A Jubilee for the Women of India (April 9, 1887)
A JUBILEE FOR THE WOMEN OF INDIA.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES.
Sir,—The sympathizing tone of the leading article on the care of Rukhamabai which appeared lately in the The Times makes me feel confident that you will be willing to find space in your columns for the accompanying letter, which has been received by a member of my family from the poor woman herself. No words can plead her cause more eloquently than her own. Here is a woman whose letter testifies to her intelligence, her refinement, her elevation of character, condemned to the disgrace of imprisonment or to a life which to such a woman must be a living death. Is it necessary that a Government which abolished sutoo should respect such a venerable relic of barbarous and cruel tradition and custom as that which compels wise and large-hearted Judges to become the means of inflicting intolerable torture upon defenceless women. Respect for native prejudices and feelings is necessary no doubt, but respect which practically leads to brutal cruelty is very unrespectable and ought to be made to give way to the laws of God and conscience and humanity.
How far Rukhmabai's suggestion of reform is capable and worthy of adoption I do not know. I send it to you because it is in her letter, not because I am prepared to support it as the best suggestion possible. But I am quite certain that I shall carry you, Sir, and all your readers with me when I say that the appeal of the poor afflicted Hindoo woman to the Queen, with the reference to the jubilee, is infinitely pathetic. Your columns have lately teemed with jubilee suggestions and the merits of many schemes have been debated. There would be no difference of opinion, no debate, either in your columns or elsewhere, as to the propriety and superlative glory of a jubilee scheme which should emancipate our Indian sisters from a most degrading bondage.
I will only add that I send you Rukhmabai's letter as received—with the exception of the rectification of a few words in respect of orthography and the omission of one or two sentences which are suitable for a private letter but not for a public utterance. It will, of course, be understood that the responsibility of publication rests with me, and not with the writer of the letter. I feel confident, however, that in such a cause she will forgive me for the liberty which has been taken.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Bombay, February 17, 1887.
My dear Madam,—I would thank you very much for the interest you so kindly take in my unfortunate trial, and in my native sisters in general. I learn from my friend . . . that you would like to know the particulars of my still pending case more minutely than I had written to you in my first letter.
Before explaining my own troubles, I should like to state a few facts concerning our disastrous child-marriage custom, which has enslaved the daughters (and even sons to a certain degree) of India for centuries. In our vast country, right from the Himalayas to Cape Cormorin, it has become a rule that every individual must be married; be it a lame, blind, or diseased one. And by this rule it has become customary to betroth every child, male or female, at the age of five or six; but in higher classes at the minimum of one or two years of age; and sometimes (girls) even before they are born. Among the Hindoos only there are more than a thousand different castes, and inter-marriages even between the sects of slightest differences are strictly prohibited. This being the case, and by the pressure of child marriage, every parent is obliged to marry its child within the limit of the age and within the limit of its own caste, be it a fit or unfit match. In this way a robust promising youth gets a rickety consumptive wife, while an intelligent girl gets an inferior husband. Now for the Sastras and the Hindoo laws. It is clearly stated in our religious books that a boy should be entitled by the moony or thread ceremony to become a regular student from the age of eight years. After that he should study for 12 years, and then after having a good experience in the world for four years more should be allowed to marry at the age of 22 with a girl of suitable age and with his own accord. Well, for girls also it is stated that they should be allowed to marry when they become of age and with their won choice, though nothing has been said for their education. We find in ancient history marriages taking place between the boys and girls of mature ages and with their own liking. But these good laws have ceased to be observed and other pernicious customs have taken their place, the results of which lie before us in many horrible forms. As for castes, no more than four distinct classes—the Brahmins, the Kshatrias, the Vayshias, and the Sudras—are mentioned in our religion. But during the past two or three thousand years there has been a growing tendency to split up these four classes into many divisions, so that in some castes there are scarcely a few hundred people. By this fact it is clearly difficult for parents to find suitable and reasonable marriages for their children. Both the father of the boy and of the girl in looking for a husband or a wife for his child pay greater attention to the respectability and standing of the family than to the personal attributes of the child itself.
Lately, by the descent of India's fortune stars, all the worthy commands and precepts of our sacred religion were disobeyed and uncared for through ignorance and superstition, the consequences of which have proved deadly fatal, and India's material, physical, and spiritual condition has been totally ruined, and now she has piteously and helplessly to look to foreigners to get through the folly of her own people.
