Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood (Rukhmabai, June 1885)
"Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood"
Times of India, June 26, 1885
Sir,--Not being much accustomed to write in English—particularly to newspapers—I submitted this letter to the inspection of a friend, who has kindly looked over and corrected it, where he thought correction was necessary. But for this friend’s kindness I should have not, I am afraid, dared to address you. I have to thank this gentleman, not only for the literary help given by him, but for the genuine sympathy he feels for our condition.
The above subjects have been very keenly discussed throughout the whole of India for the last few months. The agitation against these evil customs is mainly due to the exertions of Mr. Malabari, who has laid all Indian women under a debt of gratitude, for which we cannot thank him too much. One cannot sufficiently applaud the moral courage of this gentleman, who has not only devoted a large portion of his valuable time to the consideration of these subjects, but has undertaken the Herculean task of agitating the whole of India for the abolition of these baneful practices. Everybody knows the misery which is brought upon the Hindu community by these wicked institutions—misery which is not confined to any particular class or section, but affects all alike—the rich and the poor, the old and the young—though women are the greatest victims. Yet when foreigners (i.e., non-Hindus) are touched with pity at our hard lot, and try their utmost to relieve us from the tyranny under which we grown why will our own people shut their eyes and remain as indifferent and unconcerned as ever? The cause of this apathy seems to me to be this—that either our people have no real desire to introduce wholesome reforms in our social customs, or that they have no moral courage to endure the difficulties in which such reforms may temporarily land them.
The general apathy towards social improvements which characterizes our people has been telling upon the whole community, but tells most heavily upon the female sex. Hindu social customs do not entail on men half the difficulties which they entail upon women. Excepting the two principal difficulties resulting from infant marriage, they enjoy full mental and physical freedom. Religion or social custom does not, in any way, interfere with their liberty. Marriage does not interpose any insuperable obstacle in the course of their studies. They can marry not only a second wife, on the death of the first, but have the right of marrying any number of wives at one and the same time, or any time they please. If married early, they are not called upon to go to the house and to submit to the tender mercies of a mother-in-law; nor is any restraint put upon their actions because of their marriage. But the case with women is the very reverse of this. If the girl is married at the age of eight (as most of them are), her parents are at liberty to send her to school till she is ten years old; but, if they wish to continue her at school longer, they must obtain the express permission of the girl’s mother-in-law. But even in these advanced times, and even in Bombay—the chief centre of civilization—how many mothers-in-law are there who send their daughters to school after they are ten years old!
Thus, Mr. Editor, when we are just beginning to appreciate education, we are taken away from school, and therefore you can imagine what progress, if any, we could make in our studies in the scanty time at our disposal. Nothing tangible need be expected from the efforts of our reformers, whose number even in Bombay is insignificantly small-who have dared to oppose the prejudices of their community, and sent their daughters and daughters-in-law to school after the age mentioned above. For even a girl, who is so exceptionally blessed as to have parents holding the most liberal views on education, can only prosecute her studies for three or four years longer, for she is generally a mother before she is 14, when she must of sheer necessity give up the dream of mental cultivation, and face the hard realities of life. It seems, therefore, hopeless to expect any advancement in the higher female education, when the custom of infant, or rather early marriage continues as rife as ever. Unless the state of things is changed, all the efforts at higher female education seem like putting the cart before the horse.
As men among Hindus have much more freedom of action than women, they are indifferent to the social reforms which prejudicially affect the other sex. If this defect of theirs is pointed out by strangers (i.e., non-Hindus) instead of being ashamed of it they lose their temper, or at least make a great show of losing it. As an instance in point, I may mention the courteous and elegant criticism of Mr. Mandlik or Mr. Malabari’s notes.
Sir, I am one of those unfortunate Hindu women, whose hard lot it is to suffer the unnameable miseries entailed by the custom of early marriage. This wicked practice has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and that thing which I prize above all others—study and mental cultivation. Without the least fault of mine I am doomed to seclusion; every aspiration of mine to rise above my ignorant sisters is looked upon with suspicion, and is interpreted in the most uncharitable manner.
We have a proverb, which says the ‘we can philosophically (lit. coolly) bear the misfortunes of our neighbours.” This is quite true. To realize other’s misery you must feel it yourself. Men cannot, in the least, understand the wretchedness which we Hindu women have to endure.
I have been thinking, sir, for a long time of some means by which we could escape the grinding thralldom of this wicked custom, and the only efficient remedy that suggested itself to me was to appeal to Government to come to our help and to root out this pernicious custom, which is eating up the very core of Hindu society. But what chance was there for a poor helpless woman like me to successfully approach and get redress from an august body like the Government! I was almost giving way to despair, when happily the elaborate notes of Mr. Malabari were published. Sir, the perusal of these notes gave me as it were a new life. I felt that fortune was about to smile on the unhappy daughters of India. I was gratified to find that, if not a Hindu, at least a native was moved to champion our cause.
In my humble opinion the following should be some of the provisions of the legal measure contemplated:--
(1) Any marriage without the sanction of Government, if disputed within a certain period, shall be null and void.
(2) That no marriage shall be legal unless the bride is 15 and the bridegroom is 20 years old.
(3) After the passing of this law, if any man be married before 20, he shall forfeit his right to enter the University. (This provision need not be rigorously enforced for some time, as it may punish children for the sins of their parents.)
(4) As in large town and cities registers of births and deaths, and in Bombay registers of vaccinations are kept, and any neglect is punished by fine, there shall be registers kept for the age of marriage, and if the parties married are under the age sanctioned by law, they or their parents shall be liable for punishment.
(5) If it is found that the parents have laid a tax on, or in other words sold, their daughters, they shall be punishable by law.
Under no circumstance shall the wife be older than the husband. A law containing some such provisions is necessary to be passed and published as widely as possible.
You, gentlemen, anxiously long for the regeneration of India. If arts and sciences flourish, if trade and industry progress among our people, you think everything will come right. India will prosper. But do you seriously believe (I beseech you to consider calmly) that such a happy state of things is possible when you allow boys and girls to be fathers and mothers before they are hardly out of their teens? Do you expect anything good or great from a boy-husband and a girl-wife saddled with the cares and anxieties of an increasing family, and having to fight their way through the hard realities of life? Do you think that the sons and daughters of such parents, who want strength of body and mind themselves, will be capable of achieving the bright future which—pray excuse me for saying so—you fondly anticipate for them?
I entreat you, gentlemen, once more, before your newly-awakened desire for social reform wanes, to co-operate with Government in emancipating your sons and daughter from the social thralldom under which they groan. If you succeed in bringing about the salutary reform, spread of education, development of arts and sciences, the production of an able-bodied and strong-minded race of men and women—in fact, the mental and material prosperity of India will follow as a matter of course, and India will revert to its once proud position in the scale of nations.
Sir, I Intended to have my humble say on ‘enforced widowhood’ also, but as this letter has already grown more length than I intended, I will stop here for the present.
A HINDU LADY