights, these reforms have changed the way the world works. Most of us can work, get a decent education, vote, own property, enter any occupation we aspire or dream of, and enjoy to some extent full control over our own lives, regardless of birth, status, race, class or gender.