The Buddha says that if we are to understand anything, we must learn to ‘see things as they are’. It is after such analysis of women in relation to men, that He came to the conclusion that there is no impediment in women to enable them to practise religion as men do and attain the highest state in life, which is Arahanthood or Sainthood, the highest level of mental purity. The Buddha had to face strong opposition in giving full freedom to women to practise religion.
At the time of the Buddha, before He emancipated women, the customs and traditions were such that the women were considered as chattel, to be used by men at their pleasure. Manu, the ancient lawgiver of India, had decreed that women were inferior to men. Women’s position in society was therefore very low, and it was restricted to the kitchen. They were not even allowed to enter temples and to participate in religious activities in any manner whatsoever.
As we have previously noted under the heading ‘Birth Control’, discrimination against females begins even before the child is born into this world! The widespread practice of female foeticide prevalent in many parts of the world today testifies to this horrifying fact. Further on, under the heading ‘Women’s Liberation Movement and its Effect on Family Life’, the discrimination against women in affluent societies, particularly those aspiring for top managerial positions in the corporate sector, will be dealt with in detail
In developing and underdeveloped countries however, the situation can only be described as being far worse and more deplorable as the following accounts will reveal.
In India’s ritualistic, male dominated society, widowhood is a terrible fate for a woman. There are numerous cases of widows (some still in their 20s) who were cast away from their families and shunned by society after their husband died.
Among superstitious families, a widow often is blamed by her in-laws for her husband’s death and is even ostracised. There are few options left for widows. Hindus frown on remarriage for women, although there are no such barriers for men. Until modern times, widows were expected to jump on to the funeral pyre of their husbands according to a tradition known as sati. Although the practice was outlawed by the British several decades ago, the last known case occurred as recently as 1996. Most women in India have little to look forward to when they become widows.
One typical tragic example could be cited of a widow who underwent child marriage which is another custom prevalent in rural India. She laments: ‘I was married off when I was only five years old. My husband, whom I never saw, was 13 and he died one month after the wedding. I am now a widow.’
According to the World Bank, 65% of Indian women older than 60 are widows. That figure rises to 80% women older than 70.
The All India Democratic Women’s Association reports that in India where a woman’s identity is determined by her being an appendage to a male, widowhood has much larger implications than just losing a husband.
The situation is no better even in some other neighbouring countries. For a long time, families regarded daughters as inferior to sons and treated them accordingly. A girl is generally seen as suitable only for household chores. She lives through a series of social practices which generate, breed and reinforce discrimination against her. She becomes an economic burden and a moral liability. Yet, she is expected to raise healthy, hardworking and educated children and be a good mother. Many little boys grow up thinking their sisters are inferior having seen them treated less well than themselves. These beliefs are reinforced by many members of the society, including women themselves.
Perhaps the single biggest issue is the lack of support and the restrictions girls face if they want to do something with their lives beyond the traditional roles assigned to them as domestic help, baby-sitters for younger siblings, cooks and cleaners. In effect, girls are under life-long training to be good wives when they grow up.
As a 16 year old girl from Rawalpindi, points out: ‘Our society does not treat girls well. People here do not educate their girls because to them girls are not theirs. Girls are seen as belonging to their future in-laws’ families and any investment in their future is futile. They go to their husbands’ homes at a young age, usually anywhere from 13. The rest of their lives is spent looking after in-laws, and bearing and bringing up children to prolong and strengthen their husband’s family line’.
We need to eradicate this type of thinking and make education compulsory and free so that it does not become an issue’ she says. ‘Girls should also be able to have jobs, working in places where no one disapproves and preferably with other girls so parents can’t object. I have always regretted that I was born a girl. Sometimes when I was not allowed to do something I would go to my room, cry and pray to God to make me a boy’.
The Girl Child Project in such countries is slowly changing all this by developing a core of young girls to act as catalysts in creating local awareness of the problems of girls and the discrimination they face.
The issue of education crops up almost invariably. Many girls have had to fight for their right to education. Some were helped in this fight by their untutored mothers who believed that their own lives would have been better if they had had some schooling.
In many societies a woman’s place is in the home; a married woman owes her first allegiance to her duties as wife and mother. There is no such thing as ‘women’s lib’. Even in some progressive societies women are humiliated. For example in public places, they are required not only to sit apart from the men, but out of their view — that is, behind them. When women are placed at the back of a room or hall, it acts as a subtle indication that their expected role is ‘behind’ and not ‘together with’ that of the men.
Some people believe that women are prone to evil. Therefore, it would be better to get them do more domestic work so that they can forget their natural evil attitude.