"Hindu Women Have Won Esteem Despite Bias," a Commentary by Vasudha Narayanan

January 23, 2007

Author: Vasudha Narayanan

Source: The Washington Post


Hindu women have been both empowered and subjugated by their religious structures. Yes, there have been terrible crimes against women, as in most religions. And yet, it may be argued that within the Hindu traditions women have also created opportunities to be poets, patrons, philosophers, performers, and ritual specialists.

The public face of Hindu culture, like most religious institutions and social structures, is patriarchal. The discrimination against women within India, as in many other cultures, is seen in many domains, and the basis for these acts of malicious prejudice can arguably be seen in cultural norms, received ideologies, and texts of religious law.

However, unlike other cultures, within Hinduism the influence of texts has not been necessarily deep or far-reaching. Hindus recognize custom and practice to be as important, if not more important, than texts and so women have had power in many domains. We did not hear about these women in 19th and early-20th-century scholarhsip because colonial literature was composed by male scholars in consultation with male religious specialists who decided which narratives were worth preserving and transmitting. In the androcentric literature of the Hindu tradition, women are not presented or represented well.

So what can we say about women in the many Hindu traditions over several millennia of history? Obviously their status depended on the time, place, class and social status, but when we look at the right places we learn about women’s contributions in many realms. Religious texts in Sanskrit sometimes say negative things about women; but when we look at the rich vernacular poetry and songs composed over the last 2,000 years we hear the voices of women who were honored and celebrated for their wit and wisdom.