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Hindu Post is the voice of Hindus. Support us. Protect Dharma
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Sringeri
Wednesday, July 24, 2024

If Britons were selling their wives in auction like livestock in the 19th century, how were they ‘emancipating’ women in Bharat at the same time?

Women’s emancipation, like most other reforms, is considered to be a gift of the British Raj for ‘uncivilized Indians’ whom they ‘civilized’. We are told they were the ones who put an end to the Sati Pratha, provided education to women, enacted laws for widow remarriage and brought about many other reforms.

While we are given to believe that they were ‘saviours’ of Hindu women, back home English women were being auctioned off to the highest bidder by their own husbands in the same 19th century period. Also, it would be apt to remind readers that women were burnt alive at the stake and put through numerous other tortures on mere suspicion of being ‘witches’.

Condition of British women

An article by Dr Kate Listeri in I News UK highlights the history of ‘wife selling’ in the UK. It was not until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act that a husband or wife could divorce their spouse. A husband could divorce his wife on the grounds of adultery, and a wife was permitted to divorce her husband if he had committed aggravated adultery. Aggravated adultery means he was guilty of either adultery, cruelty, incest, bigamy, desertion, or possibly all of them.  

“The options available were to grin and bear it, try and get an annulment (tricky), desertion, bigamy, or to tie a rope around their neck and sell them at the market to the highest bidder. In the centuries before the legal divorce was accessible, selling your partner to someone else allowed working-class couples to be publicly separated. The practice dates back to at least the early sixteenth century, although some historians believe it to be Anglo-Saxon in origin. Far from this being a handful of isolated incidents, there were at least 108 documented cases from 1837 to 1901 – and there will almost certainly have been many more such undocumented cases”, writes Listeri.

Wife selling was common across the country. Women who were to be ‘sold’ were treated like livestock. A husband would lead his wife with a halter around her neck to a public meeting place such as a market or tavern.

The sale was advertised in advance to evoke interest and at times an auctioneer was present to oversee the procedure. Sometimes they were sold off for a jar of gin or a pint of beer. Spouse sales declined only in the middle of the nineteenth century when divorce became more accessible and the tradition survived into the twentieth century.

On the one hand, wives were being herded like cattle and sold off to the highest bidder and on the other, women were being burned alive at the stake on suspicion of being witches. Women were considered beings working on Satan’s orders. Heretics, Jews and learned women were persecuted for crimes they did not commit.

Church scholars held a dim view of women and used Bible verses to back their claim that women were the work of the devil. Therefore the inquisitors, in a bid to persecute women, produced a women’s pact with a devil, thereby, declaring her a ‘witch doctor’ or ‘servant of the devil’. Special torture tools were used for women.

Women who practised rural medicine or used herbs in their treatments and local remedies to ease birthing pain and other ailments, midwives and any woman who did not fall in line with the Church’s command were targeted in these witch hunts. According to experts about 60000 people were systematically executed between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries for being witches. The Church often targeted single women, widows and marginalised members of society.

It was not until 1916-17 that limited suffrage was granted to females. The 1918 Representation of People Act allowed women above 30 to vote and women received the same voting rights as men as late as 1928 when the Equal Franchise Act was passed allowing females who attained 21 years of age to vote. Despite the position of women being at its lowest ebb in Britain, we are to believe that Christian missionaries and the Raj wanted to work for the emancipation of Bharatiya women.

Origins of Sati Pratha & Work of Hindu Rulers against it

Sati Pratha was neither the norm nor widely practised in Bharat. The self-immolation of Maa Adishakti in Her birth as Daksh’s daughter Sati and Pandu’s wife Madri burning herself at her husband’s funeral pyre out of guilt during the Mahabharat Era are probably the only two instances of Sati Pratha that spring to mind.

In the fourteenth century, Sati Pratha emerged in the form of Jauhar or collective self-burning by the Hindu warrior class, Rajputs, in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, etc. The Rajputs fought to either win or else not return alive from the battlefield. The wives of these soldiers performed Agnisnaan which preceded the husband’s death or her knowledge of it. Jauhar was a response to Islamic invasions and the horrors women of defeated kings had to face.  They preferred death over dishonour. Such Pativrata is also called Sati. What is also forgotten that while the Hindu women committed Jauhar, simultaneously or thereafter, the Hindu men would ritually march to the battlefield expecting certain death, in a tradition called Saka.

Sections of the Hindus continue to revere Sati Pratha in its Vedic essence. Forced immolation of Hindu widows driven by greed and/ or as an obscurantist belief – is an aberration and must be condemned. But what is the extent of its actual happening in Bharat?

“Given the figures of about 2.3 (3.4) per thousand cases of all cases in which wives became widows, and of about 0.4 (0.6) per thousand of all cases of death, widow burning was statistically almost insignificant”, writes Jorg Fisch, author of the book Immolating Women: A Global History of Widow Burning from Ancient Times to the Present.

It cannot be reiterated enough that Sati Pratha was never the norm and all through Bharat’s history numerous instances can be cited to prove this point. Even so, it was not the British, goaded on by Bharatiya reformers like Ram Mohan Roy, but the Hindu ruler of Savantwadi who passed a law to put an end to the Sati Pratha.

In all this, three aspects are of serious concern: One, blowing the actual numbers in Bharat out of proportion. Two, generalizing incidents as though common to the entire country. And three, the attempt to defame the entire Sanatana Hindu Dharma as ‘obscurantist’, ‘patriarchal’, and ‘barbaric’ while simultaneously ignoring such and more horrific cases in other parts of the world, including ‘civilized’ Europe. 

Such a distorted projection has caused young and old Hindus alike to doubt their own heritage. It is high time to clarify and imbibe the wisdom in the Dharmic way of life.

(Featured Image Source: @BhAratenduH Sarvesh Tiwari’s Twitter account)

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. That statistic by Jorg Fisch is certainly compelling evidence. If you write a part II of this article, I suggest you talk about the evidence by Meenakshi Jain in her book about how exceedingly rare sati was. This was acknowledged even in East India Company’s surveys, but the entry of missionaries led to fabricated surveys exaggerating the extent of the problems. This was done by the missionaries to aid in mass conversion.

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