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Women in India

March 26, 1888 — International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington DC


My object in appearing before you to-night is to tell you something of the educational condition of the women in India.

In olden times in our country the custom used to be that some few men and only a very few women were allowed to be educated. Those who were especially of the family of what we call the Brahmins, or priestly caste, a handful of them had obtained higher education, and were also standing at that time on the same footing as our great men. They used to hold discourse with men on equal terms, and it is said in some of the secret books of the Hindoos that once on a time there was a woman who wielded great power over the assembly of sages, and even held conversation with one of the greatest philosophers of that time. Afterwards it was thought best by our men to keep the women completely in ignorance, so that they might have more power over them. I do not blame them for that; it was quite natural they wanted to have power over them, and, of course, our men were very intelligent and bright, as a rule, and these men had discovered the fact that if education was given to women it would be impossible for them to keep them under complete subjection. They wanted to make the women slaves of the husbands, and it was said by the government that a woman should never have any other god but her husband, and of course an educated woman would doubt the fact whether some men could be divine beings.

Ignorant people, and even sometimes intelligent people, take anything on the teaching of their priests; and the ignorant women of India are told by the priests that they have no place in heaven but through their husbands, and their salvation must be obtained through their husbands, and if they are in subjection to them and always do what the priests say they will be all right; there is no necessity of their having education. Moreover, it is thought that man is woman’s shield, as an umbrella that shields any person from sunshine or rain; and also he is thought to defend woman from any evils that arise in the world. It is said by the priests that education will enable you to make a living, and if you go a little further in education it will make you a supreme being. But you need not make your living, the man will make your living for you, and if you are a good wife and think of your husband at the time of death, you will be born a man the next time you come to this world.

So the time went on, and women were completely deprived of any kind of education, except now and then we had some princes and some learned men who wanted to have wives beside them who could read and write, especially some of our great princes. And so a great many women were allowed to have just education enough to make verses in praise of the men and praise them all the time; so the men got all the good they could.

But the common women were not allowed, of course, to have any education at all. There were some primary schools in our country, and before the little girls of eight or nine were betrothed they were allowed to go with the boys and have some little lessons, just in reading and writing. They seldom went further than learning the alphabet and to spell their own names and the family names; that was all. In these days we have primary schools all over India. Some are established by the missionaries, some by the English government, and some are supported by private families of intelligent men. I should not say families, but by intelligent men alone, and these schools give some little education to the women. I ought not to say women, but little girls eight or nine years of age — that is the school-going age, and after a girl is nine years of age she is taken from that school and betrothed to a boy of her own age, and that is the end of her education. In that time of two years she learns to read a little.

She finds in her reading-book some stories of animals, about the dog that took a slice of bread and crossed a brook and saw his shadow in the brook and went after that shadow and lost what he had in his mouth, and so the moral is taught; and there are some other stories like that, and also some history and some geography. But after a girl is betrothed she loses that opportunity for learning reading and writing, for our good mothers-in-law are very much opposed to education of women as a rule. These good mothers-in-law do not like the idea of their daughters having any education or advantage over them, and so, of course, they are not allowed to continue their education at all, and after their betrothal they have to forget whatever they have learned in these primary schools.

There are some high schools in our country; there is one in Calcutta, and there is one in Bombay, and there may be one middle-class school in Madras. There is one high school at Poonah also. There are some schools a little higher than primary schools, called second-grade schools, to which girls go and learn six reading-books, which are appointed by the government. In these six standard books we have a few stories and a little something about the structure of the eye, and the liver, and something about the sun, and the English government coming into our country and kindly providing us with these beautiful things we have to-day, and also a record of the proclamation of 1858, in which year the Queen of England took the position of ruler of India, and in that proclamation all the rules are laid down how the country will be governed by the English, and how liberal they will be. All these are very good things to know.

There is a little history — a history in a dialogue form. We Orientals are famous for these dialogues. One man asks a question and the teacher answers, and in that history we are told that India had no history of its own before the Europeans went to India. All the people were fighting each other, and there was no peace and no comfort; there were highway robbers and tigers and snakes, and the women threw their babies into the Ganges, and a good many people threw themselves under the car of Juggernaut, and these English people brought peace to us; these people were all very bad, but since the English government went there they have begun to reform a little, and the English have treated us very kindly and honestly, and all that is desired now is to be faithful to the English government, and to be good and to try to be honest. These are the things that are taught in this history, and also we are taught in a dialogue form how many kings there were and how many battles were fought and how many wives the kings had, etc.