Now for my own misfortunes. I belong to the second class of castes, in which, fortunately, widow re-marriage is allowed. In 1867 my own father died, leaving me, an orphan of two and a-half years of age, in the care of my mother (then 17 years of age) and my maternal grandfather. Six years after that my mother was re-married with a celebrated doctor in Bombay, who proved an unusually kind stepfather to me. He protected and loved me as his own child throughout his life, but by this will of the Almighty his useful life was cut short, and for these 22 months, dear lady, he rests very far from us, leaving his widow and five children behind lamenting in vain. Well, according to the above-mentioned facts, I was married at the age of 11 years (an age rather beyond the limit of the fixed marriageable age in girls) with a boy of 19, on conditions that he should thoroughly be provided by us, but that he should study and become a good man. To these conditions he, his mother (who died a few months after the marriage), and relations had quite agreed. However, in a few months after the marriage in 1876. . . he began to neglect his duties, leaving the school, and, disobeying my father and grandfather, fell into bad companies. I should rather say the consequence of which was that he fell sick, and was attacked with consumption, confined to his bed for three continuous years, in such a state that he was not expected to live another season. But by God's grace he recovered a little day by day. . . Now, as for myself, being of much reserved disposition from childhood, I had a great liking for study while a great disgust for married life: and though not fortunate enough to attain school after the age of 11 years to complete Marathi studies, I began to learn English at home after leaving the school. I used to ask a number of pronunciations and meanings of English words at a time whenever my European lady friends happened to call. Day by day my love for education and social reform increased, and I continued to pursue my studies as much as I could; but in this country it is very hard for women to study at home. By constant association with the people who had tried to devote their lives to the social reform of India, and by the aid of the little education which I had been able to gain, I began seriously to consider the former and present condition of our Hindoo women, and wished to do something, if in my power, to ameliorate our present sufferings. On the other hand, the . . . . habits of the man with whom I had been given in marriage added more to my natural distaste for married life. However, my father, considering his constitution, habits, and unfitness for any work, resolved not to send me to his house to live as his wife. He also seemed indifferent to the matter. . . but by some former disputes between the leaders of our caste and the constant instigations of wicked people (very common in India), and in the hope of getting my little money, he was induced to file a suit seeking me to go and live as his wife. On the 19th of March, 1884, he filed it in the Bombay High Court, thinking that by this mere action my father would be afraid of losing his reputation (because to have a suit of this kind in a Court is considered a greatest disgrace among us Hindoos), and would quietly send me to his house with all that I possessed. Our party, having resolved long before never to send me to his house, did not care for his suit in that point (but, of course, money matters and the result of the suit were the points of deep interest), and so we began to prepare ourselves for the defence as it became necessary. On the 21st of September, 1885, the humane decision was given in my favour by Mr. Justice Pinhey without taking our defence. The decision, if it had been supported, would have altered the fate of millions and millions of daughters of India, and the longed-for freedom would have been easily secured. In the same way Mr. Justice Pinhey's name would have been made immortal. But it seemed the will of God that it should not be so; for the man appealed the case, on which it was decided on the 2d of April, 1886 by the Chief Justice, Sir Charles Sargent, and Mr. Justice Bayley that the first decision should be reversed, and that the case should be sent back for re-trial. Since then it is still pending in the Court.
In our matrimonial laws, or rather in the prevailing customs, a man can marry any number of wives at a time, or whenever he chooses to do so, keeping all of them with him, or driving away those for whom he does not care much; while a woman is wedded once for all. She cannot remarry even after the death of her first husband, nor can she deny to live with him even on reasonable grounds. He may ill-treat her, drive her away a thousand times, keep her without food, but she must submit to her lot and stay with him (if he keeps her) till she dies a natural death or is killed by him, her sole lord and master. Is it not inhuman that our Hindoo men should have every liberty while women are tied on every hand for ever? If I were to write you all about this system of slavery it would require months to complete it; but I refrain from doing so as everybody, even in England, is aware of it to some extent. The only thing I can hope is that it should be amended some way. Oh I but who has the power to venture and interfere in the customs and notions of such a vast multitude except the Government which rules over it? And as long as the Government is indifferent to it I feel sure that India's daughters must not expect to be relieved from their present sufferings. From some of the quotations in our old religious books I find it stated that women may marry in case of following five misfortunes:— (1) if she is a child widow; (2) if her husband has become a saint; (3) if he is wanting in manhood; (4) if he has converted; and (5) if he is a leper. None of these suit me in my misfortunes; but I also find that a woman can deny to become his wife before the consummation of marriage. However, these quotations are not unfortunately reckoned in the English book on Hindoo laws.
It seems to me to be an inevitable duty of the present Government (in spite of our old laws and customs) to have the most urgently required reform, suitable to the present age and state of the country. Everywhere a law needs revision in at least a few centuries, to suit the prevailing ages; and how is it possible that our Hindoo matrimonial laws, formed about thousands of years ago, suit the present age (an age half-Europeanized)? The only way to face the difficulties is the law reform. For many years social reformers are trying to eradicate these pernicious customs, struggling hard in vain. Lately Mr. Malabari (a Parsee gentleman) and his colleagues have roused the whole of India through their formidable efforts among innumerable opponents and few advocates; they have created a great stir throughout India to abolish child marriages and enforced widowhood. But alas! what can one person do without unity and support? By their continuous perseverance and requests the Indian Government was kind enough to make inquiries into the matter, asking the opinions of many influential Hindoo gentleman: but to the greatest dissatisfaction of every reformer, the numbers of the opponents to the intended reform surpassed that of advocates, and all the aspirations of anxious reformers were thus at an end.
Everywhere it is considered one of the greatest blessings of God that we are under the protection of our beloved Queen Victoria's Government, which has its worldwide fame for best administration. If such a Government cannot help and unyoke Hindoo women, what Government on earth has the power to relieve the daughters of Ind from their present miseries?
This 50th year of our Queen's ascension to the most renowned throne is the jubilee year in which every town and every village in her dominions is to show their loyalty in the best way it can and wish the Mother-Queen a long happy life to rule over us for many years with peace and prosperity. At such an unusual occasion will the mother listen to an earnest appeal from her millions of Indian daughters and grant them a few simple words of change into the books on Hindoo law—that "marriages performed before the respective ages of 20 in boys and 15 in girls shall not be considered legal in the eyes of the law if brought before the Court." This mere sentence will be sufficient for the present, to have enough shock on child marriages, without creating a great vexation among the ignorant masses.
This jubilee year must leave some expression on us Hindoo women, and nothing will be more gratefully received than the introduction of this mere sentence into our law books. It is the work of a day if God wished it, but without His aid every effort seems to be in vain. So far, dear lady, I have dwelt on your patience, for which an apology is necessary. With best compliments,
I remain, yours very sincerely,