Women in World History
Curriculum Showcase



Lessons from the Ancient Aryans
through the Early Modern Mughals

Sample Selection #2
from the Background Reading:
Changing Codes and Customs

Positive Customs

The restrictions on a woman and her low legal status did not always reflect the reality of her life. The following are areas where women could transcend the customs which seemed to restrict them:

Women's Economic Contribution: The value of women's work in her home and in society could not be ignored. This list of the types of work lower caste women did in South India between the first to the seventh century C.E. reveal the economic importance of women:

- In the fields women participated in planting, weeding, husking, and winnowing. They took the cattle and sheep out to graze.

- At home, women processed the milk, fetched the water, prepared the family's food, and cooked it. Spinning and weaving in the home were mainly women's work, as was dyeing the cloth.

- Outside the home, women appeared as lawyers, accountants, administrators, cooks, nurses and entertainers. Women story tellers and graceful dancers occupied a very important place in this society. There is evidence too that women were active as wage-laborers in state-owned textile factories.

- Activities associated with temples required the labor of women. Some made and sold the garlands of flowers used in worship. Some were "Servants of God," women who were sold to the temple to sing, dance, and clean. Not all temple women were slaves. Some were in charge of administrating the temple; in the medieval period there were a few women's guilds entrusted with temple management.

Customs Protecting Women: Once married, a woman could not be put aside; divorce did not exist. There were also prohibitions against harming women. For example, the text of the Agni Purana (eighth century C.E.) states that women are to be protected from extreme forms of punishment, and are to be given the right to acquire the knowledge of the Purana texts.

The current concern with the killing of brides because they did not bring a big enough dowry ("bride burning" or "dowry deaths"), never occurred in early India. Dowry was given as mutual exchange between the two families involved. Although a woman had little to no property rights, it was accepted that widows had some right to a share of husband's property.

Women's Ritual Life: Ancient beliefs in the primacy of the female principle never were lost. Many rituals survived in secret womens' rites. Among the non-Brahmin castes, the sudras and the rural tribes, women participated in songs, dances, art, magical formulas and gestures as ways to worship nature and life. Women held infertility rituals, and, with midwives, performed their own rituals to ensure a safe delivery.

There is evidence found in poems and local traditions that show that many women had joyful marriages and satisfying lives. Women might not have felt inferior to men if they could gain self-respect by successfully fulfilling their assigned roles. Yet it is against the harsh laws laid down by Manu that many women and men in modern India have campaigned. They point to some early codes and outmoded customs as major obstacles to the full development of all of India's women.


- Which of the customs discussed in this section do you think might most have contributed to a woman's sense of her self worth? Of her worth to her family and society? Why?

- Select at least two of the customs mentioned in this reading. Discuss some of the reasons for their development.

- Identify a custom from the Vedic period that was changed either before or during the Classical period. What was that change and why do you think it occurred?

- Identify some of the codes or customs which probably most concerned nineteenth and twentieth century Indian reformers. Which early traditions might the reformers wish to praise and work to reinstate?

- Identify a legal prohibition against women in this country that has been changed. What were some of the original reasons for the prohibition?

- Identify a tradition or law that in the past might have benefited women and now is not honored? What caused this change?

- How influential are laws concerning personal behavior in your life? What can you do and cannot do? Are there changes you would want to happen? If so, what would it take to have this occur? Is it likely to happen?

Anti-Dowry Demonstration, Delhi, 1980

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Women in World History Curriculum