But there is a little brighter side. In 1878 the doors of the universities of India were thrown open to women. The government was so kind as to say that women might come and pass examinations with men, if they chose to do so, but of course that choice was not their own. How could they do such a thing as that when there were no preparatory instructions given them? There was only one high school, and in that high school a woman who was examined was the first woman who passed the high examination.

And that was the beginning of the real high education. Calcutta has taken the foremost ground in woman’s higher education. There is a high school there, and there are also a great many other advantages for women, especially among the Brahmins of Calcutta, called heretics by the other Brahmins. These are not so much opposed to the education of women; they allow a few of their girls to remain unmarried and give them higher education, but public sentiment is against them.

A great change has taken place in the higher education of women in India since 1883. Just one year before that time an educational commission, as it was called, was appointed by the English government which went all over the country and investigated the matter of education of boys and girls, and these English officials, some of them, were very learned men, who knew what the condition of education was in India, and they appointed representative men to come and give their testimony as to the necessary changes in the educational system of the country, and ever since that time many people have tried to get women to enter the medical colleges of India. The Hindoos liken education to nectar, and they say if women have education they will become immortal and get all the country and kill the men. If education is given to women, of course the women will turn on the men and tread them down and kill them or do something dreadful, and so, of course, they think it best not to give them education. They believe, in common with most people, that woman was created from the rib of Adam, and just as the rib is crooked so woman is crooked, and if they try to make her straight she never will be straight, and since the object of education is to try to make people straight it is of no use to give it to woman.

Some said that the very constitution of woman was not fit for education; these good angels and beautiful beings were too delicate to study anything. They were not too delicate to work in the fields, and carry brick, and climb three stories, and work with men, and, in addition to that, to do the house work and take care of the baby, and take care of the husband, too; but for education they were too delicate. And they said their brains did not weigh as heavy as men’s brains, and so it was not best to give us any higher education at all; our brains could not stand the exertion, and that the brains, if once turned away from the housework and care of babies, it would increase the misery and bring quarrels into the family. In our country we are not strange to quarrels.

Again, at certain times it was thought that it was necessary for women to have some physicians of their own sex, but when the question came before the government they hesitated to give women any place in their colleges, so they wanted to obtain the opinion of all our men who were highly educated, and a good many of them answered in the usual way, that if medical education were given to women they would surely be unsexed by it, and therefore they must not be given it. But somehow or other a few people prevailed over this idea and at last the government threw open the college doors to women, and now there are a few women who go and take their lessons with men, and, what I am proud to say, in Bombay a few English women and a few Hindoos and a few Parsee women go there to take their lessons. When they went with the men they were not hooted and treated badly, but, what is very surprising to know, the men treated them very nicely indeed. But there are no separate colleges provided for women. In 1883 one of our high-caste women who wanted higher education had no college open to her and she left that country and came to the United States to obtain that education. At that time, of course, a great many people did not like the idea, and some thought that she would surely fail, but it was proved by her experience that even Hindoo women had some brains; that even those high-caste women who had been shut out for ages and ages could acquire a medical education. And it was just two years ago that that high-caste woman graduated in the Medical College of Pennsylvania. She proved that woman could learn these things, and even that after learning them she could keep her sex unchanged. She went to our country and died. At the same time she has done some work that will last, I believe, more than her life would. It is a matter of thankfulness to me that a few women in Madras are taking steps to have a medical college, and there are some in Bombay who are preparing to be physicians and practice medicine in their own country, and there are a half-dozen or a dozen who are graduates of the Calcutta college. And other movements are being employed to give women some higher education. But the greatest need of India to-day is for women teachers of our own country. There is no such thing as training colleges for our women. It is true that there are three normal schools in our country, and in these some little education is given to the future teachers.



Source: Report of the International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C., U.S. of America, March 25 to April 1, 1888, (Washington, DC: Rufus H. Darby), 1888, pp. 63-67.