An effective way of judging the progress of any nation is by analysing the status of women in its society. From the Indus Valley civilization to the independence of India in 1947, the status of women has been an ever-changing phenomenon; in Colonial India it was characterized by a vocabulary consisting of the words Sati, women emancipation, upliftment of widows and so forth. The Roop Kanwar sati incident in 1987 has revived the memories of what is being called an almost unchanged past so much so that it is impossible not to reminisce the effects, of the British policies, on improving the status of women. The nineteenth century British India saw a marked rise in the ideas of gender equality with the passage of several policies attempting to uplift the status of women. The British influence over education and society in general led to the increase in democratic ideas within society which fuelled the efforts of modern reformers to uplift the status of women. Many historians have analysed the pros and cons of this British influence and its effects on the Indian society. The British policies of the abolishment of sati and the passage of the Widow Remarriage Act were considered, by many historians, as one of the social causes which led to the War in 1857. Other historians believe that these policies introduced democratic principles, such that of gender equality, to India. Whatever the motives, they changed the course of women status in the history of India.
Sati or Suttee is derived from the Sanskrit word sat- meaning pure or chaste. It is often used to describe the act of immolation of a widow on her dead husband’s funeral pyre. The term is also used by certain historians to describe the burning widow herself, thus becoming a misnomer from the original meaning- chastity or purity. The origins of Sati is a topic of hot debate among many historians, but it has been agreed upon that by the 11th century widow burning was a common practice among the upper castes of India (Adams, 221). Though the Muslim rulers, such as Akbar and Humayun, tried to abolish Sati during their respective reigns, practices carried on outside Agra. In their own sphere of influence the Portuguese, Dutch and French banned Sati but efforts to stamp out Sati were formalised only under Lord William Bentinck after 1829.
Among European travellers in India during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, no description was complete without reference to sati with at least one eye-witness account. The eyewitness accounts by many Europeans appertain to voluntary sati and forced sati, both of which reflect the status of women in Bengal during that period of time. The condition of women and widows was summed up by the observations of a Mr A. Stirling,
“Girls are universally prohibited from learning to read or from doing anything in the way of mental improvement. [...] should she die before her husband, it is considered a blessing to her, should her husband die first she is expected to burn herself with the corpse” (Sarma 210).
Voluntary sati, though cases of which were rare, echoes the illiteracy of women in Bengal in the early nineteenth century and also highlights the influence of religion on the decisions of widows and women in general. The fact that widows “ascended the pyre of her own free will [...] and burnt in conformity of the Shaster [religious texts]” (Mani 97) shows the level of influence of religion on the reasoning and logic behind the custom of widow burning. Since education, especially with respect to that of religious scriptures, was denied to women, illiterate widows would often follow the advice of their priests, while power hungry and greedy priests would encourage sati and interpreted the scriptures in favour of the custom. The major role played by education, in the spread of the custom, can also be seen by the deep-rooted beliefs and practices, of the complete subordination of women, in the name of distorted religion (Mehta 77, 78). Popular belief that encouraged Sati was that if a woman is completely devoted to her husband, she will die first. If he dies before her, she has failed him in some way; however, she can restore the situation and join him in death by committing sati. A girl, from childhood, would be induced with the values and concept of devotion to her husband. Therefore, there was no reason for a wife to live after her husband’s death. They were led to believe that Sati would enable them to enjoy eternal bliss in the next world in company of their husbands. It was a highly common superstition that a woman who performs sati is not only honoured and respected but is also thought to dwell in heaven for thirty-five million years. When a woman performs sati, she becomes a goddess and is thereafter worshipped as one, by having shrines and temples built in her honour (Wilkins 223; Hawley 34). But in reality, the chastity of Hindu women was the excuse used to encourage sati and to ensure that the widows did not go astray. Thus, it is evident how women’s illiteracy was taken advantage of by religion and traditions, inculcated into a girl from childhood, thereby grooming her to be an obedient wife in a rigidly patriarchal society.
Involuntary or forced Sati, more rampant in Bengal during those times, is a good indication of women’s position in society. For example, confirming accounts of restraints to prevent the woman's escape, Edward Thompson writes in his book, Suttee that "Especially in Bengal, [the widow] was often bound to the corpse with cords, or both bodies were fastened down with long bamboo poles curving over them like a wooden coverlet, or weighted down by logs" (40). The plight of Hindu widows was highly pitiable. Synonymous to evil omens, they were forced to shave their heads, hide their faces early in the morning or during auspicious occasions and were to talk to visitors from behind closed doors. The abhorrent picture of having to live a life of servility, almost of an outcast, shunned, abused, disfigured, was often taken undue advantage of by many in order to induce a widow into committing sati. As Lata Mani too, in her book Contentious traditions, puts it:“Her [the widow’s] determination to become Suttee had been the result not of choice, or of any notion that by so doing she would escape some undefined misery in some future state; but fear of personal obloquy and neglect from her friends, and of bringing disgrace on them [...]” (163).
The practice of Sati was very rampant in Bengal in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The following table illustrates the number of Satis, in Bengal, recorded in the years 1815-1828:
Number of Satis recorded
Note: Bengal, then, included UP, Bihar and Orissa (Mill and Wilson 271).
Apart from the religious pressures played by customs and traditions and the lack of education, the high rate of Sati cases in Bengal, can also be justified by viewing the issue from an economic angle. Prevalent in Bengal at that period of time, was the Dayabhaga system of law, according to which, even a childless widow could become her husband’s heir, often lead unscrupulous members of the family to force the widow into committing sati (Chattopadhayay 52). Finally, it can also be argued that the prevalent patriarchal system, too, played a role in undermining the status of women and widows by denying women the economic independence and education that were needed to take a strong stand against the custom of sati; which is why it is noticed that the many reformers, who voiced their opinions against this custom, were men (Mehta 77, 78).
Women’s status not only in Bengal but all over India can only be imagined by us who have escaped the terrors of society and been brought up in modern India. With female illiteracy at its peak, and traditionalism demanding the obedience of a wife to her husband, women and especially widows had no voice of their own. They bore their sorrows silently till the custom of Sati was abolished in 1829, which signified the advent of feminism in India. But it also makes us wonder whether, with stray incidents of sati, evident from the recent Roop Kanwar case of 1987, and other atrocities to women in rural villages, India has progressed from where she stood during the British Raj.